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An Interview with a MRes English student

We've heard a great deal of people doing a masters, but what is a Masters by Research (MRes)? In order to find out, we interviewed Emily Owen, a Masters by Research graduate in Oral history and dialect study of the West Yorkshire textiles industry from the University of Leeds. Currently, she’s working as an archives assistant at the University of Huddersfield and is in the process of self-publishing her novel. Above all, Emily is a friend, colleague, and former learning partner for our final year project. We proofread and critiqued our writings together, and navigated through the pressures and dubieties of final year.

So how did it all start for you?

I’d just finished my BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Leeds, and was sitting in my personal tutor’s office. She asked me what I planned on doing next. I sheepishly replied that I wasn’t sure, although I liked the idea of a career in academia.

‘Have you thought about doing a Masters by research?’ she said. No I hadn’t, since I’d never even heard of a research MA before.

What is a MRes? And what are its advantages over a general masters?

The Masters by Research is a somewhat overlooked form of study. Essentially, it is a mini PHD; you have a year to research a topic of your choice and write your thesis. It’s an ideal testing ground if you like the idea of becoming a researcher, but are unsure if it’s right for you. For me, it had two advantages over a taught MA. It offered the chance to do independent research rather than repeating the same cycle of seminars, lectures, essays and exams. It was also slightly cheaper.

What to expect from a Masters by Research?

First, you have to write a project proposal. When you come to write your project proposal, you must choose something that, in my supervisor’s words, ‘gets your heart going’. You’re going to be solely researching this one topic for a year, so it has to be something that you’re truly passionate about. No matter how passionate you are about your subject, however, there are times when you will be fed up with it. That’s to be expected, but you’ll soon find that your enthusiasm rekindles itself. My project was an oral history and dialect study of the West Yorkshire textiles industry. This topic had a personal connection for me, as members of my family have worked in the industry. It also offered me the chance to conduct fieldwork and create my own data, since I would be conducting and analysing interviews with retired mill and clothing factory workers.

Was it a big leap from a BA?

I was the only student in the School of English on the course. I attended the same seminars as the PHD students, which was initially a bit intimidating. I couldn’t help feeling like an imposter. I needn’t have feared. The PHD students treated me as a fellow researcher, and we frequently discussed our respective research topics.

The sense of liberty I felt after three years of being, to a degree, spoon fed from lecture material and reading lists, was exquisite. I could choose my own reading and direct my own learning. There is a risk of floundering at this stage, as you might either not know where to begin or find so much interesting, but not particularly relevant, reading material, that you’ll find yourself disappearing down a rabbit hole.

What advise can you give to someone who will be embarking on this journey?

Rein yourself in with your research questions, and remind yourself what exactly it is that you want to find out. That said, expect your research questions to change as your project progresses and you make discoveries along the way. Your supervisor or fellow postgraduate students might suggest frameworks and approaches that you hadn’t considered before. This happened to me when my supervisor asked if I’d looked at narrative theory, and I became fascinated with the idea of how speakers construct identity through oral narratives.

What was it like and how did you manage your time?

There is a lot to fit in in a year, so you must manage your time carefully. Write your thesis as you’re going along. For example, once you’ve decided on your methodology, then you can draft that section. I wasn’t solely writing my thesis and reading journal articles, however, as my project took me beyond the confines of the university library. Conducting oral history interviews was very nerve-wracking to begin with. After the first three or four interviews, it became a pleasure. I learnt how to establish a rapport with my speakers and loved listening to their life stories. As well as fieldwork, I tried my hand at networking at conferences, giving talks at heritage events, and even made a display case in a local museum about my project, to help share my research with the local community. The public engagement aspect of my project was one of the things I enjoyed the most.

What did you learn from the experience? What opportunities has it opened for you?

Just like a PHD student, you will have a viva after you’ve handed in your thesis. This is nothing to worry about. It’s a chance to discuss your work with like-minded academics, who will offer constructive feedback and suggestions about how you could take your research further. I graduated with a distinction for my final thesis. While I concluded at the end of my degree that a career in academia wasn’t right for me, doing my MA by research made me realise that I wanted to work in heritage. It also sharpened my skills as a writer and editor, something that has been invaluable to me since. I am currently considering further study in archiving and conservation.

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