It’s a deadline week for me, meaning I’m quite fed up with writing in general, and writing about academic things especially. Fortunately, it also roughly marks the halfway part of my thesis funding, meaning that instead of writing about my research, I can write a bit about my research process and progress. In another 1.5 years I will be expected to have finished a book, of roughly 80,000 words, about this thing I call the neo-historical monster mashup.
What have I learnt so far about writing a PhD in the field of English literature, and (because this is a blog about popular culture) how can I best fit it into a somewhat arbitrary, clickbait-style article?
1. Everything is arbitrary; or, you can define something pretty much however you want, as long as you’re aware that you’re doing it, and make that clear in your thesis. An overwhelming amount of how you actually put your thesis together, from the ground up, will be dictated by the discipline you happen to be working in. This is especially noticeable if you happen to be in an allegedly ‘interdisciplinary’ field. I’ve spent a lot of time so far trying to fit things into multiple frameworks, before finally deciding just to pick one and stick with it. In retrospect this seems obvious, but I don’t think it’s something that’s really emphasised (or problematised) enough.
2. You don’t necessarily do that much writing. Don’t get me wrong. You write a lot. But even given how much you write, you spend most of your time thinking and editing. It’s as much about what you do when you aren’t working as what you do when you are. I discovered this during a period where I was forcing myself to write every day. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your thesis is stop writing entirely for a couple of weeks, and only take it up again when you have something specific to write. Your subconscious will carry on working in the meantime, and when you get back to writing, everything will suddenly seem much clearer.
3. Inspiration strikes at strange moments. During the middle of your grocery shopping? Sure. At 2 a.m. in the morning? Why not? In the bath? Every time. It pays to have a notebook (or a note-taking app on your smartphone) handy at all hours.
4. Your supervisor is an incredibly important factor in how well your thesis work goes. Is he or she interested in your work? Too supportive? Not supportive enough? Do they read your work regularly? How extensive is the feedback they give, and what kind of feedback is it? Are they experts in your field, or do they actually know very little about what you’re trying to say? Often, your supervisor will be the only person besides you who is really involved with this body of work. If they don’t point something out, no one will. And they are too good at pointing things out, you may head in a direction that you’re not happy with. Fortunately, my own supervision experience has been largely positive. My supervisor is present when I need her to be present, and happy to let me go my own way the rest of the time. Not all of my fellow PhDs have been so lucky.
5. A lot has been written already. And you haven’t read any of it. This is something you’re vaguely aware of while you do your MA, but that comes more sharply into focus when you’re trying to make an original contribution to the field. This is especially true, again, if you’re working on an interdisciplinary subject. In addition, your MA may have taught you how to quickly digest novels, poetry, comic books, films, and cultural theory, but what about philosophy, theology, photography, sociology, computer science, and archaeology? There are whole worlds of academic writing out there, overlapping slightly but never quite touching, and each is written in its own particular way, with its own particular conventions and vocabulary. And the possibilities for linking them to your own work are endless.
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6. There’s also a lot that hasn’t been written. Sometimes you will start looking into a particular topic, only to discover that very few people actually seem interested in it. Or worse, no one actually seems to conceive of this subject in the same way that you do. I actually keep a list of these topics, in the event (hah) that I am ever given the chance to write a second or third monograph, but it can be exhausting to realise that instead of relying on someone else’s theoretical framework, you may just have to come up with your own. On the bright side, it makes you feel like your own research will make a more original contribution, once it’s finished.
7. Sometimes you need to be dumber. Yes you may be highly intelligent, and yes you may be able to juggle many complex topics simultaneously, but that’s not always the best way to approach your subject. Less is sometimes more when it comes to thesis writing, and you can always say a lot about very little. Adding that extra theorist, no matter how interesting their work or how relevant it is to your subject, can sometimes get in the way of your message. Additionally, saying something in a complicated way does not make you seem smarter. It is always to your advantage to be as simple and concise as possible – often that will already be complicated enough.
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8. There is never enough time. This item is related to the previous one. No matter how well you plan, and how many weeks you give yourself to polish that draft you’ve been working on, you will never reach a point where you feel like you’ve said everything you have to say, or even really said it properly. For that same reason:
9. You often don’t feel like you’re working at all. This is, of course, not so because you aren’t working, but because something about brain work makes time go at once very quickly, and very slowly. Add teaching to the mix, and you can easily feel a week stretch into something that feels more like a month. I’ve easily already written upwards of 80,000 words in the 1.5 years, but if you ask me how far I’ve come in terms of finishing my thesis, I still feel like I’ve only started. A lot of those words will be rewritten, reframed, or simply discarded, which can be frustrating even if you know that writing them helped you to get to this point in the first place.
10. Finally, you discover the ways you had of working before starting your PhD are all wrong for (and unsustainable in) academia. I was never a marathon worker or thinker, and I did well at university without having to spend hours making notes, looking up terms, and re-reading texts. I would fit all my work into a few days a week, when I felt like doing it. As a result, I never properly built up a lot of the skills and tolerances I now feel would actually benefit me in academia. You just can’t muster those intense bursts of work that I used to thrive on for any sustained period of time. Here, everyone is a good student, but what you essentially need to grow into is a person who can maintain a consistently high level of surprisingly diverse work, indefinitely. That’s a whole different story.
Naturally this is all based on my personal struggles, and some of these lessons won’t apply to other people, or other academic disciplines. What do you think? Does this reflect your own PhD writing experience? Will my paradigm shift again completely over the second half of my degree? Leave your thoughts in the comments.