Monday, 18 December 2017

PhD Stock-Take

Having lost a full week to The Dreaded Lurgy last week, I thought I’d begin the wind-down to Christmas period with a stock-take. As a PhD is a slippery bugger, it’s almost impossible to fully itemise and draw up an inventory, but here’s a decent attempt as I go into my final, full* calendar year of study.

·         Poems drafted: 60+
·         Of which I’m satisfied: 30+
·         Collection length to-date: 47 pages (Well within the realms of ‘satisfactory’, but still a way away from ‘great.’ Howay.)
·         Critical component word-count: 26,000
·         Of which I’m satisfied: Impossible to discern, but I’d say two thirds of it is decent.

While this absolutely should not be thought of as a formal two-thirds report to RCUK, AHRC or Newcastle University, as doctoral researchers we are encouraged to be reflexive learners. So, as somebody in the business of words, let’s break down the slightly arbitrary quantitative data above and get at the meat:

·         I’ve drafted a lot of shit material. Most of the stuff sitting in my drafts folder will not see the light of day in the PhD, unless...
·         It is cannibalised. For poets, this actually-opportunistic phrase is one often applied to the process of allowing a stronger poem to subsume still-strong elements of an altogether weaker effort. Normally this process is chronologically typical: i.e. a ‘poor’ poem written six months ago, which I know is beyond help, can later yield some of its healthy limbs to prop up a poem that isn’t quite there. Occasionally the process is reversed, with the older model being revved-up by glitzier components from the newer model. In either case, it’s messy and sometimes the hybrid poem itself has to be rejected.
·         That said, I have written out (not for the first time), all of the poems I currently think contain merit and/or are thematically on-point (i.e. they speak broadly to my research questions) into one document, and that document is forty-seven pages long. Superficially at least, I have a collection which provides a skeletal outline of a thesis.
·         Combined with 26,000 words of critical prose (again, on paper) 80-90% of my PhD is written. Would I be happy to submit that in an emergency? I absolutely would not.
·         This is mainly because the major discrepancy with the project right now is the disharmony between the poems and the criticism. While two thirds of my criticism is, dare I say it, good, the final third of it is nebulous at best. This means that a substantial part of 2018 is going to be spent making those final 10,000 words sing from the same sheet as the first 20,000; and to extend the metaphor, the real magic will occur when I marry up those 30,000 words of criticism with a fuller collection and get the harmonies pitch-perfect**.
·         And I have to factor in a 5,000-word ‘bridging chapter’, in which I summarily connect the thematic collection (answering the research questions via a series of taps on the shoulder) with the critical exegesis (extending the research questions via a sustained dialectical extension of knowledge).
·         That’s all before doing the viva-voce: an oral examination in which I defend the shit out of a bunch of poems that I’ve spent three and a half years gestating.
·         Itself all having to fit ’round my wedding, in June.

Reading back work written in the past twenty-seven months, a few things become apparent. They were all outlined to me at the beginning of the PhD, and are largely ‘common sense’ phenomena, but nonetheless they bear reflecting on:
·         The stuff you write at the beginning of a PhD – like the stuff you write in the middle of  a PhD – is not going to excite you as much as the stuff you’ve just written. That’s only a problem for you: as far as the examiners are concerned, this was all written in one, extended session, thus explaining its academic rigour, its watertight referencing, its innovative extension of knowledge in the field and its coherence as a sustained piece of scholarly work of the highest calibre.
·         The person you are in the closing stages of a PhD is not the person you were when you wrote your proposal, therefore your original proposal is about as useful to you as the mild humour in a surreal joke about household appliances being made of chocolate. But, again, this is only your problem, so either do some retrofitting or recalibrate your research question(s) to fit the person you’ve become while you’ve written all those odd words.
·         Creative Writers only (the following may well apply in a tangential way to Fine Artists, Musicians and practice-based researchers generally, but I suspect it doesn’t apply to any other PhDs, including English Literature ones): the PhD is not the book. Repeat: the PhD is not the book. It might be the skeleton – of the poetry collection, novel or script – but it is not the book that the publisher will take.

*The current aim is to submit the PhD around this time next year. If I can get it in in October 2018 (when my funding expires), then great, but like all good PhD students, I will probably require a little extra time.

**It will not be ‘pitch-perfect’. Somebody once told me that a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize, so there’s no way I’m busting a ball on the impossible.

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