The PhD question…

Back in November 2020, we held The Challenges and Pleasure of Being a Care Experienced Person Working and Studying in a University. Rosie Canning spoke about doing a PhD:

  • When did you first consider doing a PhD?

I first thought about doing a PhD some years ago. After I finished a MA Writing, I knew at some stage I would do a PhD. (Only 2% of care leavers attended university when I did my degree back in the 90s) Almost from the beginning of the PhD journey, I knew it would be something about care leavers in fiction, this was my subject, something I could write about. I spent hours in the British Library, looking through journals and books. There did not appear to be any criticism about care leavers in literature, though they had begun to appear both in novels and more worryingly were often negatively represented in real life and particularly crime drama. Fiction represents our mirror of the world and one of the questions I was interested in was, why was the ordinary care leaver almost invisible?

  • What attracted you to doing a PhD

The good thing about doing a PhD is that you can spend time on something that you are interested in rather than having to complete various modules that you might not necessarily want to do. It can be your lifetimes knowledge, something that you are passionate about. If you’re going to spend 3-4 years or 7 years part-time being immersed in that world, it’s best to choose something you want to also learn more about. I definitely wanted to push myself academically, to face some of my fears – speaking in front of people being one! There is also something really satisfying about becoming a doctor – a sort of ‘up yours’ to the past!

  • Who are your role models?

There weren’t any in my field. Zachari Duncalf, was somebody I contacted. Zachari’s thesis is Social Sciences, so although she was a role model, i.e. care experienced and doing a PhD – our topics are very different. However, some years after I had completed an MA Writing, I attended Lemn Sissay’s ‘From Pip to Potter’, at Southbank in February, 2012. This event highlighted the stark differences in the way literature presents cared-for children and orphans, compared to the experiences of children in those circumstances in the real world. At the event I met Josie Pearse who was adopted and in the process of completing her PhD at Cardiff University and was also looking at orphans in literature. I was so inspired by both these people, I decided I would investigate further and pursue a PhD myself. 

From that day Josie became a role model. Her support has been invaluable and she has become a cherished friend. Also my sister is a role model, she’s a career specialist and has worked in HE, we often have chats about academia. Along the PhD journey I have met others who have become role models…Cat and Dee to name two. 

  • What are your favourite aspects of doing a PhD?

My world has opened up – I have met so many interesting people through researching this subject. Attending conferences, learning, access to resources and intellectuals. It’s been a wonderful experience.

  • What are the most challenging aspects of doing a PhD?

Procrastination is my worse thing. Staying focused. Being disciplined. There is nobody to say where is that piece of writing you were supposed to finish? We are adults and have to care about ourselves. Supervisors are there to supervise us but not to mother or nanny us. If you don’t produce the work they are not going to chase you. The other thing is my age – I get tired now.

When I was at school the 11+ plus was used to decide who would go to grammar school and who would go to the secondary modern. I was not supported or encouraged at all and this was in addition to the gender bias that was around in the 70s. Not once in all my years at school did anybody attend parents evening. What I’m saying is that if there had been someone who recognised my potential back then, maybe I would have done a PhD much earlier on.

  • Would you recommend doing a PhD for other CEP?

I would definitely recommend doing a PhD but try and get funding and really research your subject beforehand. It’s a hard slog and you spend much of the time not knowing what you are doing.

  • Was there extra support you would have liked to receive on your way through HE?

Definitely financial – I’ve supported myself financially and it’s been hard. I sold my flat and moved out of London to get access to extra money… For other support, there is usually a community of PhD students that you can tap into – attend the get-togethers / also make contact with widening participation – find out what they know that will help you. I think doing a PhD means that firstly you believe in yourself, secondly somewhere in amongst all the negative conversations we all have with ourselves, you know you are capable of doing the work. In many ways the Masters dissertation prepares you for the initial aspects of doing a PhD. I also gave myself extra support – the novel I’m working on and the psychological research I have to do for the thesis means I am dealing with old traumas – I have a counsellor through a scheme run by the NHS which means you pay what you can afford. It’s a place for me to discuss stuff that comes up. If you want to improve your life you have to do the work.

  • What difference do you think it makes to the wider CEP community to have CEP doing PhDs?

If I think back to meeting Josie I was completely bowled over, I couldn’t wait to find out how she had got into doing a PhD AND researching the very subject I was interested in – what were the chances of that happening? But, believe these things will happen – you will meet people that will have your back and then you in turn can do the same for other care exp PhD students. Many of us don’t have families – supporting each other is very important.

  • During your time studying, what changes have you seen toward including/supporting CEP in HE?

I think the widening participation departments are much more aware of the issues that cep’s face and are there to try and support them. Undergraduates particularly.

  • What further changes would you like to see?

Well there have been changes re finances since I started. There is a postgraduate loan £26,445, if your course starts on or after 1 August 2020 so I guess that’s sorted really – you must be under 60 so I missed out on this. So, I’d like to see more support for unfunded care exp PhD students over 60! Also I’d like to see some sort of coming together once or twice a year, like ACEPHE, so that CEP can make connections and know they have other CEPs to talk to.

Rosie’s PhD website: Orphans and Care Experience in Literature

Find Rosie on Twitter: @rosie_canning

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