This is Part Three 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:
- Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
- Decision: Why I wanted a PhD by Published Work
- Choices: Who, how, and when of choosing supervisor/subject/corpus/university
- Experience: What challenges (life and academic) I faced and how I solved them
- 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’m a novelist. For me a doctorate was never a long-term goal. I did not spend years strategising about which programme to aim for. I did not ponder where and with whom I would study or how they might help my career. The decision to begin a PhD was taken on the volley: I saw an opening, and took it.
I did not have to wonder what the spine of my research would be, either; I already knew, at least in general terms. Still, there were many choices I did have to face. Without any kind of academic track record, no degree of any kind, how would I go about persuading Anglia Ruskin University that I would be a good PhD candidate? Who would be my supervisor? How would we work together given that I haven’t been supervised or taught in any way for thirty years? How would I define my research question, refine it from the general to the specific? Which of my novels should I critically examine? Who might be the best external examiner?
I began by building my prima facie case for my candidacy. It wasn’t too different from writing a grant application: list your achievements and say what you hope to achieve with the acceptance/grant all while implying you would be a credit to the awarding institution. I wrote a 1,000-word essay, “Women and Other Aliens,” about why I and my books were worthy, what I was going to research, and why.
As my candidacy flew in the face of the university’s clear regulations for PhD by Published Work (PhD PW)—that a candidate must have at least an excellent Bachelor’s degree—I was determined to follow as many of the other rules as closely as I could. I made sure my essay was under the 1,000-word limit. I stated that I would critically examine only work written in the last 10 years. And I thought very hard about who I would ask to recommend me. In the end I asked Clare Lees, Gary Wolfe, and Kate Macdonald, a group I thought would provide a nice mix of perspectives; each would address a different aspect of my career and suitability for the programme. They all came through like heroes. They were all also willing to answer beginner questions. I owe them a great deal.
Looking back, that essay, although reasonably well-written, was academically confused. (Read the PDF of “Women and Other Aliens” if you want to make up your own mind.) The prima facie committee did end up letting me squeak by but only after making some emphatic recommendations about what I might need to consider moving forward. I doubt it was the essay that got me in. What did the trick, probably, was my record of publications and awards, the glowing recommendations, and expert help steering past the bureaucracy from Farah Mendlesohn.
I’ve told Farah, several times, that none of this could have happened without her. She always says, You’re the one who did the work! While that’s true it’s also true that I would never have been able to do that work without her initial guidance. Apart from the fact that I’d never even heard of a PhD PW before she mentioned it, her help during the application process was vital. At the beginning of 2016, when I stared at the application form in horror, suddenly aware of the ridiculousness and unlikelihood of my candidacy, Farah knew the best way to fill in the form; she gave me vocabulary: Non-traditional educational path, Mature student, First generation. When I started wondering if there was really any point to even trying she waved her hand and told me not to worry. So on 27 February, 2106, I took a breath and submitted. What would be, would be.
At this stage I had not sat down and had a long, hard think about whether it was a good idea to do this. I approached the PhD decision the way I do many big choices in my life: don’t think, just begin, and stay alert for the moment it became too much hassle for it to no longer be a no-brainer—because it’s at that point that I must decide whether to walk away or set my will to stun.
Like most writers, I’m lazy; I’ve never seen the point of making a decision until forced to and so far there had been no money on the line, no huge investment of time, only favours from friends.1 Also, my attention was elsewhere. At the beginning of 2016 I was managing Life Stuff; beginning to sort the notion of #CripLit; and working on Menewood. I was also coming out as a cripple, and doing my first public appearances in a wheelchair. None of that was seriously threatened by the application process, as long as I didn’t think too hard about it, so I didn’t; I had not yet reached a point where I had to prioritise and make hard choices.
On 27th May, 2016 I got a letter from Anglia Ruskin:
I am pleased to inform you that, at a meeting of Sub-Panel of the Arts Law and Social Sciences Faculty Research Degrees Sub-Committee on Wednesday 18th May 2016, your application for a Prima Facie case for a PhD by Published Work was approved. […] submit your thesis ONE YEAR FROM DATE OF LETTER. (their emphasis)
They gave me a list of suggestions from the Sub-Panel (four bullet points which I can paraphrase: Eh, you seem confused. Are you doing history, gender theory, or literary theory? Get clear!) and told me that my Academic Advisor, that is, First Supervisor, was Prof Farah Mendlesohn. They also wanted money: I couldn’t officially enroll until I’d paid my fees. Just transfer some ££ here. Easy!
Except of course it wasn’t. One of the downsides of being a trailblazer is that the regulations, fee structures, and admin systems are untested. Add the fact that I’m both an International Student and a UK student (dual nationality living abroad), and that ARU had never actually done a PhD PW in the Humanities before, and it took a while to sort. Meanwhile, time was ticking by without access to academic libraries so I just cranked up my use of the Seattle Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) request system. The ILL pipeline takes a while to get up to speed, so while I had nothing to read I had my first official meeting with my supervisor. (I’ll talk about this more in Part Four.)
Eventually I got my enrollment sorted out. I got my student ID and ARU library access. But because that library was thousands of miles away, I also had to get access to a library closer to home. Farah squeezed her departmental budget a bit and bought me access to the University of Washington’s library system. I started work in earnest, or tried to.
One of my favourite ways to learn is by example. My vague plan had been to read a few examples of other theses written for Creative Writing PhD PWs and figure out what they had in common. But I couldn’t find any. Farah couldn’t find any. I scratched my head. I would have to figure out some other way in.
Meanwhile Farah was giving me reading suggestions for How To books on academic writing, and examples of what she thought were fine books of critical prose readings. I read them. I found the How To books useful and the critical-reading books much less so—it turns out I already knew most of those principles. What became clear, though, is how sparse my critical theory context was. I had read and enjoyed all kinds of lit theory over the years but I had no overall critical framework, no way to place those theories in their proper context. I’d read Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, for example, but I could not have said where they fit in the overall picture.
So I talked to an academic friend, Ann Balay, and asked if she could recommend some kind of primer, a Litcrit for Dummies. She made two suggestions; I read them both and took copious notes.
And that’s where I ran into another problem. It was already becoming clear I would read hundreds, maybe thousands of texts for this PhD. How was I going to keep track of them? While keeping my research blog, Gemaecce, I had learnt the rudiments of citing sources, but suddenly I was in the big leagues. My evidence had to be bullet-proof. And there was going to be a lot of it, and it had to be in Harvard-style. How would I manage it? I asked around among other friends; I asked Google; I tried half a dozen different apps. In the end I settled on Angelique Corthals’ suggestion, Mendeley. It took a bit of getting used to, and it turns out the cite-straight-into-Word function is a lie as far as a Mac platform goes, but it was fantastically useful and now I would not part with it for a mint of money.
I used the litcrit primers to work out what strands of literary theory interested me (hint: structuralism does not). I poked into cognitive theory, linguistic theory, cultural, evolutionary, post-colonial, queer, gender, modernist, postmodernist, feminist, and eco-feminist theory. I was learning at warp speed; my brain was on fire. From there I pursued various literary traditions, reading up on Gay and Lesbian, Historical, Feminist, SF, and Noir topoi. I started noting where my novels departed from tradition and so reader expectation; where they harnessed them; and where they subverted them. I was assembling the foundations of my thesis. But I couldn’t begin to build until I had seen different finished structures. To me it felt like asking an architect to design a house without ever seeing a building. I needed to see a temple, a hut, a public building, a small private house, a city hall, otherwise how could I get an idea of the possibilities? I really, really needed examples of theses written for Creative Writing PhDs by Published Work (CW PhD PW).2
So I talked to Kate Macdonald again, and she put the word out on her network that I was looking for an example. While we waited for that, Farah and I started talking about examiners. The internal examiner was easy: Helen Marshall, medievalist and author who has won a handful of speculative fiction awards. We would be on the same wavelength. The external was more complicated. “You don’t want So-and-so because he’s too kind. He passes everyone,” Farah said. “And you don’t want it to be too easy.” Yes, I do! I said. “You really don’t,” she said, and explained why.
If you want a career in academia, it’s always best to select an external examiner who is an eminence with a good reputation in the field. That person’s name will open doors. Oh, So-and-so examined you and said those lovely things! Come in and chat… They will advise you about publication. They will write references. But I didn’t need advice about publication—I have a lot of experience. I didn’t need references because I didn’t want a career in academia. Probably. But what if I changed my mind? Best to keep options open. So, okay, an eminence. Apparently, too, senior and highly-experienced examiners come into the viva with less of an agenda to push. They’ve seen it all before; they know what meets the standard, what does not, and what exceeds it. And they are very clear about whether you deserve to be admitted to the academy.
During this conversation it dawned on me that while I thought I had been absorbing the academic ethos I had merely been absorbing theory and mechanics. I realised my attitude to education had not changed much since I was a teenager: I had entered into this process thinking, on some level, that the point was to pass the test with the least amount of effort. It was that conversation with Farah about examiners that helped me understand that, no, getting a PhD was not like getting an ‘O’ level. Getting a PhD was more like petitioning to join an exclusive club; it was about being the kind of person with the kind of mindset the institution and the examiners would be proud to associate with. My attitude needed revising; I needed to bring my goals for the PhD in line with who I am now, not who I was when I last had any contact with higher education. I decided I would approach this year of study as I would writing a novel: aim to produce something far beyond good enough and create a piece of work that could change the world, something I could stand beside proudly for the rest of my life.
In the end, for external examiner we settled on the eminence of the UK Creative Writing academy, Maggie Butt, Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education from 2007 to 2012 and founding Principal Editor of its peer reviewed journal Writing in Practice. While began talking to Maggie about that (it was a lot to ask: she would have to read not only the thesis but six novels) I went out and read everything I could find on what she thought a CW PhD PW thesis should look like. This article was particularly useful. It outlined clearly what the exegesis (Maggie’s preferred term)/critical review (Anglia Ruskin’s preferred term) needed to achieve. The article did sound one alarming note: “based on 23 years experience of assessing creative writing at every level, I would suggest that a doctoral level exegesis cannot be completed rigorously in fewer than 20,000 words.” The word count I had, per Anglia Ruskin’s Regulations was 10,000. Hmmm.
Meanwhile, Kate’s network came through with two abstracts of theses/exegeses/critical commentaries (every institution seems to use a different term) for CW PhD PWs. Good, but not nearly enough. I tracked down the authors and asked if they would share the rest. They both generously agreed. Their interpretations of a critical review were very different, and neither bore any resemblance to the possibilities I could sense beginning to accrete at the back of my mind.
So. I had three data points from which to extrapolate: two examples and an examiner’s wish list. I had a new, improved attitude. The rest was just work, right?
Next: Experience: What challenges (life and academic) I faced and how I solved them
1 That of course is a real cost. We live in the generosity economy: a favour given is a favour owed in return.
2 It was at this point I decided that if I ever was awarded a PhD, I would put my thesis on my website for anyone to read. If it helps even one future candidate, I’ll be delighted.