February 5


Don’t Do a PhD Unless You Want to Do a PhD

From time to time, people contact me and ask what it’s like to be doing a PhD in Creative Writing. During those conversations, I will usually ask a question of my own: why they’re interested in the PhD, what they hope to get out of it. Often, the answers I hear make me kind of nervous.

To explain why: today is Friday, February 6. At noon, my third and final Comprehensive Exam begins.

Here at the University of Tennessee, each Comprehensive Exam is a 72-hour test, requiring the student to choose four questions to answer (from a list of six to eight) and write about 1,500 words answering each. It’s 6,000 words of scholarly writing, plus citations etc, over three continuous days.

I’ve been preparing for this exam, on and off, since early October, when I met my advisor, the brilliant Michael Knight, and we agreed on a rationale and an approach. I proposed the initial reading list and my committee added more books. While my first two Comprehensive Exams were meant to test my ability to write about literature broadly, this final exam is meant to help me write my dissertation, and as my dissertation will be a historical novel set in 18th century Edinburgh, my reading list includes historical novels like Wolf Hall and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 18th century prose such as Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Henry Home’s Six Sketches on the History of Man, and scholarly works such as Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660 – 1785.

If I pass the exam, I will be ABD: All But Dissertation.


In other words, I will have completed all the requirements of the PhD (the course work and reading, the teacher training, the teaching, the editorial assisting, the two language exams, the comprehensive exams) that lie before the writing of my novel and its companion essay. Additionally, once I become ABD, some of the more generous funding opportunities and teaching slots open up — Tennessee’s English department is already very well funded, but advanced PhDs get an even better deal. My fourth year in Knoxville may involve very little teaching indeed, leaving me a lot of time simply to write. I’m wonderfully, incredibly excited to get there.

However, I would caution anyone who decides to do a PhD in Creative Writing because they hope it will give them more time to write. There’s just so much other stuff to do. It’s such a demanding existence, in all sorts of directions, that it is probably not the best solution to a lack of writing time.

Of course, I don’t know your story. The PhD might exactly be what you need to get scribbling. But what I listen for, when people describe why they want to do a PhD, is whether they sound like they would enjoy the PhD work itself, and not simply experience it as a problem. If they would enjoy helping to produce scholarly and creative journals, or listening to people debate world systems theory, or presenting their own papers at conferences, or organising conferences for other writers.

If I were starting this thing again, I would tell myself to plan better, to try to make everything I had to do for the program produce something worthwhile — to make my mandatory French exam, for instance, lead into an actual achievement in the language. To love it all more, in other words.

Even if I have been intermittently successful at that, however, I’m still so grateful for the sheer pleasure of this life. That pleasure, of course, has been mixed with anxiety and exhaustion, but it remains a constant for me. The joy, even last night, of re-starting a book I’ve read through many times, Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, and re-seeing the entire argument — of opening, this morning, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and marveling once more at the first paragraph.

Career opportunities? I find that question hard to make sense of. For someone starting their PhD next year, that means they would be taking a bet on the state of higher education in America in about six years’ time. You would need to be quite a gambler, it seems to me, to be confident about the return on your investment of time. How good a job would it need to be, at the PhD’s end, to justify four or five years of a student-level salary? How many of those really good scholarly jobs exist now, and how many of them will still exist in six years’ time?

Now, for me, personally, a number of things seem to be coming together, strangely and mysteriously, and I’m feeling very happy about the future. But much of that is stuff I’ve done outside the PhD, and some of it is stuff that has simply developed in my life for the better, nothing I can really take responsibility for.

We will see. In another five years, I might disagree with everything I’ve written here.


academic life, creative writing, Michael Knight, PhD, PhD comprehensive exams, Samuel Johnson, University of Tennessee

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  • Thank you for the post, it was eye-opening for me. Now I can see how much work I will have to do to achieve my goals. But I’ll try and work my hardest. Your blog is really an interesting one to read.

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