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A Week in the Life of Elly

Diary Picture for the Elly McCausland PhD diary

Elly is a PhD student whose thesis focuses on representations of danger in adaptations of the Arthurian legend for children from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. She examines how authors adapt Thomas Malory’s medieval version of the Arthurian Legend, the Morte Darthur, to socialize boy readers into idealized forms of masculinity through the presentation of rites of passage revolving around physical danger and risk-taking.



It’s a good couple of hours before I start to think about my thesis in the morning. First, there is the important question of breakfast: today, homemade granola with roasted pears. Don’t ever let it be said that PhD students don’t have time to make their own granola. One of the advantages of the summer term is that there isn’t much teaching on, so I can enjoy the leisurely breaking of my fast without having to rush off anywhere. It also gives me time for the ultimate PhD fuel: green tea. A couple of books I ordered have arrived, so I spend the day at my desk on campus scanning them to determine what might be relevant to my thesis, occasionally stopping to coo over the baby rabbits gambolling outside my window. One book turns out to be essentially the missing link in the chapter I’ve been writing, so I spend the afternoon finding myself highlighting nearly every sentence and wondering how on earth I managed to miss such an important book in the last few months working on this piece of writing. Everything starts to fit together, and I make reams of enthusiastic notes. There’s time for lunch with my friends, though, amid this activity, and I leave around 5.30 to go for a swim before dinner. I somehow throw together one of the best meals I’ve ever made – turmeric and lime roast chicken with Vietnamese-style mango, cucumber, chilli and lime salad. I write a food blog in my spare time, and decide this just has to be shared with the world, so spend the evening photographing and writing this up before bed.


This morning I consume an indecently large bowl of porridge while reading a food magazine, then head to work. I spend the morning working on my chapter again, adding some more material from my primary texts (T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone features heavily). The chapter is nearly there now; I’m saving footnoting for a day when I feel a little too tired to come up with any searingly original mental insights. After a quick lunch (homemade Cambodian aubergine curry, which makes the office kitchen smell delicious), I’m off to London for a food PR event with an emphasis on health and nutrition – because of my blog, I get invited to quite a few of these, as well as receiving a lovely amount of free samples of various products (last week was almonds and decaf coffee, but highlights have included a kettle and a KitchenAid mixer). I’ve made sure to get a window seat with a table in the quiet coach and bring my laptop, so I can carry on working – on a sunny day, the train can sometimes be a nicer place to work than my desk. I send off an application to a symposium on risk in London, which is the current focus of my research and which I hope to attend to broaden my theoretical perspectives on the issue. After the event, full of almond macaroons, vegetable tarts, prosecco and chocolate brownies, I do a little more work on the train (fuelled by green tea) before arriving home.


My chapter is due in today, in preparation for a supervision meeting the following week. I spend the morning proofreading, footnoting and checking references, before sending it to my supervisors and experiencing an enormous rush of that Friday feeling. I do a bit of light reading in the afternoon (a biography of T.H. White), then head home to change before going to a drinks party in town in the early evening and embarking upon a well-deserved G&T. Later, I meet my best friend for dinner at a Korean restaurant I’ve been wanting to try out for months, and remind myself for the umpteenth time to get round to putting a ‘Where to eat in York’ section on my blog. Finally there is sleep, in the blissful knowledge that I don’t need to get up in the morning.


Late morning, I cycle down to the stables for a horse-riding lesson in the sunshine. Afterwards, a friend comes round for brunch: pear and gooseberry breakfast crumble, with large amounts of jasmine tea. I spend the day cleaning the house, doing a bit of gardening, and getting various odd jobs done: some more recipe deadlines, cleaning out my aquarium (watching fish is one of the most relaxing pursuits there is: again recommended for PhD students), making granola and bread. I have time to do a little bit of reading for pleasure: at the moment I’m reading Love in the Time of Cholera, which has absolutely nothing to do with my PhD and I am absolutely fine with that. The evening involves making a big batch of chorizo, red pepper and chickpea stew that will last me through the week for lunch, watching a film with a friend and getting to bed reasonably early, genuinely looking forward to a week of research: time to start my next chapter, and tackle a whole host of new issues. Fortunately, I’ve also made a big loaf of banana bread for breakfast, so Monday morning is an enticing rather than a gloomy prospect, which perhaps puts me in the minority, but for this I feel very lucky. 


Gigantic bowl of porridge for breakfast (poached quinces, sultanas and cinnamon), to cheer up a rainy morning spent finalizing a lesson plan on medieval manuscripts for the summer school I will be teaching in London in August. During the afternoon I work on incorporating yesterday’s findings into my (rapidly growing) chapter, being pernickety about footnotes and punctuation and somehow finding my word count increasing by nearly 3000 words. Reading days can be a little slow, but writing days I find energizing and exciting, reminding me how much I enjoy research and the fact that what I’m producing is 100% original. One of the things I love most about a PhD is that you can observe recognizable improvements in your writing and research skills even over a matter of weeks; my work is unrecognizable now from what I produced even six months ago. There is a small distraction in the afternoon in the form of a stray horse that has escaped from somewhere and is trotting around campus looking lost and distressed; fortunately security manage to catch it and calm it down, feeding it grass from the side of the campus car park. I contemplate taking the horse home, but decide against it. I leave work relatively early to tutor a student in Fulford; I work part-time as a private tutor in English, teaching a range of pupils from year nine school attendees to Italian businessmen looking to improve their English (the latter sessions tend to involve wine, so I look forward to those the most). My student’s mother, from Hong Kong, has made me an intriguing Chinese black sesame cake that she is keen for me to try. It disappears in an instant, and the recipe goes on my ‘to-make’ list. I head home, go for a quick run in the glorious evening sunshine, make a bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup with the leftovers from last night and find myself heading to bed at 10pm, exhausted but feeling productive.


Poached eggs and roasted Yorkshire ham on homemade soda bread for breakfast, before I have a quick wander round my garden to check on the progress of my new-found love for gardening, instilled in me by my mother. I find it incredibly relaxing, the manual nature of its tasks a pleasant antidote to all the mental wrangling that a PhD involves (cooking has the same therapeutic effect). The chillies, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes are coming on nicely, but the rainbow chard has been sadly decimated by slugs. Slug pellets go on the shopping list. I head to campus to do some final reading for this chapter, on ideas of contingency and the future in late nineteenth-century social and literary discourse which I suggest manifest themselves in the Arthurian literature I’m examining from the early twentieth century. I meet some friends on campus for lunch, and head home in the late afternoon for some more tutoring, where I set my student an exciting creative writing activity that I wish I’d had a chance to do when I was his age. After this it’s off to the gym for a spinning class, which leaves me starving and eager for chicken soup. Afterwards, I go to the pub to meet up with some friends.


I personally think it’s important to take weekends off as a PhD student, and treat your research as you would a nine-to-five job. Somehow, though, I always manage to make my weekends much busier than the days I’m actually working. This morning, after a breakfast of homemade sourdough bread with homemade jam (rhubarb, vanilla and cardamom), and tea (loose-leaf, in a pot – no time for that during the week!) I potter around the garden, planting my new gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes and finally getting round to mowing the grass, which seems to be growing about two inches every day at the moment. Then it’s yoga at midday, which I’ve taken up recently and find incredibly relaxing, giving me something physical to focus on and calming my mind: I think all PhD students should be given free yoga classes. Afterwards I have tea and lunch in the bar at my gym with a friend from yoga, and leave feeling very zen. Later, I wander into town to stock up on fruit and veg from the market, then spend the afternoon working on a recipe for coconut scones with papaya and pineapple jam. I work as a freelance food writer for a number of online companies, and I have a deadline for this recipe coming up. I spend an hour or so baking, photographing and writing, then take some scones round to the neighbours (one of the downsides – or benefits, depending on how you look at it - of food writing as a job means there are constantly delicious things sitting around in my kitchen whispering to me to eat them all. My friends and supervisors benefit from this on a regular basis). That evening I have friends over for dinner – tamarind-glazed pork chops with a pear, fennel and watercress salad, and saffron-roasted cauliflower with raisins and pine nuts, followed by homemade mango, cardamom and lime frozen yoghurt. I make food, they bring wine, and it’s even warm enough to eat outside. An excellent evening.