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Meso-Academia. Life Between Masters and PhD with Kieren Johns

Updated: May 11, 2020

The decision to further one’s academic career by pursuing a PhD is a tough one, as it comes with many compromises. From one perspective, it is the chance to follow your dreams and engage yourself in a topic you hold dear. A PhD is a pathway to many opportunities, and the feeling of changing your name on documents to ‘Dr.’ must be satisfying to say the least. On the other hand, committing to such perilous research for a good few years certainly seems daunting. There are all kinds of factors that play in to deciding to do a PhD: funding, living arrangements, relationships, each issue a new challenge to face.

If you make your decision to go after a PhD, wonderful! Best of luck to you! But it’s not so simple, the journey between academic positions can prove just as tumultuous as the PhD itself. Application processes can seem terrifying, and the gap between one’s Masters course ending and a PhD course beginning looks like an ominous No-Man’s Land. All sorts of new questions begin to form. ‘Where do I live?’, ‘How will I fund myself?’, ‘What if I’m rejected?’. Sadly, the answers are exclusive to the individual and cannot be answered so easily.

What happens between your Masters and your PhD then? Here to talk about his own journey to pursuing a doctorate is Kieren Johns, a PhD student at the University of Warwick. He became a PhD candidate in October of 2018 and his research is centred on the Severan Emperors of 3rd century Rome.

What got you started in Classics?

“I was fortunate enough to attend a High School that offered Latin from years 7 right through to 13, as well as Classical Civilisations at A-Level. That being said, I wasn’t the most enthusiastic student – when I had to pick an “arts” subject for my options in Year 9, I tried to convince my parents to let me do something that I thought would mean less work. Thankfully, I listened to their advice in the end and went with Latin for GCSE, and this would lead me to doing Classical Civilisation at A-Level.

“I knew I wanted to do History at University, but I also like breadth when I’m studying so I opted for a combined honours bachelor’s degree. I ended up picking History and Ancient History, but it was a close-run thing; I nearly opted for English Literature (my other favourite subject at school).

“I fully expected to focus predominately on modern History at University, and I picked modules such as Spain and the New World and Tsarist Russia. But no matter how much I enjoyed them; I couldn’t seem to translate enjoyment into good marks. Then, I found myself doing a module on Greek Temples. It was the first time I’d ever really studied history in terms of space, architecture, and material culture and something just clicked. I found, more by chance than design, an approach to history that fascinated me and that I could engage with effectively. It was that module, and that kind of approach that really got me started, and it has led me – on a winding path – to where I am today.”

When did you become interested in pursuing a PhD?

“I knew I wanted to do a PhD during my MA year. I had been fortunate enough to attend the City of Rome course hosted at the British School at Rome, and the opportunity to work in that environment and produce your own research was something I loved. At the time, I probably wasn’t that enamoured with spending every evening (I worked during the days) locked away in front of my laptop, but there’s something really fulfilling about researching and creating arguments. My goal in doing a PhD was to find a way to keep on working at what I enjoyed doing; rather naively probably, I hadn’t realised quite how difficult that would prove to be!”

How did you spend time between academic positions?

“I spent 2 years between my academic posts – I finished my MA in the September of 2016 and I started my PhD in the October of 2018. If I’m being honest, they were a tough two years. I had done my first unsuccessful PhD application at my MA university in the middle of my MA year. I was actually offered the spot to study, but not the funding; there was no way I could have worked the hours I’d have needed on-top of doing the research and other work that is necessary. The rejection was tough and the interview just downright awful, but I understood why I wasn’t successful.

“To be rejected, and often more than once and without specific feedback, it’s hard to find the confidence to pick yourself up and have another go.

“Away from unsuccessful PhD applications, there were also a host of unsuccessful job applications. I had worked – like a lot of students I think – in hospitality roles throughout my time at university. It felt like rejection after rejection for a while, on both the PhD and job front.

“Eventually, I got a lucky break back at home, where the director of a financial services company was willing to take me on as a Marketing Intern. In that role, I got a ton of valuable work experience. As good as the job was to me, and as grateful as I always will be for the opportunity that they gave me, it was working there that I realised that what I really wanted to be doing was further study and research.

“Alongside that, I started making freelance writing. It was a good way of making extra cash (I still do it now, when my PhD commitments allow), and as I was lucky to find the right clients, I was able to work on projects that allowed me to work around the subject I loved. I took two days off from my job in Devon and travelled to the University of Edinburgh to give a paper at the AMPRAW conference in November 2017. It was this commitment to what I wanted to do, I think, that helped push me over the line in terms of finally getting funding.”

Would you have done anything different?

“As a PhD student now, I think back to when I was making my A-level choices and I would implore the younger Kieren to keep doing Latin and German (if only he knew!). But then, that would have meant missing out on doing the subjects I loved, like English Literature and Philosophy. I had no grand plan of doing a PhD when I was picking my options, and no-one in my family did either (I was the first of us to go to university), so how could I have possibly known?

“It’s easy to look back and think you could have done better, but I don’t think it’s that helpful. What’s better is to keep focused on the now and tomorrow, and how you can make the decisions that will make it better for you (and others).”

Finally, do you have any advice for people looking towards PhDs?

“The only real advice I have is to keep adding value to yourselves as people. A PhD is a fantastic opportunity to become an expert in the field that you love and work as part of a fantastic and supportive community. But it is not, and it never should be, the be all and end all of who you are. It shouldn’t define you as a person; the PhD should just be a part of who you are and what you’re working towards.

“Take the time out to relax and find opportunities that engage and excite you. They could be things that help with the PhD application, like presenting at a conference or learning a new language, or they could just be things that make you a more rounded and fulfilled person; if you get onto a PhD programme you’re going to want and need these opportunities to escape! The things we study have been around for thousands of years, and they’ll likely be around for a little while yet. You still have time to be you as well.”

A little bit about Kieren: “I'm currently in the second year of my PhD, studying at the University of Warwick. I am currently researching the representation and conceptualisation of Severan imperial authority in the Latin West, from AD 180 to 235. With a focus on material evidence, and a quantitative approach to epigraphic data, I am seeking to understand the processes of negotiation that occurred between relevant sectors of Roman society in the framing of imperial authority and legitimacy.”

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