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  • Katie Paterson

A PhD in what, exactly?

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

I’m going to be a Doctor! Just not the Corona-treating kind...


I'm at the very beginning of the PhD process, and I've decided to blog about it, partly for friends and family to have some updates, and partly to force myself to keep reflecting as I go.


As a theatre kid whose great nemesis was GCSE biology I didn't necessarily expect to go into Arts and Health research, so I'll try to explain what's got me hooked.


My research is looking at the experiences of otherwise healthy people who are prescribed female sex hormones; this is most commonly for contraceptive, or menopause related use. Although synthetic hormones have been in use for a long time, we still don’t actually understand them very well, and the powers that be have not demonstrated a huge interest in changing that, or in making these treatments work better for the people who take them. Without fail, bringing this topic up informally leads to a discussion of experiences that range from the comical to the harrowing, and this leads me to believe there is a real value in pursuing this research; these are stories we need to hear.


I am interested in how women understand themselves in the context of medical encounters, what it means to be a patient when you don't have an illness and therefore don’t have any chance of being cured, and what it feels like to take synthetic hormones over a long period of time. There is lots of existing work in this area, but seeking to explore these experiences as embodied knowledge, not just as data, is where I hope I can make an original contribution.


So what am I actually doing?


The Doctoral programme I'm entering is in research by creative practice; a type of study where artistic practice combines with more traditional research approaches to investigate a question. This is also called practice-research/practice as research, and as a formal mode of research it has been growing in popularity over the past twenty years. For instance, it's a major component of the MA Performance course at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, where I trained as an actor, and a dissertation-equivalent module at the University of Birmingham where I was an undergraduate. Practice based research acknowledges that the skills, approaches and understanding that practitioners develop have useful research applications. 


I will try to understand, analyse and communicate elements of these experiences by creating theatrical responses to them and conducting qualitative research. I am interested in the embodiment of experiences, and the potential of live performance as a unique site of communal understanding. (I'm also looking at queer approaches, comedy, applied theatre, feminist praxis and the history of endocrinology and gynaecology; the first lesson I've learned in this process is that everything you read leads you to ten more things to read!)


The shows that I have made over the past two years have drawn on practice research, looking at specific lived experiences through a queer theatrical approach. For me the most interesting approaches incorporate comedy, acknowledging the audience and the liveness of the performer, and continually disrupting any attempts at resolution. This approach will be the starting point for my research, but who knows where I will end up! 


And another thing…


It’s so obvious it hardly needs saying but, when I was writing my research proposal to do theatre-based research, I hadn’t factored in a little thing called Covid-19. The ongoing pandemic has caused a seismic shift in live theatre and this will profoundly affect the possibilities for practice; we have to question our responsibilities to audiences in totally new ways, and forge new paths in sharing live art. I'm not convinced that digital theatre, wonderful though it has been in this time, can be expected to replace in-person sharing. 


So, a lot of this first term will be spent working out just what the hell this all means for our industry, for practice research, and for academic institutions. It’s a lot to process, and our understanding changes all the time. Still, I’m confidently informed that the only certainty about doing a PhD is constantly questioning everything, so at least there’s plenty to ponder besides my own imposter syndrome. Stay tuned to see how much worse that gets once I actually get started.


For now, I've got some reading to do!




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