Studying at Birkbeck
With more than 100 students undertaking research for MPhil and PhDs, Birkbeck's Department of English has a large and thriving postgraduate community; the largest body of graduate students in English studies in the University of London. Supervision is available in literature from Old Icelandic to contemporary writing, and we are also well regarded for our work on interdisciplinary research topics in cultural history and theory. We achieved notable success in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, with 90% of our research being deemed of 'quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour', of which 35% was declared to be 'world-leading'.
We place great emphasis on ensuring that graduate supervision is thorough, professionally conducted and leads to the successful completion of a thesis. We offer a dedicated research skills course at the start of the degree with the option of a paleography course for those working on early periods. As well as observing strict guidelines on supervision, a senior member of staff acts as director of graduate studies and co-ordinates the monitoring of our students' progress. A termly graduate forum allows students formally to discuss issues of graduate provision and resources with staff.
Students are required to attend seminars on Research Skills and seminars on Theory throughout the first 2 terms in the first year of study. Subsequent attendance is optional. You are also required to participate in some of the seminars or other activities put on by the department, School of Arts, or other institute of the university in each year you are a registered student.
The department does not lay down a specific timetable for meetings with your supervisor, although all supervisors will agree a personal timetable of consultation with their students. But we do expect as a minimum that all full-time research students will meet with their supervisors 3 times a term, and that part-time research students will meet their supervisors twice a term. If no formal timetable of meetings has been arranged, it is up to you to take the initiative in arranging supervisory meetings.
In a similar way, the school requires all full-time students to submit at least 2 substantial pieces of written work in every academic year and part-time students to submit at least 1 substantial piece of written work.
In addition, all students will be required to submit annually to the department's Graduate Panel a detailed written report on their progress through the year. Supervisors will in turn be responsible for submitting to the Panel annual reports on students' progress; every student will be interviewed annually be a member of staff who is not their supervisor after the reports have been received.
Among the responsibilities of your supervisor are the following:
- advise you on the formulation and following through of your research and to advise you about work already published in your area
- discuss with you questions of approach and methodology
- guide you in the use of primary and secondary literature, as well as historical, archive and other source materials
- comment in detail and in a reasonable time upon the written work that you submit
- advise you on how to acquire skills and techniques necessary for your research (for example, learning another language, or editorial or bibliographical skills)
- advise you where to go or whom to consult if you have difficulties which your supervisor cannot herself or himself resolve
- put you in touch with students and teachers with whom you may share research interests
- keep you informed about how far your work meets the standards required by the university and about university regulations and requirements regarding the organisation and submission of your thesis
- provide pastoral advice and support
- write references as and when these may be requested.
You in turn have a responsibility, in addition to those more formal responsibilities specified above, to keep your supervisor informed at all times about the progress of your work, and to take part in the academic life of the department.
Every research student is appointed a primary supervisor who is the person, or one of the persons, in the department best suited to give the advice and direction that he or she needs. Sometimes students will be supervised jointly by more than 1 person in the department, or between departments, although there will always be 1 principal supervisor who will be responsible for formal and administrative arrangements. In the case of joint supervision, both your supervisors should specify clearly the ways in which the sharing will operate.
During the course of your degree, your supervisor may be absent for a prolonged period. You will be assigned a deputy supervisor who will look after your work in the same way as the supervisor until she/he returns. Your supervisor should give you good warning about planned absences and organise alternate supervision.
Although a student's principal point of contact at Birkbeck is his or her supervisor(s), the department as a whole has responsibility for each student's academic progress and well-being. It exercises this responsibility through its Graduate Panel, which monitors the progress of all research students and approves transfers from MPhil to PhD status. The annual interview you have with a staff member is an opportunity for you to report on and discuss your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with your research progress, your supervision and others aspects of the school's provision for graduate study.