Postgraduate Life: I worked on a research project alongside my PhD

Abby Gilsenan is a doctoral researcher in Social Policy. During her studies, she's been working with Dr Sophie King-Hill, researching sibling sexual abuse.

Abby Gilsenan

Doctoral researcher Abby Gilsenan

I’m in my third year of PhD study, and fast approaching the dreaded write up stage.

My project title is Beyond 'Good Catholic Girls': Exploring young women’s lived experiences of statutory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in English Catholic Schools. The project has really grown and evolved over the years, but at its core it explores the intersection of policy, gender and sexuality and young peoples’ lives. Ultimately, it seeks to explore the experiences of young women navigating sexuality and identity in Catholic schools, in light of the introduction of statutory Relationships and Sex Education across all English secondary schools. The policy marks the most significant change to English sex education in nearly two decades—particularly for faith schools, which previously were not legally stipulated to provide comprehensive Relationship and Sex Education.

My undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics. I’m not sure I saw myself as a ‘social scientist’ then, but I do now.

I became interested in youth sexuality through my dissertation, which explored Christian women’s experiences of sexual pleasure. Building on this, I then did an MRes in Gender and Sexuality studies that allowed me to explore what would become my PhD topic: young women’s experiences of Relationships and Sex Education in Catholic schools.

I’m driven by a desire to improve young people’s lives – whether that be through encouraging policy change and development, or simply through changing the discourse around youth.

Gender and sexuality have always been a core interest of mine, so I’m keen to explore how we can bolster young people as they navigate these complex and often stigmatised terrains. Teenagers in particular get a really bad wrap in society, so I think working towards shifting that narrative is a central motivating factor for me.


I’m driven by a desire to improve young people’s lives – whether that's through encouraging policy change and development, or simply through changing the discourse around youth.

I joined the Rape Crisis Sibling Sexual Abuse project in May 2021.

I was involved as Dr Sophie King-Hill had just joined my supervisory team, and we got to discussing her upcoming work. After seeing the overlaps with my own research, we both felt it would be a great opportunity for me to build my academic skills and gain insight into conducting research with third-sector partners.

The project was part of a ground-breaking national study, led by Purple Leaf, Rape Crisis England and Wales, into the impact of Sibling Sexual Abuse (SSA) and the support available to survivors. The overall research was divided between two research teams: one at the University of West England, that focused on the experiences of adult survivors, and one at the University of Birmingham, that explored the professional support available to young people who have experienced SSA. Both teams worked collaboratively with local Rape Crisis organisations. My time on the project was spent working closely with West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre.

Within the University of Birmingham leg of the project, we used data from qualitative interviews with professionals working with, and young people effected by SSA, to develop a research-led assessment tool and professional guidance to be used across Rape Crisis organisations. This was piloted across six centres and has now been released nationally. It was absolutely incredible to work towards creating a tangible tool to bolster vital work done by Rape Crisis organisations, and in turn, help support those affected by a prolific—but often hidden—form of sexual abuse.

I gained so many valuable skills from working with Sophie.

As PI (Primary Investigator), Sophie demonstrated the importance of communication when working with research partners and I think I definitely learned a lot about research leadership from that. Working with Rape Crisis meant dealing with the internal politics—quirks and processes of a whole separate organisation—and the project management skills gained from that have really bolstered my approach to working with schools and other institutions within my PhD.

Additionally, I learned a great deal about how to approach and thoroughly code qualitative data within a short-time scale, a skill which I’ll definitely be putting into practice over the next few months.

Working closely with Sophie on the project write-up and preparing for future publications was probably the most valuable aspect of the project for me. It’s rare you would have that back-and-forth of developing work with an established academic as a PGR, so getting all that feedback was brilliant. Building on that, I’ve gained a lot of insight into publication processes that might otherwise have been quite elusive.

Working with Sophie has definitely allowed me to view myself more as a professional academic, rather than a student.

After the PhD, I would love to stay in academia.

I love learning, and deep diving into topics you’re passionate about is a great feeling. If anyone knows of upcoming any post-docs researching sex education or youth sexuality do let me know (seriously).

I’ve been really fortunate in getting research and teaching opportunities, but this is sadly not the case across the sector. I wish more was done to address inconsistencies across PGR career development opportunities, and that academia as whole could move away from the idea that sometimes PGRs are cheap labour. Doing a PhD can be a really isolating and challenging at times, so I think a bit more celebration and support is always needed.

Outside of work, I’m currently going through a sourdough phase…

…But I really enjoy all types of cooking and often use it as a stress-buster. I also enjoy trying the many craft beers Birmingham has to offer with my friends, indulging in a bit of trashy TV, and doing the odd bit of arts and crafts.