A creative writing PhD looks pretty good on paper. A research adventure into a topic you find fascinating, mentoring from expert supervisors, immersion in a creative community and in some cases a scholarship to go with it, all with the aim of adding something new to the literary landscape.
But is it right for you?
PhD island can be a lonely one. You’ll be spending several years at the precipice of a research project that only you can complete. Just you, your laptop, your Endnote library and your over-full brain.
The writing is a challenge, but it might be the least of your worries. There’s also university administration, choosing a supervisor, scholarship woes, finances, family life, mental health, milestones, pressure to publish, arcane referencing requirements and inevitable crippling self-doubt to contend with. Can we go back to the writing bit, please?
There are plenty of success stories. Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize-winning novel ‘The Strays’ was the result of a PhD, and Kate Brabon’s Vogel Prize-winning novel ‘The Memory Artist’ was also written through a PhD.
But if you think a PhD is a fast-track to superstardom, think again.
As member and newly-annointed doctor Glenice Whitting found out, publication isn’t always on the cards for novels forged in the fires of academia. So it’s good to have other goals guiding you.
Laura Jean McKay’s advice is to go into a PhD program not for the title, but for the project.
“Go into your creative writing PhD with a project that you would do whether you are studying it or not,” she says. “If you have conviction in your project, the research, supervision and creativity will come more easily. When the odd hurdles of PhD life inevitably rise up, you can say ‘I don’t care, I’m writing this damned novel/story/thing anyway’. It helps.”
Rosey Chang also believes that passion is your friend. “You need to want to do the creative writing PhD with every cell in your being, because there will be obstacles,” she says.
And while your project will be new, plenty of people have trodden the PhD path before you – and you can find a handy trail of resources as you go.
One of the great things a PhD can deliver is time to delve deep into your project, and question your ideas and your assumptions.
“Don’t feel as if your initial ideas are welded on,” Robert Gott says. “You will have room to alter them as you go along.”
Some of the outcomes may not even be the project itself, but the insight into your own practice.
Rose Michael wrote in ‘Overland’ that the relationship with her supervisor was the most important part of her PhD.
“This unique experience, in all its complexity and intensity, is an introduction to – an induction into – how our writing and publishing industry works. I have been awarded professional and personal insight into how I can now further my development alone”
Whether you’re thinking about a PhD, or you’re in the middle of one, we’re running a session for you on what it’s really like to write a creative work through practice-led research.
Come along for frank discussion on PhDo’s and PhDon’ts from writers who’ve been there. We can’t promise great puns, but we can promise to answer some of your questions. Find out more here.