This is Part One of the story of my doctorate—the who, why, when, how of it—based on questions from readers on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is in five parts:
- Opportunity: how I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
- Decision: why I wanted a PhD
- Choice: how I chose my subject/university/supervisor
- Experience: solving the challenges of writing a PhD thesis while still writing novels, having a life, and managing MS
- Future: the impact a PhD may have on my writing
For context you might want to read the PhD thesis first, or at least the abstract. If you have more questions, use the comments.
I am a first-generation student. No one in my immediate family, including me, even has a Bachelor’s. Yet I have a doctorate, one I earned (as opposed to honorary). How did this happen?
When I was at Notre Dame Grammar School (UK-speak for a high school for people who passed an exam called the 11-plus) it became clear I was smart. Everyone, including me, began to assume I would be the family ground-breaker, that I would go to university. That belief began to evaporate when I was 13.
Notre Dame was a girls-only Catholic convent school. At 13 I knew I was a dyke, I knew that when I came out I would be expelled and my family would do something insane and horrendous like have me made a Ward of Court. I began to feel isolated. Not only was I a dyke in a precarious position I was also younger than everyone else, and not an art maven or science geek or jock, but all of the above. I did not fit. I started to drink. A lot. And completely check out of classes. I still mostly (not always) attended physically, but mentally and emotionally I was not there. Then at 15 I fell head over heels with my first girlfriend, Una, and by the time I turned 16 and was legally untouchable, I came out. The upshot of all this: my Catholic grammar school made it clear they did not want to enter me for Oxbridge admission; they did not want to be represented by a lesbian. Also, I did not want to leave Una. I was seventeen. I could have gone elsewhere, I could have studied anything, but I stayed in Leeds because Una and I were planning to move in together after school. I accepted a place at the University of Leeds to study Microbiology. I thought microbiology would be interesting—it wasn’t—and that it would guarantee me a job somewhere I would feel at home, a brewery (seriously). I had this confused teenage vision of studying Important Science during the day and coming home for a mix of riotous sex and domestic bliss every evening. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to how we could afford to set up a household, I just had faith that it would somehow happen.
It didn’t happen. I’ve told this story at much great length in my memoir. But for a short version see the reading below.
Una left to marry a man just before term began, when it was too late to take a place anywhere else. I was living at home with disapproving (super Catholic) parents who frankly did not see the point of educating a lesbian because no one would give me a job. Everything went to hell. I felt utterly alone. I knew I’d made a horrible mistake—I should have gone to study something interesting somewhere else. I started to drink again, even more than before. I stayed out all night having sex with random women. I didn’t bother going to classes. I kept getting sick. I dropped out. I left home, left the city and went to a life of, well, I talk about that in the memoir too so if you’re interested go read it.
The next year when I was 18 and a bit more mentally and emotionally grown up—I’d lived on my own in another city for a year—I was accepted for a BSc in Psychology. But because I had those few weeks of Microbiology the year before I could not get a government grant for that first year. My parents would not support me because, y’know, lesbian-who-no-one-will-employ-and-anyway-going-to-hell, and this was before the UK had even heard of such things as student loans (which no one would have given me anyway because I had no visible means of support because my parents were right, no one in the north of England would give an out dyke a job). So I had no money. And I kept getting mysteriously sick. Poverty, fatigue, and sheer Othering led me to dropping out again.
Looking back it’s clear that being a first-generation student was partly to blame; it was culture shock plus a hostile environment. But no one talked about that then. I just knew I was failing; not at the academic work but at everything else. Whatever the reason—first-generation issues, homophobic bias, illness, and/or general lack of coping skills—the end result was the same: no degree of any kind.
The thing is, for a novelist that doesn’t matter. Readers don’t give a shit if you have a degree or not. Instead of getting a nice steady middle-class job I wrote books. I got invited to each here and there. I got invited to speak here and there. Everyone just assumed I was well-educated. It did make getting my first visa a bit dicey, though—I had to get the State Department to accept an evaluation that given my published short fiction and essays, my education was the equivalent of an English BA plus the first year of a Master’s.
But I kept publishing books, winning awards, and generally doing just fine without a degree. In autumn 2014 I was invited to King’s College London by Professor Clare Lees to give a talk to medievalists there about Hild. In the audience were Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, colleagues (through SF and medieval history, respectively) who have become friends. We agreed to have dinner the following day. Over dinner, we chatted about this and that—their teaching, mainly; Farah had just taken a job as Head of Department, English and Media, Anglia Ruskin University. I mentioned how much I like to teach but that I never taught at university level, except for visiting writer gigs, because these days in the US you pretty much need an MFA. “Actually,” Farah said, “to teach HE in the UK these days you pretty much need a PhD.”
I snorted. That was never going to happen. And Farah said, “Well, if ever you’re interested in a PhD, talk to me.” I blinked and said, Imagine I am talking to you right now. She refilled her wine glass, sat back, and said, “Have you ever heard of a PhD by Published Work?” She thought that could be a route for me, and she could shepherd my application through the ARU bureaucracy.
It turned out that universities generally only do PhDs by Published Work (PhD PW) for well-published faculty members who already have a master’s and need the doctorate for promotion. Further, ARU had never done a PhD PW in the Humanities before, in its entire history, so it took a while to sort. I had to submit a prima facie case for my candidacy. But on May 27th 2016, thanks to seriously hard work by Farah and her colleagues, and a lot of help from academic friends (including Clare Lees) with things like references, I found myself with an ARU student ID card, an academic email address, and (joy!) library privileges at both ARU and the University of Washington.
10 thoughts on “The story of my PhD, Part 1: Opportunity”
Re the first BA attempt (and this is for others, not for Nicola): Nicola’s position as a first generation unadvised student meant that there were things she didn’t know: ie that she could have shifted universities even after a few weeks, that funding could have been secured for year one anyway, and that she could have registered as an independent student. I too was first generation and could give a similar list that would have made my life so much easier (I was saved by a close relationship with one person). In the 1980s although all this existed there were *no academic counsellors* so it all hinged on whether your tutors had any clue about any of this either, and mostly they didn’t. The universities in the 1980s were often hostile environments for any form of “non-traditional” whatever the rhetoric. Farah
Wow, the universe needed and conspired for you to get that PhD. Perhaps with alittle help from Hild also. 😊
@Farah: If I’d been older I would have known enough to know there were things I didn’t know, and I would asked people. But at age 17 (then 18) I knew nothing, sigh. I think it’s an amazing thing that there are now academic counsellors. That would have saved me an ocean of grief. There again, my life would have been quite different, and I like my life.
@pastorpilgrim: Oh, Hild was absolutely instrumental in all this!
Totally Nicola. I found this all out later. I’ve always been really impressed by a younger cousin who, having all of this info and confidence that we didn’t have, was able to navigate this stuff. I just din’t want people to think the system was that rigid when the issue was much more about terrible and prejudicial communication. (and I think it’s why I’m so keen on helping people with the beauracracy).
@Farah: You did a great job for me.
Having been in a similar situation, I have to say that even knowing there are things you don’t know doesn’t necessarily help you figure out what questions to ask. I felt that everything I didn’t know was utterly amorphous and impenetrable. My solution to that and not having any money was to take extra courses (I was in the last year at McGill where they charged by year and not by course, so I was able to do 7 courses a term for the price of five). The result was to get my honours BA in 2 years, not 3 (because Quebec’s cegep system counted for year one) and get the hell out. Then I couldn’t figure out how to make a living, got offered a TA position, and ended up in the MA, which I liked a lot more. It was also around then that I finally started to get a bit of a sense of how things worked. Over the decades, the invention of decent academic counselling programs has changed the first gen experience a lot, I think. It certainly needed to change.
@Wendy: For the first generation, I think counsellors are crucial to success (for most people). I was grateful, over and over, for expert guides during my single year in the system. I’m glad you made it.
I marvel that you made it through that toxic social environment, along with all the academic pitfalls. Everyone who’s been blessed enough to read one of your books rejoices in your decision to try your hand at writing.
@rhodrymavelyne: Oh, I think it was easier for my generation than the generation before—not as easy as it is now, and hopefully not nearly as easy as it will be one day. But thank you.
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