This is Part Four 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
- Choice: How I chose my subject/university/supervisor
- Experience: What challenges (personal 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.
While I was waiting to hear about my application to Anglia Ruskin as a PhD candidate, I came out as a cripple. I did my first deliberate public appearances in a wheelchair. I joined disability studies conversations on Twitter and Facebook. I founded, and co-host with Alice Wong, #CripLit, a regular Twitter chat for disabled writers. Before and during the process I was still working on Menewood, the enormous sequel to Hild. In addition I began a twice-weekly regimen of outpatient physical therapy, with daily home exercise, that rendered me useless for most the day twice a week. There was no give in my schedule. Then I was accepted as a PhD candidate.1
My first academic adviser/supervisor was Farah Mendlesohn, which was a huge relief: someone I knew! We began by sorting out library access. I was thousands of miles away and while you can do almost anything remotely, you can’t quite hit everything. So in addition to Seattle Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan (which was beginning to get very expensive) I got access to the University of Washington’s splendid library. I also arranged for Kelley to be able to pick up books on my behalf, because MS meant there would be times I couldn’t get there, and Joanne Woiak whom I’d met at a disability conference, very kindly made an office available to me. In addition to those libraries, a friend on a faculty at another institution gave me unofficial access to their library system, so I began working four systems to ferret out what I needed.
Even with four library systems at my fingertips I could not always access a particular article in a timely manner and so had to put out a call on social media. I’m lucky in that I have a fairly wide international network. But it was tricky calling publicly on that network because one of the first decisions I made about my studies was to keep them private. There were professional reasons for this but also personal: I hate learning in public. Specifically, I hate failing in public. As someone with no degree, a disability, and other professional commitments, and a chronic illness, failure was always a possibility. The decision to keep my candidacy a secret fit into my overall social media policy, which is to not discuss in public any part of my life that’s in process. I’m happy to dissect the big struggles and scary moments after the fact, but not while it’s actually happening.
Not being able to talk about this huge thing in my life publicly (my friends knew, mostly) led to a real throttling down of my public conversation. If I spent the whole day researching the topoi of queer literature it didn’t leave me time to do much else apart from spend time with Kelley and occasionally (far, far less than I would like) close friends—neither of which I generally discuss in public, either. So there were weeks without blog posts, or tweets, and many months without Instagram (I forgot it existed). And when I did blog or tweet it was usually on disability-related topics.
In Choices I talked about how I like to leave big decisions as late as possible. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to leap enthusiastically into a project if you’re not worrying about how hard it might be; for another, I’ve never seen the point of doing the work necessary to choose the right path until you have to. I had been hoping I would not have to; I had been telling myself a story about how getting a PhD, having a life, writing a novel, creating a new online community, all while keeping myself healthy in the face of MS, was totally doable. All I would have to do is set my will to stun.
After my first two tutorials/Skype meetings with Farah I began to get a sense of the enormity of the work ahead—a single year to get up to speed on literary theory, learn how to think like an academic, and write a thesis—and realised the story I had told myself was a fairytale. It wasn’t possible to do everything. Something would have to go.
I actually considered dropping physical therapy. But while healthy people can afford to get a bit out of shape; people with MS can’t. If I got too far behind on the physical curve I would lose function forever. With MS, Use it or lose it is not just an aphorism. #CripLit wasn’t taking that much time, especially early on. (Later, when we tried a couple of specialised chats with multiple hosts, it became more labour intensive. But that lay ahead.) Public appearances, accepting commissions for this and that, yes, I could put those on hold. The essay series I was thinking about, ditto. I made apologies and got back to work.
As the days began to shorten a little and I could smell the abandoned apple orchard a few lots north, I got deeper and deeper into critical language, and on the days when I sat down to work on Menewood I found myself more and more self-conscious with my prose, more and more tethered to the here-and-now instead of being able to slip into the seventh century. And when I did finally manage to fall into the past, I’d come back to find critical language unreadable and I could not afford the time it took to readjust. I started to dread switching back and forth. It felt more and more like hitting a bruise. Then one day I just couldn’t. I sat outside watching a squirrel with a windfall apple in its mouth run frantically back and forth along the back fence, not sure whether to run from me on one side or the cat in the other direction, and I thought, You have to choose.
I had hit a natural pause in Menewood. Hild’s life had just changed violently; while I knew what happened next in outline I did not yet see it or smell it; I’d need a few days to do nothing but stare into the distance. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that while all these new concepts were unfurling in my head, both in terms of disability and literary theory. And the clock was ticking: I had to submit before 27 May, 2017. I was pretty sure that if I focused I could get the thesis done much earlier. I weighed it in my head. Yes, I would get the first draft done before the holidays, send it out for feedback (which would take weeks over the holidays), and pick up Menewood again. That turned out to be a fairy story, too.
I suspect most PhD researchers go through a feeling of isolation. This was especially acute for me. I was thousands of miles from campus, working remotely. I could not talk about my work with other academics in the same field. I could not hang out with fellow researchers over coffee or beer. My only contact with the world of academia was through Farah, my supervisor, on Skype.
I’m a reasonably successful professional. I’ve been learning and writing a long time; I know how I learn and produce, I know my process. I am confident of my writing. But I knew nothing about academia—far less than any other PhD candidate. Most candidates have already come through years of undergraduate then graduate experience. I had none; I did not know what was expected of me, how the system worked, or how to think about the problem. Farah, on the other hand, has vast experience of academia, and has supervised many students to the successful conclusion of their PhD. But she was used to working with younger people who had never managed a major writing project before.
I don’t know how long it usually takes for a supervisor and a candidate to settle in to a harmonious working relationship, for each to truly understand what the other wants, expects, and needs. But Farah and I like and trust each other, we both have a lot of experience of managing dissimilar communication architecture, and we were both invested in making this work. Eventually we figured it out: I had a clear picture now of where I wanted to go and how I might do that; I would just go away and write the first draft; if I needed help or suggestions for reading, I’d email. Everything was on track. And then Farah left Anglia Ruskin to take a post at another university.
Thankfully, Farah had already sorted out who would be my supervisor at ARU, Tiffani Angus, and arranged with the university for her to stay on as an external academic advisor. I had talked to Tiffani before on Twitter and by email (she’s a Clarion alum) so she was not a total stranger. I wasn’t worried. I went back to my draft.
Setting Menewood aside had freed up the roaming, creative part of my mind and when summer was just past its prime I had my flash of revelation and come up with a new portmanteau term, focalised heterotopia.
I was excited. I saw that all those promises I had made in the prima facie case about sticking to work from the last ten years was not going to work. The corpus I wanted, I needed, to talk about, that I wanted to trace my development through, was all six novels. It was very clearly in direct opposition to regulations but there again my whole candidacy was a miracle to start with, so, eh, fuck it: I was going to do this my way.
The draft took shape fast. It was far too long (50% too long) but it said most of the things I wanted it to say. It would need work, of course, but it was a good beginning. I sent it to Farah just as she moved city, house, and job and settled down to think about Hild and Menewood secure in the knowledge I would not have to think about the PhD for a few weeks.
It’s really quite extraordinary what stories I tell myself. The one about getting back to Hild over the holidays was a complete lie. But I’ll talk about that in Part Five.
After the holidays, far more quickly than I expected, Farah got back to me with her comments: all the building blocks were there but not in the right order, there was too much of it, and the language was all wrong.
It was not the same as getting an editorial letter about one of my novels. Those letters could be very long and detailed but the editor never touched the actual text. Farah sent me back a document with bits deleted and big chunks moved around. It took me a while, maybe a week, to get my head around it—to even figure out what she was talking about. I’m not sure Farah would agree with this, exactly, but in the end I worked out that the solution was to turn the whole thesis into a fractal: the deeper you go, the more the pattern repeats. Every chapter was a mini-thesis: argument, evidence, analysis. Every section was a mini chapter: argument, evidence, analysis. Every paragraph was a mini-section: argument, evidence, analysis. I fell asleep to Argument, evidence, analysis. I woke up thinking, Argument, evidence, analysis. Farah had told me from the start that this was what academic writing is supposed to do: State your argument, present your evidence, occasionally provide context for that evidence, then analyse the fuck out of it. It just took me a while to integrate that advice.
I refocused, rewrote, and cut cut cut.
At the same time I was rewriting, I was also getting sucked into an ARU admin loop. As I’ve explained in an earlier section, one of the perils of being first—I was the first Creative Writing by Published Work candidate ever at Anglia Ruskin University; I was their first remote candidate; I was their first no-degree candidate, etc.—is that the regulations are not tried and tested. It was spring, and time, apparently, to renew my registration. But I couldn’t renew my registration until I could show I’d taken Stage 3 training. I couldn’t take Stage 3 training (learning how the viva voce works and how to prepare) until I renewed my registration. This was not the only loop but it proved to be the most intractable. For example, I had to submit my thesis to TurnItIn to check for plagiarism before my supervisor would okay it for final examination, but I couldn’t do that until I’d completed Stage 3 training.
In addition, I was seeking a disability waiver, a Reasonable Accommodation (I always saw that phrase in capital letters) to allow me to do my Stage 3 training remotely, via Skype, rather than having to fly thousands of miles to Cambridge. The viva itself, of course, had to be done in person but I desperately did not want to have to cross the Atlantic twice in three months. (My record is five transatlantic trips in 10 months, more than 15 years ago when I was much fitter, and it nearly killed me.)
I had to get a letter from my neurologist, but the waiver process went remarkably smoothly, thanks to Jane Bousfield and Gabriella Guiffrida, and in fairly short order I had my SRA, or Summary of Reasonable Adjustment. Then Dr Charlotte Nevison (aka Charlie), the Director of Research Students, gave me my training by Skype. It was extremely helpful. I asked and she answered many questions that I’m not sure she’s used to getting—questions related very much to physical access issues. I could see her getting thoughtful.
A few days later, she emailed me to say she had just completed some kind of awareness training regarding disability. She would be the chair of my examination committee and she thought she could make a case Anglia Ruskin for me to do the viva itself remotely. Would I like her to try?
I hesitated. My candidacy was unusual enough without yet another first attached: the first PhD viva without being in the room. How far could I stretch this firstness before I started getting imposter syndrome (or, worse, before others started giving me the side-eye)? Also, I really wanted to be there for my own PhD. And to be in the UK to see my family, and old friends. And to be there at the opening of the Visible Girls: Revisited exhibit in Hull. I had been braced for the travel: I’d booked the plane tickets, the hotel, the transport from the airport, everything.
But I have MS. One, if I did this, I would be ill two to four weeks after I got back. It always happens. Most of the time I’m unwell for a month or so then recover, but every now and again I’m really sick, and I lose a bit more function, function that’s gone forever. Was it worth the risk? When there had been no choice, I thought it was, but that was measuring travel risk against a PhD. Now I was measuring that risk not against the PhD but against pride, against wanting to be there, in person, for my triumph. (At this stage I knew I was doing good work.) Two, if I did this I would break trail for others, other candidates with disabilities who might not have the choices I did.
I told Charlie: Yes, please try.
The request started working its way up the bureaucratic ladder. Charlie did all the work; all I had to do was wait. And focus on the rewrite of my thesis.
Eventually I had something submittable. I gave it to my new supervisor, Tiffani who shared it with Laura Dietz (who apparently was my Second Supervisor; I had no idea I had a second supervisor), who between them pointed out a couple of typos and one possibly controversial statement. It was still a few hundred words over the limit but Tiffani told me about an obscure rule that if a block quote is over 50 words, those words don’t count. So I consolidated quotes shamelessly into block quotes, fixed the typos, and added a footnote to address the potential controversy.
This was the beginning of April. I was ready, but the registration issue had not yet been sorted. I began to fret, just a bit, about timing. I kept remembering the emphasis in the acceptance letter:
…submit your thesis ONE YEAR FROM DATE OF LETTER
Time was marching on.
I got email from Charlie: the Vice Chancellor had signed off on my request to take my viva remotely. An official letter followed: We would begin at 2:30 pm UK time—which was 6:30 a.m. in Seattle. Appended were just-formulated regulations written to cover not-in-the-room exams. I would have to have a technical rehearsal with a member of ARU IT staff, John Manning.
I thought a remote viva would entail using an offsite video conference facility and being officially moderated by a faculty member from another university. I was delighted to find that Skype would be fine. John and I connected, checked light and sound levels, chatted about nothing in particular for three minutes, and then he said he had enough to make his report and it all looked a-okay to him. The next day I got the official thumbs-up. I cancelled our travel reservations and made a couple of difficult phone calls, including one to my soon to be 92-yr-old father telling him no, I would not see him this summer after all.
Then I sat back and thought, Holy shit. This is really happening.
Thanks to the hard work and determination of Emily Downing and Brigita Mileryte, and their wizardly ability to reconcile a conflict in the CW PhD PW regulations, my registration issue was sorted. I was able to submit my draft thesis for a plagiarism check. It came back fine. (I knew it was all my own work but I was still relieved; I know how easy it is to slip and think someone else’s words are your own.) So now it was time for my mock viva. But, due to scheduling problems, it would have to be after I submitted the final thesis. So if the mock viva highlighted any terrible flaws, tough, it would be too late.
I submitted my thesis. I smiled to myself for a day, then asked Tiffani and Farah a couple of questions to clarify a few points about the viva. Don’t worry! they both said. You’ll be fine! I wasn’t worried. I’ve talked about my books for years: to live audiences on two continents, on TV, on the radio, in my living room, on social media. I could do it in my sleep. I actually enjoy it. The viva would be an opportunity to talk to smart, engaged people. I was not worried I just wanted clarity.
Until I had a horrible realisation: a viva is designed to test not whether you know your subject (which obviously I did, because I’d written the books under discussion) but whether you can discourse academically on the subject. In other words, this is where you proved whether you belong to the club. I had spent years talking to readers but I had never, not once, had a conversation about the academic theory and discourse behind the thesis about those books. I had no idea how to do that, and no clue how to get ready. Now I began to worry.
My friend Kate Macdonald came to the rescue again. We arranged a not-quite-mock viva by Skype. Ahead of time she sent me four questions of the kind she thought I ought to be able to talk about. I read them and my mind went utterly blank. I had no fucking idea what any of it meant. I printed them out and read them. I still had no idea. My breathing- and blink-rate accelerated.
That night when Kelley and I sat down for a beer, I waved the questions in the air and freaked the fuck out. I think it’s the only time in the whole PhD experience that I seriously contemplated failure. It didn’t last long. Kelley’s sensible conversation (and lots more beer, and about two pounds of hummus and carrot sticks) calmed me down. The Skype conversation with Kate a day or two later made me feel even better. By the time I sat down for my mock viva with Tiffani and Eugene Giddens I was calm.
The mock viva went well; very well, in fact. Eugene did most of the talking because he has done a zillion vivas. He was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. The real thing could last anywhere from one hour to three hours, he said, with 90 minutes being usual. He pointed to a few statements; he pushed here and there. I pushed back in a manner he approved. Tiffani challenged me on a couple of things that I handled without difficulty. They helped me figure out a better way to position my camera. By the time we were done I was clear on what I needed to do and how to prepare. Per Farah’s suggestion I marked my thesis up with highlights and sticky notes so I could find any section I needed at any time; I made some high-level notes about my research questions; I rehearsed a summary of my conclusions. Then I relaxed. What would be, would be.
I’d like to say, Friday the 23rd of June dawned fresh and clear, my mind razor sharp. But I was up before dawn—4:00 a.m.—and I was so focused on what lay ahead I couldn’t tell you what the sky looked like. I ate a big breakfast of bacon and eggs and drank tea. I’m sure Kelley and I chatted about something or other but I don’t remember any of it.
At 6:20 a.m. I opened Skype—and there was a message from ARU: Missed call from John Manning. Fuck. Had I got the time wrong?? I called back—and surprised two women sitting at a table with a plate full of pastries. They introduced themselves: Maggie and Helen. Maggie explained that Charlie, the chair, wasn’t there yet. Tiffani stuck a hand in front of the camera and waved. After another couple of minutes I backed away gracefully and ended the call until they summoned me. At least now there would be time to finish my tea.
Then we began. For real.
Tiffani wrote down all the questions for me so I know how it went, otherwise I would not remember much (except eyeing that plate of pastries, and absolutely longing for one).2 I do know Maggie began by saying my books were wonderful and the thesis exemplary, and that I thought, Well, this might go okay... Then I remember Maggie saying, We need to chat amongst ourselves now so why don’t you go away and we’ll call you back in ten minutes? And I obediently ended the call and wandered out of my office.
Kelley came rushing through from the kitchen. “What’s wrong?!” I blinked. “Did the connection break?” No, I said. At least I don’t think so. “But it’s only been 34 minutes…” Huh. I’m sure I said something but I’ve no idea what. I don’t remember what I did for the next few minutes except that I held Kelley very hard.
When we got back on Skype the first thing Maggie said was, “Congratulations, Dr Griffith!” And I smiled wide enough to split the world. “We so wish you were here so we could give you a hug!” All I could think was, It’s over? and I want a pastry! I thanked everyone and then we were done. I was Doctor Griffith.
I felt utterly blank. I connected with Farah on Skype, and she was thrilled. I thanked her. She said, yet again, You’re the one who did the work! I said, again, But none of it would have happened without you.
It’s true. None of it would have happened without Hild, either. Or the conversations I’ve had with academics and friends over the years. And certainly none of it would have happened without Kelley. But it did happen. I am Dr Nicola Griffith.
Next: Future: What impact a PhD may have on my writing
1 Right on top of my acceptance, politics happened. I’m not going to rehash Brexit except to say it hurt then and it hurts now to watch fools throw away something great and good based on greed and fear. And it was not long after this that I got a sick feeling that I knew what was coming with Trump. I felt oddly homeless. It got much worse after the election.
2 If anyone’s interested I can share those questions, and some excerpts from the examiners’ reports, in a future post.