In this article, Eleanor Dumbill, former Doctoral Researcher from the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, tells us about her experience as a self-funded DR, her current job at the University of London and how much we need to stop comparing ourselves to others.
What department and school were you part of when you were a Doctoral Researcher at Loughborough?
My PhD is in English and Publishing. I was initially based in the School of Arts, English, and Drama and my department moved to the School of Social Sciences and Humanities about halfway through my PhD (RIP SAED).
When did you graduate?
I’ve not officially graduated yet. I passed my viva in September 2020 and am just finishing up my corrections.
Did you do an undergraduate and master’s degree? If so, was it in Loughborough?
Yes, I have a BA in English and Related Literature and an MA in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, both from the University of York.
Did you work between the time you finished your undergrad/master’s and the time you started your PhD?
Yes. I had about nine months out between finishing my masters in September 2015 and starting my PhD in July 2016. I really wanted to stay in York and worked at a call centre there for a couple of months. It wasn’t ideal for me, as someone who’s always had a bit of phone anxiety, but I made a couple of lifelong friends while there.
Can you give us a layperson description of your PhD research?
I looked at the lasting reputations of three nineteenth-century women writers—George Eliot, Frances Milton Trollope, and Frances Eleanor Trollope—with a particular focus on how this was influenced by their intellectual networks, especially their publishers and editors. I wanted to understand why we continue to read Eliot but are much less familiar with the two Frances Trollopes, who are only really known to scholars of Victorian literature. It was in part a recovery project and in part an investigation of other recovery projects, looking at what other scholars had focused on and why that might be.
Was your PhD funded? If not did you manage to get any external funding?
I was entirely self-funded. I got some funding to travel and attend conferences but no help with fees or general living expenses.
Did you get involved with any societies or clubs and did you work outside of your PhD during your time at Loughborough?
I went to SSN lunches in my first year, when I had a bit more time, and was involved with LSU Action Soup Kitchen. I also began co-hosting a podcast in my second year (it’s about the life and work of lesser-known nineteenth-century writers and called Victorian Scribblers). I was also quite involved with Unison as a workplace representative and Union Learning Representative. All those things meant more responsibilities on top of my work and PhD but I’m glad I did them and have made some really good friends.
Can you think of one skill that you developed or improved during your PhD?
There are a few but the most obvious is coding. When I started, my coding skills were strictly limited to what I’d needed to personalise my MySpace profile! Now, I work in a role that’s roughly 85% coding and maybe 50% of my research is computational/digital humanities based.
What advice would you give a Doctoral Researcher reading this article?
Don’t compare yourself to others! This especially applies to those who are having to work, are disabled, or have caring responsibilities, but I think it’s good advice for anyone and can’t be overstated. It applies to life in general as well as the PhD experience! I often fall into the trap of despairing because, for example, I’m tone deaf and have friends who are great singers, but I have to remind myself that I have skills they envy. On a purely academic note, your worth is not defined by how many words you’re able to write in a day or how many publications you have, even if academia can make it feel like that sometimes!
Can you tell us more about your current job?
I work in research technology at CoSector – University of London. We support the institutional repositories of other universities making sure everything runs smoothly and our clients are compliant with policies like REF and Plan S. I used to work at Loughborough’s University Library in a similar role and if I hadn’t had to work in libraries while getting my PhD, I’d never have been qualified for this job so I’m grateful for that.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
As cheesy as it sounds, I really like being able to make a difference and solve people’s problems. I’ve been working lately on making sure that the repositories we support are accessible for all users and seeing the tool we use to measure this show zero issues is a great feeling. I’m on a small team and my colleagues have all been so supportive, even though we’ve never met in person.
The worst thing is related to that. Even though I’ve achieved the dream and technically have an office in Senate House, I haven’t been able to work from there because of COVID. It’s also tricky to try and make time for research after I’ve finished work for the day, but I’ve become used to juggling research and a job by now, the time for each has just flipped!
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
There’s a conference run in my department every year, organised by Dr Jennifer Cooke and a group of PGRs, called ‘Feminist Methodologies’. I was on the team for the 2019 conference and as part of it I spoke to the largest conference audience I’ve ever presented in front of about something intensely personal. It was a slightly bittersweet experience but as nerve-wracking as it was, it was extremely empowering for me and it meant a lot to me that people who had been through similar things came up to me afterwards to thank me for speaking publicly about it.
What is the biggest hurdle that you managed to overcome so far?
Honestly, finishing this PhD. I was working throughout, so didn’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to my studies as people I knew who were funded. It got quite frustrating falling into the trap of comparing myself to them. On top of working essentially one full-time job, one part time, and co-hosting a podcast, I’m chronically ill, so I had even less energy to budget with than an able-bodied person in my situation would. My supervisors and department were very supportive but unfortunately, I can’t say the wider University was.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
This question made me have an overly existential panic in the style of Sliding Doors or the fig tree metaphor in The Bell Jar. There are a lot of things I might say, but if I changed any of them, I wouldn’t have met some of my closest friends! Maybe I’d tell her something my supervisor told me (repeatedly, because I’m a Virgo and struggled to internalise it). Finished and good is better than incomplete and perfect, stop re-drafting things or stopping to add in another minute detail and submit whatever it is you’re working on when it’s good enough.
What is that one thing you’re good at that is not related to your work?
I am really good at knowing the rules of ice hockey, explaining things like the offside rule to people*, and screaming these along with thousands of other people at the Wells Fargo Center or the National Ice Centre when that’s a thing that’s both allowed and sensible to do.
* That’s when an attacking player enters the offensive zone (crosses the blue line) before the puck.