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University of Newcastle

  • 16% international / 84% domestic

Helen Hopcroft

I enjoyed the public speaking aspect of my degree, and the opportunity to share my research.

About you

What did you study at undergraduate and postgraduate level and when did you graduate? What are you studying now (if applicable)? Are you studying and working at the same time?

I completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Tasmania; a Masters in Fine Arts (Painting) at the Royal College of Art; and a PhD in English (Creative Writing) at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Please list the most important stages of your life (school, education, experience abroad, jobs etc.)

Finishing my undergraduate degree in my hometown of Hobart, and deciding to study at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, was an important stage in my life. Earlier, I'd made the key decision whether I wanted to attend university and study towards a more 'normal' occupation - I was contemplating law or physiotherapy - or train to become an artist. Spending a year fundraising for my RCA Masters degree was pivotal, as tuition fees were high for overseas students and it forced me to evaluate how much I wanted this opportunity. Graduating from my Masters and my PhD degrees were both momentous events, but the birth of my first, and only, child was everything. 

How did you get to your current (or most recent) job position and for how long have you occupied it (if applicable)?

I've been working as an artist, on a professional level, since I had my first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery in 1991. As a writer, I became self-employed as a full time freelancer sometime around 2005. I've had various other jobs along the way, but art and writing remain my primary focus. 

About your course

What made you decide to progress with further study?

I'd been teaching at universities as a sessional lecturer, and realised that if I wanted to progress my academic career I needed to upgrade my qualifications. This was the primary motivation for completing my PhD. Secondary motivations included that it allowed me to be at home with my daughter while she was young, and the intrinsic motivation of studying something that you are passionate about.

My master's degree at the Royal College of Art was the fulfilment of a long cherished dream. Encouraged by my grandmother, who set up and ran Hobart's first commercial art gallery, I made the decision to study at the College when I was in junior high school.

How did you choose your particular further study course (compared to others)? / Were you weighing up any alternative degrees or career pathways before choosing this qualification?

The RCA degree was chosen after a discussion with my grandmother about the great London art schools, and the various famous artists who had trained at them. This decision was consolidated by reading the College prospectus, as well as publicity material from various other Australian art schools and colleges.

The PhD was initially chosen on the basis of convenience: the university was close to home and I'd been working there on a casual basis for some years. Yet one of the reasons I kept going with this degree was the quality of the supervision, which was excellent.

I did weigh up various other career pathways and degrees, and studied Law at UNSW for some years, but decided that my primary focus needed to be the Arts. 

What was the process to get accepted into your course? What were the prerequisites?

The prerequisites for the PhD were an undergraduate degree in English, Arts or equivalent professional experience. My undergraduate degree was in Fine Arts, but they accepted my entry on the basis of a portfolio of work I'd published as a freelance journalist.

Similarly, the prerequisite for the Royal College of Art was an Honours year, which I hadn't completed, but they accepted my entry on the basis of the portfolio of work I submitted along with an interview. 

What does your study involve? Can you describe a typical day? (if it’s difficult to describe a typical day, tell us about the last thing you worked on?)

There is no such thing as a typical day in a PhD, which largely involves self-directed study. I needed to balance work with research and being a single parent, which meant that schedules were subject to change. On a good day, I'd write in the morning and read and take notes in the afternoon. I attended a seminar titled 'the 7 Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students' and the main points I took away from this workshop were that I needed to write regularly, decide my tasks for the day before I sat down to work, and make sure I interrogated content to make sure I understood it. I would write for 40 minutes or so, and leave blanks where my understanding was poor or where I needed to do further research. Then I'd get up, move around, have some kind of reward (food, coffee, exercise) and then sit down for another session. In the afternoon I'd use a template to summarise my readings and link them back to my topic. 

Pros and cons

Will this course be beneficial in your career? Where could you or others in your position go from here? Please explain your answer.

The career pathways for those in the Arts are highly variable, largely self-generated, unpredictable and sometimes precarious. Both postgraduate degrees were life-changing, the first because I was working alongside painters I respected and doing what I loved 24/7. The second because it taught me to critically analyse information and decide what I thought about it. While the PhD doesn't translate easily into the requirements of non-academic careers, it does indicate persistence, high-level cognition, the ability to work autonomously and attention to detail. Frankly, I think that if you can get through a PhD, you can get through anything!

What do you love the most about your course?

I loved immersing myself in complex literature and following the threads of various authorities, deciding where I sat on the spectrum of viewpoints on any given topic, and being able to communicate this information in a reasonably accessible form. I enjoyed the public speaking aspect of my degree, and the opportunity to share my research. Most of all, I enjoyed being able to use my research to serve my community via a creative project - My Year as a Fairy Tale - at the end of my degree. The Centre for 21st Century Humanities at the University of Newcastle, where I completed my PhD, gave me funding to launch this project. 

What are the limitations of your course?

As a creative candidate, you don't necessarily fit neatly into many of the tertiary systems and expectations. Criteria such as 'an equivalent body of creative work' are often tacked onto the end of professional opportunities, such as grant applications and prizes, but don't seem to be fully internalised at a systemic level. The tertiary sector, despite evidence of an increased willingness to embrace community service, creative projects and real world impact as measures of success, does seem to cling to the conference and journal article metric.

A word to the wise…

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current undergraduate student? They don’t necessarily have to be related to your studies, or even to one’s professional life.

  1. A working knowledge of financial literacy and budgeting will make your life as a student much less painful.
  2. If you decide that you want to pursue a particular career pathway or degree, but don't have the necessary prerequisites, don't give up: think of another way you can achieve the desired result.
  3. To optimise your results, experiment with different study techniques (including broader lifestyle stuff like diet, routine and exercise) to find what works best.