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My Experience: BA to PhD

Dr Elaine Fraser writes a blog on her experience at Birkbeck.

Written by Dr Elaine Fraser

After moving to London from Liverpool, I found evening classes an excellent way to meet new people who had similar interests and, in the late 1990s, my love of Flamenco led me back to the studies of languages. By 2001 I had a GCSE in Spanish and an ‘A’ level in French and was looking for a new challenge. Birkbeck seemed the ideal place, as I could continue studying in the evening and add linguistics to the pure-language courses I was already enjoying so much.

My original degree was in Philosophy and Pure Mathematics and linguists appealed to me because it seemed a natural progression from my earlier interest in semantics, as well as deepening my understanding of how languages work. The first undergraduate year was hectic, as I suspected having a joint-honours degree already, with a 3-hour French language class on one evening, an introduction to linguistics and a French literature course on two others. The Linguistics department, in contrast to the French one, had abandoned end-of-year examinations years previously, so the linguistics courses were graded on coursework whilst for the language courses I had to attend day-time exams in June.

The department gave me the opportunity to audit courses, in addition to the graded ones, so I took Spanish levels 1 and 2 as well as Spanish art-history courses in my second and third years. This meant I was now at college every evening in the week! Even though I wasn’t taking the exam in the extra courses, the lecturers made me feel welcome and were even willing to mark ongoing coursework for me. At the same time, the Applied Linguistics society was gathering momentum and we organised trips to several conferences, simply as audience members. We also discussed academic papers in our regular get-togethers, with an obligatory adjournment to the pub afterwards!

By the end of my undergraduate degree my interest in research had been awakened so I applied to do an MA in Applied Linguistics. As a part-time student, the first year we had taught courses and I only needed to pick my dissertation topic in year two. As MA students, we were invited to observe the PhD seminars and had the opportunity to meet the current research students and see them present their work, in the style of conference papers. After my MA, I was keen to work on a comparative study involving French and Spanish, and was privileged to be welcomed onto the PhD programme, supervised cross-department by Dr. Maria Elena Placencia, who had allowed me to audit her Spanish Pragmatics course, and Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele.

As seems to be the case for many doctoral students, the study I’d initially proposed didn’t work out at all! In the first year I couldn’t find any data that would be useful for my research question, so at my annual review it was clear that I needed to shift the focus of my study if I was to continue. After discussing it with my supervisors, an aspect of my proposal that I’d initially considered minor became the major focus instead, and by the end of the second year I’d created the press corpus I needed and could begin analysing the data in anger. In each of the next three years I successfully produced a passable thesis chapter for presentation in the annual reviews, leaving only one major chapter left to write. Of course, the introduction, conclusion and literature review were outstanding as well, but a literature review that’s five years out of date is always going to need a re-write, and the introduction and conclusion chapters were tiny in comparison to the rest. I submitted in August, Dr Placencia arranged my examiners and we had the Viva at the end of October.

Professor Dewaele was disappointed not to attend the Viva, as he was very excited at the prospect of it being conducted in both English and Spanish: ironically, he was at a Viva in Spain on the very same day! Dr. Placencia was there, and very kindly took notes for me.

Although neither needed to do this, each of the examiners began their commentary by saying they intended to pass me, which did wonders for my confidence, though I still needed to defend my findings and to explain why I’d made particular decisions. They also suggested further reading, some of which is included in the final version of my thesis and more will be of interest when I submit journal articles based on my findings: I’ve already presented a paper in Spain and a poster in France but the next thing I want to do is publish in peer-reviewed journals.

Despite the excitement of receiving my doctorate, there’s also disappointment at having finished being a student at Birkbeck: I particularly miss hearing about other students’ research in our weekly seminars. During my time at Birkbeck the department has grown and diversified, with many more research students, representing a wide range of linguistic and cross-cultural topics. I’d like to thank everyone in the department, students and staff, for the stimulating and enjoyable time I’ve spent with them.