Ellen Brewster is studying for a PhD in English Literature.
Having completed her undergraduate degree, she went on to a Master’s before returning to her original college for her PhD. Her area of specialism is UK domestic readership in the eighteenth century.
You can also find her on Instagram: @_ellenbrewster
How did I become a PhD student?
Hello! I’m Ellen, and I’m a first-year doctoral student at the University of Oxford. I’m studying for a PhD (or DPhil as it’s known here) in English Literature. I’ve got an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in English Literature too, and these qualifications have allowed me to go on to do a graduate research degree. This means I’m still a full-time student after five years (so far) at uni! I’m able to do this full-time thanks to a generous scholarship, which pays for both my university fees and my living costs.
I wanted to do a PhD because I’m passionate about studying literature, and love to be able to find out new things and tell people all about them!
The length of a PhD can vary, depending on your subject and how long it takes you to research and write up your thesis. In the UK, you’re usually expected to finish your project within 3-5 years. Your thesis is a long piece of writing: I’m aiming to have written between 80,000 to 100,000 words, which is basically a long book! It will have several chapters looking at different aspects of my research topic.
I’m studying how people used to read in the past, particularly in the eighteenth-century. I want to understand how people at the time wanted to improve their reading-aloud skills through attending lectures, reading books, and joining book clubs; people viewed reading primarily as a social activity. To do this kind of research, I have to read a lot of books by other scholars about my topic, but I also have to do my own (metaphorical) digging in archives and libraries that have eighteenth-century books. Oxford is a great place for this, as the Bodleian Library is home to lots of modern and old books relevant to the history of reading.
What does PhD research involve?
Generally, with research, I am doing one of two things: reading, or writing.
When I say ‘reading’, I also mean note-taking – while a form of writing, the main focus of taking notes is understanding what I’m reading and remembering it for later.
When I’m not writing notes, I’m writing parts of my thesis – drafts of paragraphs or sections, or even an entire chapter! All this reading and writing helps me to think about my topic in great depth – both by thinking about what other people have said, and thinking about the things I’ve discovered for myself. Some weeks tend to be more reading-focused; other weeks tend to be about trying to articulate my ideas into readable forms for my supervisor to read. She’s the person guiding my project, giving me feedback on the things that I write, and helps me work out what I should research next.
But what is the day-to-day life of a PhD student actually like?
If I have three years to write up my thesis, how do I go about doing that? I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about this, because – unlike at school and at undergrad – I no longer have a fixed timetable filled with classes! All my deadlines for pieces of writing are agreed between me and my supervisor, rather than an external timetable. This means that managing my own time is key, to make sure that I can write my thesis on time, and still have time to have a life outside of my studies. For this I use a paper diary, although some people I know prefer to use the calendars on their phones or laptops. I try and treat my PhD like a flexible job – it has to get done, and I have to put the hours in!
I try to have a fixed week-day routine, which is flexible enough to accommodate other things that I might have to do during the week. I end up writing lots of to-do lists: books to read and where to find them, and scheduling time for library or archive trips. This way, I’ve planned my time in advance, and don’t forget to do anything that has a deadline – otherwise, it would be so easy to lose track of everything!
In the mornings, if I don’t have any meetings, I’ll try and get up early enough so that I can get plenty of reading or writing done before lunch. Breakfast is also key – I can’t work if I’m hungry! Porridge or toast is normally what I try and go for. If I need to read a book that’s confined to the library, then I’ll go to the library; if it’s something I can borrow, or read online, then I often do this at home, at my desk or sat on an armchair or my bed with a cup of tea. I work best in the library though, because there aren’t as many distractions, and everyone around you tends to be quiet and focused too.
I try to prepare my own lunches – it’s cheaper, and I’m living on a student budget! – but often eat them in town with my friends in the common room. It’s important to get some social time and regular breaks into the day: human interaction is so important! It also gives me time to check-in with other people, let them know how my day’s going, and hear about what they’ve been getting up to. It might give me time to vent when I’m finding a particular book hard to understand, or if I’m struggling to write something for my supervisor. Planning to do this with people can also help: I regularly meet friends from across the university by organising meals or trips to a local cafe. It’s a good way to schedule in breaks too, to make sure that I’m not working for an uninterrupted period for too long – if you get too brain-tired, you lose your efficiency! I try to take an hour for lunch every day, to clear my head.
In the afternoons, I’ll either go to the library, or go and work with a friend.
Research students in the humanities don’t tend to have a class or cohort in the same way that science students do – we don’t always work in the same place like scientists in a lab!
So it’s nice to organise a time to work with friends, either by going to the library together or sitting in someone’s room. I only do this with someone regularly once I’ve worked out that we don’t distract each other often – or else it defeats the point! I’ve found most people are happy to sit in silence and read or write for a bit, and it’s great to have someone there to chat to during breaks, or to ask questions and bounce around ideas. Working alone – as I tend to do in the mornings – would get lonely after a while, so it’s important to get to know other students and their work. Just because my project is an individual one, doesn’t mean that I have to spend all my time alone. That said, part of what makes me suited to research is that I quite enjoy having time to myself in the library, reading, writing, or thinking.
There’s lots of other things that make up life as a graduate student. I get to go to lots of seminars and reading groups, where people discuss their research and share it with others. These are often organised to be in the evenings, so they don’t clash with classes. Occasionally there are lectures and workshops that I can go to. I go to a reading group about theatre studies, and am also helping to organise this year’s graduate conference in English Literature, so I will get to see graduate students from across the country present their own work and get feedback from others. As I become a more experienced graduate student, I’ll be able to start teaching undergraduate students literature too, which I’m really excited for.
I try not to work too late into the day, and only work after dinner if I’ve got a deadline coming up.
I try to stick as close as possible to the 9-to-5 working day, so that way I feel like I’ve done enough work without overdoing it.
It helps me to manage some of the stress that comes with trying to stick to deadlines.
Work-Life Balance of a PhD Student
It can be hard to quantify how much work I’ve done – it’s not always about the amount of notes I’ve taken, or the number of pages I’ve read – but I try not to get too fixated on that. It’s a cliché of long-term research projects that they’re marathons, not sprints: but there’s no point burning out! Because of this, I think it’s really important to take days and evenings off when you can: I try to get a full weekend, but at the very least one day a week off, doing no PhD work at all. This time is valuable for other things – seeing my friends, cooking, going shopping for things I need, doing laundry, reading books for fun, watching telly… Some of this stuff is more relaxing than others, but I try and make time for the other things which are important to me.
I’m not really sure what I’ll do after my PhD, though I’d love for it to involve writing and books! For now, though, I’ve got to write a draft chapter of my thesis for my supervisor…
How does studying literature in Oxford sound?
If you’re dreaming of an English literature degree, and you want to get a flavour of life in the beautiful city of Oxford, check out our Creative Writing summer course!