​Some thoughts on reaching the end of my first year as a Creative Writing PhD student


I’m now a year in, and delighted I made the decision to enroll. In the hope that my experience will be helpful to others wondering whether this step is the right one to take, I’ve summarised some of what I’ve learned, below.

A PhD is a huge commitment in terms of time and expense, so, before enrolling, take plenty of advice, and search the internet for blogs by novelists who’ve done PhDs. The last thing you want to do is make a time-consuming and expensive mistake (studies suggest many PhD students (whatever their discipline) leave before completing their research).
I took the plunge because I felt it was right for me; I’d flourished under the MA system, and with the option for 80% of my PhD to be a novel, with 20% as a critical essay, the mix seemed just right.


Things to consider:

  • Enrolling. Don’t enrol for a PhD without having taken an MA (this applies to Creative Writing – I can’t speak for other disciplines). No matter how talented a writer you are, and no matter how well-read, the MA will acquaint you with a pretty rigorous system of tutorials and work-in-progress sessions with other students. Part of becoming an academic (as well as a better writer) is learning about the academic system, how it evaluates what you do, how you read as a writer, and what critical reading you need to do within your particular genre and beyond. Your MA will furnish you with this practice, and will ease your passage into PhD.


  • Reading. Before I began to study Creative Writing formally, I thought I had a handle on the basic differences between genres. I followed various literary agents and read authors’ blogs, and I had an understanding of how the publishing industry works. It took my MA to teach me that there are many more styles of novel out there than I’d realised, and it is becoming clearer during my PhD that there are good, mediocre and pretty poor examples of each already on the bookshelves. Quite simply, with some guided reading suggestions from a tutor who understands what I’m trying to achieve, and a wider selection of book reviews offered by my PhD cohort (these appear on a diverse ‘What I’m Reading’ intranet forum), I have now surveyed the literature relevant to my field. I haven’t read it all yet, but the list is drawn up, and the additional reading I’ve amassed has provided a positive influence on my prose.


  • Writing. Nothing makes you perform like a date in the diary. Rather than a publisher’s deadline on which to hand in a finished novel, the PhD provides along-the-way critiquing which will shape your work as you go. This means that you’re constantly refining both your prose and your intentions, rather than bumbling along on your own, tackling 100,000 words plus before anybody else gets to tell you what they think. The submissions for PhD prose samples vary between 3,000 words and 5,000 words (I’m part time, so for full time it may be more, or it may be more frequently, I’m not sure). These submissions go alternately to your tutor, and your work-in-progress group. You get to spot pretty quickly which work-in-progress members will actually help you out by critiquing you properly, and who is just coasting through because they don’t like this part of the system. Fortunately, there are several members in each group, so the weaker links shouldn’t affect you. Once you've upgraded (achieved formal recognition that your project will make PhD rather than being cut short at MPhil) then you can choose whether or not to carry on with Work in Progress groups.


  • Positive & Negative Feedback. If the academic system suits you, by the time you enrol for PhD, you will be used to receiving feedback from readers who don’t like what you write. Ignore sensible advice at your peril. But PhD isn’t all about people telling you what you’re doing wrong. Positive feedback, in the form of telling you which bits of your novel actually work really well, is fabulous. 


  • Reasons for Doing a PhD. My reasons are pretty clear-cut, but they are only my own and are not indicative of the many other reasons out there. So, here goes:

Writers don’t know how much they are going to earn. There are those who hit the jackpot, become popular and sign film deals that make them millionaires overnight, and there are those who barely sell at all. Some novels come into fashion after their writers’ deaths, others sink without trace. No writer knows at the outset which of these brackets they will fall into. I have a background in teaching (music, for 22 years) and my PGCE is in the post-16 sector. It therefore makes sense for me to aim to teach creative writing to adults, whilst continuing as a novelist. All too often we’re told to write for the love of it. This isn’t wrong (you need to be pretty driven to write 100,000 words in the first place!) but everybody needs to work to live, and just because you’re creative, that doesn’t make you any different. Have a goal, but make it a sensible, achievable one. Although I’d love to be a millionaire, this is not definitely achievable. But being a published novelist and a creative writing tutor is!
When I look back over my first year, I can’t believe how many changes I’ve made to my novel-in-progress, and for the better. My reading list is firmed up, and I can see a timeline through it, of the most fabulous female sci fi fantasy writers who’ve created a platform for me to write the way I write today. Without the PhD, I wouldn’t understand the development of the genre, or how it responds to changing feminist thought. Creatively, I’ve learned how not to muddy the waters when switching from a present narrative to a past memory; why disposable characters are not a good idea; and that plots don’t have to be linear, and novels don’t necessarily have to be plot-driven… and I’m still learning.

August 2015