American and Canadian Studies PhD/MA by Research (On-Campus or by Distance Learning)

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American and Canadian Studies offers promising candidates the opportunity to carry out research in one of the most dynamic institutions in Britain. We give all possible support to our researchers, developing the resources available at the University and encouraging an active postgraduate environment for the exchange of information and concepts.

Please note that applications to this programme have now closed. 

Course fact file

Type of Course: Distance learning, doctoral research

Study Options: Full time, part time

Duration: PhD – 3 years full-time; 6 years part-time, MA by Research – 1 year full-time; 2 years part-time

Start date: January, September


American and Canadian Studies has a vibrant and fast-growing postgraduate community. We draw on the research interests and projects of our staff in postgraduate teaching and on contributions from staff in allied Departments at University of Birmingham.

The MA by Research programme requires you to prepare a dissertation of up to 40,000 words on a topic of your choice, for which an academic staff member will provide expert supervision.

The PhD – the most advanced research degree - leads to a dissertation of up to 80,000 words on a subject of your choice and under the expert supervision of an academic member of staff.

You can study an MA by Research or PhD programme on campus or by Distance Learning.

We have recognised research strengths in the fields of urban culture and representation, intelligence services, literary and cultural studies, film and visual studies and African American studies. Staff contribute to joint initiatives in the presentation of research, notably through electronic publishing and the development of websites, and we work with staff in allied departments across the University so that you benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

At Birmingham you also have the option of studying languages, free of charge. Almost no other UK University offers you the opportunity to learn the intense graduate academic language skills which you may need to pursue your research.

Fees and funding

We charge an annual tuition fee. Fees for 2015/16 are currently as follows:

  • Home / EU £4,090 full-time; £2,045 part-time
  • Overseas: £13,195 full-time; £6,597.50 part-time

For part-time students, the above fee quoted is for year one only and tuition fees will also be payable in subsequent years of your programme.

Tuition fees can either be paid in full or by instalments.

Eligibility for Home/EU or Overseas fees can be verified with Admissions. Learn more about fees for international students

Learn more about postgraduate tuituion fees and funding.

Scholarships and studentships

Scholarships to cover fees and/or maintenance costs may be available. To be eligible for these awards, candidates must hold either an offer of a place to study or have submitted an application to study at the University. To discover whether you are eligible for any award across the University, and to start your funding application, please visit the University's Postgraduate Funding Database.

International students can often gain funding through overseas research scholarships, Commonwealth scholarships or their home government.


Entry requirements

Learn more about entry requirements

International students

Academic requirements

We accept a range of qualifications; our country pages show you what qualifications we accept from your country.

English language requirements

You can satisfy our English language requirements in two ways:

How to apply

Before you make your application

You may wish to register your interest with us to receive regular news and updates on postgraduate life within this Department and the wider University.

Making your application

For applicants to the PhD Distance Learning study mode only:

As part of the application process for the distance learning study mode, we will ask you to provide evidence to demonstrate that you have the time, commitment, facilities and experience to study for a PhD by Distance Learning. Please be prepared to provide evidence, and details, of the following:

  • Examples of your postgraduate research experience and ability to work independently e.g. papers/presentations at professional and academic conferences or publications in professional journals or previous completion of an independent research project, etc.
  • Full reasons (academic and personal) for registering for the distance learning mode of study rather than by standard full or part-time on-campus options. In particular, how you will be able to carry out your project in your chosen location.
  • Access to local library facilities (where needed)
  • Access to IT facilities
  • Access to communications, including e-mail and visual communication media e.g. Skype and Facetime
  • Access to facilities to support any study-related disability (where appropriate)

You can upload this information at the time of application - when asked to provide supporting documentation - or via your applicant portal once you have submitted your application.

For all applicants:

Please note that applications to this programme have now closed.  

Research interests of staff

  • Film studies; queer theory; Ethics and Spectatorship; Jewish Cultural Studies’; identity and representation; representations of death.
    Contact: Dr Michele Aaron
    Tel: +44 (0)121 414 5750
  • 19th- and 20th-century US literature and culture; African-American studies; 1950s US and the Beats.
    Contact: Professor Dick Ellis
    Tel: +44 (0)121 414 5509
  • 20th-century North American literature (especially Canadian fiction); Canadian Studies; gender studies in a Canadian context; contemporary print cultures/reading studies (UK & North America)
    Contact: Dr Danielle Fuller
    Tel: +44 (0)121 414 6611
  • Canadian history and politics; North American security and foreign policy.
    Contact: Dr Steve Hewitt
    Tel: +44 (0)121 414 6634
  • Film aesthetics; television studies; Hollywood cinema; authorship; fantasy and fictional worlds; performance; production communities; children's media.
    Contact: James Walters
    Tel: +44 (0) 121 414 8333
  • Gender and international history; civil rights; American women's history; Cold War film and history.
    Contact: Dr Helen Laville
    Tel: +44 (0)121 414 5737
  • Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American literature and art, especially the movement between realism and modernism; American visual culture – including genre painting and illustration, documentary art and photography.
    Contact: John Fagg
    Tel: +44 (0) 121 414 7812
  • 20th-century American literature and art, African American artists and abstraction; contemporary US fiction.
    Contact: Dr Sara Wood
    Tel: +44 (0) 121 414 5681

Dr Steve Hewitt

Counter-terrorism and terrorism

One of my current teaching and research interests relates to counterterrorism and terrorism. My book The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counterterrorism on the Home Front since 9-11 was published in January 2008. I have also done research related to American counterterrorism policy, specifically the State Department's Rewards for Justice program, the origins of which lie in 1984 and the Reagan administration. This interest emanates from research on state informers that I describe below. I am currently interested in working on a history of domestic British counter-terrorism. 

Security and intelligence

In January 2010, my new history of informers was published. Even before September 11, books and popular culture have focused on technology as being the chief threat to civil liberties through state and private surveillance. Lost in the shuffle has been the human factor, namely the reality that some individuals actively assist the state, be it in police forces or intelligence services, by supplying information on others. The book is entitled Snitch!: A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer. My previous work looked at the history of state surveillance in a Canadian context, in particular the spying by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Canadian universities for over eighty years.

Canadian security and intelligence and Canadian studies

In collaboration with Professor Christabelle Sethna of the Institute of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa, I am working on a project entitled “Sex Spying” that will investigate state surveillance in Canada of women’s organizations from the 1960s until the 1980s. We are currently under contract by McGill-Queen's University Press to produce a monograph on the topic. Eventually, we hope to broaden this project into a comparative examination of state surveillance of women’s organizations in both Canada and the U.S.


As a Canadian I am, according to historian Frank Underhill, "the first anti-American, the model anti-American, the archetypal anti-American, the ideal anti-American as he exists in the mind of God." Thus, by birth I have an interest in this topic, as I do with the wider nature of Canadian-American relations. Of particular interest to me in terms of research is not just anti-Americanism, but the negative response by some in the United States or elsewhere to criticism of the U.S. I call this anti-Anti-Americanism (© Steve Hewitt) and I am interested in the gendered and ideological nature of this backlash against the backlash.

Dr Michele Aaron


My most recent book, Death and the Moving Image, examines the representation of death and dying in mainstream Western cinema from its earliest to its latest renditions. Exploring gender, race, nation and narration, the  study isolates how mainstream cinema works to bestow value upon certain lives and specific socio-cultural identities in a hierarchical and partisan way. Dedicated to the popular, to the political and ethical implications of mass culture’s themes and imperatives, this book takes this culture to task for its mortal economies of expendability. It also disinters the capacity for film, and film criticism, to engage with life and vulnerability differently.

In 2009, I ran an international multi-disciplinary conference on Death and Visual Culture which emerged out of collaboration with the ‘End of Life’ Head of the West Midlands’ NHS. As a result of this event, I put together an edited collection drawn from a selection of the papers presented. This book, entitled Envisaging Death: Dying and Visual Culture was published in October 2013.

Queer theory/texts

I have an ongoing interest in theories of gender and sexuality, especially as they interact with the construction of Jewishness and race more broadly. I have published and presented a series of pieces on the intersection of queerness and Jewishness. Grounded in the discourses of race and gender of late nineteenth century Europe, these explore Hollywood, European and Yiddish film and history, and more recently television.

Ethics and film theory

My previous work on the ‘ethics of spectatorship’ has progressed into a questioning of the racialised or imperial, or simply partial, assumptions underlying philosophically informed Western film criticism which addresses the dynamics of watching the suffering of others. While such a questioning underlies my other research projects, it represents a future and more transnational trajectory of my work.

Dr Helen Laville

Video transcript
Helen talks about her research into investigating the role of white women in Southern United States communities in the civil rights era.

Video transcript
Helen talks about her research into investigating the role of white women in Southern United States communities in the civil rights era.

Gender and International Relations

My PhD investigated the role of American women’s associations in the Cold War. This research was included in my first book,

Cold War Women published in 2002. I am currently interested in the internationalization of women’s rights which took place through the foundation of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nation. I am currently writing two articles on different aspects of the work and the early years of the Commission. I am interested in the way in which some women attempted to create international, or universal standards for the status of women, and the way in which this aim was challenged by some nation-states. In particular I am interested in the conflicted US position, which was torn between the desire to appear modern and democratic, and the desire to protect the special interests and needs of women.

Civil Rights

My interest is specifically in American women’s role in the implementation of Civil Rights. My research examines the activities of women’s groups as community leaders and as political lobbyists, investigating their beliefs and strategies through the civil rights years. My research demonstrated the inherent conservatism of women’s organizations who sought to preserve peace and community stability, even at the expense of ignoring the moral imperatives of the Civil Rights movement and the need for real change.

Cold War Film

My research in this area looks at the representation of gender in films in the cold War period. I am interested in the way in which constructions of American womanhood were contrasted with stereotypes of Soviet women in films such as Ninotchka and Silk Stockings, in order to make broader points about the differences between the two nations’ politics, society and economy.

Professor R. J. (Dick) Ellis

The beats and beat writing and culture

My research into the Beats, commencing with my PhD research, has given rise to many publications. It is rooted in a process of resisting the (until recently) dominant approach of relating the Beats’ work to their biographies, and instead focuses on relating their writing and their poetic and prosodic strategies to their historical and cultural contexts in close detail – an approach formulated in the early 1970s during my research into Evergreen Review and developed, for example, in my 1988 article on the laws of obscenity (focusing on William Burroughs and Grove Press), my 1996 article on Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Cuban crisis and my book on Jack Kerouac (Liar! Liar!, Greenwich Exchange, 1999).

African-American writing

My interdisciplinary research into African-American writing is similarly centred in an approach rooted in deep cultural contextual readings. My work on Harriet E. Wilson has included preparation of the first modern edition of her writing, four articles and four conference papers. In sum, these amount to a substantial expansion in the process of identifying this writer’s socio-historical and generic co-ordinates. My monograph on Harriet Wilson, published in 2003 by Rodopi Press undertook a cultural biography of her novel Our Nig, studying in detail the contexts of its production. I recently published a study of Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman;s Narrative and a new edition of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, which i edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. I am currently working on an article on Harriet Beecher Stowe and sadism and an ew edition of Charles Chesnutt's Ther Colonel's Dream.

Professor Scott Lucas

Professor Lucas has recently completed two edited books on US foreign policy and power --- The Trials of Public Diplomacy (with Ali Fisher) and The Limits on US Power (with Bevan Sewell) --- which will appear in 2011. Complementing his work as an electronic journalist and analyst as well as an academic, he is now beginning work on a book on how “New Media” is reshaping foreign policy and international affairs.

Dr Sara K Wood

My research focuses on African American visual art and literature in the twentieth century. I am particularly interested in how ideas of artistic freedom – particularly formal experimentation and abstraction – can be explored within the broader context of the African American freedom movements during the civil rights era.

My forthcoming monograph entitled Maximising Freedom: African American Art, 1945-1970 (under contract to University Press of Mississippi)examines the synergy between ideas of aesthetic and political freedom in the work of African American visual artists. Given the formal developments in American art, and the civil rights history of the postwar period, African American artists responded to a complex set of demands in their work. The book explores how visual artists such as Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff challenged this understanding of art, as either aesthetically driven or socially engaged, and the narrow definitions of artistry that such a dichotomy imposes.

Dr James Walters

Film aesthetics

My research engages with the profits and challenges inherent in the close scrutiny of film style, and how sustained attention to questions of aesthetic composition can enrich claims for achievement in cinema. My book, Film Moments, best reflects this approach. I have a particular investment in movies from contemporary and golden era Hollywood, represented in critical appraisals of the work of directors such as Fritz Lang, Vincente Minnelli, Frank Capra, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino. 

Television studies

I have a broad interest in genres of British and US television, again featuring a critical emphasis upon matters of style and meaning. My work attends to a series of issues ranging from the representation of ordinary people in reality television, thematic structuring and character arcs in television drama, and close textual analysis in the context of television released as DVD. I also spent a year working on the AHRC-funded research project 'The Production Ecology of Preschool Television', the outcomes of which were published in 2010.


My writing on film and television often incorporates a close consideration of tones and styles of performance, taking into account the ways in which gesture, movement, voice and gaze resonate within a character’s fictional world. Articles on His Girl Friday, The Others and the television dramas Shameless, Doctor Who and 24 make this their specific focus.

Fictional worlds and fantasy narratives

A large amount of my research has involved an analysis and evaluation of fictional worlds in cinema, and particularly films that create the fantasy of an alternative or parallel world within their narratives. This interest is best represented in my books, Alternative Worlds in Hollywood Cinema and Fantasy Film.


The University of Birmingham has been ranked 8th in the UK and 60th in the world for post-qualification employability in the latest global survey of universities commissioned by the International Herald Tribune.

Your degree will provide excellent preparation for employment and this will be further enhanced by the employability skills training offered through the College of Arts and Law Graduate School.

Our American and Canadian Studies doctoral researchers have gone on to forge successful careers in a variety of industries, including the media, and over the past five years, over 92% of our research masters and PhD students in American and Canadian Studies have been in work and/or further study six months after graduation. Michael Burns graduated with a PhD from the University, is now working as a freelance filmmaker, and has created five documentaries:

“The University of Birmingham gave me a strong moral compass and the confidence to create projects, in my case films, geared toward social change. Many academic institutions can give you a degree, but what Birmingham gave me was a world-class academic experience that allowed me to research and teach amongst students, faculty, and staff who care about learning.”