From City finance to the Romantic poets

David Gillott (MA Victorian Studies, 2009 & PhD English, 2013) is an Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing. Here he discusses his journey from natural sciences to finance, and then to academia.

“We are only on this planet once and it was always a case of when rather than if I would leave to study English Literature.” 

Life is all about choices. At school David studied maths, physics, and chemistry at A-level. He went to university aged 18 for a degree in Natural Sciences. However, at the back of his mind there was always the feeling that he would like to go back to that fork in the road aged 16 when he had to choose between the sciences or humanities.

After working in the City for many years David finally had the opportunity to take this different path. “I certainly didn’t leave because I disliked my work as a fund manager and equities analyst,” he says. “However, we are only on this planet once and it was always a case of when rather than if I would leave to study English Literature.” Being in his early 40s, David had plenty of time to pursue this new direction.

Having lived in London since leaving university, he decided to study for a BA in English Literature at Lampeter in Wales, a rural environment as different from central London as one could imagine. “I really enjoyed the course so decided to continue my studies with an master’s. Although I loved reading Chaucer, Milton, and the Romantic poets, my preferred broad genre was the novel.”

As it was in the 19th century that the novel really began to flourish, he decided to seek out an MA programme in Victorian Studies, and for David, Birkbeck stood head and shoulders above the others. He treated his master’s degree like a job and spent more time studying than he did in his first degree, when there were other calls on his time such as playing for sports teams. “I have no regrets at all in leaving the City,” he says, “my years at Birkbeck have been intellectually and socially rewarding.”

But David’s Birkbeck experience did not end there. He decided to embark on a PhD, where he focused his research on the 19th century writer Samuel Butler. Based on his MA dissertation and PhD proposal, he was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Studentship for the final two years of his full-time PhD.  

“Studying for a PhD in the humanities can be a lonely business, but the department arranged an extensive programme of seminars and social events for PhD students, and ten years later I’m still in touch with several of my peers.”

The student experience at Birkbeck paved the way to his present career. “While at Birkbeck I was an editorial intern on a journal called 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, published in conjunction with the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies. Once I completed my studies, I continued to work on the journal as an editorial assistant.”

David has been in the editorial role since 2013, which has given him the opportunity to remain part of the Birkbeck academic community: “The days are long gone when all students embarking on undergraduate degrees are 18 or 19,” says David. “Birkbeck has far more experience in catering for mature students than other universities and will therefore be better at it.”

David knows first-hand the value of giving back to Birkbeck: “During my PhD I also taught at Birkbeck and was constantly amazed at the commitment shown by students. Almost all, if not all, of my mature students were studying for a degree while working full-time and/or bringing up a family. That’s what makes it a remarkable institution.”