Professor Alison Milbank
Having started her studies at Cambridge Alison taught and researched extensively in the UK and the USA before coming to Nottingham.
She has supervised many students to successful PhDs and is Department Director of Postgraduate Research (2021 to 22).
What are your main areas of research?
My main focus has been on the relationship of religion to literature and culture. In particular non-realist literary and artistic expression, such as the Gothic, the fantastic, horror and fantasy. I’ve also expertise in Anglican ecclesiology.
Currently I’m involved in research looking at theology and nature. I argue that if you start looking at natural philosophers, poets and artists, you begin to see a different idea of not God far away, but God in dwelling within nature.
You’re an ordained priest with roles at Southwell Minster. How does that influence your research?
The Minster is a beautiful building! I’m involved in The Leaves of Southwell project. As well as the conservation aspect I'm interested in how we use the carvings as an inspiration for thinking about our relationship to the natural world today.
As a priest academic I’m studying a tradition from the inside. I’m very interested in the church as an institution, its mission and purpose. This is reflected through my involvement in the Save the Parish movement.
In a time of ecological crisis we need to be very mindful of the importance of locality and community.
What about influencing your teaching?
Like all my departmental colleagues I'm not here to evangelise! At undergraduate level, as well as culture modules I also teach about Hinduism, Daoism, traditional religions in Africa. Colleagues will have faiths that might inform their research interests but as a department we have no religious affiliation and Nottingham is a secular university.
You’re the Department Director of Postgraduate Research this year. What does that involve?
There’s the initial work on admissions. If you are interested in doing a PhD with us you should make direct contact with a relevant academic. That’s crucial really. However, if people are unsure whom to contact I can direct to the appropriate experts to ensure we have both the research expertise and capacity to offer good supervision.
We’re not interested in quantity of PhD students for the sake of numbers. We aim to offer an environment where people have to opportunity to pursue their research interests and produce a quality thesis.
We do turn candidates away when we don’t think we can offer that.
While the supervisor role is central to PhD research, I tend to do the initial department induction, organise their annual reviews and sort out more general queries and issues – a bit like a personal tutor at undergraduate level.
At PhD level there is an expectation that students will self-organise to some extent but they may need support to do that.
How interdisciplinary is the department? Do you have much co-research with other departments?
At a formal department level we don’t have specific research projects and connections. But individually there’s lots happening. We have academics with particular interests in science or sociology for example so there will be contact with individuals in other departments in those areas which our students will also get involved in.
In terms of co-supervision it does happen. It all depends on the strength of the research proposal.
Because I’m involved in the intersection of theology, literature and culture I’ve co-supervised students with the School of English and a Russian expert from the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.
The department has a strong distance learning presence. Is there anything that stands out about those students?
The distance learning students are very strong, very committed. It’s a joy to work with them! They’ve made such a heavy commitment, often combining with full-time jobs, and they really want to learn.
Although it’s not necessary to come to the University to succeed at distance learning many do love coming to our annual residential. While we have many online study groups and reading groups people do like meeting other people in person and we encourage that.
Do you get many people from strong faith but non-academic backgrounds wanting to do PhD research?
An interest in the area isn’t enough, you need to be able to cope academically as well.
If you are interested in PhD research we’d usually expect you to have a masters, usually in theology or religious studies. Exceptionally we do take people without that but there’s a lot of questioning and discussing first to make sure they really can cope with the demands.
What do you think makes a good PhD researcher?
You have to be self-directed and you have to want to do it for its own sake. You’ll be reading, sitting at a desk, working on your central question constantly for three years. You won’t sustain yourself if you’re not.
It can be tough being a PhD student. We can guide academically and support pastorally but no matter what we put in place students need to be very self-motivated.
I’ve got one student who left full-time teaching to do a PhD and she’s like a child in a sweet shop! She loves reading and researching and writing – she produces some writing every month for me to read. She loves every minute of it and it’s wonderful to see. Not everyone’s like that (and you don’t need to be) but there is a basic level of self-motivation required.
If you have that love of study and intellectual curiosity there is no better life to choose.