PhDs get Personal

This week we look at a very important subject for our guest blog, written by Ewan Bowlby.

Ewan is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews. He is researching ways of using popular artworks to design new forms of art therapy which provide emotional, psychological and spiritual care for cancer patients. This research involves using fictional narratives, characters and imagery to reflect and reframe patients’ experiences of living with cancer, helping them to process and articulate the affect of cancer on their lives. It is inspired by the ways in which novels, films and series like Breaking Bad, The Bucket List or The Quarry helped him to understand his own thoughts and feelings during cancer treatment. Ewan isdeveloping the impact of his research through an ongoing collaboration with several Scottish centres run by the Maggie’s cancer care charity. 

My PhD project has introduced me to a new experience: the process of researching and writing about a subject which I have a profound personal, emotional investment in. I am working to design new forms of art therapy for cancer patients, using popular novels, films and television series to help patients process their emotional and psychological concerns. I was motivated to start a PhD in this field by my own experiences of cancer. When I was twenty-one, having just finished my undergraduate degree, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. A year of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy followed and during this period I spent a lot of my time reading novels or watching films and television programmes. I started to notice that many of these featured narratives or characters which were reflecting aspects of my own life with cancer, introducing me to new ways of understanding my situation. After tackling a master’s course which focussed on the spiritual, affective impact of artworks, I started to realise that my academic research interests were coinciding with problems and questions emerging in my private life. The result of that realisation is my PhD project.  

There are drawbacks to focussing on something that cuts so close to the bone (pun intended). Friends and family have often – entirely legitimately – questioned why I would want to take on a PhD project that forces me to revisit unpleasant memories, reading about the joys of cancer treatment and its psychological and physical impact in excruciating detail. Visitors to my student flat often comment with concerned faces on the piles of books on the shelves with titles relating to cancer, disease and death, whilst the optics are not improved by the volumes of Victorian erotica standing next to them which my flatmate is ‘studying’. Dealing with these grim realities on a daily basis, I have had to learn how to handle the problem of emotional fatigue: a different quality of tiredness to the thesis-related drop in motivation and energy that comes at the end of a long day’s procrastination. Spending time reading or hearing distressing, tragic personal stories that provoke strong reactions often leaves me feeling drained and overwhelmed.  

Organisations like SGSAH, that are starting to place greater emphasis on the emotional and mental welfare of postgraduate students, have helped me to become more aware of this issue, improving my capacity for noticing and responding to this type of fatigue. By treating rest and recuperation as an integral part of the PhD process, rather than a break or distraction from it, SGSAH and other like-minded institutions are ensuring that we learn to care for ourselves as people as well as intellects.   

Despite these challenges, researching a topic that has such direct, personal relevance to me has proven to be a rich and rewarding experience. Hearing from other people whose lives has been changed by cancer and getting to grips with scholarship in fields like Oncology Care, I have been learning about myself whilst also broadening my academic horizons. Often, I have come across insights, ideas or phrases which become part of my PhD thesis but also capture my own thoughts and feelings better than I have ever managed to express them myself. I also have found that being able to relate to other cancer patients in terms of ‘us’ and ‘we’ has helped me to build connections with the groups I am testing my ideas on. Their encouragement and support have been humbling and their responses have added an important dimension to my research: real human involvement. With the generous support of the SGSAH Engagement Fund I am starting a trial project in the new year, in collaboration with several Scottish centres for Maggie’s cancer charity, which will gather feedback on a ‘Fiction Library’ I have created based on my research. I am very grateful for this opportunity to try to turn my experiences and academic work into a practical care resource. The prospect of reframing a difficult, traumatic time in my life as the inspiration behind a positive, hopeful project is exciting and life-affirming.  

Thanks, Ewan. Such a great, positive, and fascinating piece. As ever, if you want to submit an item for the blog, or you just want to have an informal chat, drop me a line at or give us a shout at the SGSAH Blog Twitter

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