Where to now? Research post PhD

By the Spring of 2012 I felt suitably fed up with my dissertation – Ecocriticism and the Contemporary British Novel -, and was very ready to explore the world outside of ecocriticism. Since I was lucky enough to a). do my PhD in the Netherlands where it’s a paid job, and you get a contract for 4 1/2 (0.8 fte), and b). finish 9 months before the end of my contract, I had plenty of time to think of what I wanted to do after my PhD. I still loved academia, the only question now was, where to next?

The finding-a-job-part is perhaps a topic for another post (and great posts on that are out there already), so I want to focus on deciding what kind of research to do post-PhD. While writing my chapter on “place”, in which I discuss John Burnside’s The Locust Room (2001), I became interested in the role and representation of photography in literature. In October 2011 I was invited to give a paper at the John Burnside Colloquium at the University of Darmstadt (Germany). In my paper I explored the role of photography in Burnside’s work, particularly the influence of the photographer Raymond Moore on The Locust Room.

Following the Darmstadt Colloquium I turned my paper into an article, and then realized that there was much more in this field of literature and photography than I could fit into one article. I also discovered that there were some major gaps in the field: much has been done in literature and photography studies on Victorian literature (Nancy Armstrong, notably), and there’s also been quite a lot of work on the use of photographs in novels to challenge processes of memory. Yet I was interested in the role of photographs – specifically those that are not printed – in contemporary literature. Furthermore, I was curious whether a theory/methodology could be developed for the analysis of what I call “unseen photographs” in literature.

And like that, the idea for a new research project was born. The ‘trick’, if any, with any new venture, including a  research project, is to follow your intuition. Any researcher, I think, will recognize that feeling, that hunch, a slight tickle, that suggests that there’s something new and interesting. For me, that something had to do firstly with the works of John Burnside: The Locust Room is one of the most interesting novels I discuss in my dissertation. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pin myself too much by focusing on one author. One of the most interesting aspects of Burnside’s fiction for me is his treatment of photography (and seeing in general), which led to the paper, the article, and a new line of research.

Essential, I think, for starting a new research project is getting it out in the open. I started talking to my (then) PhD-supervisor about it, and with some other trusted colleagues. They gave me valuable feedback and confidence, and confirmed that I was on to something.

Another essential aspect of starting a new research project is getting to know the field, and the library can only get you so far. So, I decided to organize an international symposium on literature and the visual arts. I asked a colleague to help me out, and we organized an interesting conference, with some really good papers, in late October 2012. That symposium was really valuable in helping me see what’s out there in the field of literature and photography studies, and, also through the special issue of Image & Narrative that we’re editing, expressed my own interest to a wider audience.

Another way of getting to know a new field – and making yourself known to the field – is through a research visit, which I did in April/May 2012. Contacting them was a bit scary, I admit, but they were incredibly nice. A week beforehand I sent them a page of my ideas, still fairly rough but nonetheless organized. They helped me think through what I wanted further, and also – invaluable in the early stages of a research project – narrow it down.

So, that is the post-PhD topic decided on? Well – yes, but also not quite… During my PhD I realized that I don’t want to work on one thing only: consequently, I taught courses, organized two international conferences, wrote articles, organized events within my department. I always knew, then, that I would want to have a sideline next to my core research, if possible: I notice that it keeps me fresh.

And that is exactly what happened: in late summer I started thinking about ecocriticism again. I had done very little work in the field in the preceding months – save a contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism and a thorough reread of my dissertation before submitting it to the committee. But reading some recent articles, and Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley’s Edgelands made me itch to do something ecocritical again.*

And since then, the new research project has taken off. Literature and photography studies is still an interest for me, but a break showed me that I’m just not done with ecocriticism. It excites me more than any other research field – and it feels more pressing as a topic, and more relevant to contemporary society. I love how immediate it is: how much of our culture is permeated with our views on nature and am excited about all the new work that’s going on in ecocriticism – for instance, on material ecocriticism, despite my hesitations on that. The biggest surprise for me has been my enthusiasm for new British nature writing, and discovering the works of Symmons Robert & Farley, Kathleen Jamie, Jean Sprackland, Robert Macfarlane and others. More on that – applying for grants and post-doc places – in some future post…

* Side note: one of the benefits of choosing a topic that is close, but not too close, to your PhD topic is that you’ve already established yourself as an expert in the field, though this differs in some countries. In Germany, for instance, scholars are expected to write their second book on a very different topic from the first.

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