Kit Heyam, PhD English student

Kit Heyam

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Bolton, where I went to a comprehensive school and a community college. I was the only person in my year to get into Cambridge for an undergraduate degree, where I studied for a BA in English and an MPhil in Medieval and Renaissance Literature before coming to Leeds for my PhD.

I’m transgender, and I transitioned part-way through my PhD at Leeds (this is one of the reasons I decided to do this profile, as I think it’s important to have visible trans people in more areas of the University). My supervisor and most of the other people I worked with were unquestioningly supportive of my transition.

What made you want to apply for a PhD at Leeds?

It sounds ridiculous, but for most of my undergrad degree I didn’t know that ‘being an academic’ was a career option: I imagined myself graduating, getting a ‘normal job’ and doing research for fun in my spare time!

It was only when I met my now husband, who was aiming to do a PhD, that I realised it was something I could do too. I applied for an MPhil course in Cambridge and studied early modern literature (I wrote my dissertation on sixteenth-century homoerotic poetry), while researching my PhD proposal.

Leeds was my first choice for a couple of reasons. Although I had got a huge amount out of being in Cambridge, and was proud to have made it there from a comprehensive, I’d never planned to live in the south forever: four years down there had only intensified my attachment to my northern roots!

More importantly, I really admired the work of Professor Paul Hammond, who became my supervisor, and I knew that we had a similar methodological and theoretical approach to studying love and sex between men in early modern literature, which was important to me.

I contacted Paul about my proposed project before applying to Leeds, and I was really lucky that he agreed to supervise me, and was supportive of my idea to study part time after I didn’t get funding.

What is it that makes you passionate about your area of study?

One of the most mind-blowing moments for me during my undergraduate degree was having a lecturer point out that we, too, are living in a historical period: we have our preoccupations and ideas that seem logical, but actually they’re all just as semi-arbitrary and socially constructed as the ideas held by people in earlier periods. 

That’s really stayed with me, and it’s gone on to shape my research interests. I’m fascinated by the way that studying literature from historical periods forces you to inhabit the headspace of people from an earlier culture: it’s like a kind of intellectual empathy, something I think really gets to the heart of how the study of English can help us think about our relationships to other human beings.

From a personal perspective, since my first year of university I’ve been particularly fascinated by how conceptualisations of behaviours and identities that we might today describe as queer have changed over time, and how texts reveal this. Studying how accounts of Edward II’s reign developed over a long period gave me the chance to see these changes in action, alongside a huge number of other interesting developments.

How would you describe your experience of studying at Leeds?

My thesis was on the development of Edward II’s reputation over the period 1305-1700 in chronicles, drama, poetry and political pamphlets. I wasn’t successful in getting funding for my research, and I wasn’t living in Leeds for the majority of the time (my husband and I lived in York, as he was doing a fully-funded biology PhD there). 

Because of this, I chose to study part time and work alongside my degree. I had a few jobs at different times during my studies: I worked in two university libraries and the archives of the National Railway Museum, and co-curated an exhibition for the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

I loved having the chance to plan out a large-scale research project: the scope of my undergraduate and MPhil dissertations had felt limiting, so I was really excited to be able to set my own wide parameters for my research. Studying part time meant it never felt too isolating to be doing such a solitary type of degree: I always had human contact for at least part of the week, and having natural breaks between periods of research meant I never got tired of it!

The University’s libraries are just amazing. It was very rare that I couldn’t get hold of a book or article I needed – and just as importantly, they’re great spaces to work. The Brotherton Library is beautiful. I remember stepping into it on my first ever day on campus and feeling my heart lift as I looked up at the dome: it was obviously designed and built by someone who felt that reading deserved a place of significance and dignity, and there’s something very powerful about that

I also love working in the Research Hub in the Edward Boyle Library: there’s a whole floor reserved for postgraduate students, with bookable study rooms. And it has really good office chairs – don’t underestimate the importance of the chairs! 

What activities have you taken part in outside of your studies?

The postgraduate community in the School of English has a fortnightly seminar at which two students give papers. This is a great opportunity to practise conference papers in a supportive environment – and also to meet people in the pub afterwards! I met some of my best friends at this seminar: it’s important to make time to see other people, as the experience of doing an English PhD can otherwise be quite a solitary one.

The School also has research groups clustered around common periods of study or research interests, which all PhD students are part of: they organise visiting speakers and other events, and give you the chance to get to know academics and other students working in your field. At the Medieval and Early Modern Research Seminar I heard some fascinating papers, met some really interesting people from within and outside the university, and had some great conversations over free wine!

There are also similar interdisciplinary events held in other departments. At the Interdisciplinary Renaissance and Early Modern Seminar in the School of History I not only heard some really interesting research, but met some fellow PhD students with whom I co-organised an early modernist reading group and a conference.

I also did a lot of public engagement alongside my PhD, which helped me to feel like my work was having a tangible impact on the world. Outside of the university, I helped to run the York LGBT History Month festival, which gave me fantastic experience of presenting to the public and organising large-scale events, as well as being an activist because that’s important to me. I also developed a trans awareness training business, specialising in best practice in higher education.

In addition, I was really lucky to get the opportunity to co-curate an exhibition for the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery: ‘For All Time: Shakespeare in Yorkshire’, which centred around the four Shakespeare folios held in the Brotherton’s Special Collections, and explored (among other things) early modern writers’ engagements with Yorkshire history.

The University galleries are another great thing about Leeds: the Special Collections and the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery in particular are such a treasure trove for an English student. It’s not every university where you can pop to see Shakespeare’s First Folio, Oscar Wilde’s notes and an illuminated medieval roll chronicle for free in your lunch hour!

Like most PhD students in the School who want to I was given the opportunity to teach – and was surprised how much I loved it! Teaching English seminars is such a privilege: you’re being paid to have a conversation about books for an hour. More than anything else, this has cemented my desire to try and break into an academic career.

What would you say to anyone thinking of applying to study for a PhD at Leeds?

If you’re passionate about an area of research, and you’re longing for the chance to get your teeth into it in more depth, it’s definitely worth doing! And if you’re not successful in getting funding, do consider part time study: it’s absolutely doable, and you can spread out your research over up to 7 years if you want to.

Funding is tight at the moment for the arts and humanities, so don’t see it as a personal failure if it doesn’t happen to you: instead, treat the PhD as an opportunity to learn and to get yourself into a good position for the future.

What are your plans for after you’ve completed your doctorate?

I’m hoping to continue in academia with research and teaching – or if not, to work in a training, skills development or teaching advisory role within a university. I’ve learned an enormous amount from the research culture at Leeds, and from the many free courses offered by Organisation Development & Professional Development, the library, and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.

At the moment I’m developing a proposal for my postdoctoral project, using knowledge I learned from those courses about how to write a good proposal, and I’ve already had some really good feedback on it from academics at my target universities.