What’s involved in doing a PhD?

I thought I might give you some background on what a cultural studies PhD course is like. There are two main things to know:

You pass or you fail all on one piece of work, a thesis that (at my university) can be a maximum of 70,000 words long

Your thesis has to be ‘an original contribution to your field of study’.

That might not sound so bad, after all, saying new stuff shouldn’t be too tricky once you’ve got to know your topic well… Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Firstly you need to choose a topic to write about. To begin with everyone always picks something big and exciting. This is because 70k words sounds like a lot and you want to make sure that you can fill the space. Your tutors, if they’re doing their job, will tell you to pick something smaller. And again… And again… Until you end up with a tiny fragment of your original idea. You will probably be immensely annoyed by this point because it will often have taken you at least a year. You then need to put this all into 500 words on something called ‘Form 1’.

Form 1 was actually created in Macedonia in the third century B.C. as a device of mental torture. It requires you to say in a tiny amount of words the equivalent of the way an acorn shows potential for becoming an oak tree. It will seem impossible, annoy you intensely, but finally you get it done.

In the UK system (I don’t know about the US one) you will begin on an MPhil/PhD course. If you are a full time student you will then have about three years to complete your course, if you are part-time you have up to six. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. I went for part-time and, due to the PhD taking up many hours each week could only work part-time too. I started website to keep my artwork ticking over, then started selling T-shirts on it to try and make some money to keep the site costs covered and hopefully buy me some food (the profit thing didn’t really work, but at least it kept the site online). So, if I hadn’t done the part-time course I wouldn’t have this site. Like I say, there are advantages in both approaches. If I’d done it full-time I’d have finished a couple of years ago and could now be getting on with… doing something else.

So you begin writing down your ideas and grouping them into chapters. I started out with a plan for seven chapters of 10k words each, then six of about 11k, now I’m on five of 12k each, and that’s going to be an extremely tight fit… Those tiny ideas that you never thought you’d be able to say much about just stretch out into the distance in a cultural studies thesis. You focus on creating your ‘original contribution to your field of study’ and then hit a snag.

You find out that while you are supposed to be ‘original’, you’re not really allowed to be ‘revolutionary’. Every idea you come up with needs to be carefully placed in the context of pre-existing debates. You’re welcome to mix in lots of sources, from pop-culture to ancient philosophy wherever it’s justified, but you must always be referencing ideas that have been worked through by many other people before you. Finding a way to do this and still be original is very much the core of a PhD.

Any idea in modern culture is like a fractal picture. You look at it from a distance and you see the main features of the image and think you understand it all, but the closer you get, the more that you realise that everything you knew before was just a larger structure with more complexity beneath and between it. Move closer and you see this again, and again… This isn’t really the way if you are doing a science PhD, where you really can go out and find something new, but in a cultural studies PhD you are often filling in the gaps where other people have missed things.

That’s the funny thing though: you might think that, with the history of literature and philosophy behind us, there wouldn’t be many gaps or a lot to say about them, but there really is, and the closer you look at those gaps, the more detail you find. Suddenly that idea that was only going to be a quick thought on the fourth page is still being discussed ten pages later and you’re considering whether it should have a chapter to itself…

Anyway, after a few years you get to present a portion of your work to an MPhil upgrade committee. They look at your work, interview you for about an hour to discuss your ideas and then decide whether to make you a full PhD student or not. In my case I gave a great interview but my chapter had too many ideas in it and the writing style was too dense, so they asked me to resubmit six months later… Yep, there goes half a year in the blink of any eye. Time really does fly.

I’m now approaching the end of the course. I think I’m coming up for the five year mark at the end of this year. Five years… That’s a long time to stay at one job. Can you imagine working on just one essay for five years? Thinking about one thing every single day for five years? People wonder why my animations are a little odd, and so I present you with item of evidence number one: doing a thesis drives you slightly mad. I don’t think that anyone who is truly in their right mind actually does a PhD. You have to be a little odd for it to sound like a good idea to start with, but by the time you’ve finished you are then the world-expert in your field of study. Seriously, I know a lot more about William Gibson’s books than is healthy for anyone, and I am probably one of the most knowledgeable people on his works in the world. That level of obsession is bound to make anyone a little cuckoo.

Once you’ve done a PhD you’re never the same again. That which does not kill us makes us stranger, and perhaps there are few legal things in the world that warp a mind like doing a PhD; however it is something I’m very proud of. I’ve worked very hard on it, and I will be delighted when I’ve finished, but that twisting of the mind to deconstruct the world into the tiniest details sticks with you even when you’re not looking at something related to your studies. You get so accustomed to looking in the cracks of ideas and theories that you cannot go back to accepting reality the way that you would have before.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, it’s very hard work, and drives you more or less insane, but if you can do it then it is also deeply satisfying. There is a high you get from finding a new concept that just can’t be fully described. I guess it’s a bit like finding a hidden key and unlocking a mysterious door, suddenly a whole new space is open before you and you know that few if any have seen these things before. It’s those moments that make a PhD course worthwhile.

3 thoughts on “What’s involved in doing a PhD?”

  1. You shall, I presume, inform us of whether you pass your defense?

    In the States a Ph. D. is slightly more complicated. In order to become a Ph. D. Candidate one must usually pass a series of examinations to demonstrate one’s compitence in the field. In mathematics this is usually four exams in something pathologically mind-bending such as algebras where commutivity does not apply or spaces where infinity is just another number. After this one gets to the bit of creating an original contribution to the field, but in mathematics this involves producing entirely new theorems.

    I would have pursued that myself, but I was afraid of a life of permanent underemployment. I am now pursuing a Ph. D. in machine learning instead. I am also doing this part-time, and in my thirties, which is never easy.

  2. I was thinking about, maybe, doing a PhD after my Chemistry degree (which I haven’t even started yet). The combination of this, and of seeing my Mum’s 200 or so page PhD thesis on Calcium ions is making me wonder whether it’s such a sensible idea…

  3. I am thinking of doing a PhD in Practical Theatre but I am a bit wary about the application procedure. Any positive helpful tips would be appreciated.

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