This prestigious doctoral studentship opens many doors
Dr Natalie Ferris
An AHRC-funded doctoral studentship gave Dr Ferris access to ‘an incredibly supportive environment for a researcher’. Our conversation focused on her experiences as a doctoral student and the transformational impact that participating in the International Placement Scheme had on her thesis.
Reading English Literature at Cambridge fuelled Natalie’s long-standing interest in the relationship between word and image, leading her to complete a Master’s in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art. This practice-based degree made her realise how she loved research, and a doctoral project focusing on abstraction in post-war British literature was born. To be able to pursue it, Natalie applied for an AHRC-funded doctoral award at the University of Oxford. She started the studentship in 2013 and graduated in 2017.
Opportunities offered by the AHRC – networking and funding for skills development – were the magnet that attracted Natalie to the studentship. ‘I knew that by being funded by the AHRC I would enter a far-reaching research community, benefitting from both institutional support and a broader national network of my peers. It encouraged me to forge new connections’.
One of the key benefits of being an AHRC-funded student for Natalie was the opportunity to take part in the International Placement Scheme (IPS) run by the Council in partnership with museums and research organisations from around the world. Natalie was successful in securing two placements. The first one, at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas, took place midway through her doctoral studies and was instrumental in shaping the direction of her research project. The second, at the Yale Center for British Art, helped to take one of the chapters of her doctoral thesis, currently being transformed into a book, in a new direction. ‘A lot of the archival work that I did when I was in both of those places formed the backbone to articles that I wrote afterwards and to chapters in my main research project, much of which features in the forthcoming book. The placements also strengthened my confidence as a researcher, especially when working with archival material and navigating artists’ books collections’ – says Natalie.
In both institutions Natalie was provided with support from the librarians and collection specialists who, as she says, were ‘exceptionally generous and patient, and helped me to make new discoveries’. These placements also drew her into an IPS cohort, allowing her to exchange ideas and experiences with other AHRC-funded students studying at these institutions.
Three and a half years of doctoral studies gave Natalie the space and time to develop research skills that she continues to build upon in her current work at Edinburgh University. 'My time as a DPhil student taught me a great deal about the stamina and patience needed to achieve long-term goals, and I got a lot better at thinking about the repercussions of my academic interests’ – shares the researcher.
The one aspect of her studentship which she would, in hindsight, change is the emphasis she put on attending big international conferences right from the start. She advises new doctoral students to begin with presenting their work-in-progress to small research networks, seminars and student forums run at UK universities, and attend big conferences at a later stage of their research career because ‘you can often learn so much from those writing from within your same experience at that early stage in your career’.
Summing up her experience of being an AHRC doctoral student, Natalie emphasises the tangible ‘ripple effect’ it has had on her career. It contributed to her securing an Early-career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust and gave her access to archival materials which fuelled her interest in the literary work of Christine Brooke-Rose and the creation of a society dedicated to the author. As a result, Natalie is a researcher who knows how to ‘tap into all kinds of conversations’ and exchange knowledge.