I am delighted to post the first commissioned piece of my guest editorship here today. Award winning novelist Carol Fenlon completed her PhD in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. Here, she outlines what is involved, the challenges and also the rewards of undertaking this academic path in creative writing.
Why do a creative writing PhD?
by Carol Fenlon
There are many reasons for and against but I took the plunge and completed mine in 2010. I have never regretted it but at times it was a difficult and isolating experience. If you are teetering on the brink of embarking on a similar course, I hope this article will be helpful.
Many people see the PhD as a career enhancing qualification but this is only one aspect. For me, the initial stimuli were; the desire to translate a long-term idea into a concrete novel; to improve my writing skills and write consistently to a publishable standard. As I progressed, I also valued the benefits acquired from learning research techniques and disciplines. These techniques produce a ‘competent researcher,’equipped with transferable skills for future writing. Furthermore, the protracted period of study required for the PhD allows development of an extensive network of contacts which is invaluable to any serious writer.
Perhaps the first step is to consider course requirements. These vary among universities but most expect candidates to be qualified to MA level in order to be able to produce work to the required standard.
Some universities now require candidates to complete a twelve month pre-registration certificate in research skills before commencing PhD studies. You will probably also be asked to submit a portfolio of work. Occasionally a student may be accepted on the value of the portfolio alone but this is rare and only occurs where the work is of exceptional quality.
Other things to consider are the costs involved and the time commitment needed to complete the degree. Fees vary between universities so it is wise to check around if you are in a position to choose. You may get financial assistance if you are already on the faculty of the university. Arts & Humanities Research Council funding is now extremely difficult to obtain and funding bodies are highly selective about the proposals they will support so choice of topic may be shaped by economics rather than heart’s desire. This consideration is important, the PhD takes 2 years full-time, 4-7 years part-time and desire is the fire that keeps you going.
Believe me, your life will be on hold throughout, everything goes to the wall once your thesis gets its teeth into you. Can you keep a corner of yourself detached for work, friends and family, and for your own sanity? The drop-out rate for PhD students is considerable. Many people leading busy lives find it impossible to give themselves the concentration to reach the finishing post.
In the past, the process of obtaining a creative writing PhD was somewhat woolly. Now it is more structured with regular supervisions, vivas at certain points along the way and attempts to standardize requirements across institutions. Much discussion has taken place around the topic of how a creative writing PhD differs from writing a novel or a collection of poetry/short fiction. This depends perhaps on how the requirements of originality and contribution to knowledge are interpreted. Some univerisities accept the creative work as the whole thesis but most require a mixture of creative and critical work. In this case the thesis consists of a body of creative writing of publishable standard accompanied by a critical section which bears some relevance to the creative work.
After initial enrolment, you will usually be required to attend a registration viva to discuss the project in depth. At this stage you will have submitted a detailed proposal which includes your intended literary review and methodology as well as a plan of the creative piece. You may be required to register first for M.Phil, with the opportunity to transfer to PhD at a later stage, undergoing a transfer viva to ascertain if your work is of suitable standard to complete the PhD. If not, you may be given the opportunity for a further viva to bring the work to standard or you may simply be awarded the M.Phil. This viva comes in the later stages, usually after the research has been completed and the candidate is ready for the writing up stage. Both transfer and final viva panels include an extramural member from another university. Your supervisor may attend your transfer viva but will not be present at your final viva which usually consists of another faculty member from your own institution and a chairman as well as the external examiner. Vivas can be quite intimidating but not if you are sure of your thesis. You are invited to defend it, so must expect critical questioning and be able to argue your point and stand your ground. Nobody wants you to fail and the viva offers a rare opportunity for you to discuss your work with people who are interested in what you have to say.
To keep you on track throughout, you need regular sessions with your appointed supervisor(s). A good relationship with your supervisor is a tremendous support on your lonely journey. Unfortunately the ideal is not always possible; personality clashes or prolonged absences may cause problems, in large institutions the supervisor’s time may be severely limited and supervisors may move on and have to be replaced with someone who is not familiar with your work. If possible try to set up an agreed programme of supervisions from the outset. Most problems can be overcome through open discussion but if they become severe it is best to ask for a change of supervisor rather than to struggle on.
Beginning a PhD is a lonely affair. You enter uncharted territory and at first it is common to feel completely lost. Supervisors can help you but consistent support also comes from developing links with the institution and with fellow students. Most universities offer a study room for research students, there may be a research student group or forum, possibly with its own magazine. You may be required to undertake some formal teaching as part of your studies and this will ground you in the social environment of the campus. You will be expected to attend seminars and conferences and later to give papers yourself and you will be invited to social gatherings within your department, all excellent confidence-building and networking opportunities.
The structure and supervisory support systems of the PhD course are designed to equip you with a clear plan of work and a set of goals. However, the very nature of creative writing means that the whole process is a journey of self-discovery. As you develop your writing and researching you may find your topic shifting as you discover underlying themes within your thesis which were not apparent at the outset. Reflection is an important part of the PhD, one reason why it is given such a long time-span. If you begin with a solid plan, you will at least have something to cling to when you begin to get lost in the mazy trails of research but be prepared to be flexible and allow yourself to be sidetracked at times; turnings may lead to strikingly original ideas. Keeping a journal and reading it back every so often is a great way to spot overarching themes in your work and it’s an ideal place for snippings and jottings.
It’s this flexibility and depth that distinguishes the creative writing PhD from the MA. Here, you are your own teacher, with no one to lead you, but you are free to explore and set your own research criteria. Don’t be afraid to revise your original proposal, the thesis will undoubtedly move on from this as you yourself develop and change. A bit like the ugly duckling, at some point in the latter stages, you suddenly realise you know exactly what you are writing and you are transforming into that coveted persona, ‘the competent researcher’.
The final stages are long and hard when you find you live, eat and breathe your thesis to the martyrdom of everyone around you but that magic moment when you walk out of your final viva with your doctorate makes it all worthwhile. And you are changed as a person; you may well get a leg up the career ladder but you will also have an identity, with your institution and as a writer, you will have ongoing skills for future research and the most important thing, you will have discovered your own voice, your poetics, your personal approach to writing.
Carol Fenlon is a freelance writer and creative writing tutor. She also writes short stories and her first novel, Consider The Lilies, the story of a feral child, won the Impress Novel Prize 2007. Carol lives in Skelmersdale, Lancashire and can be found at www.carolfenlon.com