The PhDiaries, Part 1: This is All Joseph Campbell’s Fault

These blogs were originally posted to my Patreon across late 2022. They’re intended as insights into my own creative and research process, and advice for folks who might be interested in getting into Arts research themselves. Enjoy!

In August 2022, I completed a very exciting milestone: I submitted my PhD, containing a novel manuscript and accompanying theoretical work. You all joined me to celebrate then, and now, my benevolent patrons, you get to peek behind the curtain and hear some more detailed thoughts. 

What challenges do you face when completing a doctorate? What the heck is a creative thesis, anyway? How do you deal with burnout, stress, and the existential ennui that comes with writing stories during a global pandemic? What’s teaching like? What happens next? All this, and more, await you in this upcoming series of posts! And, of course, if you have any specific questions, feel free to pop them in the comments!

Now, I’m not done yet: at time of writing, I’m waiting for examiner feedback. So, while I wait for four years of gruelling and deeply personal work to be assessed by professional strangers, I cordially invite you all to join me in Hell! Come along with me for a retrospective on this whole process, as I talk through my experience and offer some semblance of advice or perspective for those of you who are maybe interested in trying something similar.

My experience, of course, is going to be quite specific, but I hope the things I talk about can branch out to be applicable to a variety of people! But some context, first, so you know where I’m coming from.

Fighting with Heroic Honour(s)

I did an Arts PhD in Australia. But first, I completed my undergraduate degree and then took what we call an Honours year, which is sort of a mini-postgrad project that tacks onto your undergrad and makes it shiny. e.g., now I have a Bachelor of Writing with Honours. Two extra words that signify I did an extra year of work!

As far as I understand, Honours is kind of a funny Australian thing that you don’t find in many other places, so here’s how that worked. In your Honours year, you produce a self-directed research project, overseen by a supervisor from within your faculty. In the first half of the year you get some guidance on stuff like research skills and academic writing, and for the second half you’re unleashed to finish writing the thing.

An Honours thesis is 20,000 words, and I had a couple of options. I could have done a 20k essay, straight theory work, digging deep into a field-relevant (i.e., lit studies) topic of my choice. Alternatively, they offered a creative thesis: 15k words of an original creative project (prose, poetry, script, what have you) and 5k of theory backing it up and arguing for its contribution to the literary landscape. I took the second option, and that’s how we got Beast: A Hero Tale.

It might be tempting to think of a creative thesis as “writing a novella and then adding a 5k essay to explain why it’s cool”. Which, alright, it sort of is. But the creative component is your research output, is your academic argument. In Beast’s case, for example, I sought to investigate and challenge the gendered assumptions baked into Joseph Cambell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and I performed that investigation and challenge by writing a story where The Hero is a girl (loosely adapting an Irish legend starring the beautifully beastly and brash hero Cúchullain). The 5k exegesis lets you in on my thought process and backs up my argument with citations, but the creative artefact itself is where the oomph was. It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it: plenty of books are written to be a statement about something or an exploration of a certain set of ideas. They just don’t always get handed in for a grade!

Sidenote: have you all seen Maggie Mae Fish’s video unpacking the biases and generalisations in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? It’s really good. Take it from me. I’m a ~ Campbell Scholar ~

Now, I totally recommend Honours—or an equivalent—because it’s a great tasting platter of academic work. If you hate it, then good news! It’s only a year, ten months if you’re being realistic, and you can flee the scene at the end. If you love it, good news! It can be your springboard into the bigger world of postgraduate work. Having fallen in love with the creative research process, I applied for a scholarship to start a PhD. I was told that I’d won it… on the condition that I achieved a certain grade on my Honours project. Cue a bizarre, liminal, nerve-wracking month where I was waiting for my results.

But, as I’m sure you guessed, I was successful, and in 2018 I launched into my doctoral research—afforded the ability to quit my crummy restaurant job and study full-time! Now I just had to work out what I was going to… do.

Going Bigger

If you’re at this early stage, don’t panic. As I’ll explore more next time, while you do need a solid idea and argument, they sort of don’t expect you to stick with it. Not wholly. Research projects evolve and change as they progress, and as you unearth new ideas, configure new arguments, and narrow down your initial focus (which is almost always going to be T O O B I G), your research questions and research proposal will naturally change. It’s sort of entertaining looking back at my original pitch document. The idea, broadly, is basically the same, but a lot of the details within that framework have changed.

What was that original pitch? Well, I basically said, “what about my Honours idea but, um, MORE?” Not a novella loosely retelling a single heroic legend in order to play with gender roles, but a whole collection of stories—a saga, a mythic cycle—doing that? Not just playing with The Hero and gender, but a bevy of other archetypes: forbidden lovers, soothsayers, tricksters, each with some sort of queer twist or gender-flip? And the uni said, “sure, cool” and off I went.

I acknowledge that my experience with a PhD is very different because I was able to get this scholarship. It functioned as (small, but not insignificant) income for three years, and allowed me to work with a degree of freedom and time that I would not have had otherwise. And I know this, because, well, my degree ended up taking more than those funded three years… but we can come back to that in a later entry.

The process of talking yourself up for applications might be gruelling, but if you can put in the time I do highly recommend shooting for scholarships, even small ones. Grants, travel funds, free books… you are entitled, nay, obliged, to squeeze as much free shit out of your institution as you can. What’s available will differ from uni to uni, of course, but don’t be shy about reaching out and seeing what’s out there. Your supervisor will help you out with this.

Finding a Good Team

Speaking of supervisors—this is another important ingredient in your postgrad studies mix! I had a moment of terror before I began, as the lovely supervisor I’d had for my Honours project moved overseas in the middle of the year. Your primary supervisor needs to be working at your institution, so I was suddenly adrift. Luckily, a long-time mentor of mine in the faculty linked me up with someone he thought could be a good fit, and after one quick meeting we both agreed to try it out.

Which is honestly sort of bananas, due to the size of the commitment, but it ended up working out fantastically. My primary supervisor has been rad: even if her own work and research expertise hasn’t always aligned exactly with my topics, she got the vibe of the project from early on and has really helped it reach its full potential.

So, regarding that, here’s my advice: don’t panic if you can’t find someone who perfectly aligns with your subject. If you find someone that you’re creatively (and emotionally) compatible with, you can work out most things from there. A good supervisor will see their own limitations and help you get assistance from elsewhere to fill in their own gaps. For example, we hit a certain point where it became clear that queer theory was going to be a big part of my project. My primary wasn’t super across this, so she rang for someone else at the uni who was, and brought her on for first consultation and then, eventually, as a member of my panel. And it worked out great!

And lo, here I am, holding Gender Mischief: Trickster Characters and Non-binary Identity in Young Adult Fiction. I’m sure you can already see that this sounds a little different to what I proposed at first, though some of the components match up. How did that happen? Well, we’ll come back to that next time as I walk through the most challenging, yet fascinating, part of the creative research process: turning A Cool Idea into an actual creative project, diving down research rabbit holes, and narrowing everything down. Thanks for coming along for the ride, and stay tuned!

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Filed under PhDiaries

6 responses to “The PhDiaries, Part 1: This is All Joseph Campbell’s Fault

  1. I did read about this before, but belatedly, congratulations on submitting your PhD! I know the journey isn’t over just yet, but that’s still such an enormous milestone, my hat off to you! I hope your wait time for and actual defense isn’t too nail-biting for you – although maybe all of them are by nature (mine certainly was, at least).

    As a side note, I didn’t know Australia also had such a thing as an Honours year. NZ does too, but I know next to nothing about the Australian post-grad system, so that was an interesting tidbit of information to learn about from this blog post. 🙂

    • Thank you so much! Would you believe I juuuuust got my mark back earlier this month? Now I just have some minor revisions to do – thank goodness my uni doesn’t require us to stand up and do a verbal defence, because that sounds dreadful!!

      • Yeah, gotta say, my verbal defense was not fun (is anyone’s)? It wasn’t super formal (me, my two supervisors, and a visiting ‘expert’ to make comments and ask questions – the second expert was overseas and so emailed in his comments) – but still, by far my least favorite part of the entire process.

  2. Pingback: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis Feedback: February ’23 Roundup | The Afictionado

  3. Also regarding funding in the Nordics and I think in the Netherlands and a few other places, PhDs are considered jobs, so they only advertise as many positions as they have money for and you’re paid for the entirety of it (usually 4 years). But it does mean there’s even more competition. I am currently waiting to hear back to see if I get an interview for a position (which I should get (the interview), but still stressful.

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