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Aimee Gasston

PhD English

When I decided to do a PhD, I had already been living in London for some time – but even if I hadn’t, Birkbeck would have been my institution of choice.  I knew I would have to carry on working full-time while studying for my PhD part-time, but I wanted all the facilities that would be available to a full-time student without the isolation of distance learning.  At Birkbeck, nothing is denied to you as all lectures and seminars are scheduled outside of office hours and you are offered a lot of flexibility. The English and Humanities department is very strong in both its research and the quality of its faculty. I have had the invaluable support of an extremely erudite yet sensible and sympathetic supervisor who has helped me to realise my project in innovative and stimulating ways, alongside teaching and publishing her own research at the forefront of her academic field.

After a break from studying, it was daunting returning to academia (and it felt like it took me ages to master the basics like footnoting references properly), but the work I have done has helped me to overcome any anxieties I had. While my original plan was simply to keep my head down and get my thesis written, in two years I’ve done more than I could have imagined. I’ve presented my research at international conferences, had peer-reviewed articles published and have even contributed a guest post to a literary recipe blog based in New York. I am also co-organising a seminar series at the Institute of English Studies at Senate House (the Modernist Magazines Research Seminar) and a postgraduate conference which will take place at Birkbeck later this year. Earlier this year, I went on a research trip to visit the Alexander Turnbull library in Wellington, New Zealand, to review newly discovered material relating to one of the authors I am researching – Katherine Mansfield. Birkbeck is excellent at providing support to students so that they can present their research locally, as well as on the world stage, and funding is available to enable this as well as student-led initiatives. While I’m always really busy, I actually enjoy the combination of work and study, as the two very different modes of thought these involve are mutually enriching, and it feels healthy to swap between the two on a daily basis.

Birkbeck has an extremely lively research community, and you also have the benefit of being able to attend programmes being run jointly by the other London colleges. You have all the facilities you need right on your doorstep – with the abundant resources of the British Library and Senate House within walking distance from your college. As a student of modernist literature, it is a thrill to visit the School of Arts building in Bloomsbury, part of which is situated in the house in which Virginia Woolf lived, overlooking the square she describes in her diaries.  The elegant Keynes Library, where visiting lecturers speak, is hung with paintings by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

More broadly, London offers a diverse array of cultural institutions which greatly enrich my research and help me to better understand its relevance.  On lunch breaks, I can visit Tate Britain and see paintings by Mark Gertler and Roger Fry, once friends to my research subjects. The other week, when researching twentieth-century furniture design, rather than just looking at book-plates, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Geffrye Museum of the Home to look at their exhibits to better understand how people lived and used furniture a hundred years ago. One of the key texts I’ve been referring to during this stage of my research is a book on design by Nikolaus Pevsner, previously a member of Birkbeck faculty.

I would recommend Birkbeck without reserve to anyone wishing to return to academia or to simply continue their studies. Doing a PhD has opened up an array of opportunities for me and I have met lots of engaging people, some of whom I knew previously only from bookshelves. My PhD has not only strengthened practical skills such as project management but, perhaps more excitingly, has brought me the confidence to interrogate and challenge accepted views in my work with a sense of authority. Choosing whether or not to undertake a PhD is not a decision to be taken lightly as it is clearly a great commitment. However, if you are passionate about your subject the rewards will be prodigious – and at Birkbeck you can fit your studies around your life, rather than vice versa. When I have finished my PhD, I want to turn my thesis into a book about modernist short fiction which looks at reading practices in the light of other everyday activities and continue to contribute to research in my field through new projects.

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'At Birkbeck you can fit your studies around your life, rather than vice versa.'