The unexpected things that happened while studying for my PhD at Durham

Keerthi Sudhakar Vasishta

College was a bonus

I came to Durham to study English Literature. The collegiate system was a bonus. At best, I thought college was to play a sport or attend a fancy formal once a year, maybe do some theatre. The resources at Durham were tremendous, my supervisors were great and all of that was expected.

A paid-research assistantship

As it happens, my expectations of Durham were on point in the beginning. Then I secured a paid-research assistantship in a digital humanities led-archival research project. To me, this was beyond exciting. A few years ago, I was unable to access even established academic sources due to paywalls. Now, I was on the precipice of a cutting-edge research project!


Then, I found myself playing sport for my college at Maiden Castle. I remember in 2022, a cricket net-session was cancelled because ‘Ben Stokes was practising on his own’ and had booked out the facility. I don’t know how much of the facility, Stokes actually booked. But while disappointed at missing out on the nets, I was astonished I could ever practise in the same place as someone like Ben Stokes!

Networking Wine and Cheese event with the MCR

Hatfield Middle Common Room

In the newly post-Covid world of 2021-22, my involvement with college was limited. I lived-in in my first year, so it was natural I made friends at Hatfield.

In my second-year I got involved in the MCR. Through a college-research award, I was able to attend the Wordsworth Summer Conference, where I was able to meet academics whose names I’d uttered with reverence. Better, when they heard I was at Durham, they listened to me. Not to say they wouldn’t otherwise–but it still felt like a door opening. From the Conference, I was able to invite a renowned Romanticist, Jeffrey Cox to speak at the seminar series I was running. There his colleague, Greg Kucich, another renowned academic contacted me of his own volition, encouraged by the Durham label on the event. As a result, a year later, in mid-November 2023, with my supervisor, Prof M Sandy’s generous support I hosted for Romantic Dialogues and Legacies at Durham, an online symposium featuring senior researchers from Durham and the University of Notre Dame, USA! This was at least a little unexpected for me.

Academic Mixer in the MCR

Elected President

In 2023, I was also elected President of the MCR and threw my heart into the role. I did not realise the amount of input student-leaders have in the way the University shapes student experience. In these months, I’ve learnt more about people, managing expectations, refined my communication skills, co-developed a website, negotiated a minor legal issue and become a meme on social media. And I thought I was here only to do a PhD!

Diwali 2023

Cut to Diwali 2023: I participated in planning Hatfield College’s Formal celebrating the occasion. The evening featured a classical Indian dance performance from Mr Balbir Singh’s (College Artist-in-Residence) troupe. In a grand-coincidence, the performers were Kannada speakers (my native tongue) and I was co-opted into their performance out of sheer mutual delight.

Healing old wounds

Just before the meal, when our dynamic Master Prof Ann Maclarnon, invited me to speak about Diwali to fellow Hatfield-ers at Durham, something most unexpected happened. I shared my late grandfather’s composition with the gathering, the lyric is:

‘May the resplendent light of honourable forebearers erase the darkness of our lives’.

He was once a freedom fighter in India and spent days in a British Empire jail. But on the evening of the Diwali formal, in the borders of England, the once unkind land of my grandfather’s youth, I felt unexpectedly, the light of the forebearers of Durham University. The light which encourages the pursuit of knowledge, of excellence, of expanding access to knowledge and promoting the equality. The old wounds and the darkness of differences began to dissipate. I finished my introduction to Diwali by reciting Sanskrit shlokas in-place of the Latin grace before the meal. As a part of the dance performance, I was able to offer a prayer to Lord Ganapati with the performers in the middle of the dining hall. And that evening, unexpectedly, I felt truly a part of all one Hatfield, all one Durham and all one world.

I felt like I belonged.

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Keerthi Sudhakar Vasishta

My name is Keerthi Sudhakar Vasishta, a third-year PhD student in English Studies, working on William Wordsworth and liberty. A member of Hatfield College, I was elected President of Hatfield MCR for 2023-24. I also currently work on a part-time basis at Durham University in various capacities.

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