Hannah Coombs – PhD Literary Studies
My story with the University of Portsmouth starts from a beach in Fiji with a cocktail in hand.
I originally applied for English Language and Linguistics but, come results day and with not long to go until I left for a gap year, it dawned on me that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. A few weeks later, I found myself lying on the beach with a cocktail in hand, looking at online university prospectuses for English Literature and Language and re-writing my personal statement. Fast forward a year and I was still by the beach, but in Portsmouth, settling into uni life.
Why I chose Portsmouth
I chose to study in Portsmouth because of the varied research specialisms within the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature, and because of the location of Portsmouth as a whole. The idea of having all the perks of the city but living right beside the sea really appealed to me.
Portsmouth has given me opportunities to explore subject areas I had never considered before, and the freedom to follow my own ideas and inspirations...Portsmouth helped me build confidence to not fall straight into a career, to follow paths through what I enjoy and to rule out options I was uncertain about – and I’m certainly happy with the path I have ended up on!
I decided early on that I wanted to make the most of opportunities outside of my course, and got involved with the Volunteer Reading Scheme which meant I spent an afternoon each week helping in a local primary school to support kids struggling with reading. I really enjoyed this scheme and found it very rewarding, so I kept up my position at the same school for two years. At the end of my second year, I was even invited to the university volunteers awards night!
Finding purpose through a placement abroad
By the time I was in the middle of second year, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life once I graduated. I had considered teaching, but I wasn’t sure whether that was something I truly wanted to do or was just falling into. I decided to combine this indecision with my love for travelling, and apply for a placement abroad. After a few applications spanning Peru to China, I was accepted as an English Language Assistant (ELA) in Germany. Although I didn’t meet any other ELAs who weren’t studying a foreign language for their degree, my A-level German, previous experience in schools in England and TEFL qualification, which I had completed in my spare time, were enough to see me through my year in Germany.
Whilst I decided in the end that I don’t want a career in schools, this placement allowed me to make this decision without committing more time and money to teacher training. My placement also gave me lifelong friends, skills and experience in a professional environment, and a year of brilliant memories living abroad.
The soft skills I developed on my placement really showed themselves when I returned for final year. I had been a little worried about returning to uni after a year without writing essays or studying, but I actually got on really well post-placement. I had gotten used to a professional working environment and had developed my work ethic and discipline, which meant I was much better at sitting down and getting work done than I had been before.
Discovering my passion for research
During my final year, things really started falling into place. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career, but a serendipitous meeting of my dissertation topic, ideas from one of my units, and a personal trip to Latvia combined to bring me a new research idea. I had loved working on my undergraduate dissertation, and I didn’t want to leave this new train of thought unexplored.
This led me to where I am now: I completed my Master’s in Research at Portsmouth in identity and spatial theory in Soviet-era literature from the Baltic States, and began my PhD in Literary studies, researching identity development in child refugee narratives, from the Holocaust and present day. I decided to stay here for my postgraduate studies because the English team was so supportive and well-suited to my research interests. I found the MRes in itself to be a unique course. It’s a much less common course than the typical MA, and allows a freedom of subject area and a far greater focus on independent research relative to other qualifications at this level, which in turn set me in good stead for my PhD.
I found the MRes in itself to be a unique course. It’s a much less common course than the typical MA, and allows a freedom of subject area and a far greater focus on independent research relative to other qualifications at this level, which in turn set me in good stead for my PhD.
Developing my academic style
Throughout my time at the University of Portsmouth, the English team and Academic Skills Unit (ASK) have supported me in developing a knowledge base, academic style and understanding of academic writing requirements allowing me to produce work at a level that will be considered for publication. The University Library is also an excellent resource, going out of their way to acquire books and materials if they don’t already have what you need.
My studies have allowed me to develop my confidence and communication skills, most notably in presenting my work at a postgraduate symposium. Through this and other opportunities I've been able to build upon my academic network. I'm currently working to have some recent papers published in academic journals. After my PhD, I plan to continue engaging with my area of research by developing a career in academia.
Portsmouth has given me opportunities to explore subject areas I had never considered before, and the freedom to follow my own ideas and inspirations. I may have spent most of my studies not knowing where they were leading me, but studying at Portsmouth helped me build confidence to not fall straight into a career, to follow paths through what I enjoy and to rule out options I was uncertain about – and I’m certainly happy with the path I have ended up on!