As part of WRoCAH funding, all PhD students have the opportunity to complete an industry placement (the “Researcher Employability Project” or “REP”) in an area away from their immediate PhD research. In this blog post, I want to offer a few brief reflections on what my industry placement involved and what the benefits and challenges were of taking a month away from the PhD to work on something outside of my research…
School of Music
University of Leeds
What did I do?
I spent a month working virtually (due to the second lockdown!) with the TV production company Nutopia, who are based in London and Washington DC. Nutopia specialise in what they call the “megadoc” – premium, big-budget factual documentary series, primarily for a US audience. They make lots of shows for channels like National Geographic, the History Channel and Discovery, and have recently completed series for Disney+ (The World According to Jeff Goldblum, One Strange Rock) and Netflix (Babies, The Last Czars).
One thing that makes Nutopia really interesting is that they invest very heavily in development. Their development strand is headed up by Simon Willgoss, a PhD graduate in History from York who began his career on a work placement during his doctoral studies. As a result, the company’s development arm is rooted in this sense of academic rigour in programme making, which made it very appealing to me.
I was initially offered the industry placement due to the Edinburgh TV Festival’s “TV PhD” scheme, a joint venture with the AHRC, which I took part in during the summer of 2020 – and it was great to have another WRoCAH researcher (Leonie Price, History, Sheffield) as part of the same TV PhD cohort! I would highly recommend this opportunity to all WRoCAH students, whether you’re interested in working in the TV industry or not. It was a great way to think about research impact and engagement, and some of the lessons will certainly come in useful when planning my Knowledge Exchange Project (KEP) over the coming year.
As part of the TV PhD scheme, a few of us were selected to pitch a TV show idea to the BBC and Discovery – with only 90 seconds to do it! This was broadcast live as part of the Festival to delegates working across the breadth of the UK TV industry. Off the back of this, Nutopia optioned my idea with a view to developing it and seeing whether they could turn it into a TV show… and offered me the opportunity to work with them too!
My main task during the month of my REP with Nutopia was basically to work with other members of the development team on my own project, turning it from a single line description into a full treatment that they could then pitch to broadcasters. This was a really fascinating experience, as I had to think about how to flesh out and expand my initial idea into something which (hopefully!) will have mainstream (and worldwide) appeal. (For obvious reasons I can’t share any more details about the project at the moment – but watch this space…)
I also spent a lot of time undertaking other research-based tasks for shows at various stages of development and production. This put my PhD skills to good use, as I was tasked with a range of research assignments, including sourcing academic contributors, generating factual content and finding statistics for upcoming shows. My PhD training meant I could get stuck in and felt confident to quickly locate, filter and disseminate information to the rest of the production team. I also had the opportunity to take part in creative ideas sessions for new shows, and to complete fact-checking on scripts for shows in production. In one case, they were quite literally filming in LA as I was doing the fact-checking at my house!
What did I learn?
This was probably the first time in my life that I had completed a “job” that wasn’t related to music in some way – be it composing, teaching or so on. It felt like I had genuine skills to offer, and the codeword “I’m doing a PhD” seemed to unlock quite a few doors in terms of being given responsibility and opportunity – even in subject areas about which I knew nothing! I already had some experience with the TV industry due to my work as a media composer (for shows like Masterchef and Panorama), but this was something completely different!
I also learnt the importance of presenting content in the most interesting and exciting ways – and this is something that can really apply to academia too. When I’ve been thinking about my own research, I’ve really started to think: ‘ok so I find library music fascinating (it’s the topic of my PhD…), but what’s in it for everyone else?’ It’s not enough to say that something is original because no-one else has studied it before – for whom is it interesting and why? One recent example of this was that I recently co-authored a conference paper on representations of Donald Trump in library music catalogues – and this paper has subsequently been accepted to a journal as a result. Now this wasn’t a music conference, and Donald Trump doesn’t feature in my PhD at all – but this felt like a really good way to unpack some of the thornier musicological issues relating to musical meaning and representation in a way that a broader audience could appreciate.
Overall, the month went extremely quickly and I gained a really interesting insight into the TV industry, in ways which will impact upon both my PhD itself and, hopefully, future work in television. The REP has already opened up doors to me: for example, I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the Edinburgh TV Festival’s AHTV: Exploring Research In Television event (February 2021), and I’m continuing to work with Nutopia on developing my show idea. There are interesting, broader issues at play here too, concerning the relationship between public musicology and television, and the role of TV in strengthening academic impact and engagement. This notion of how to enable our research to engage with the broadest section of the public is something I think we should all ensure we consider in our research. So I’ll finish with a question: if you were asked to make a TV show out of your PhD, what would it be?
Toby Huelin is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Leeds, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). He is also a media composer (BBC, ITV, Channel 4) and his work can be found at www.tobyhuelin.com.
To find out more about Toby’s research project, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.