To PhD or not to PhD? That is the question

Julie Gardner

I retired in 2017, after 43 years in primary education, and signed up to do the MA in Creative Writing at NTU. I enjoyed the course so much I didn’t want it to end. So, a week or two after handing in my final pieces of work, I applied to do a Creative Writing PhD. Naively, I thought I could start in January 2020, but I’d left it a bit late for that. My start date was agreed for April Fools’ Day. I looked forward to getting back onto the number 4 from the city to the Clifton Campus. There’s something very satisfying about using my senior pass on a student bus.

Then lockdown happened, and I was asked if I’d prefer to defer. I replied with an emphatic NO! I had nothing else to be getting on with (apart from tidying my flat and sorting out all that boring paperwork). I was eager to get started, confident that I would be motivated and disciplined, that my days would be spent reading and writing. Maybe I’d even get ahead of schedule. So I was disappointed when I found out I had to defer anyway. There’s nothing to stop you getting on with it, I told myself: you know what you’re doing. But with the cafés closed, the trains and buses out of bounds, the city streets deserted, my ideas seemed to shrivel. Everything I wrote seemed trite. I decided it made more sense to concentrate on reading. I read a lot of novels. Looking back, I see it was all women writers: Ali Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Gwendoline Riley, Sally Rooney, Megan Hunter, Sylvia Plath. My ancient copy of The Bell Jar fell apart as I read it.

Hoping to trigger some inspiration, I re-read some of the poets who had inspired my proposal: Fiona Benson, Tom Sastry, Sinéad Morrissey, Andrew McDonnell.  But as lockdown continued, I decided to wait for the official start before getting on with ideas for the PhD. The world seemed so unpredictable and uncertain I wasn’t really convinced the official start would ever take place.

But it did, and I have been officially a student again since late June. I attended an online induction session and had my first supervision. The next one is due very soon. There’s work to be done and suddenly the whole thing feels very, very daunting. I squirm a bit when people ask me what my topic is. ‘Poetry,’ I say. ‘Fear and Hope.’

Three months in, I’ve got a lot of early drafts of poems and a couple of short stories. I’m not pleased with any of them. The easing of lockdown does not seem to have coincided with an easing of my confidence crisis. I’m still reading but I flit from text to text, pouncing on ideas and then failing to make headway. I felt I’d made progress when I learned how to spell Schopenhauer. When it all feels too hard, I settle down with a murder mystery. I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries. I often think I’m probably not clever enough to do a PhD. I hope I’ve got imposter syndrome.

Julie Gardner is a new PhD student, and is writing a creative-led PhD on the themes of fear and hope. (As her supervisor, and a champion of her talents, I’d like to point out that Julie is a shining example of what a great mature student can be: diligent, thoughtful, open to ideas, excited, and enthusiastic. The doubts she expresses above are common, especially when people start out on a major new project: how do we know what we are doing? As a community, we overcome these things together, as well as by ourselves. Rory)

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