Doctoral journeys: Ros Barber, DPhil in English

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This is the first in  series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Ros Barber (DPhil in English, Poet and Scholar) talked to Profolio 2008 participants.  This recording is unfortunately truncated a little, so is only 5 minutes long.


So you’re all first years, are you? I remember doing this session two years ago, it was only two years because I’m full-time. I’ll tell you the two things that I particularly remember about the person coming and doing the thing that I’m doing now, someone who was in their third year. The one that really shocked me that I wrote down, and thought ‘Well that can’t be true’, was ‘Don’t expect your relationship to survive your PhD’. I’m married, I’ve got children, this is not going to happen to me. I will tell you, it was really, really challenging for my relationship, doing a PhD, but it survived, and it’s probably stronger, so that’s all fine. But I think the obsessive nature of a PhD is quite difficult if you’re in a relationship, because if it’s going to go well you probably will be a bit obsessed with it, because if you’re not obsessed with it, it’s easy to lose momentum, and for the whole thing to fall away. I’ll cover these points that I was given to cover quite casually, but you can always interact with me; I know we’re going to have questions afterwards, but you can always stop me at any point if you want to, and ask me some things as I’m going.

Ok, brief summary of my research project, aims. Mine, as you’ve probably just read, is set out as a creative writing DPhil, so 50,000 words are intended to be this verse novel, based on the idea that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare. And then 30,000 words of academic writing around the research that I did in order to write the novel. The aim initially was simply  ‘I’m going to write this novel, and then I’m going to write about the process of researching it’, and it’s become a little bit more complicated, because I’ve got very, very involved with the research side of things. And I’ve just said to Catherine I’m writing up, and yet I find every day I’m still hitting little bits of research, you know, ‘I must just go and look this up’, and then I find something else that’s really exciting, and I’m just having to put it all aside. So I’m currently planning a post-doc, and trying to focus on just finishing what I’m doing, rather than picking up exciting things along the way. I changed my research plan several times, so in my first year it looked nothing like it looks now, and I was just thinking I probably should have updated my profile thing as well. I try to update that quite regularly, but I haven’t updated it for about six months, and it needs changing slightly.

Background, and how I came here to be doing this. I wanted to do a PhD for a long time, I wanted to go back to study. I really liked the idea of doing a creative project as a doctorate, but something that would involve a serious amount of research, and that would need funding, because I couldn’t afford to do it if I wasn’t funded, so I had to have something that I could approach the AHRC with. And I saw a documentary on BBC4 about the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship in about 2005, and there was an academic on there, Jonathan Bate, who said ‘Of course it’s a ludicrous idea, but it would make a marvellous work of fiction’. And that was my idea, and I said thank you very much, that’s my PhD, I went away, and I wrote my proposal, and it’s all gone from there. And recently my supervisor suggested that we actually ask Jonathan Bate if he would be my external examiner, which I thought was a bit weird, coming full circle, and actually having started to read his Soul of the Age I don’t think so, because I think he’s too much of an absolutely dyed-in-the-wool Stratfordian, and he’d just fail me, and that would be it. Nice idea, quite interesting, but no.

How my work is progressing. I thought I was going to write the novel, and then do the academic writing. I was really looking forward to writing the novel, I wasn’t so keen on the academic writing. But in the process of researching the novel, all the academic writing has actually started arising also, because my main supervisor here is obviously an academic, my creative supervisor’s based outside the university, and I had a lot of pressure from Andrew in the first year to keep writing stuff, and I was thinking ‘I’m not really here to do this, I’m here to write my novel’. So I started writing things around my research. And he pushed me, and in the first year everything I gave him he kept writing ‘Hmmmm’ on it. And whenever I saw a ‘Hmmmm’ I thought ‘Yeah I’m not getting through there, that’s not working’. And so it was all about “how do I frame what I’m saying so that he can in some way accept it?” –  not that he’s going to change his ideas, but just to see that what I’m saying has some kind of validity. And finally at the end of the first year, I read a book – oh yeah, books that changed my life, here we go – and this was recommended in one of these sessions to me, and I read it this time two years ago (you’ve probably recommended it already … fantastic book). And it was, I started reading it I think it was in April or May two years ago, and I wished I’d read it before I applied. I was thinking this is like a year too late, I wish I knew all this stuff then. It was ‘The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research‘ by Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre. After I read that I thought differently, and finally I wrote something that didn’t come back with ‘Hmmmm’ all over it.  Andrew said ‘You’ve taken a step’. And that paper, which I wrote at the end of my first year, has just been published in a peer-reviewed history journal.


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