Sara Marie Westh
Subject Shakespeare Studies
Course MA & PhD Shakespeare Studies
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Hi Sara! it might sound stupid but if the PhD is entirely a research program with no class to attent what is difference between the on-site and the distance-learning one? Couldn’t I hypothetically live in London or elsewhere and go to Stratford on my own terms either way I choose? And don’t mind to sound callous but what’s included then in that not-so-cheap annual fee of £4,820 if no class are scheduled and you are supposed to do your researches and studies on your own?
In my experience, once you’re on the PhD programme there’s a fair amount of flexibility. Several of my peers have, for instance, gone part-time or moved to different cities during their degrees, so I see no impediment to you completing the degree while living in London. The Shakespeare Institute library is an unequaled resource, but London is only a few hours away by train.
While it is true that we are expected to carry out our studies on our own, our supervisors are excellent at making themselves available to us, and main campus offers teaching opportunities that are probably harder to take advantage of if extra transport time is a hindrance.
I cannot really speak to the differences between the two programmes myself, having only enrolled in one of them. However, our course secretary, Juliet Creese will, I am sure, be happy to help: www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/shakespeare/contact/index.aspx.
How did you tackle your MA research at the Shakespeare Institute? Do you have a process that you regularly work through or is each paper a different experience? What habits and resources do you recommend for staying on top of your studies?
The classes themselves were quite thought-provoking, the schedule rigorous, and I found that the essay topics would either spring out of class discussion, conversations with peers, or be usefully directed by the course convener. I mostly let my own interest dictate my approach, a process I hope makes for more interesting writing and reading alike.
I recommend keeping up with the set texts, or, failing that, catching up in the reading week. Also, few things are more helpful in working through ideas than talking to your peers, so I would definitely suggest setting up a study group. Finally, the teachers here are great, and always happy to help out if you find yourself struggling.
As for personal resources, I would always encourage students to bring their own expertise and experiences to bear on their field of study: academic cross-fertilization is a wonderful thing.
Regarding the final dissertation deadline, work out a plan of the days, and figure out how best to spend your time. Make sure to make it elastic enough to accommodate procrastination, writer’s block, illness, but strict enough to keep you on track, and don’t be afraid to edit it as you go along.
I hope this helps.
What is your MA’s topic? And how did you mange to choose it among countless topics about Shakespeare?
I did my MA on grotesque imagery in Shakespeare, which, I should point out, has nothing whatsoever to do with my research now. At the point when I started my dissertation, I had no idea what I wanted to do for my thesis, though I suppose some of the theories I use now reflect the epistemology I developed then.
A fair amount of talking to my peers and networking with the PhD students helped me narrow the subject. Looking back, I would say that I developed the basic idea during the MA year, in large part through the essays that form part of each module. As you progress through your studies at the SI, you begin to focus on the subjects that you find most interesting – and writing about that which genuinely interests you makes for far better reading than forcing yourself to write about matters you find stale, flat, and unprofitable.
And, of course, a good supervisor is absolutely key. Get to know the lecturers, find out where their fields overlap with your interests, and never be afraid to ask their advice. They have seen decades worth of dissertations, and they will be able to understand your work both on its own merits and as part of the larger world of scholarship. Ideally, your supervisor should be the academic who is most qualified to guide you to discover the full potential of your idea.
I hope this helped,
As a student, how would you describe the thesis process? Are students given the chance to pursue and explore new ideas on their own?
It was a bit hit and miss for me – the first two scholars I approached about phd ideas were quite dismissive, but, then again, I did talk to them fairly early in the MA, and I imagine I must have looked like a bumbling fool.
If you have a good idea of what you’d like to do for your thesis, let it develop and grow for most of the MA. Toward the end of the year, have an informal talk with the senior scholar who matches your research needs best. Preferably, this should also be someone you get along with (it’s a very bad idea to enter into a phd with a supervisor you can’t stand, obviously).
My supervisor worked with me on the MA dissertation too, so I already knew he would guide rather than steer my research, and that I could talk to him.
Think of it as a relationship of trust; you trust your supervisor to get you through in one piece, and not betray that trust. Your supervisor trusts you to pursue your studies seriously, and to tell them if something is harming your progress.
I hope this helped answer your question.
All very best,
As an international student, how did you go about securing accommodation in Stratford? Is there a student services office that can help with that process?
Sharing accommodation is definitely the way to go, since the Startford campus does not have any student housing. Living in Straford is fairly expensive; I’m sharing with two friends and paying £300 a month at the moment.
Juliet Creese and Rebecca White, the Shakespeare Institute secretaries, usually send out a list of students looking to share before the beginning of the new academic year, and I’d advise you to get in touch with your classmates-to-be with a view to sharing.
Rightmove (http://www.rightmove.co.uk/) provides a decent overlook of available properties both to rent and to buy. It’s a good idea to have this sorted about a month before coming here, keeping in mind that all the new students arrive at the same time, and that the best places go very fast.
Happy hunting, and let me know if you have any other questions.
All very best,
As an international student, how did you manage the tuition fees? If I don’t get a scholarship, I won’t be coming.
Scholarships are the way forward for most of us, though it saddens me that we have to depend on charity to pursue knowledge.
I would advice you to look into both what your home country, the UK, and possibly the EU can offer by way of financial help; Erasmus and the like might be worth looking into. My home country, Denmark, is very good at student support, but I’m afraid it differs depending on your geographical location.
It is also possible to find work through the University of Birmingham’s worklink scheme (https://www.worklink.bham.ac.uk/WorkLink/index.asp). They have an office on main campus, where you can register. If you are going to self-fund by working in the UK, keep in mind that you will need a National Insurance number. You get one of these by making an appointment with your local jobcenter (I had to go to Coventry…), and it is a good idea to have this meeting about a month before your job interview, as it can take them a while to process applications.
Personally, my tuition fees were paid in equal part by savings and scholarships; I took two years off from academia and worked as a secretary, and the Danish state helped out with the rest.
I hope this helped.
Sara Marie Westh
What would you urge students to do in order to fully take advantage of what the Shakespeare Institute has to offer?
First of all, I would advise prospective students to move to Stratford upon Avon for the duration.
There is so much cultural life going on in and around the Institute, and it is very difficult to really take part in that if you don’t physically place yourself in the middle of it. One of the most important things about the Institute, apart from Shakespeare, is the community it fosters. Whether you see it as networking or making friends, it is the ideal springboard for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the many Shakespeare industries both in and outside academia.
Stratford is a small town, and it can be a bit of a culture-shock to anyone relocating from a larger town, but having lived here three years myself now, I promise it grows on you.
If your students are thinking about relocating: accommodation availability is tied to the departure and arrival of students, so to get a good place you should start looking in the early months of summer (no later than June).
Secondly, I advice a balanced life with time for both studies and social events. It is very easy to bury yourself in your subject at the Institute, and the constant pressure of deadlines and grades reinforces this tendency. However, taking the time to get to know your peers and the other students here, involving yourself in the Institute Players, taking part in the Thursday play readings and the summer marathons, all this will make you part of the Institute community, bring you closer to your teachers, help you create an invaluable network, and give you new perspectives on Shakespeare in our time.
I hope this helped, and I apologize for the time it took me to get back to you.
Sara Marie Westh
What was your motivation for undertaking postgraduate study?
I took my first postgraduate degree in Denmark, where BA degrees are commonly devalued; no considerations apart from a desire to continually strive towards higher goals motivated me. It was therefore always my dream to reach as high as possible within my chosen field. When I applied for a place as an MA student at the Shakespeare Institute, I already held an equivalent degree from the University of Copenhagen (cand.mag.), but was unsure of whether my knowledge was sufficiently specialised to manage doctoral studies, and so I decided to start with an MA.
Why did you choose the University of Birmingham?
My former teachers at the University of Copenhagen advised me in no uncertain terms that if I wished to become a Shakespeare scholar, there was only one viable option: the Shakespeare Institute. I had never heard of it before, and was not aware of the University of Birmingham’s prestige. I still do not think I have fully realized the enormity of the difference between my first and second university lives – there is a sense of belonging and camaraderie here that has to be experienced. It is completely unlike the Danish attitude, and, for me, it is Birmingham’s strongest point.
What has been the highlight of your time at Birmingham?
The best single moment of my time at Birmingham was without doubt when I was accepted as a PhD student – this had been my dream for several years, and I had begun to think it an impossible one. The kind of validation, energy and endless possibilities fired by having a life-long ambition made possible are indescribable. A close second has to be the graduation ceremony. I have never before witnessed such celebration of potential and excellence, and, in terms of marking a definite moment in any academic career, it is both invaluable and deeply moving.
What, for you, are the best things about the course?
As a research student, I am given both enough freedom to pursue my studies independently and sufficient support to give me a sense of progress. I can only imagine that this is an extremely difficult balance for my tutor to achieve, one that must be tailored to the individual student. This balance is the best part of being a PhD student. A close second must be the close-knit student community at the Institute; we celebrate each other’s achievements, we support each other through the darker bits of life, and we look out for each other.
Have you joined any clubs or societies, gone on any research trips or done any volunteering?
During my time here at the Institute, I have joined the Shakespeare Institute Players, our amateur dramatics group, both on stage and behind the scenes as publicity officer. I have participated in workshops both in Leicester and Copenhagen, worked on the Scholar’s Pitch project alongside senior Shakespeare academics and RSC actors and directors, and participated in the playreading marathons to raise funds for the Lizz Ketterer Trust. Furthermore, I have been involved in Britgrad (the British Graduate Shakespeare Conference) as registrar and IT aide.
Do you have anything lined up for once you have completed your degree?
I want to carry on my studies as a postdoc either in France or Germany, where the philosophical traditions will nicely complement and further develop my research, or in America, where the different scholarly tradition would offer a completely new perspective on the entire project. I furthermore hope to find meaningful and challenging employment related to that same research either in parallel to the postdoc or following it.