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Sarah Waters is from Cambridgeshire. She joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in January 2015 and her thesis title is ‘Melancholia Past, Melancholia Present’.
I grew up in Ely, which is famous for its cathedral and is just outside of Cambridge. I moved to Oxford across the border from Buckingham, where I had lived for three years undertaking first a BA in English Literature with French and then an MA in English Literature by research at the University of Buckingham.
I first became aware of Oxford Brookes University when a student at my sixth form college (Impington International VI Form) studied here as an undergraduate.
Rather than being a research project of my own making, the PhD I applied for was a specific interdisciplinary programme working on female melancholia and depression. I was particularly interested in the way in which the project considered the interrelationship between the early modern period and the present day through Shakespearean drama, given the work I had done on adapting and appropriating early modern drama, and the connections I had been forging between Lewis and Shakespeare in my previous research. I was also keen to be involved in the wider project my PhD is part of - the Marina project - which would involve working with academics at the Shakespeare Institute, and actors and directors at the RSC.
Up until just under a month before beginning my doctoral studies, I was busy at the University of Buckingham completing a research MA in English Literature. My project focused on the influence of Shakespeare on CS Lewis, with a particular focus on The Chronicles of Narnia. It was great fun and thanks to the support I received, and the exciting opportunities I had to work with previously unseen manuscripts, it gave me a real flavour of research. I’d had a sense of this when I decided to take a voluntary dissertation on John Donne’s poetry (yes, really) in my final undergraduate year, but by being encouraged to attend and present at a conference, and see the novelty and validity of my research project in my MA year, I was keen to pursue research further at doctoral level.
In some respects I was lucky because I had already spent a year working on my MA by Research so I was already accustomed to an independent research programme. However, I did have some adjustments to make because I was joining a new institution, and of course the project was much longer than my previous 40,000 word thesis. My main challenge was settling into a new university and finding research communities, often a challenge when many researchers are not often on-site. Early on I got stuck in with taking on departmental responsibilities such as co-convening the EML research seminar series, and attending many research events at Brookes. This has meant I have got to know students, and staff beyond those members in my supervisory team which certainly helped me to feel part of the department. It has also led to many exciting opportunities for instance I have instigated and recently co-organised the inaugural EML undergraduate symposium. I was keen to recognise research taking place at all levels across the university and to offer the final year undergraduates a chance I would have loved when I was undertaking my BA. I also regularly attend seminars held by the University of Oxford, offering me another network of research students and academics.
Perhaps the best resource the university have given to help settle into the research environment came a year into my programme when EML and SHPC research students were given a shared office in the department building. This not only meant I could now work in the same space as fellow research students, but I also felt more like a member of the department, something which I think is particularly hard as a research student. After all you’re still a student, and very much in an apprenticeship position, but equally you’re a researcher too. You straddle the boundary of student (and all its undergraduate associations) and researcher (and the academic advancement and seniority which this title signals).
My research project is interdisciplinary and looks at the relationship between female melancholia in the early modern period and female depression in the present day. It focuses on the experience of the female sufferers and draws on proto-medical early modern treatises (such as Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy, 1586, Jacob Behmen’s The Four Complexions, 1621, Richard Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621-38, James Ferrand’s Erotomania,1623, and Richard Barckley’s The Felicite of Man, 1631), as well as contemporary psycho-social research and diagnostic frameworks (such as DSM-V). I explore the early modern period as a time in which the female self emerges and to what extent melancholia plays a part in facilitating the development of female identity and agency.
Working in the field of medical humanities my research considers the representation of female melancholia on the early modern stage. I work with play-texts and plays in performance (1990-2016) with plays such as Shakespeare’s King John (1594-6) and Hamlet (1599-1602), Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen(1613-15), Shakespeare and George Wilkins’ Pericles(1608-9), and Richard Brome’s The Northern Lass (1629). I draw on amateur and professional productions of the plays and consider the way in which contemporary productions emphasise ideas of melancholia, grief and depression, and to what extent they are indebted to early modern conceptions of melancholia and contemporary understandings of depression.
I consider the impact class and gender had on one’s diagnosis and experience of melancholia and depression, then and now. I also focus on the influence of the environment (social and physical) through discussions of exogenous and endogenous factors on a sufferer’s propensity to melancholia or depression, and the subsequent treatment they receive. While the thesis is mostly concerned with Major Depressive Disorder, I also discuss post-partum depression in the context of motherhood and loss in King John.
The project considers the counter-intuitive agency, identity and voice we can locate in and through women’s melancholia. It investigates how far the voice of the female sufferer is heeded, whether in plays or medical texts from the early modern (1580-1631) or contemporary period (1963-2016). It addresses the reciprocal relationship inherent in melancholia and the accessibility of this reciprocity for female sufferers.
Being a research student places me in a very privileged position. I get to spend days reading, discovering new things, and being based in Oxford gives me access to some of the best research resources in the world. But of course doing a PhD is hard too. Perhaps the biggest challenges facing a research student are time management, and solitary study. Time management is not just about using time unproductively, though that is certainly part of it. But also I mean organising time so that you have time for doing things that aren’t the PhD. I’m all for taking research-centric breaks (like going to seminars, conferences, or different research for fun) but there’s also definitely a time for taking the evening off to watch Star Wars or to finish that Sherlock Holmes book. This has taken me several years to master, and the kindly advice of many friends. I also try to punctuate my writing with breaks too, either just stopping to make a cup of tea or, more often, reading ten-pages or so from the book I’m reading (not research related). My favourite author for this is Pratchett. You can then return afresh to the writing after a break into Discworld. The only danger with this is making sure you stop and return to the thesis.
The other danger I mentioned is solitary study, by which I really mean loneliness. There are several good ways to help alleviate this necessary dimension to PhD study. Working in the research students’ office, albeit in silence, certainly means you don’t feel you’re going at it alone. I also like working at the Bodleian (the Rad Cam or Duke Humphrey’s are my favourite spaces), or the Shakespeare Institute library over in Stratford for a similar reason (not to mention the amazing resources available on the surrounding shelves). Friends made at conferences, and other universities who are (or have been) on the same journey are also invaluable supports. Friendly academic twitter can also be a great help.
There are a good range of research training options offered. My favourite training I have undertaken so far was run by two BBC presenters. It was all about presenting your research to the media, whether on the radio or TV. It was an invaluable day, particularly in the current climate with the emphasis on impact and public engagement, as well as my desire to want to share my research with a wider audience. I have taken up many of the training options offered including some useful on-site higher education teacher training. Lots of the training looks not just at research degree skills but at the life beyond the PhD which prepares you well whatever your plans after your doctoral studies.
It is good that there is training at departmental, faculty and University level. It gives you chance to meet and get to know other research students from a wide range of disciplines and build a sense of community as you share your research and experiences, no matter what stage you are at in your programme.
I love sharing literature with others and very much enjoy teaching, researching and discovering exciting new material as well as the chance conferences, teaching, and written papers allow to share this research with others. My dream job is to lecture and to also be able to continue research - a career in academia is the ultimate goal.