Classical Music with the Hive: Join us!

Nothing says ‘why yes, I am a doctoral student’ like a bit of a classical music. After all, what better way is there to signal your erudition to the general public than describing a conductor’s choice of musical dynamics or the flourishes of an upstart violin soloist as judicious?

Following last term’s outings to the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Brighton Dome, we will be attending once again this February. Tickets are just £5! Please email to reserve your place. 

The Philharmonic’s Programme

The 19th century pieces the make up February’s programme are unified both by their Romantic provenance and the centrality of narrative. In the first instance this is inherent to the medium — the concert will open with the overture from Hector Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedicte, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I want to focus here on the last piece of the concert, a musical narrative based on a story-of-stories.

Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade was written after a creative hiatus that saw the composer focus on editing the works of his late peers — Mussorgsky and Borodin among them — and his career as an academic at the St Petersburg conservatory. Romantic nationalism in his earlier work manifested through musical interpolations of ceremonial dances (khorovod) and seasonal hymns to agrarian deities.

Scheherazade, on the other hand, draws thematically on Middle Eastern folklore through One Thousand and One Nights.  Rimsky-Korsakov did not intend for the pieces’ four movements to correspond to any tales in particular, instead reiterating the frame narrative in the score’s preface:

The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of 1,001 nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.

The 45 minute piece in four movements is certainly romantic. Shahriar and Scheherazade have distinct leitmotifs within the first sixty seconds; the sultan gets a dark theme with booming lower brass while the storyteller is represented by a violin with light harp accompaniment.

There are musical representations of maritime adventures, a love story,  and the usual stock of fantasy tropes — but is it nationalistic? Nationalism is circumscribed and informed by what is not revered, and in this way what we hear is a set of exotic fragments rather than a veritable representation of Middle Eastern music.

In his memoirs, Rimsky Korsakov explains further:

All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after another.

This entirely unspecific ‘Oriental’ character exemplifies how ‘‘foreign’ music was portrayed in the classical canon, whether the composers hail from France or Russia. By emphasizing the most obvious musical differences, this kind of work is — in academic terms —  ‘heightening, rather than bridging, the dichotomous gap between Self and Other’.  The political context is also telling: Russia was expanding into ‘the Orient’ around this time, having occupied modern day Uzbekistan in 1868. Borodin’s Prince Igor, which Rimsky Korsakov completed in the same year he wrote Scheherazade after the former’s death, has been called ‘a racially justified endorsement of Russia’s militaristic advancement to the east.’

A similar vagueness can be seen in impressions of Turkish and Hungarian music in the eighteenth century, perhaps because those categories were received only through military bands and ‘Gypsy’ music.  The end of the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major, ‘Rondo a l’Ongarese’ (also known as the Gypsy Rondo) mirrors the theme from the final movement of  Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11,  ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ (1783).  A common operatic trope involves wordless melodies (vocalise) as an Oriental expression of emotional triumph over rationality, as seen in The Bell Song from Leo Delibes’ Lakme.  These foreign themes were effectively exotic signifiers meant to be exchanged.

Rimsky Korsakov’s musical impressions of the Arab world may more closely resemble Russian music than anything else, but Scheherazade has endured as a preeminent example of musical storytelling and promises to make for a memorable evening with one of the world’s finest orchestras. We look forward to hearing from you (and the orchestra).





Free lunch! PhDs needed for focus group

Fancy a free lunch, and the chance to help the Library improve its resources for doctoral researchers?

Join a focus group on Monday 11th December, 12:30-13:30, in the top floor Library meeting room!

The Library’s Academic Services team would like to try to find out more about the needs of doctoral researchers at Sussex with regard to the Library – its facilities, resources and services.

This is your chance to let the team know any thoughts and ideas you might have regarding your Library experience, in a friendly, informal setting over lunch.

Please let Suzanne Tatham know if you would like to participate by emailing

Please also let Suzanne know of any dietary requirements that you have!



Public engagement in research – just a buzz phrase or added value?

Hi All,

‘Public engagement’ …it’s one of those buzz phrases that we all come across through various avenues as researchers, from grant applications to demonstrating impact.  But is this just another tick box or can it provide real value to your research?

I give a resounding thumbs up to public engagement – in my healthcare research, I tend to think of as patient and public involvement (PPI).  As researchers’ it is so easy to drift into an academic bubble, lose sight of the relevance to wider settings of the questions we choose to ‘scientifically’ answer, and, become profoundly unable to communicate research in normal language.  Yet we commonly use public money to conduct our research, and generally aim to benefit society and the body of science in some way through the work we do.  Therefore, surely those that we aim to benefit should have input to the design and conceptualisation of our work. There are various degrees of involvement that the public might have in research, from an advisory role through to ‘co-investigators’.  One is not necessarily better than another, it is entirely context dependent.

For example, if I was planning to investigate the risk factors for depression amongst doctoral students then co-investigating this with doctoral students from the design to the dissemination of the work is likely to be worthwhile. The design of the study is likely to be more appealing to aid recruitment, the data collection stage more sensitive to participant needs, the analysis more relevant, and the dissemination more comprehensible to target audiences.   On the other hand, in conducting a study to investigate the association between a genetic anomaly and levels of a specific hormone in underweight babies, it would be appropriate for parents to act as advisers rather than involvement in data collection and analysis.  In both situations, PPI gives value to research through lived experience.

What I’m describing in this blog is just one of many aspects of public engagement for researchers to consider.  Nonetheless, whatever your area of research, I would argue that public engagement in research has become a practical and moral imperative.

If this is an area that interests you then please come along to Doctoral Discussion 2,

the ways and whys of public and community engagement as doctoral researchers’ on Tuesday 12th December 12.30-14.00pm in the Careers Seminar Room on the ground floor of the UoS library.

Please book your place here

Thanks for your attention and I look forward to seeing you on the 12th December!


Shut Up & Write – feedback needed!

We need your opinion! What day of the week would suit you for a two-hour session of Shut Up and Write? Our kickstart Friday sessions have had mixed success this term, and we’re thinking of rescheduling for a day & time that suits more people.

We’re gathering feedback now before finalising next week’s session, so please do get in touch via email ( or Twitter, or via the comments below this post.

If you’re new to the concept, Shut Up and Write! is a scheduled group writing session, fuelled by a free coffee and a chat before knuckling down to work. In our biweekly sessions we meet in the library café, and once everyone’s had a chat and enough caffeine we head up to the Hive for a couple of hours of writing in a quiet, friendly space.

Feedback from previous years indicates that writing alongside others in the Hive can strongly improve focus and productivity, while regular sessions at a fixed time creates a unique and sociable impetus for your work.

In recent sessions we’ve also trialled the Pomodoro technique, breaking the session down into bite-sized 25-minute chunks spaced with 5-minute breaks. Apparently named after a tomato-shaped timer, Pomodoro is reported to train the brain to concentrate intensely for short periods of time, with greater overall productivity.


We’re open to all suggestions, so if you have a different preferred working method you’d like to bring to the group, let us know!

For regular updates, email us to be added to the SUW! mailing list –>

Let us know your thoughts!


Am I an imposter?


In this guest blog, originally spoken in a Doctoral Discussion, Kate Fennell discusses her experiences of Imposter Syndrome, votes for a collaborative ‘Science Utopia’, and acknowledges the importance of self-recognition. Kate is in her final year of PhD studies in Neuroscience at Sussex, focusing on the pharmaceutical manipulation of neurons in both healthy and disease models. 

Ironically, my first thought when I was asked to come and speak today was ‘Why choose me? I’m not an expert.’ I even had to Google ‘Imposter Syndrome’ just to reassure myself that I had the right end of the stick. Of course, like any competent researcher of 28 years old, I phoned my mum, who said ‘Perhaps they think you have a personality disorder?’, which at least reassured me that I knew more on the subject than she did.

And so, with some amount of self-reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major areas where I’ve felt, or still feel like, an imposter, which I’m going to share with you today.

1. I’m doing a PhD in neuroscience without either a masters or undergraduate degree in neuroscience.

“Standing up and tutoring a subject that I hadn’t yet studied in any particular depth certainly filled me with dread and feelings of inadequacy”

This is something which really daunted me at first. Of course, I have a scientific background, but it is far more pharmacological than neurological. That said, I’ve always had a keen interest in the nervous system, and it was certainly where I thought my strengths lay when I embarked on my PhD. However, when I first started there were certain gaps in my knowledge that would leave me going home doubting whether or not that I had ever had any real ability in neuroscience and questioning if I had any right to be studying for a doctorate in a discipline in which the undergraduates probably had a better grasp of some topic areas than I did.


Not only that, I had to teach these undergraduates. Standing up and tutoring a subject that I hadn’t yet studied in any particular depth certainly filled me with dread and feelings of inadequacy. My old school geography teacher, Mrs Rice, used to say disparagingly during exam time “For most of you, the revision period will probably be a time of more ‘vision’ not ‘re-vision’”, and in my first year at Sussex I definitely felt like I spent most of the time ‘panic-visioning’ before teaching the young neuroscientists of tomorrow. I’m happy to say though, that these days this is not so much the case, and I actually no longer feel like a complete fraud as I write-up equations on the whiteboard. However, there are still some areas of the syllabus where I feel like ‘I should not be the teacher here. You’re actually paying to have ME educate you’, and for these I walk in repeating the mantra ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’. And I hold onto the fact that, so far none of my students have complained or requested to be taught by somebody else.


2. I am naturally a very uncompetitive person.

“Do you have to be a self-promoting, self-confident, self-flagellating superstar in order to really count as a ‘proper’ scientist?”

I was the last in my group of baby-friends to learn to walk, and I don’t think that my attitude has ever really changed. Don’t get me wrong, I am a harsh self-critic, and I always strive to better myself, but I am very uncomfortable with the hugely competitive nature of scientific research. There is a culture within neuroscience (and I think many other scientific disciplines) that unless you live for your research, then you’re not a true scientist.

As PhD students we compete over who arrives earliest, who stays latest, who comes in at the weekends and who uses the most complicated techniques and model systems… We have a running joke in our lab, that at conferences the Principle Investigator presenting will always refer to the ‘Gifted and Talented’ PhD student or postdoc that has carried out that particular piece of research. But what happens if you’re just ordinary? You’re competent, you get on with your project and you enjoy what you do, but do you have to be a self-promoting, self-confident, self-flagellating superstar in order to really count as a ‘proper’ scientist?

I often wonder whether my lack of drive to outstrip my peers is synonymous with a lack of enthusiasm about my chosen career path, do I not want it enough? Am I pretending? But on the other hand, I know that I love my lab work, so this leaves me thinking about whether or not the competitive nature of science is actually reflective of the difference in attitude between men and women. Indeed it is true that the majority of the top lab positions are held by men, and I would say cautiously, without making any sweeping generalisations, that men tend to have more competitive natures than women.

The gender confidence gap is something which is well documented and I have read many articles which point to the fact that ‘Women lack confidence in their own research abilities’ but could we turn that around to read ‘Men are overconfident in their research abilities?’ Which begs the question, am I just a woman navigating a male-run, competitive discipline, where I have to gain more confidence in order to succeed? Or do I genuinely lack the drive and enthusiasm necessary to be a true scientist? Either way I look at it probably renders me an imposter in my field.

What I really wish for, somewhat idealistically, is some kind of Science Utopia, where all the competition disappears, so that we can just focus on solving the scientific questions that would further our knowledge of Neuroscience, without having to be concerned about our own rankings. I envisage this Science Utopia as a collaborative, friendly environment, where we help and support each other along the way, instead of our current system where we are pitched against each other in a fight to succeed as individuals.


“What I really wish for, somewhat idealistically, is some kind of Science Utopia”

Science Utopia would also extend to us reporting our negative results in journals. In the current system, there is so much pressure to publish amazing results in high flying journals, that we are forced to neglect reporting what didn’t work, leaving our failures to fester in a dusty lab book at the back of the shelf. Surely this is slowing the rate at which knowledge can be gained? Should we not be helping other scientists not to make the same mistakes that we did, instead of burying them away and not admitting to them because others might view us as lesser scientists? On a global scale, how much time is wasted repeating experiments that were doomed to fail from the beginning? And could this be avoided if we reported our results with a bit more humility? Conversely, could it be said that I am just naïve? Or that I have a soft attitude? The way that things are now, when I’m around top scientists I certainly feel like a silly girl with an idealistic objective, and that I should probably wake up and smell the coffee, and start working on my ego, STAT.

So, to conclude, am I an imposter? Some days I feel like one, and I certainly spend large amounts of my time battling to squeeze that nagging self-doubt back into its box, and I have to constantly remind myself that I have strived to get to where I am today, and that just because I have other interests outside of science and I don’t spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the lab, it doesn’t mean that I don’t put in a huge amount of effort and commitment to my project. I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel like I deserve to be where I am, but I’m working on it.