Professor celebrates supervising two generations of PhD student

  • Date

    Thu 28 Jul 22

Professor Pam Cox and Elizabeth Newman Earl

It’s not often that a professor gets to be the supervisor of two generations of PhD student, but Professor Pam Cox, Head of the Department of Sociology, has done just that.

She was research supervisor to Elizabeth Newman-Earl who graduates today with her Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, and just shy of 20 years ago, she supervised Elizabeth’s mum Vivien Newman, in her PhD on social history.

For Elizabeth, having the same supervisor as her mum was one of the reasons she was drawn to studying at Essex.

“I wanted to study under Professor Cox. Not only is she pre-eminent in her field of research, but she had also been my mum’s PhD supervisor and I felt there was a lovely symmetry to that,” she said.

Elizabeth gained her PhD during the pandemic and is today celebrating her achievements with fellow students from the Class of 2020 at our second week of Summer Graduation ceremonies.

Her thesis, Patch Life: Army Wives Behind the Wire, was informed by her experience as a former city executive who became an army wife behind the wire on an overseas base.

When her husband was posted to Cyprus, she was unable to keep her job and felt that it was the ideal opportunity to study for her PhD.

“It allowed me to understand the specific nature of being overseas in an environment that is a long way from home, that is also pretty tough and unforgiving,” she said. “I found that I had lost my identity and wanted to find out if this was a common phenomenon with other military spouses.”

For a lot of the time, she worked remotely in Cyprus which she admits was often very lonely, but she was grateful to have the privilege of interviewing and revealing the lives of an incredible set of women whose stories would have never been heard.

“Many a time I sat and cried after an interview, but I realise that hearing those stories has made me determined not to accept the narrative that military spouses are apathetic and passive,” she said.

“If my PhD has taught me anything, it is that the narrative surrounding men and women such as myself who have had to change their own plans to fit in with the service personnel, needs to be changed. It is imperative that the structures of support must include their voice and experience and for them not to be considered as an after-thought.

“I am immensely proud that not only did I shine a light on this, but that I have found an amazing collective of people who, like me, want to instigate positive changes across this community.”

Elizabeth has gone on to establish a social enterprise with a group of other military spouses and is the founding CEO of an organisation aimed at improving the lives of those affected by forces living, called e50K.

Elizabeth’s mum, Vivien, gained her PhD under Professor Cox’s supervision in 2004. Her thesis, Women's poetry of the First World War: Songs of Wartime Lives, looked at how women, as well as men, wrote first world war poetry. She has since published several books on this matter, which debunk the myth that most of the poetry was written by men.

Vivien said: “When I first (nervously) met with Professor Cox at the end of 1999, I could never have anticipated how intertwined she would become with my family’s academic history. From that very first meeting when I tentatively explored my ideas about women’s poetry of the First Word War to the day of the Viva, she was an inspirational supervisor, instinctively knowing when to encourage, when to challenge and finally, when the time had come to allow a doctoral student to spread their wings and lead the research. If I were asked to sum up Pam‘s skill as a supervisor, I would use three simple adjectives: knowledgeable, reliable and empathetic. The depth of her understanding of women’s lives in the early 20th century; her total reliability in returning draft chapters, writing up supervision and supervisory board notes; and her generosity in sharing her own knowledge meant that, twenty years on, I still consider the four years I spent with her guiding my PhD as the most stimulating and rewarding of my life. From the day that Elizabeth began her own PhD with Pam, I knew that she too was about to embark on a journey that would intellectually challenge and reward her in equal measure.”

Professor Cox said working with both mother and daughter was a special experience.

“I very much enjoyed working with - and learning from - both Viv and Elizabeth. They each chose fantastic topics that uncovered different aspects of women’s hidden experiences, and each brought an incredible drive and energy to their doctoral research.

“The fact that they are mother and daughter has made this even more special for me as a supervisor. I became a mother while I was supervising Viv, and Elizabeth became a mother while I was supervising her. We’re a great collective advert for working mums.”

She added that she would welcome supervising any future members of the Newman household.

“We’re all speculating as to whether I could yet supervise the PhD of Elizabeth’s young daughter on a suitable cultural or critical military topic,” she said.

Elizabeth is pictured with Professor Cox.