In this month’s newsletter, we would like to introduce PhD student, Matthew Firth from the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
Matthew’s recently submitted thesis, “English Kingship in the Saga Age: Memory, Transmission and the Evolution of Narrative” received outstanding results from the examiners.
We asked Matthew to share his journey so far, his research, the hardest part about undertaking a PhD and advice for fellow PhD students.
Tell us about yourself
I’ve taken something of the long route around to completing my PhD – it all started in the early 2000s when I undertook my BA at the University of Sydney. I started out studying languages but found myself gravitating toward cultural and historical studies and ended up graduating with a major in Studies of Religion. At that point life took one of its unexpected turns and I wound up working at a bank. As a data analyst. For 8 years. In 2011 a sea/tree-change was in order, and I found myself living in Hobart and running a mowing franchise – surprisingly fun for a while! But somewhere in there I decided I needed to stimulate my brain again and started a Master of History at University of New England (via online learning), alongside a Graduate Certificate in Classical Languages. (My daughter was also born around this time, so that made things extra-exciting). And in all this I remembered my love for history, for languages, and for learning.
Fate really stepped in in 2015 though, when I attended the biennial conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies in Brisbane. There I met a lecturer from Flinders University, newly arrived from Ireland: Dr Erin Sebo. As my Masters studies began winding up, Erin got me thinking about progressing on to do a PhD at Flinders. And well, here we are! I started my PhD in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in 2019, supervised by Dr Erin Sebo alongside Dr Jonathan Benjamin and Dr Levi Roach (University of Exeter), and have just wrapped up. I couldn’t have enjoyed the last three years more and have loved every opportunity to undertake my own research.
At the moment I am working as a Research Associate in the College of Education, Psychology and Social work for a project connected to the Royal Commission into veteran and defence suicide. That’s really taking up most of my time. But never content to not be busy, I’m also working as a Research Assistant for academics at the University of Adelaide and Australian Catholic University, and am topic coordinating ENGL3113 in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences this semester.
Tell us about your research
I am very interested in cultural memory, in questions of how societies remember, perceive, and invent their pasts. These are topics relevant to any periods of history writing and to various aspects cultural self-perception, but my specialisation is medieval history and literature. My thesis examined the thirteenth-century Sagas of Icelanders, a corpus of pseudo-historical narratives set some centuries earlier, and questioned whether these could be used as historical sources. Ultimately, I argued that, while these texts do preserve genuine historical knowledge, this can only be recognised in the light of external sources for that history. The processes of adaptation and reinvention that occur as a society retells its past often serves to obscure it.
Outside of my thesis, I have been actively researching and publishing for several years. In 2020, an article based on a chapter from my thesis was published in The Court Historian, and awarded the journal’s publication prize. During my PhD I also published articles in Royal Studies Journal, English Studies, and Notes & Queries. I also have articles forthcoming in English Historical Review and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History. All of these pick up on my interest in historiography, and focus on how royal reputation was transmitted, adapted and memorialised in the histories of later medieval writers.
This said, I have never been averse to being pulled into other projects if I have expertise to offer! In 2020 I collaborated with Dr Erin Sebo on an article published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology on the origins of the Royal Navy. I have a second article coming out with Dr Sebo next year in Scandinavian Studies that looks at the stories associated with an Iron Age archaeological site on the island of Hjarnø in Denmark. She and I have also collaborated with Dr John McCarthy on an article for publication in Marine Mammal Science (this is a surprise to me as well!). Finally, I have an article coming out shortly in Neophilologus co-authored with fellow PhD candidate, Cassandra Schilling. It would be an understatement to say that I have found the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences to be an open and collaborative research space.
And to top things off I am in the middle of writing my first monograph, to be published with Routledge, on English queenship between the years 850 and 1000. Busy, busy!
What has been one of the hardest parts of the journey?
I don’t want to whinge about the pandemic as it has affected us all, but definitely the pandemic! What a time to start a PhD. I had grand plans to head to Scandinavia for my research, to visit archives in Copenhagen and Reykjavík to consult medieval manuscripts, to attend important medieval conferences throughout Europe. I even booked the trip in December 2019, ready to head off in June 2020. And instead, I wound up consulting digitised manuscripts of varying quality and attending conferences at horrible hours of the night on my computer in my study. And look, I’ve gained serious skills out of doing it that way (and terrible eyesight as a bonus), and I’ve surprised myself to see how much can be done when remote from your source documents, but it’s certainly not how I saw things playing out.
What advice would you give to those who are about to undertake a PhD?
Try to enjoy it. The journey can certainly be stressful at times, sometimes you can’t even bear to look at your project. That’s fine, that’s normal. Take a break and stand back from your research. And when you do, use that moment to reflect on how far you’ve come, not how much more there is left to do. This is one of the very few times in any career or study path when you will be able to decide your own research focus, when you can exclusively pursue the questions you are interested in. So, remember to pause every now and then to try and enjoy it.
On a pragmatic level, don’t neglect to network during your PhD – go to conferences, email scholars in your field for advice, attend webinars, write blogs – get your name out there! This has been invaluable to gaining post-PhD employment.