Picture of official document

This is Part One of the story of my doctorate—the who, why, when, what, and how of it—based on questions from readers on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is in five parts:

  1. Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: Why I wanted a PhD by Published Work
  3. Choice: Who, how, and when of choosing supervisor/subject/university
  4. Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
  5. Future: What impact a PhD may have on my writing, and more

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, has even a Bachelor’s. Yet I have a doctorate, one I earned (not honorary). Here’s how that happened.

At the age of ten I passed an exam called the 11-plus and was admitted to Notre Dame Grammar School for pupils aged 11-18. I was a bit young (10-17) but I was smart enough. Everyone, including me, began to assume I would be the family pioneer, that I would go to university. That belief began to evaporate when I was 13.

Notre Dame was a Catholic convent school, girls-only. I did a lot of sports, spent a lot of time surrounded by healthy naked women in the shower. By the time I was 13 I knew viscerally, unmistakably, that I was a dyke. Catholics frown on this sort of thing, which meant that if I came out—when I came out—I’d be expelled. It also meant that my family would do something intemperate like have me made a Ward of Court (they had a history…). I began to feel isolated. In addition to being queer, I was younger than my classmates, and I did not belong to a particular group: I was not wholly an art or music freak, not a science geek, and not a jock. My problem was that I was a bit of each, which was Not Allowed in the English grammar school system.1

I started to drink. A lot. And completely check out of classes. I still mostly (not always) attended physically; mentally and emotionally, though, I was not there. Then at 15 I fell head over heels with my first girlfriend, Una. Teen lust is impossible to hide and by the time I turned 16, and legally untouchable, I was totally out. My family could not get the courts involved but they made life…difficult. And the school made it clear they would not tutor me for Oxbridge admission; they did not want to be represented by a lesbian. But perhaps the biggest consequence of falling in love with Una was that for the first time I felt as though I belonged, I was part of something, and I did not want to leave her.

I could have gone almost anywhere to study almost anything, but I accepted a place at the University of Leeds to study Microbiology because Una and I were planning to move in together. I thought microbiology would be interesting—it wasn’t, though the ancillary subjects, particularly zoology and biochemistry were—and that it would guarantee me a well-paying job at the kind of place I understood, a brewery.2 I was seventeen; I had this confused teenage vision of studying Important Science during the day and coming home every evening to a perfect mix of riotous sex and domestic bliss. 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. I tell part of it in the reading below.

Una left me to marry a man just before term began. It was too late to take a place anywhere else and, besides, I felt as though my heart was torn out by the roots and inside I was nothing but a howling wind. All my friends had gone to other cities for university and I was stuck at home with parents who frankly did not see the point of educating a lesbian. Not only would no one give a lesbian a job, I would go to hell. I knew I’d made a horrible mistake—I should have gone to study something interesting somewhere else—but at 17 I had no idea what to do about it. I started to drink again, even more than before. I stayed out all night having sex with random women. 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 a bit more mentally and emotionally grown up—I was 18; I’d lived independently in another city for a year—I was able to persuade Leeds to take me on to study 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 and my fees weren’t covered. My parents would not support me (because 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 job3). So I had no money. And I still kept getting mysteriously sick. Poverty, fatigue, and sheer Othering won. I dropped out again.

Looking back it’s clear that being a first-generation student was partly to blame; I had no way through the culture shock and hostile environment. 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 grit or coping skills—the end result was the same: I had no degree of any kind.

I always thought that eventually I’d get back to university. But then I started to write. For a novelist, credentials don’t matter; publishers, booksellers, and readers don’t give a shit whether you have a degree. So instead of getting a nice, steady middle-class job (which I couldn’t do, anyway, because no one would give a person with MS a job) and saving up to pay for a formal education, I wrote books. The books won awards. I got invited to speak here and there. Then I got invited to teach here and there. At one point, after teaching a post-graduate summer workshop, I was asked if I would consider setting up and running a Popular Fiction low-res MFA programme; I thought that would be kind of cool—I do love to teach—but I got sick again and that was that. I did not think about higher education again from either side of the equation.

In autumn 2014 I was invited by Professor Clare Lees to King’s College London to give a talk to medievalists there about Hild. I had a wonderful time. In the audience were Professors Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, colleagues (through SF and medieval history, respectively) who have become friends. We agreed to have dinner the following evening (after a seminar at Queen Mary University, which was very different—undergrads rather than faculty and grad students, but which I also really enjoyed). Over dinner, we chatted about this and that—their teaching, mainly; Farah had just taken a job as Head of Department, English and Media, at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I mentioned how much I like to teach but that I’d 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 want a PhD, talk to me.” I blinked. She refilled her wine glass and sat back. “Have you ever heard of a PhD by Published Work?” She thought that given my body of work that could be a possibility, and she was in a position to use me as a test case and shepherd my application through the ARU bureaucracy, though the application itself would have to be assessed on its own merits.

When I got back to the US I did some research. It turns 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, while ARU had awarded a couple of PhD PWs in the Sciences over the years, they had never awarded a PhD PW in the Humanities. So it took a bit of effort to sort.5 Eventually, though, my prima facie case for my candidacy was approved. On 27 May, 2016, thanks to seriously hard work by Farah and her colleagues, and a lot of help from academic friends (including Clare Lees) with letters of recommendation, 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.

Next: Decision: Why I wanted a PhD

1 In England and Wales (Scotland has always been a bit different, and I’m not sure about Ireland), grammar school pupils began to specialise at age 13 (I was 12) when they chose which GCSE ‘O’ levels there were to take. Four subjects–French, Maths, English Language, Religion (Catholic school, remember)–or maybe five were compulsory. I added as many as the school would allow, 10 altogether, and even so I could not cover everything. If I wanted to study Biology, Chemistry, Physics then I could not also study Art or History or Music. Then at age 16 (I was 15) there was further specialisation when you narrowed your ‘A’ level subjects to three. Three! How could a person possibly stick to three? At one point I tried to do six at once, but that was pretty much insane and I couldn’t make it work, so ended up dropping back to four.
2 Seriously. Not a joke.
3 Or maybe it was that, on paper, I was over-qualified for everything. I remember applying for a job as a lab assistant in the biochemistry dept. of University of Hull, but when the interviewer looked at my O and A levels he said, You should be studying here! and told me he wouldn’t give me the job because I should go get a degree.
4 Just before I hit Publish I remembered: this is not entirely true. I was asked to apply for a tenured professorship a few years ago and after some initial reluctance (by which I mean serious unwillingness) I agreed to submit a CV. Unsurprisingly (to me) I did not even get a call back. For this stuff, credentials matter. I was miffed enough that I enquired about the possibility of doing a low-res MFA locally but the cost was eyebrow-raising and I came to my senses pretty fast.
5 English understatement. I don’t know anyone but Farah who could have simultaneously coached me in what to do and harnessed the ARU bureaucracy so effectively.