I recently had the opportunity to spend three months on an internship at the British Library, exploring the Library’s 21st century British comics collection. I was excited going into this internship; it was a topic that had some similarities with my thesis, so I was still in my academic comfort zone. Thanks to SGSAH funding the PhD was on pause for three months, and I genuinely thought that it would be like a three month holiday from my academic day job.
This, in retrospect, was a naïve outlook. However, even though the workload didn’t cease, working within such a large archive was a truly humbling experience. The British Library is taking great strides to make the departments more connected, and there were regular tours and networking events for staff. I was even able to get an exclusive tour inside the King’s Tower, and saw a first Folio Shakespeare and early Chaucer editions! It was lonely at first working within a new institution, and one much larger than my HEI, but the UK Web Archives took me under their wing, inviting me to their semi-secret board game lunches, and being tireless supporters of my work.
My work was largely research based, and at first having three months and broad research questions was a bit scary. I tried to ground myself by using my tried-and-tested PhD research methods. First I established a framework of research on British small press comics, which ended up throwing out some really fascinating and helpful crossovers with my regular PhD research, and then I got stuck into looking at small press comics. Slowly I whittled down my research scope until I was focusing on small press anthologies which were showcasing ‘the best of British’ comics. I was interested in the make-up of these anthologies. How many male creators were represented? How many female creators? What about non-binary creators? Where were these creators based? How many were from Scotland? Etc., Etc. In many ways these anthologies were less about who was actually making comics in the UK, and more about who was being chosen to represent the UK. I was also interested in how Britishness was being represented in these volumes, particularly in the wake of Brexit.
The reason I picked such a small group of texts to look at was because the Library’s collection of 21st century comics was both overwhelmingly large, but also, and paradoxically, incomplete, with significant gaps. Discussing the collection with my line manager, we decided that the main issue with getting books into the Library’s collection is that most small press creators were unaware that their work fell into Legal Deposit. To try and change this, I made a small comic, entitled ‘The Legal Deposit and You’ and soon to be available in full on the British Library’s website.
The internship was an eye opening experience, but I have some thoughts and words of advice for anyone else considering a placement. Firstly, it’s not a three month holiday from the PhD. Not only does the administrative aspect of The Beast never really stop, but I actually missed my thesis (Stockholm Syndrome, no doubt). I am no going forward with a renewed appreciation of my thesis and of how lucky I am to have a topic I adore, even more.
Secondly, and in a similar vein, because I was based far away from Dundee, I missed my local academic life a lot. I would get emails about all these exciting events my department was doing that I couldn’t attend, and it felt like everyone else was ploughing forward in their research and I was left behind (competitive, these academic types are!). Firstly, even if your PhD is on pause, make sure to schedule in occasional Skype meetings with your supervisor. You’re still working, even if it’s not on the thesis, and they will have insights and hot takes on your work that are really helpful. Similarly, try and make at least one trip back up to your HEI (I picked the Department’s Christmas party), to see your colleagues. Doctoral research is lonely work and it’s good to continue to use the support networks you’ve built up in the past year or so of your research.
However also look for new support networks in your internship. The British Library had several PhD students, but they were all spread out and I didn’t know any of them for the first two months. Finally I got them all to coffee and it drastically changed my final month. There is no support network quite like other PhD students, and if there are any lurking nearby get over your shyness and get them to coffee! The UK Web Archives were gracious and friendly hosts, but other interns know exactly what you’re experiencing and are invaluable sources of information and comfort.
To summarise, keep in touch with your HEI, the PhD never goes away so don’t expect to suddenly have all your evenings and weekends free (or maybe you will if you have a better work-life balance than me), make friends with other PhD students and be alert! You never know what fascinating link between your work and the internship will suddenly reveal itself. Be on the lookout for creative ways of realising your outcomes. The comic really got people’s attention and created a great buzz. Finally, and most of all – happy interning!
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