Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background (including previous study) ?
In 2010 I began an Access to Higher Education diploma in the Humanities and Social Sciences with the view to going to university. I wasn’t entirely sure on the area I wished to study but having a keen interest in cinema I began a film course which focussed mainly on production. In the first year of that course I realised I had a passion for cultural and critical theory and I transferred to the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies to begin a degree in Cultural Studies. I graduated with a first-class BA (Hons) in 2013 and I took a job in a housing organisation which worked with homeless young people. After a year of employment I returned to the School of Fine Art at Leeds University to do a Master’s degree in Cultural and Critical Theory. My year of employment dramatically influenced the paths I took in my Master’s with particular respect to mental health and disability and the ways they are socially and politically constituted. The MA was very open and enabled me to pursue thinking theoretically about the social issues I encountered at the housing organisation. I graduated in 2015 with a distinction and following this I took up a Leeds Anniversary Research Scholarship funded PhD place in the School of Sociology and Social Policy. My research now is looking at the ways in which women and non-binary people who have been diagnosed with autism come to understand their gender through the discourse of autism.
What motivated you to undertake your PhD study and why did you choose the University of Leeds?
The short answer is that I have always had a love of learning and when I began university in 2010 I knew this was somewhere I could really push myself and be surrounded by people passionate about similar things. The longer version is that I believe in the importance of academic work to comment on and change existing social structures. Whilst this work doesn’t have immediate effects I hope that in the long term social research does enable change to be implemented in however small a way. My area of research is, I believe, a timely intervention on the ways in which women and girls are being let down by current understandings of what autism is. I hope that eventually the work I am doing and the work other researchers are doing will allow new understandings of autism to emerge. The University of Leeds has a reputation for academic excellence, my supervisors are the perfect fit for my project and coming here meant I could stay in a city I love so it felt like the right choice for undertaking the PhD programme!
What is it that makes you passionate about this area of study?
I chose to study in the School of Sociology and Social Policy because I am passionate about thinking about how we come to understand ourselves as human beings in all our various configurations. I am particularly interested in how some of these various ways of being human are positioned as lacking or as less than human. This has very real material effects on the people who are categorised in this way through their disability, gender identity and class for example. I hope that bit by bit work from the social sciences can improve people’s lives, from research that looks at specific policies to more theoretical work - I think it is all important in trying to enact change.
Please tell us about your research topic…
My research’s overarching concern is discovering what it is that autism does to gender and how people who have been formally diagnosed with autism as adults understand their gendered identity pre-and post diagnosis. Taking as its central proposition that autism functions within a masculinised discourse I wish to see whether a diagnosis of autism impacts on an individual’s gendered identity and how they reproduce or resist the gendered discourse of autism. To do this I am going to speak to women and non-binary people who have a diagnosis, and those who have received a mental health diagnosis prior to an autism one to see how the diagnosis figures into their gendered understandings of themselves.
How has your experience been at the University so far?
This is my sixth year of study at the University of Leeds and I have few complaints! I have always felt supported by my lecturers and now by my supervisory team. There is space to pursue academic interests not directly linked to my research and it is great to have the support and time to be able to organise reading groups and seminar series. I have been given various opportunities over the years, a notable one was a scholarship which enabled me to undertake a research assistant role as an undergraduate. This confirmed that I wanted to continue down a research path. I have met so many great people along the way too many of whom I still see regularly.
What would you say about the learning and research facilities in the School and at the University in general?
The new Laidlaw library is great, I especially like the coffee area with laptop plugs on the tables since I’m not very good at working in silence! I recently went into the new refurbished Edward Boyle and it is now my favourite library! The research hub is a nice addition for when you need some time away from your office. I’ve never struggled to find material I need for my work and if the library ever doesn’t have anything in you can request it to be bought. There’s a lot of computers on campus and lots of spaces to work although it can get busier during exam times and I think the University responded to this because there seems to be plug sockets everywhere now and new cafes to work from too.
How would you describe the research environment in the School? What would you say about the support you receive?
The School of Sociology and Social Policy has a good research culture. Every week there is a research seminar where a PGR or member of staff delivers a presentation on their current research. There are also seminar series organised by PhD students in the school alongside this helping me with certain things I am stuck on in my work this really helps foster an environment of connectedness in the school as it’s nice to know what other people are doing. I have felt incredibly supported since I started this programme. I have a really good supervisory team and alongside this we have great support staff in the school office who are always on hand to help with anything from booking rooms to finding specific forms.
Do you take part in any activities outside of your study? (Clubs & Societies/activities in the School etc).
I co-organise a research seminar series which is set up as an interdisciplinary endeavour to think about culture and society between PhD students in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and Sociology and Social Policy. I am also co-organise a Sociology of Medicine reading group in the School of Sociology.
What do you like to do outside of studying?
I spend most of my time outside of studying watching films either at home or at one of Leeds’ various cinemas. I like a wide variety of music so I often go to DIY shows in the city or to bigger nights in main venues. I like to try and get to countryside every now and then since Leeds is so close to the moors and to nice little towns like Hebden Bridge and Knaresbourgh.
What do you think of Leeds as a city?
Leeds has been my home my whole life and I really like the city. I am interested in art and culture and Leeds has tonnes of it. I particularly like the DIY attitude of people in Leeds. For example, there are so many cultural events and organisations set up on the back of people’s passion especially in the visual arts. Leeds is also a good city for music and has various venues that are again set up collectively to promote a wide range of producers, bands and DJs. In my area of Hyde Park the Hyde Park Book Club which provides the space for lots of different music nights and does amazing vegetarian food, and the Hyde Park Picture House which has the best art house programme in the UK (in my opinion!) are just minutes from my house. I find Leeds to be the perfect size, everything is easily accessible by foot or public transport and the city centre has changed beyond recognition for the better in my lifetime. Whenever I go somewhere else in the UK I always look forward to coming home!
What would you say to someone considering a research degree in the School?
I would say do it! I have really enjoyed it, I have met really nice people and have had the support and encouragement to really push me. I feel a part of the School but have all the freedom to use my background in Cultural and Critical Theory to inform my research.
What are your plans once you have completed your PhD?
I am unsure whether I would like to pursue an academic career in a university setting or whether I would like to work for organisations who work for those with mental health conditions and neurological conditions. Whatever I do I would like it to continue involving research!