Spotlight on you: Faculty Scholarship recipient, James Thomas

James Thomas Profile Picture
Student success - Fully funded Faculty Scholarship
PhD researcher
Music Postgraduate study, Winner of the Faculty scholarship award
We had the pleasure of sitting down with James to discuss his recent success at being awarded the Faculty scholarship, as well as his experience of living and studying at Sheffield.

How did you first hear about your scholarship?

This is a rather long story, so please forgive my slightly long-winded explanation. First year PhD students are eligible to reapply for WRoCAH (White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities) funding if they were unsuccessful in doing so when they first secured a place to undertake their PhD. Being in this position, I worked hard on my second application with my supervisor Professor Dorothy Ker in January of this year, and I owe a lot to her for taking a great deal of time to strengthen my application significantly over the course of those weeks. Despite our efforts, I found out a few weeks later that I had been unsuccessful. This was certainly a blow to my confidence, and was pretty disheartening as I wasn’t aware of any other scholarships that I may have been eligible for.

Disappointed, I quickly gave up on the idea of being a fully funded PhD researcher. A couple of months later in a supervision, Dorothy asked me if I had “heard the good news”, to which I responded by saying that I either I hadn’t or that if I had, I hadn’t interpreted the news as being “good”. The news was good – the department had decided that my application was strong enough to be put forward to faculty for consideration for a university scholarship. Nothing was decided at this point, and so I was told to forget about it until early June. A week or so into June, I received an email from Professor Simon Keefe, the music department’s director of postgraduate research, to inform me that I had been successful!

How did you feel when you heard that you were successful in being awarded the scholarship?

When I received Simon’s email, I was completely delighted! Receiving the scholarship provided an instant boost of confidence – knowing that the faculty believes in and values my work is an incredible feeling. I then contacted my friends and family and, once I received the official letter from faculty, began the administrative process of accepting the award.

What made you choose to study at Sheffield and your course?

I studied for both my Music undergraduate (BMus) and Composition masters (MA) in the music department at Sheffield and so the decision to stay here to complete my PhD was an easy one. When I first came to Sheffield in 2017 for my undergraduate course, the draw for me was the quality and diversity of the course. Since then, the quality of the teaching and the opportunities I have been provided with have been incredible. As a composer, I have also been fortunate enough to develop several creative relationships with performers and ensembles at the university and across the city more broadly, and so staying here to further develop this network also contributed to making the decision a bit of a no-brainer!

How did you research the University to find out about studying in Sheffield?

I did some reading-up about my previous courses and my current research degree online and through open days, but in preparing to undertake my PhD project, I was also able to talk to members of staff and ask them questions, which was
certainly very helpful.

What was your initial impression of Sheffield and the University when you first arrived?

As a musician, both the university and the city as a whole offer so many amazing opportunities for things to get involved with – it’s almost overwhelming at first but in a good way! Sheffield is a great place to do music, regardless of whether you are a casual listener that likes attending gigs or a seasoned performer looking to put on some shows of your own. Everyone is also very friendly and I love being able to walk into the peak district at a weekend from my flat.

What are the highlights of your experience in Sheffield so far?

I’ve been studying here for five years, so picking even a couple of highlights is tough! That said, undertaking a PhD in composition has, so far at least(!), been one of the most incredible experiences of my life, despite the occasional stressful moment! Therefore, it makes sense to pick my highlight from my time as a PhD student so far, and this would have to be all of the amazing opportunities that I have been offered during my research project to date. 

In the first year of my studies, I worked with all four of the university’s major music ensembles (symphony orchestra, wind orchestra, chamber choir, new music ensemble), and a variety of professional contemporary music ensembles, including The Hermes Experiment, Ensemble 360, and the Orlando Consort. All of these experiences have been both great fun and hugely beneficial to my craft as a composer. Another highlight too incredible to not mention was being given the opportunity to direct the new music ensemble for the academic year, an experience which allowed me to hugely improve my conducting skills under the guidance of Dr.Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey – a true privilege!

What would you say to a student considering studying at The University of Sheffield?

Sheffield is an incredible place to study anything, but a particularly incredible place to study music so go for it! The expertise of the staff in the department is both truly world class and incredibly diverse, and so I’m sure you’ll find something that really interests and engages you. Sheffield is also a great city, with something for everyone to enjoy. I’ve been here 5 years and haven’t looked back – I think that says it all!

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