5 Minutes With… Macon St. Hilaire

In this series we interview PhD researchers across the arts and humanities in Scotland, and throughout the month of March we’re putting a special focus on women-identifying researchers. In this post, we hear from Macon St. Hilaire, who is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow.

A banner for our series with the text '5 minutes with... Macon St. Hilaire' next to a circular image of Macon.

What year are you in, and at what school?

I am in my second year at the University of Glasgow in Economic and Social History.

What’s the working title of your thesis?

‘The Global Scotch whisky industry, 1918-2018’

How would you describe your thesis to someone you just met?

I typically tell people I am a historian of whisky and after I explain that yes, you can do that. I explain that my work is giving a critical look to how the whisky industry in Scotland has been able to achieve global recognition and scale. If they are familiar with the social history of Scotland, I will usually add that my work is explaining how the strength of the whisky industry in Scotland now was possible in contrast to the decline of important industries like textiles and shipbuilding. If someone is not familiar with Scottish history it is usually easy to start a conversation about their stories of friends, family, or even their own experiences with Scotch whisky.

What do you like best about your PhD/research/experience thus far? Least?

I understood that working on a PhD can be very isolating, but I have found that I have, even despite the pandemic, a vibrant social network through both my college and subject but also through larger social culture in Glasgow (and digitally). There have been opportunities for me to connect with people working in the whisky industry or those who have a made learning about whisky a hobby. I am fortunate that I have also made friends within my college and subject because it gives me someone to talk with who understands the experience.

The thing that I have liked the least is that it can be very difficult to know what is going to happen or what to expect from University guidance about the PhD process. I have relied on my social network so much because it can be hard to get a straight answer. Maybe it’s a difference in academic systems since I am an international student, but it has been hard at times for me to get used to there not being a clear outline of how things will go. It could also be a difference in how the PhD is from, say, an undergraduate or post-graduate programme where modules are set out for you.

What do you wish you’d known going into your PhD program?

I try not to dwell too much on things that I can not change from the past, but I think on reflection that I could be nicer to myself when it comes to resiliency. I knew that going into my PhD I would need to work hard on my work habits and keep up with certain tasks. The pandemic has impacted my research project and I have had to adjust to the realities of access with archives closed for most of the last year. Limited archive material is normal for historical research, sometimes you think you will open a box that will have that missing piece and it is completely empty. However, I think the pandemic has really exacerbated a challenging task (for everyone) and I have had to start and stop research plans, which can after a time wear your motivation down. So, what I think I would like to have known is that it is okay to be disappointed that things did not work out as planned even though I really wanted them to, but that there will still be space to answer my research question and many things left to write.

What do you do for fun outside of academia?

I really enjoy watching the wholesome but competitive ‘making’ shows like Bake Off, Pottery Throw Down, Sewing Bee, or recently I have started watching Drawers Off. I am fiercely competitive myself so watching these shows inspires me. I find enjoyment from making things whether it’s a cake or a drawing. I am looking forward to days ahead where I can get back to exploring charity shops and I will never take for granted so many museums on my doorstep. While I can’t get out to explore around Scotland now, I have enjoyed getting to have zoom dance parties with friends – that little bolt of movement, joy and not being too serious is a balm. Hopefully I will be out traipsing all over the countryside soon.  

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