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This PhD Mallarkey: What, Why and How?

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Hello, Dear Readers, and welcome back to the blog. This week I felt like focusing on the academic nitty-gritty again, and answering some of the various questions that I've had from friends, family and acquaintances, both in person and online, since I started the pursuit of a PhD place (and funding).

Let's jump in the puddle!

So what the heck is a PhD anyway?

It's an advanced research degree, Brent.

The Ph stands for 'philosophy' and the D is for 'doctor', although some places (like Oxford) call it a DPhil instead. Interestingly, the custom of referring to a scholarly or learned person or teacher as 'doctor' is the original use of the term, pre-dating its usage as a title for someone qualified in medicine (pre-dating medical degrees entirely, in fact). This is why John Dee, court philosopher and astronomer to Queen Elizabeth the first, was known as 'Doctor Dee'.

A full time PhD takes between three and four years (double for part-time), and while undergoing training in various aspects of academia such as bibliographic techniques, research ethics, teaching, how to write journal entries and how to present work at conferences, you're also supposed to produce an independent, original piece of research called a thesis, which contributes to the sum of human knowledge. This can be anywhere between 50,000 and 140,000 words long, depending on the discipline.

Now, for Creative Writing, the thesis usually consists of two parts, known as the artefact and the exegisis. The artefact is a substantial piece of creative work such as a collection of short stories or poetry, a play, a memoir or a novel, which must be of publishable standard (and many artefacts do go on to be commercially published). The exegesis is a scholarly, analytical work which sits alongside the creative piece and contextualises the process of making it and the theories which underpin it, as well as explicating the discoveries that the researcher made while creating it. Good creative Writing research is practice-led; if you want to develop new knowledge, ideas and theories about the process of Creative Writing, then the best way to do so is by undertaking Creative Writing.

Once the thesis is complete and submitted, the PhD candidate faces a panel of experts from within their discipline (and sometimes from areas which intersect with it) who put them through a rigorous verbal examination on their research. This is called a viva voce, or sometimes (ominously) The Viva.

Following The Viva, you're generally asked to make some changes - 'corrections' - which could be minor or major. Unless you're a genius who passes with no corrections (about 20% of people apparently manage this - including Emma Darwin, Goddess that she is). Once the corrections are made and approved, voila! You're a doctor.

(We shall not speak of those poor, haunted souls who do not pass, or find their research downgraded from a PhD to an MPhil, a Master of Philosophy. *Shudders* I don't even want to think about it!)

A PhD seems like a lot of work. Why do you want to do it?

Good question. The more utilitarian reason is that I want to teach Creative Writing - not just the short online courses or school and library workshops I've run in the past, or even the one-to-one tutoring in writing skills that I did as an RLF Fellow. I want to teach Creative Writing as an academic subject in a university setting. You need to have some fairly heavy duty qualifications for this, and the PhD is (perhaps oddly) both the most basic requirement and the most difficult and time-consuming to attain. True, some very well known writers can gain a lectureship and do this work based solely on the strength of their reputation and published writing, without any formal teaching qualifications, however:

  1. I'm not nearly famous and celebrated enough to pull this off, and

  2. In my personal experience, the quality of and commitment to teaching in such cases may not be what students expect or deserve.

However, there's also a less utilitarian reason: I just really, really, really want to.

For a long time - years - there was a loving, encouraging, but also puzzled refrain from friends who were or had been in academia. Why didn't I consider doing a PhD? It seemed like the sort of thing I would love. It seemed like the sort of thing I would be really good at. This was based partly on my tendency to have long, convoluted, analytical conversations about writing with them, and partly on the fact that for about a decade I produced roughly five thousand new words about Creative Writing on my old blog, The Zoë-Trope, each week. These posts were ostensibly aimed at young readers and writers, but were also long, convoluted and analytical and probably extremely boring for said youngsters, although, bless them, they never complained (some of those posts, heavily rewritten, will find a new home on this blog).

Those friends didn't understand, of course. Advanced degrees were not for such as I! Not with my ancestral working class chip on the shoulder and inferiority complex the size of Jupiter, etc, etc. When I finally gave into my own secret yearnings, began to do some research, and discovered that, given a boatload of work and time and persistence, there might be the slightest tiny sliver of a hope that it could be possible for me... I didn't tell anyone. For weeks. Because I was walking around sheltering this tiny, flickering fire inside myself, a flame of joy and optimism that made me feel the way I did as a small child when I knew that Christmas was coming. I wanted it so much, and I didn't want anyone to lean over and say something that would blow the flame out.

As a friend who has a PhD (and is also a very successful writer) confided: "You'd never know it from talking to students and academics - but for me, and I think for most writers, three whole years completely immersed in reading, research and writing for one project is blissful."

I want to get my doctorate just for myself. I believe - and so far have been proved correct - that I will love the process. The qualification is something that I want to achieve, a challenge that I want to overcome. But it's also a chance to write a completely different kind of book, and dive deeply into all the theoretical and geeky analytical parts of the writing process that I never normally have the time or space to paddle in.

How did you decide what research you wanted to do, though? And what is the research about?

Actually, for me it wasn't so much a matter of figuring out what I wanted to research as figuring out how to present the work I wanted to do in an academic way.

I already had a passion project waiting - an idea that I had wanted to write for about eight years. I'd had several false starts on it, written different opening sections and sketched out different versions of the story in outline form. I eventually realised that the reason I couldn't get it to ignite and come to life was that I was trying to write it as a YA novel. It wasn't a YA novel; it was an adult book. And that meant I had no choice but to shelve it. I couldn't afford to take two years out and write a debut adult novel entirely 'on spec' (meaning, without a contract or any guarantee that anyone would ever pay to publish it). So instead of writing this book, I just mooned over it and sighed about it all the time.

When I realised - with quite a lot of excitement - that a PhD would be the perfect opportunity for me to write this long-mooned-over novel, and this long-mooned-over novel would be perfect for PhD research, what I needed to do next was... well, try to place it in an academic context? Try and work out what questions were really driving the creation of this piece, imagine what writing this particular novel would teach me, theoretically, and how those discoveries would be useful to other writers in the future, therefore adding to the sum of human knowledge.

This was not an easy process. I was driven right to the point of wanting to tear my own hair out on so many occasions that I honestly can't count them. I imagine it's a really difficult thing for any creative researcher to do - make explicit all the mostly unconscious and unarticulated interests that weave together to create the central idea of a piece of art and then analyse those for value. But especially for me, because I was coming from outside of academia - I hadn't even started my MA at that point - it felt nearly impossible to present those questions or the knowledge that attempting to answer them would generate in any way that seemed scholarly or important or worthy of being called a 'thesis'.

I've mentioned before that I wrote a lot, I mean an awful lot of thesis proposals. I started in 2018, I think, and I had a lot of kindness and encouragement from various people - people that I'm intensely grateful to - but also a lot of flat rejections, unhelpful judgements on me and my work, and doors slammed contemptuously in my face.

I took what seemed like every wrong turn possible and ended up with some research proposals that had wandered so far in my attempts to seem academic that they had nothing to do with me or what interested me at all. I looked and them and thought they seemed respectable and scholarly and grown-up and the sort of thing that I should want to do. More importantly to me at that point, they seemed like the kind of thing a university might want to fund me to do, which was vital because without full funding there was no way I could do a PhD. But instead of making me feel optimistic, they made me question my whole desire to do PhD in the first place. Surely that couldn't be right?

What it ultimately came down to, and what I realised while working on my MA, was that the answer had been there all along. Before any formal research questions could be formulated, I had to ask myself: why do you want to write this book?

My mooned-over novel was timeslip: a book which depicts people in different time periods who are connected in some way, so that their individual stories in their separate times actually form one story for the reader. I've been passionate about this type of narrative since I was a kid. I love all its possibilities and I read widely within the genre. I get really excited when I find what I feel to be a great example, and get equally cross at writers who don't do it justice.

I had also noticed that very little research had ever been done into timeslip as a genre. Certainly, some famous timeslip books had a lot of scholarship dedicated to them, but never because of those timeslip features. No one else really seemed to be interested in this genre or what made it unique or its potential, but I was; I was fascinated by this topic. I wanted to write my passion book because it was timeslip, because I'm endlessly baffled and delighted by the ways that humans live in and experience time and the way we frame and rewrite our experiences of it, and why.

In my Master's dissertation, I wrote:

Despite the assumption that time transports us away from our pasts – leading to the idea that we ought to naturally ‘move on’ from trauma, grief, suffering – part of the experience of human memory is that all-too-often our pasts keep happening to us. We do not leave the past behind us in time; we carry it with us through time. And not just our own formative experiences, but those of our parents, their parents... we are helpless to prevent the way our past shapes our reactions, perceptions, hopes, fears. In a sense, we are our pasts, constantly seeking to flee ourselves even as we continue to remake our futures to match. This is why time travel is such a poignant prospect. If we could master it, perhaps we could truly be free of the weight of our past selves.

This was what I wanted to focus on in my PhD research. This was the topic that filled me with not only creative interest but scholarly zeal.

Although this realisation wasn't a magic bullet that solved all my issues and made the rest of the process easy, after re-writing my thesis proposal for the final time to embrace this passion, I (*pinches self yet again*) received offers of a PhD place and full funding to do the research from two different universities. So, in academia as in life, it can sometimes come down to that old axiom about figuring out your passion and then having the courage to follow it.

Hang on, what's this 'funding' you keep talking about? Is this like student finance or a grant? How do you go about getting funding to study at doctoral level?

Ah, that's also very good question - but one that is extremely knotty and complex and makes my voice go high-pitched and nervous when I try to talk about it. This topic truly needs a whole post of its own - and I mean, really needs one, because I know there are thousands of other people like me out there, people who are first generation university graduates with no background in academia, and who take one look at the process of trying to get a PhD place and funding and all the stages and misinformation and just nope right out of there in a panic.

So this question will be answered, my-potentially-young-but-more-probably-mature-and-experienced-in-the-school-of-life grasshopper. But not in this post; it's already quite long enough.

Thanks for joining me on my Eddying Flight once again, everyone, and I hope you'll be back for Thursday Pick & Mix. Have a good week until then!

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