Thomas Kaye – PhD English Literature

English Literature PhD student Thomas Kaye is researching forestry in modern and contemporary literature We found out more about his experience as a researcher at the University of Birmingham. 

thomas-kayeWhy did you choose to study for a PhD in English Literature?

Back in my years as an undergraduate my tutor for Shakespeare and Renaissance modules always used to tell us that as academics we “were in the pursuit of truth” and that we were here “to further our subject.” I found this incredibly inspiring, and I was captivated by the idea that the research I was doing amongst the packed, dusty shelves of the library could be considered a small part of something as grand as the pursuit of truth. In short, from very early on in my academic career my passion for the subject was there and just kept growing. The core qualifier for a PhD is exactly what my tutor had told me: “to further our subject.” I would say that this is one of the main reasons I chose to do a PhD.

What I would also say is that as you progress and begin to specialise in certain areas those grandiose notions take on more specific forms. I became more and more interested in how trees, woodlands, and forests influence our stories and in turn how our stories shape our attitudes to them. A PhD in English literature allows me to engage with how the stories we tell shape the society we live in, how they influence our lives, and of course, in my project, forests

Why did you choose to undertake research at the University of Birmingham?

The forest-focus of my project made the University of Birmingham the number one choice for me when applying for PhDs. It is important to look at the research environment and specialities of each university when looking at institutions for PhD study, and a big draw for me here was the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR). This might sound unusual for a PhD in the humanities but BIFoR encourages an interdisciplinary research environment and is interested in developing research on cultural aspects of forested landscapes alongside scientific research.

The other thing to consider when applying for PhDs is who you would like to work with as your supervisor. My primary supervisor, Professor Alexandra Harris, is one of the foremost scholars and cultural historians on landscape in literature. I knew I wanted to work with Professor Harris after reading her book Weatherland – my thinking and research on the much longer lifespans of trees felt related to the experience of the various imaginative responses to the skies over England charted in Weatherland.

What are the best things about your course?

The best things about my course are the research community and my supervisory team. My first year has been mostly remote due to Covid, but I have felt like the English department has been really good at creating a variety of Zoom reading groups and discussions. I’ve really enjoyed being part of the Study States reading group where we talk about various aspects of American culture, and the Arts of Place network whose talks and events have been fascinating. I would also say that at every stage of what was a very strange first year my supervisors have always given perfect advice and continuous support whenever I have needed it. It makes a huge difference having such a supportive supervisory team.

What is life like as a researcher at the University of Birmingham?

Exciting. As I mentioned in the previous answer there is always a discussion to get involved with. The Literature and Science Lab is a really good example of a prevalent aspect of research at the University of Birmingham. My experience has been that at Birmingham we’re encouraged to think across a range of disciplines, or more specifically how our research in English literature can learn from and interact with the sciences. This approach has made life as a researcher dynamic and immersive as I’m always encouraged to think beyond the usual parameters of my subject, which is one of the things I enjoy most about the university.

What support have you received during your PhD?

The main support I have had during my PhD has come from my supervisory team. I have monthly supervisions, but when I have needed extra guidance they have always been available to give advice or words of encouragement. A great deal of support has also come from my peers. As you settle into PhD study you meet more and more people in the department and it’s invaluable to have a good group to talk and share ideas with.

Outside of your research, what experience have you gained and how will it help you in the future?

I’m very lucky to be part of the Forest Edge Doctoral Scholarship which puts me in a cohort of researchers from lots of different departments. We are beginning to plan a number of fieldtrips and talks to give us training and experience outside of our individual projects. There is an upcoming trip to Wyre Forest which I’m particularly excited about. Being part of the Forest Edge Scholarship exposes me to areas of forestry and forest policy that I wouldn’t normally have access to. Whilst these events and fieldtrips are outside of my normal research they help me think about how my research can be applied to different situations beyond the academic environment.

Is there anything about studying for a PhD that you know now, but wish you had known before you started?

When I started my PhD I had quite unrealistic expectations of myself, I thought I had to publish immediately, teach immediately, write perfect chapters from the start. So I would say it is important to go at your own pace. Focus on your own research and let your ideas develop naturally. I have recently been spending a lot of time working on Norman Maclean’s beautiful collection, A River Runs Through It & Other Stories, which he published at the age of seventy-three. In the titular story he writes that “all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” So, in that vein, take your time, accept the challenges, and enjoy the process.

Find out more about our PhD English Literature programme over on our course pages.