May 152019

#6: Start a PhD (or, What Do You Do With a BA in Creative Writing?)

I’ve been wanting to do a PhD for a long time. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I realised it was what I wanted to do: I was in a lecture in second year of my undergraduate degree (nine years ago! *gulp*) and our lecturer explained that she was doing her PhD in Creative Writing alongside teaching.

My brain went, “wait, you can do a PhD in Creative Writing?” Then, a second later, “YES! I want to do THAT!”

In a wonderfully circular outcome to this story, that particular lecturer who first inspired me to want to do a PhD is now my PhD supervisor!

Let’s back up a bit…

The exact plan for how I was going to do all this has changed over the years, of course – I entirely assumed I’d be graduated and finished long before 30, based purely on a “3 years BA, 1 year Masters, 3 year PhD” schema. Turns out, 20 year old Jess was woefully naive about things like the impossibility of doing a Masters in one year while also having a job, the very real feeling of Needing A Damn Break after finishing one programme before starting the next, the fact that hardly anyone does an arts PhD full time because there’s no funding, and just how much all of this costs.

Thankfully, I’ve also grown out of the idea that I need to do All The Things in my twenties in order for them to have meaning. (She says, while running an entire blog dedicated exclusively to wringing as much as possible out of the last shreds of her twenties!)

A year or so ago, I nearly – very nearly – had a PhD offer at the University of Nottingham. The paperwork wasn’t all signed and sealed but my prospective supervisor was keen and it seemed pretty much a done deal.

Lesson the first: never assume anything in academia is a done deal until you have a signed offer letter in your hand/inbox.

Suffice to say it fell through. The second supervisor unfortunately realised she had too much on her plate and dropped out, leaving us unable to find anyone else suitable.

Lesson the second: without two supervisors totally on board, your project can be the most amazing thing in the world but you’ll never get it off the ground.

Anyway, back to the drawing board I went. It was via a strange twist of fate involving my very helpful friend Daniela and a “Women in Academia” Facebook group that I ended up reaching out to my wonderful  alma mater, the University of Winchester.

With the help of my two prospective supervisors, I honed my application and tweaked my project until it was ready to go and submit for formal consideration.

Lesson the third: at least once, you’ll spend six straight hours putting together a bibliography… and that’s just the application process.

Next thing I knew, I got an offer of an interview… with five days’ notice. So I took some last-minute Time Off In Lieu from work, dropped basically everything else, and threw myself into revising and studying and practicing answers to possible questions I thought I might be asked. I also, due to the nature of the project, read five books on sexual violence in four days. Do Not Recommend.

So I drove to Winchester, entertaining myself on the 4-hour drive by listening to audiobooks of texts I thought I might refer to in my project. I got there with 2 hours to spare, grabbed a sandwich for lunch, and took a little stroll down memory lane…

Winchester Cathedral against a blue sky.
Hello beautiful, I missed you.

Two hours later I found myself back on the West Downs campus, where I lived in my first year. I had the weirdest sense of having never been away. Honestly my feet could have carried me straight back to Flat 83 Room 5 without a second thought. Except, well…

“I walk through the quad, and think… Oh my God!
These kids are so much younger than me!”
– Avenue Q, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College”

The interview itself was, looking back, not all that scary. But at the time, it felt scarier than any job interview I’ve ever done! I think because the stakes were so high because I wanted this so much. It wasn’t even all that long – less than half an hour all in. At the end, the two interviewers sent me out so they could confer…

Imagine my surprise when they invited me back in five minutes or so later and… made me an offer there and then. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I couldn’t work out if I wanted to laugh or cry so I think I did a little bit of both.

Outside, I phoned my partner Styx and then my mum.

Me: “I got it!”
Him: “Of course you did. I never doubted you.”

(Ladies: get yourselves a partner who unwaveringly believes in you.)

If you want to find out what happened next, follow me on Twitter and check out my hashtag #AdventuresInPhDLand.

Dr Jess will see you in 6 years or so.


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