How academic friendship transformed our PhD experience

Edith Hill and Marina Deller


Our names are Edith Hill (she/her) and Marina Deller (they/she), and we are both completing Life Writing PhDs at Flinders University. We are best friends (sometimes even mistaken for siblings!) and people are often surprised to find that we met only a few short years ago, at the start of our PhD program. We know how valuable our friendship is in academia as we work, teach, study, and present together. We’re so excited to tell you a bit about us, and how our friendship supports us, sustains us, challenges us, and leads us to our best research.

The day we met was in early 2019, during the very first week of our PhD program. We were brimming with energy, both nervous and excited, when we found ourselves at adjoining tables in a meeting room in Social Sciences. Our mutual thesis supervisor, Prof. Kate Douglas had brought us together for a writing ‘lock-in’. A lock-in involves sitting in a room and studying hard for a few hours while holding your peers accountable to their goals and cheering one another on. It’s something the Flinders Life Narrative Research Group does regularly, and which Prof. Douglas and Dr Kylie Cardell were keen to get us involved in.

Within only a few minutes of chatting, we were amazed that we hadn’t met previously. It seemed like we’d been travelling in similar directions, but our paths had never directly crossed. Besides the usual few degrees of separation that being Adelaidian requires, we had the same hobbies and interests, and our studies had overlapped in several places. We had similar work ethic goals and came from similar study backgrounds. We had even both completed accelerated programs where we began university study in year 12, albeit in different years.

Edith Hill

Edith officially began her Bachelor of Arts Enhanced Program for High Achievers degree at the beginning of 2014, majoring in English and History. Edith completed her bachelor’s degree at the end of 2016, including two summer English programs at both Oxford and Cambridge University. She went on to complete her honours degree at Flinders in English, with her honours thesis titled, “Anthropomorphism and Posthumanism in Art Spiegelman’s Maus”.

Marina Deller

Marina began their Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) in 2015, where they jam-packed their studies with creative writing, English, women’s studies, philosophy, sociology and more. Marina regularly wrote for the university magazine, Empire Times and was an active member of several creative groups on campus. Marina went on to complete their honours degree at Flinders in Creative Writing with a focus on grief writing. Their honours thesis titled “Demanding Stories: Memoir in the midst of it all” and creative work titled “Studying the Living and the Dead”.

While Edith specialised in English and Marina specialised in Creative Writing, we both developed a love of non-fiction storytelling – a discipline known as Life Writing – which led us to our PhD programs. Edith set out to study health and wellness in online spaces with a passionate curiosity for self-representation online. Marina focused on experimental writing about grief after the loss of their mother, Flinders alumni and poet Dr Kate Deller-Evans. Despite our different research areas (with Marina completing a creative PhD, and Edith a purely research-based one), while chatting we found there was a lot of cross-over in our research material. We were both fascinated by the ways people represent themselves through joy, through crisis, through health, through illness.

Just days after we met at the lock-in we were assigned the same office space in Humanities. It is a wide-windowed space which overlooks rooftops and swaying trees. We soon headed out to buy stationery together, wanting to set up the office as a cosy and productive space. We spent an hour choosing the right pens and highlighters… and knew our friendship was ‘meant to be’. The next week we were planning our first project together and taking each other’s first-ever headshots in the leafy courtyard below our office. That afternoon in the ‘lock-in’ kick-started a friendship which transformed our PhD experiences in amazing ways.

Edith Hill and Marina Deller

A jam-packed candidature

As well as sharing a collaborative, creative, colourful office with each other (and a host of other wonderful PhD candidates over the years), we have also undertaken many academic opportunities together. The last three years have been bursting with conferences, presentations, writing, teaching, and more.

In 2019, we presented a series of talks titled, “Healing and Hoaxes: Narratives of Loss and Lies”. This was our first official endeavour to combine our research areas into one: Edith speaking on literary hoaxes, and Marina on the idea of ‘healing’ in memoir. This also led to a wonderful opportunity to speak on Coast FM about our research. Later in the year, we presented our CHASS Spring Conference where we presented our Confirmation of Candidature presentations (the first PhD milestone) in the same session and were thrilled to be officially accepted as PhD candidates.

In 2020, we were lucky enough to be a part of a wonderful teaching team together for the topic ‘Life Writing’, alongside Professor Kate Douglas and Dr Kylie Cardell. This semester of teaching informed a conference presentation that we delivered at the international Teaching Life Writing Conference at the end of 2020, which we then transformed into our first co-authored paper, which you can read here. In 2020 we also presented at the Flinders Gender Studies Seminar Series where we discussed our individual and overlapping research on motherhood and family narratives, as well as the English and Creative Writing Seminar Series where Marina read sections of their memoir and Edith presented on YouTube reaction videos.

In 2021, we both undertook the Academic Internship Program for Doctoral Students, run by Cassandra Hood in the Flinders Centre of Innovation in Learning and Teaching. Throughout this program, we truly learned the value of feedback in academia, for our students, but also for our teaching peers. We often run ideas by each other before bringing them into the classroom, and trust each other to provide honest and rigorous feedback on our approaches to teaching and research. Through the AIPDS we were introduced to the Student Learning Support Service where we both worked as Learning Advisors in the Learning Lounge, tutoring students one-on-one with assignment advice and problem-solving. It was so much fun to work together every now and again and learn from one another’s strengths in the role.

Now that it’s 2022, we are on the final stretch of our PhDs as both of us plan to complete our candidature in the final months of this year. We decided to kick the year off with a bang by getting matching tattoos, much to our supervisors’ amusement (and possibly horror). We also presented our Final Thesis Reviews (the final milestone of the PhD) together in March. It felt very fitting for us to present this milestone together, after starting the journey together almost exactly three years prior. This year we will be writing a cumulative 60,000 words between us on our respective projects, and have once again laid plans in place to keep each other accountable to our writing goals. We are so excited about what this year has in store for us!


How do we impact each other’s work?

Throughout these endeavours, we have been each other’s support every step of the way. Our supervisors’ eyebrows raised astronomically when they realised that we call each other for hours at a time to chat all things work, uni, and life. It’s strange if a day goes by and we don’t hear each other’s voice! Here are a few of the invaluable ways that we support one another when working on the PhD:

1. Acting as a sounding board

We both find that verbalising ideas – speaking them out loud – when we’re in the brainstorming stage of a project or thesis chapter helps us identify gaps or problems as well as strengths. This often occurs as we mind-map in the office, however, we also insert these ‘sounding board’ moments into everyday life, whenever an idea occurs that we want to talk through. We have developed some of our best ideas chatting on the phone while Edith is out walking her dog or Marina is baking banana bread.

Additionally, we are always each other’s audience – from the first draft and rehearsal to the final presentation. Not only are we each other’s cheerleaders, celebrating the wins, but we are honest and rigorous in making each other’s presentations the best they can be. From PowerPoint slides to speaking tone and speed, we help identify what could be improved and how to improve it… even if it’s at 2am before a 4am international conference! Recent examples of this work in action are the 3 Minute Thesis Competition where Marina was a Flinders finalist, and the Sociology Symposium (1:06:54 – 1:26:21) where Edith won an HDR presentation award.

2. Broadening each other’s research approaches

Speaking of identifying gaps, since our specialties are different but complementary, we often suggest research or readings to each other and prompt one another to follow research paths the other may not have considered. We help each other think outside of the box or dive deeper when necessary, too. Marina’s creative practice helps inform Edith’s research practice and vice versa. Health and wellness online (Edith’s specialty) and grief narratives (Marina’s) may be different areas but they have interesting overlap which we find productive to tease out and discuss whenever we can in order to help each other with ‘big picture thinking’ and broadening our research approaches.

3. Inspiring each other to ‘get involved’ and make the most of academic communities

This one’s pretty simple: since meeting we have encouraged and inspired each other to ‘get involved’ in new projects, groups, and endeavours. For example, we have recently been working on an emerging teaching resource titled the Teaching Life Writing Project (with wonderful Canadian colleagues at the helm). We are also both an active part of the Life Narrative Research Group at Flinders which brings together a diverse but connected group of researchers interested in life stories. One thing is certain – if one of us is involved, the other is likely to follow.

4. Keeping one another on track

While we’re certainly professionals at spending too much time choosing stationery, cooing over pictures of our pets, and baking too many cakes (we once brought each other a slice of cake to work on the same day without planning it), we are also great at keeping one another on track. Every Sunday night we call each other and set out our research plans for the week, including our writing goals, teaching responsibilities, and other extracurricular tasks. We find that this practice keeps us accountable to our writing goals and allows us to push each other to achieve certain goals, or rein each other in when we try to over-commit ourselves. Not only is this an excellent study habit in general, but it has been invaluable during the pandemic where video calls became a saving grace during a time which risked isolation and disconnection.

Marina Deller and Edith Hill

Lucky us

We couldn’t be more thankful for the input we have had in each other’s research careers so far and grateful to Flinders for facilitating so much of the work we have undertaken together. We are so lucky to have found each other (thanks, Kate!) and to be a part of the wonderful community in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Flinders University. To be a part of such a strong and giving research community is amazing. In the future, we plan to write a paper discussing how this friendship has informed our research practice as a methodology that is integral to our work. Keep your eyes peeled. Also, ask that new colleague if they’d like to chat about their research over coffee, or while buying stationery. You just might meet your new best mate.

Authors: Edith Hill and Marina Deller

Find out more about Flinders PhD opportunities at the half-day info event online or at Alere (Bedford Park Campus) on Tuesday, 17th May / 9am – 1pm.

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Bachelor of Arts Creative Writing English HDR PhD