About me and this site

Hello, and welcome to my personal website!

I’m a lecturer in eighteenth-century literature and culture at the University of York. Go here for information about about my research interests, teaching activity, grant capture, conferences I’ve organised, etc.

I’m also a creative writer – largely of fiction, but I also dabble in life writing and drama. I’ve had a few short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and my debut novel, RITES, came out a few years ago. It looks like this.  Since then, I’ve been working on another novel, about motherhood and monstrosity. I’m repped by Euan Thorneycroft at A.M.Heath.

I also write and present for radio. I was a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker 2014-2015, and since then I’ve written and presented numerous features for BBC Radio 3. I love this work, and I’m always keen to talk with producers who would like to discuss or develop pitches or programmes.

Finally, I like to write mainstream arts and history features for publications including BBC Arts, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times Literary Supplement, and History Today. Have a look at my work here, and drop me a line if you think I might be the right person to write a piece for you.

Say hello, if you like, on Twitter. Or you can contact me using the online form. 


Suboptimal: A Little, Common Story


This will be a long post, but it’s a little story. Little, and very common.

Last year, I had a miscarriage.

For a full thirty-two years of my life, I didn’t think I’d ever write those words. Why would I need to? Miscarriages were things that happened to other people. Not to me.

Last year, when I was thirty-three, I still didn’t think I’d ever write those words – albeit, for a different reason. By then, the statement was excruciatingly true. But I couldn’t bear the pain of admitting it in public. And I thought I never would.

I’m now thirty-four years old. I’ve had time to understand my little, common story. How it happened. What it meant, if anything.

In the summer of 2017, my partner Rich and I decided that we were “not not trying” for a baby. I’d vaguely heard somewhere that it took about a year for a woman in her early thirties to conceive, so I assumed that I wouldn’t need to think about it much for a while.

Well, almost immediately, I missed a period. That had never happened before – and I’d been off the pill for almost a year, so I knew it wasn’t my body adjusting to the hormonal change. So I took a pregnancy test. Negative. Right-o, I thought, just a false alarm.

A few weeks later, when I missed another period, I took another pregnancy test. Negative, again. Okay, I thought – something strange is going on here. But I had a lot going on in my life, and I’d been conditioned to think of pregnancy tests as gospel truth. I ignored the contradiction, and assumed I wasn’t pregnant. Life carried on.

By the time I missed a third period (still getting negative pregnancy tests), I was baffled enough to go to my GP. He gave me a form for a blood test. It was difficult for me to get to the hospital at that stage (I lived in York but worked in Cardiff, and I was in the car for 12-14 hours every week, on top of the hours demanded by my job as a lecturer and researcher). So, incredible though it sounds, it took me another couple of weeks to get the test done.

Before the results could come back, I started to feel a strange ‘hot stretching’, as I put it to myself, in my stomach. A sort of pulsating, or thrumming. A note of enlivenment. This worried me enough to take yet another shop-bought pregnancy test, while I waited for the bloods – probably the fifth or sixth I’d taken since August. This time, it was positive. Pregnant, it said. 1-2 weeks. The blood test results, when they came back, confirmed the result.

Well. There it was, then.

We felt what I imagine most people feel when they see that symbol. Joy, shock, terror, giddiness. But we felt something else, too. Confusion.

If I’d last had my period over three months ago, but the pregnancy test said I was only a week or two pregnant – what was going on? I had no symptoms yet, aside from those gentle ructions in my stomach. No sickness, no breast tenderness, no needing to pee. How could I be both 1-2 weeks pregnant and 13-14?

My GP shared my concerns. He fast-tracked me for a scan at our local hospital, which we were able to attend a week later.

In that intervening week, I did my usual drive down to Cardiff, and had a busy time teaching. I managed to catch a vicious cold, and on the drive back to York I started to feel very, very ill. But I smiled through it. We were having the scan when I got back. I’d know, at least, how far I was along. I’d be able to start making plans.

Here’s the thing. In that just-over-a-week of knowing that I was pregnant, our capacity for parenthood had grown like the beanstalk from the magic beans. We’d started to text each other possible baby names, and discuss the coin toss that would determine whether my surname or Rich’s got handed down to posterity. We’d started to talk about nurseries and schools, and laugh at our breakneck acceleration into middle age. There’s a picture of me from that week, taken by Rich, where I am smiling so broadly that my face looks as if it’s coming apart, like some sort of split bean.

We’d been tipped over a brink. We’d gone from thinking of ourselves as kids to thinking of ourselves as kid-havers. It happened with such speed, and such smoothness, and such a feeling of giddy delight.

That’s what made what happened next all the more devastating.

When we went for the scan, it was immediately obvious that something was wrong. The sonographer, consulting with his colleague, said, as if we weren’t there, “If it’s there, it’s very small.” “That could be something,” his colleague replied uncertainly, pointing to the screen – which I couldn’t see, because they hadn’t displayed the image on the visible monitor. I didn’t realize, at the time, how significant that was.

They asked me to go and have blood tests to track what was happening with my hCG levels. Off we went.

We waited, and the nurse took my blood. We waited, and the doctor said my hCG levels were not rising as fast as they should.

A word floated in the air. The word was suboptimal.

I did it all, that long Friday afternoon, with a smile clapped to my face, wiping my streaming nose, suppressing coughs, explaining to anyone who would listen that it was a bit of a funny situation, I could be 3 or 14 weeks, nobody could say. How funny!

Finally, when we were summoned back from the waiting room for what felt like the millionth time, the doctor pronounced that word. My pregnancy, it seemed, was suboptimal. It could be ectopic – the embryo implanted in the fallopian tube. Or could be that the chromosones had just mushed the wrong way. Or it could be other things, or none of them. Nobody could tell me. All I could do, the doctor said, with an apologetic air, was go home and wait it out, and come back for another blood test the following week.

Rich held my hand as we walked out of the hospital, towards the car. “It could be fine,” he said. “It could be fine!” I agreed.

But when we got in the car, and I was safely strapped in the passenger seat, I put my head in my hands and bawled.

A few days later, I started bleeding. My first emotion was overwhelming relief.

Relief? Yes, relief.  The word suboptimal had been haunting me since the moment it was pronounced. The pregnancy was less than best, yet still I carried it. Since the sonographer’s first words, I had known, on a level I can’t explain, that there was only death there inside me, acting like life. I was just waiting for it to leave.

And so, when it did, I was pleased.

I rang the early pregnancy unit, and asked if they wanted me to come in. No, a receptionist told me – not unless I was in unusual pain. There was nothing they could do, and anyway, I was due back for a follow-up next week.

When I got off the phone, Rich said quietly, “You’ve been moved to another list, haven’t you?” He didn’t seem relieved.

My wonderful GP said “I’m sorry. It’s a terrible thing.” He asked me a few questions, and then – perhaps because he was familiar with my thirteen-year history of depression – signed me off work for three weeks. I’d never taken sick leave before, and I felt okay, and three weeks seemed like a lot to me. But he was adamant – and thank god he was – that I’d need it.

The first week was sort of okay. I bled, and cramped, and didn’t feel great. But I was stoic, and smug about my own stoicism. I could see it for what it was: an unfortunate medical condition, nothing more.

Pro-choice since adolescence, I had never, for one moment, believed the clump of cells in me to be a person. Life, as far as I was concerned, went on.

The second week, I fell to pieces.

The thing that dissolved me into little bits was the realization that nobody would ever be able to tell me why it happened. Not the GP, not the sonographer, not the specialist we saw when we went for the scan to confirm that I had miscarried. Nobody would ever explain to me why I missed three periods without my hormone levels rising. Why, when they did rise, they didn’t rise quickly enough. Whether I had some form of life-to-be, or life-that-was, inside me for two weeks or four months.

I had been moved to another list. The case was closed. Kind and sympathetic though all those people might be as individuals, when I looked for answers I got one big institutional shrug. And the words, “It’s very common.” More about those later.

When I say I fell to pieces, I mean that it felt as if my brain had come apart. Whatever held it together had dissolved, and now bits of Sophie were floating around like dust mites. There was a bit here, that felt annoyed, and guilty, that I couldn’t work. A bit there, that didn’t realise I wasn’t still pregnant, and was deciding my favourite name for a girl. There was a bit that was worried that this had damaged us, Rich and I, somehow. There was a bit that hated my body, the traitor, that had for years tricked me into thinking that it was a perfectly good body. There were a million other pieces of me, past and present, living alongside each other. But these pieces wouldn’t work together, like a good brain should.

I lay in bed, or sat on the sofa, or went for long walks across the meadows near our house. That was the most I could do.

Everywhere the bits of me went, they saw toddlers. If you’d asked, before all this, how often I saw a toddler, I’d have said, Oh, maybe once a week? Now, I swear, it was twenty a day. I couldn’t leave the house without them assailing what-used-to-be-me. Like zombies in a B-movie, they clustered around the windows.

Rich said, “I hate the word miscarriage.” One part of me knew what he meant, and was grateful for it. Another part thought it was a fair word. An accurate term. After all, I’d done it wrong. I’d carried mis.

I had nightmares. About Rich leaving me, because now I was worse than useless. About a particularly nasty ex telling me, Your tits looked better when you were pregnant. About people I loved being butchered and dismembered, into small pink bloodless parcels. If I managed to hold it together during the day, I paid for it at night.

Gradually, a couple of weeks later, the pieces of my brain started to come back together. But they re-joined in an ugly, unwieldy way. You could see the sutures.

I was angry about everything. I was angry at myself, for being such a stupid emotional woman. I was angry at the happy people with babies. I was angry at the oblivious people, who wouldn’t ever know what this was like. I was angry at the medical professionals who had shrugged their shoulders and told me it was very common.

All my life, I’d been a workaholic – but suddenly I didn’t care, at all, any more, about my work. It was pointless, stupid, and vain. Next to what had happened to me, it meant nothing. And yet, if anyone had said to me, Yes, having a baby is a more meaningful experience than your work, I’d have punched them in the face.

In this condition, my sick leave expired, I went back to work in Cardiff. On the drive down, I stopped at my parents’ overnight to break up the journey. My mum insisted on loading me up with packed lunches for the week: sandwiches, slices of quiche, bits of fruit. She wrapped every item in about eighteen layers of cling film. As if by over-wrapping them, she could over-wrap me. Keep me safe from knocks.

Being back at work, being away from Rich, being expected to perform like a normal person – it was all hard. I’d told only a few necessary people in order to get my sick leave signed off, but it quickly became apparent that other people knew, even though I hadn’t told them.

Some people were kind. They clearly wanted to support me, even if they didn’t quite know how. Others were thoughtless. They didn’t scruple to let me know how inconvenient my absence had been. One person, I’m sorry to say, was actively cruel. She seemed to delight in making my life as hard as possible. She drew attention, whenever possible, to my sick leave and the circumstances behind it. Usually, I’d have resisted her, fired back, made a real fuss. I couldn’t. I just took it, like a punch bag leaking its stuffing.

My memories of those weeks back at work are blurred. I hardly slept at all. If I try to picture myself then, I’m walking through the corridors as quickly as possible, shoulders hunched, looking at my phone, trying not to speak to anyone.

Finally, the semester came to an end and we broke up for Christmas. It was a great relief in one way. In another, it made things harder. My milestone had passed. I was still here, with my anger, and a new year was coming. What now?

Over the Christmas break, I started to think about the words, It’s very common. I had always vaguely known, on some level, that one in three pregnancies end in miscarriage. One in four women, roughly, experience one. I’d known this but I’d never really known it, if you see what I mean. Only one friend had ever told me of her own miscarriage. Where were the others?

I started to really think about it. One in four. One quarter. Four of your female-bodied friends, sitting in a pub? One of them has had something like this happen to them. Or they will. Maybe it’s happening right now.

Without really knowing why, I started to tell my friends what had happened to me. And immediately, my world changed a little.

Me too. Us too. We had the same thing happen. One by one, the stories came.

They’d never said. I’d never known. All along, there had been this great seam of suffering, underlying what I thought of as normal life.

I wrote in my diary at that time, The last few weeks have been the greatest lesson in empathy I’ve ever known.

I started googling accounts of miscarriage, on the Miscarriage Association website and elsewhere. The seam grew deeper, and wider.

Most of the confessional pieces online were more dramatic than mine. They were second-trimester or third-trimester foetuses – real almost-babies, not my stupid little Schroedinger’s embryo. Or there were two or three or four losses, all compounding one another in a messy palimpsest of grief. Or it happened after a costly and gruelling course of IVF. They’ve got it worse than me, I thought.

But there was the odd account that I thought of as a little, common story like my own, and was more precious to me for that littleness and that commonness. I was pregnant, for a little while. Then I wasn’t. I don’t know what happened.

I hadn’t even been ‘trying’ / I didn’t even want it / I don’t even believe it was a person.

 So why have I fallen apart?

 Why did I fall apart?

I wrote this to a kind friend, who had sent me a care package from the USA:

I’ve gone from the person I was comfortable being, to a mum-to-be, to a woman who has a serious problem and might or might not have a viable pregnancy, to a woman who had miscarried, back to the person I was at the beginning – but different somehow. All in just a few weeks. It makes my head spin.

 I don’t believe that what I had inside me was a person. But I’m still grieving, and I can’t quite figure out what for. It sounds strange, but I think it might be for the former Mes. The Me who had never been pregnant, and the Me who was pregnant for the first time. Because I can never be those Mes again.

More succinctly, I wrote to another friend:

I will always be a bit sadder, and a bit shitter.

These aren’t inspirational words, I know. They’re harsh, ugly words. And yet, writing them helped. It was writing things like this, and hearing or reading the accounts of others, that eventually helped me to get better.

Not to recover, mind. I will never again be the person I was. That person’s gone. There’s no point in trying to recover her.

But I’m better than I was.

I’m different. My plates have shifted.

In this post, I don’t intend to cover What Happened Next. I’m only really comfortable with talking about the inside of my uterus with the buffer of a little time and space.

There are many other things I could say, about the year 2018. About the process of “trying”. About what it was like to see the words ‘Pregnant: 1-2 weeks” again. About seeing the cursed, cruel blood on toilet paper. About despair. About relief. About learning to hope like a grown-up. About all the rest of it.

But that’s for another time. If at all.

I’m better than I was.

I am not glad I had a miscarriage. I wish, with all my heart, that it had never happened. But even the worst things can, in certain lights, look positive. And you might as well try to glimpse them in those lights as frequently as you can.

So, let’s give it a go.

I’m healthier than I was. I no longer think I’m invincible – that my body is a machine that can move indefinitely and omnipotently, powered by my force of will. I will never know why my pregnancy was suboptimal. I will certainly try not to blame myself. But I will be kinder to my body than I was. Just on the offchance that doing so might help me avoid being suboptimal in the future.

I love Rich more, and better, than I used to. There are always bits of your partner that you’ve not yet had the opportunity to see, aren’t there? And in many ways, it would be better never to see them – who wouldn’t want to live a life together free of suffering? But if you have to see those bits, then there’s a consolation prize. Afterwards, you can love that person more. You can love them better.

Perhaps I’m not the best judge of this, but I think I’m a nicer person than I used to be. I certainly understand suffering better. If I can’t comprehend why somebody is so miserable or prickly about a circumstance I don’t relate to, I no longer assume that the problem is with them rather than my own ability to relate.

I understand that life has many dimensions. I’ve stepped off the treadmill that I’d been on for many years – one that measured my happiness almost solely in terms of professional success. Yes, I still care about that stuff. But less than I used to. The idea of happiness has re-formed itself, like the beads in a kaleidoscope. Sometimes, things need to come apart in order to find their best shape.

I understand the power of stories. I always thought I did. But not like this.

This was a long post, but it’s a little story. Little, and very common.

I’m not sharing it to try to start any sort of a #movement, or change behaviours, or anything like that. I’m sharing it for just two reasons.

The first is that, for me, it’s a sort of healing.

The second is that the internet’s the archive of that seam of suffering that I discovered when I started to talk to my friends. I want my story to be here, in case someone needs it.

If this has happened for you – if you’ve heard the word suboptimal – if you’re in pieces, and that’s more than just a metaphor – know that you’re very far from alone.

We may be suboptimal. Our pregnancies may be less-than-best.

But best is a big ask.

For now, let’s aim for better.

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Surviving the Viva: Tips and Reflections

Is this the only way? (HT the excellent XKCD http://xkcd.com/1403)

So, you’ve done it. Years of painstaking research. One thesis, a huge bouncing brain-baby, has been written, re-drafted, footnoted, formatted, and submitted. Only one thing stands between you and the sweet, sweet title ‘Dr.”

The Viva.

It’s hard to describe to somebody outside the academy the kind of symbolic power the Viva has over doctoral students. It’s a legendary rite of passage, the final hurdle, the moment when it could all get snatched away, all go unrewarded. It’s also the moment when the rules seem to change drastically: when the spoken word becomes more important than the printed one as the medium through which you must communicate your message. For a long time, we doctoral students have been trained to do not very much except sit and read and write. Sure, we present the odd conference paper, and sure, we might get asked one or two questions (which there’s always the option to parry with “Thank you for that interesting thought. I’d love to look into that more and I can certainly keep you posted.”) But to sit, possibly for hours, with two people who know everything there is to know within your field, and defend your ideas in exhaustive detail, verbally, knowing that they have the power to fail you? It can seem pretty terrifying. (See this blog post for a traditionally scaremongery approach: all ‘bullying’ and undertrained examiners. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/are-phd-vivas-still-fit-for-purpose/2003341.fullarticle )

The point of this blog post is to make the opposite argument. Don’t worry, the viva will probably be fine. It can even be fun.

It should go without saying, I’m not trying to set myself up as an expert in taking vivas. I have only ever done, and only ever intend to do, precisely one. I guess that’s pretty much the case with anyone, meaning that the viva is fundamentally different from a job interview (unless you’re in the habit of racking up PhDs in different subjects.) A real viva expert would be somebody who’s examined for hundreds, and I’d love any suggestions of frank pieces written from the examiner’s perspective. BUT, that’s just one perspective, and it’s not that of the students who are preparing to sit the viva. So, before the memory of my own viva fades completely away I thought it might be useful to share the things I wish I’d known in advance. Most of them will hopefully put pre-viva doctoral students at their ease and allow them to prepare a little better, and approach the whole experience in a more relaxed frame of mind, than I did.

(This blog post was originally delivered as a talk to PG students in Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. It can be read in conjunction with my two recent posts ‘Writing up the PhD Thesis’ and ‘Applying for Academic Jobs’. I was doing all three around the same time, so there’s a fair amount of cross-referencing between the three of them! Normal caveats apply, in that this post is aimed at UK-based humanities PhDs, and represents only my own personal experience. I am sorry that it can’t address the issues of how to deal with getting major corrections or failing outright (or about passing with no corrections!) I don’t have the experience or authority to address these eventualities.)

(1) Choose your examiners well.

It’s possible that you won’t get a say in who your internal and external examiner are. In that case, don’t worry; trust your supervisor to make a good choice; skip this section. But if your supervisor involves you in the decision-making process, then I’d urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to choose well. Pick people, both within your department and without, whose work you admire and whom you know will be able to speak knowledgeably about the subject on which you have written. Sorry to say this, but you should probably have read most, if not all, of what they have written.

In addition, it will not seem top of your list at the time, but you should try to think strategically about your examiners, as they will be the people giving you employment references (unless you have a job already) – so you want a person with a very good reputation in their field. Finally, it might not hurt to pick somebody whom you have met, even if only briefly, and you think seems like a nice person. That’s actually not the most important thing, by a long stretch. But it can’t hurt.

(2) Familiarise yourself with the timescale – practicalities matter!

When picking your examiners and scheduling your viva, there will be some practicalities about who is actually available, where and when, and at what expense. At York, the viva generally took place about two months after submission. It was generally agreed that it was ideal for both examiners to be in the same room as the candidate, but familiarity with Skype was now meaning that, as long as both examiners were happy, one could be skyped in. I was told, however, that it was vastly preferable for the external examiner to be in the same room as the candidate, since they generally led the questioning. Though this does differ – a good friend of mine was in the room with her internal examiner and had her external skype in from Australia, and that all went marvellously.

I was always keen to have a particular person as my internal examiner, so that was an easy choice. My own experience of identifying an external examiner was relatively simple, but still required a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. My top choice for external examiner was located in California, so it was originally felt that we could not ask her. We turned to discuss a UK-based potential external, who would have been amazing and was keen to examine, but was not available til about six months after my submission date. That was too long for me. Then suddenly I got notice that I had been successful in my application for a two-month fellowship in California immediately after my thesis submission date, meaning that I could travel to my top choice external’s institution and conduct the viva there at the end of my fellowship. We were able to ask her, and she said yes. My preferred internal examiner confirmed that he was also happy to do it and was happy to Skype from York. Sorted.

As I said above, this was relatively simple. I have many friends for whom by far the most stressful part of the viva was finding the right external examiner and getting them in the right place at the right time. Illness, diary schedules, last-minute objections to bureaucratic requirements… all often conspired to mean that the weeks before the viva were spent chopping and changing, and stressing over who would actually be asking the questions come the fateful day. I guess all I can recommend here is to anticipate these issues, develop a shortlist of your ideal external examiners early on, and speak to your supervisor about it very early, constantly reminding them if you think it’s slipped their mind.

You’ve submitted – you’ve got the examiners in place – what now?

3) Read your thesis again in advance of the viva. Maybe twice. But be prepared for it to be painful.

Advice differs about when, or whether, to re-read your thesis before the viva. I have a friend who said he just skimmed his Introduction and Conclusion the night before. On the other end of the scale, I read a blog post by a student who went into her viva with a lengthy printed list of minor corrections that she had identified herself, to show to her examiners. To me the first option seems very brave (and I mean that in a Sir Humphrey way) and the latter seems excessive (and also might be shooting yourself in the foot, because the examiners may only flag up a few corrections, in which case it looks like you’re telling them they haven’t done their job properly…)

I speed-read my thesis a week after handing it in, because I wanted to put my mind at rest that there weren’t any pages missing or huge clangers. Once I’d had a few days of good sleep and could bear to pick it up again, I skimmed it, peeping through my fingers horror-film-style. I highlighted the typos and what I felt were the weak sections. Then, with a huge feeling of relief (the viva still seemed so far away…) I put it back on the shelf and got on with other stuff.

When the viva was about two weeks away, I visited it again. I went through it more slowly and decided the typos were (relatively) unimportant. I then pulled out about ten substantial sections that I thought were the weakest points of my argument, and that I’d get challenged on, and I thought about these in detail. Why were they weak? What would I have done differently if I had my time again? How could I improve them? I practiced acknowledging the thesis’s faults, articulating its strengths and defending its contentious assertions.

4) Think about the afterlife of the thesis.

By this point I was getting some good advice from fellow readers at the library where I was researching in the weeks before the viva, many of whom had done the same thing not too long ago. One oft-repeated piece of advice was that, all being well, the examiners would actually focus far more closely on my future plans for the monograph than on its detailed content. So I drew up a one-page plan for how I thought I might turn it into a monograph (although others may favour a series of articles). How would I need to change the structure, the title and the scope? What further research would I need to do? Which publishers would I approach? (This was made a lot easier by the fact I’d been making a similar kind of presentation in recent job interviews!)

5) Consider a mock viva… but don’t feel you have to do one.

I was worried that I might need a mock viva, and that as I was away from York I wouldn’t be near the academics I’d usually approach to ask for one (chiefly, of course, my supervisor.) I asked Academic Twitter how much of a disaster it would be not to have a mock viva, and was quite surprised by the results. It was a fairly even 50-50 split between those who thought a mock viva a good idea and those who thought it was actually a bad one. The former thought it might give me good practice in framing my arguments succinctly and convincingly. The latter thought that mock vivas misled candidates into feeling they now knew what to expect, but that examiners’ techniques differed so radically that they might be totally thrown by a different approach in the real thing.

Armed with these opinions, and with my dilemma weighted by the fact I was thousands of miles away from my supervisor and other academics in my department, I decided not to ask for a mock viva. As I noted earlier, I felt that job applications and interviews were giving me plenty of practice in describing my research succinctly (though for those who are doing their viva before going on the job market, you’d obviously find yourselves in a different situation). I asked my supervisor a few key questions in an email about what she thought I might expect and, along with my own notes, depended on that.

At this point I’d like to say to any readers who are in the early stages of a PhD: take every opportunity you are offered to speak about your research. Present at conferences and PG forums and research seminars. Chat with your friends. Hector your supervisor. Just get used to speaking about your arguments. I promise you, it is an investment you won’t regret when you get to the viva.

6) Arrive prepared.

I don’t mean intellectually, I mean physically. Try to get a good night’s sleep (okay, easier said than done!) Have a good hearty breakfast – eggs on toast and a banana, or whatever else floats your boat. Drink a substantial but not ludicrous amount of coffee, if you’re a caffeine person.

I’m not sure it matters what you wear as long as it’s reasonably smart. I wore a dress and sandals (California weather, y’all….) My external examiner wore a pant suit and my internal examiner, in the Skype screen, was wearing a shirt. There you go. Make of that what you will!

Bring water. Bring paper and a pen. And bring – for goodness’ sake, bring – a printed copy of your thesis. Printed exactly as your examiners have it.

And turn your phone off.

7) Don’t be thrown.

So you’re sitting in a room with your two examiners (one of them perhaps peering from the Skype box on a computer screen), who are both holding copies of your thesis. The external examiner opens her mouth to begin.

She may or may not tell you that you’ve passed straight away. Whichever of these things happens, do not let it throw you off your stride.

My external told me straight away that they thought it was a good piece of work and were happy to endorse it, which I took to mean that I had passed. My first feeling was immense relief, but my second – less welcome – was absolute numbing exhaustion. I had come into the room all geared up to defend, to convince, to be passionate about my work, and now I knew straight away that I had passed and by god, I just wanted a beer and a cigarette and fourteen hours’ sleep.

But of course – quite rightly – they still wanted to talk.

It’s a first-world problem, I admit. But look, my point is, you should be prepared for either eventuality. If they tell you that you’ve passed straight away, be prepared for that wave of exhaustion and to nonetheless remain bright-eyed and alert. If they launch straight into questioning without telling you that you’ve passed, don’t start trembling with fear. Be aware that either of these things could happen and it doesn’t necessarily mean much – it’s just the examiner’s preferred method.

Once we had cleared that, and I had pulled myself together, we spent about an hour talking. Both my examiners were very pleasant and very learned and very insightful. They asked me to describe briefly what the argument of my thesis was, and what contribution it made to my field. They asked me how I felt about it now that I had had some time to reflect, and what my future plans were for it. They then proceeded to go through the chapters in order, each examiner asking one question about each chapter. Usually these were very broad questions about the place of a particular author or observation in my argument, often hedged with helpful reading suggestions or ideas for a direction that I could take that point in the future. They seemed mainly to be interested in drawing my ideas outwards, in making them more ambitious and expansive, and getting me to draw new connections between various parts of my work.

Of course, that is not to say they didn’t have criticisms. For example, they both agreed that in my Conclusion and my Appendix I used an inappropriately colloquial tone for a thesis. Completely fair point. I found the following formulation very useful when faced with a constructive criticism: “I can absolutely see what you mean, and I think if I had my time again I’d do x x and x differently. Moving forward with a monograph, I think I’ll try to x.”

8) Listen carefully to what your examiners say – and write their points down!

You know what’s really easy to do? Listen to an examiner ask a long, complex, interesting question, and sit there nodding. And then when they look at you expectantly for an answer, to realise you’ve forgotten the lot. Jot a few notes down. Read them back over. Think about how to get to the heart of the question they’re asking. And then answer.

9) Use your examiners. Ask them questions.

You know what? I reckon it’s relatively rare that you get to sit in a room with two world experts who have read a long piece of your work, and ask them questions about it. I also reckon it’s pretty valuable. So, ask them questions. About why they were unconvinced by something. About how they’d suggest improving it. About how they would go about developing and placing and publishing this project. Ask them which scholars you still need to find out about, what new work you might have missed.

You might even enjoy this bit. I did.

10) Make sure you know what happen next.

Once an examiner looks at her watch and says, “Well, I guess that’s pretty much….” you may want to weep/scream/run out of the room. But wait. You need to be totally crystal clear on whether you’ve passed and with what. I think my exact words were “Please can I just confirm for the record that I have passed with minor corrections?” After that was confirmed, I spoke to my internal examiner for a couple of minutes about what I had to do next in the way of implementing and submitting those minor corrections. This will be the last thing you want to do at that moment, but it’s worth getting straight in your head.

11) Treat yourself.

One or both examiners might invite you for a coffee, or lunch, or a drink. Or they might be busy and send you, newly doctored, out to meet your friends. You might want to pop the bubbly, you might want to catch up on sleep, you might want to chill out with loved ones. Either way, enjoy it. This is Doctor Day!

I think the note I’d like to finish on is this: a successful viva can be just an amazing chat. I will not go as far as to say that it is just a chat, because different examiners do things differently, and some vivas might be far more formal, or intense, or critical, than mine was. But many people I know have had a similar experience to me, and we all agreed that we got far too worked up about it in advance. With that in mind: good luck. And try to enjoy it!

Applying for academic jobs

Yesterday I had a chat with postgraduate students in my new department at Cardiff University, about the process of applying for academic jobs after the PhD. It was felt by organisers of the Thesis Group (the forum in which I was speaking, along with one of the professors who recently hired me!) that as I was hired only a few weeks ago it would be useful for us both to share our observations on the recent recruitment process with PG students who will soon be venturing out into the academic job market themselves. In the spirit of academic collegiality, this post is my attempt to share the skeleton outline of my talk more widely.

Lots of these observations are not new or original, and many can be found in other academics’ blog posts (see in particular Josephine Crawley Quinn’s blog, here and here, which were recommended to me on Twitter yesterday, and which comprehensively cover the paper application and interview stages.) As ever, these insights are only meant to represent my own personal experiences and thoughts: they are aimed at humanities students completing a PhD (or hoping to do so in the next year or two) within the UK higher education system and, for the most part, they focus on applying for jobs in UK universities too. Like my previous post on writing up the PhD thesis, I found it useful to frame my insights as a series of choices that have to be made, rather than a series of prescriptive tips.

Feedback welcome as ever!


Applying for academic jobs: Seven choices to make

1) Whether to apply for jobs in the last year of your PhD, or to leave it until you’ve handed in?

This is something I touched on briefly in my ‘Writing up the thesis’ post. There are pros and cons to both choices here. The main pro is that you might actually get one of the jobs you’re apply for (!) and be able to segue into employment straight after the PhD. But even if this doesn’t happen, the application process will help you to refine your ideas, both about your thesis and your next project/future career. The cons are that the job application process is incredibly time-consuming (thus taking precious time away from thesis work), and that it can be disheartening. It is universally agreed (in my admittedly anecdotal experience) that a candidate who doesn’t have a doctorate in hand, or at the very least a viva date, is less likely to get called for interview than one of equivalent merit who does. So, in a way, you’re stacking the odds against yourself from the start.

I chose to apply for jobs from the beginning of my fourth year. I applied for fourteen jobs in between October 2013 and May 2014. Of those, I received eleven rejections, one request for written work (followed by a rejection), one invitation to interview (followed by rejection) and one invitation to interview followed by an offer of employment. I always asked for feedback to my application, but my request was only responded to after the unsuccessful interview. I also always asked how many people had applied for the post. The numbers given ranged from thirty-five (for one post) to six hundred (for four posts).

I’m not sorry I decided to apply before I had my doctorate in hand. The first reason why I don’t regret it, unsurprisingly, is that the gamble paid off (though it is worth noting that my two invites to interview were issued late in my final year, when I was able to include my submission date in my application.) The second reason is that, while the job app process was often a royal pain, it really helped me to get my ideas in order for my thesis. By  the time I was called for interview, I knew my stuff off by heart.

I can’t personally speak for the benefits and disadvantages of waiting until you’re properly doctored up to apply for jobs. But I imagine that the main disadvantage is that it’s hard to juggle paying the bills with keeping a foot in the door of academia and getting those job apps in. On the bright side, you’d be more likely to make it through to the interview stage once your PhD is in hand, which might mean success in a shorter space of time. Do feel free to share experiences below!


2) Who should be your referees?

Once you have decided you want to apply for jobs, you should identify prospective referees and ask them if they are happy to write for you. Most jobs I applied for required two references, which was fairly unproblematic – my doctoral supervisor provided one, and my secondary doctoral advisor provided the second. They had both seen good chunks of my work and knew me personally, which are (in my opinion) the main requirements in a referee. But some jobs specified that there must be a third referee, from an external institution. This can be rather tricky, especially if you haven’t done your viva yet (if you have, your external examiner is the obvious port of call.) I ended up emailing the Director of a research centre where I had done a one-month fellowship, and asking if he’d mind reading some of my work and writing the third reference when it was required. He was willing to do so, luckily, and has my eternal gratitude. I think this is well worth flagging up early to PhD students. If I hadn’t done that fellowship, I honestly don’t know who I would have asked, because I hadn’t been moving through my PhD trying to identify and ingratiate myself with external mentors. The lesson is this: to do so, if you want to apply for jobs in the final year of your doctorate, is really not a bad idea.


3) What kind of jobs to apply for?

So, your referees have agreed to write for you. Next thing:  Sign up to jobs.ac.uk. Get a tailored email service letting you know when jobs in your field come up, or else make sure you check the website every day. Jobs.ac.uk was the only jobs website I ever needed, but I also found Twitter very useful: the odd opportunity would appear there but not on jobs websites, especially postdocs based in the USA and Canada.

Broadly speaking, I found that there were four types of opportunity on offer in the UK academic job market for English Literature, at the time that I applied. There were research-based postdocs, attached to a project, which usually lasted 1-5 years, were very specific about responsibilities and outputs, and generally paid about £17-25k p.a. There were research-based postdocs not attached to a project, usually fellowships at Oxbridge colleges: these allowed a far greater degree of freedom around research, were usually for a two or three year period, and paid about £15-21k p.a. There were temporary teaching posts for 1-3 years, paying £13-30k p.a. (the upper end of the scale is much more typical, but some Oxbridge colleges seem to think a ten-hour teaching load exclusive of marking, prep and admin is worth less than minimum wage.) And then there were permanent posts or  lectureships, that require both teaching and research and that are, well, permanent (subject to a probation period) and generally pay £25-33k p.a. All in all, I’d say that on average a job I was eligible for came up about once every two weeks, with October and May particularly busy months.

On the one hand: I’d recommend thinking very hard about what you want to do. Would you prefer teaching or research? Is it more important to you to get your first monograph out or to develop your teaching portfolio?

On the other: I’d recommend applying for all the jobs you’re eligible for anyway. Unless the thought of doing it makes you completely miserable, you need to be very flexible and receptive at this point. And every application is good practice. So, cast the net wide. When you see a good opportunity, note the deadline in your diary or calendar and set yourself frequent reminders to avoid a last-minute panic. Email your referees and send them the link to the job ad, stressing the deadline. Then get to work on the application itself.


4) How to present yourself on paper?

The first stage of every single one of these jobs will be to send a certain selection of documents to an administrator. Unfortunately, that is where the certainty ends. Each job you apply for will require a different permutation of the following: cv, research proposal, teaching statement or portfolio, cover letter, sample work, references. They will all want different word counts. And they will all want to see slightly different things. This is where the UK academic job market differs fundamentally from the North American one. As I understand it, in the USA and Canada references are standardised and job application materials are far more similar between different jobs. Not so here, I’m afraid. You can’t get away with anything other than rewriting your job application for every single post. If you cut and paste chunks, be very careful. I nearly sent an application to a Cambridge college once enthusing about how much I needed to use the incomparable archives in Oxford.

The person specification is your bible: this is usually a list of eight to fifteen bullet points listing the things you will have or be able to do in order to be qualified for the job. The things that person specifications wanted to see most, in my experience, were: a strong publication record in a particular area; teaching experience in a particular area; clear and well-defined plans for future research; evidence of attracting external and internal funding; evidence of working collaboratively; evidence of public engagement and understanding of impact. Often they would also ask for evidence that you could demonstrate leadership, administrative expertise, evidence of valuing diversity, etc: the slightly less specific things that you might (rightly) find in most person specifications outside academia as well as inside.

Your cover letter should say very briefly who you are (stage of career, institution, subject) then summarise your main strengths, in line with the person specification, and (briefly) why you want the job: feel free to add ‘see cv for full details’.  Re-draft your cv to fit the page count and highlight the most important things that you think the panel wants to see. If it’s a research-based postdoc, put your research up front. If it’s a teaching post, major on your training and the courses you’ve taught. If there is information that you are planning on elaborating in your ‘research statement’ or ‘teaching statement’, you can trim duplicated information from your cv. The challenge is to present the fullest picture possible, across several documents, in the smallest number of words.

Save. Re-read. Re-draft. Proof. Repeat. Repeat again. Then send it. It can take anything from a week to forever, to receive a response. Forget it and move on. Get started on the next one. But before you do this: SAVE THE JOB ADVERTISEMENT! It will be taken offline after the deadline passes, meaning that if you are invited to interview you will need to consult it again.


5) How to respond to rejection?

The most likely outcome is, your application will be rejected. It is bruising and disheartening and really rather horrible. But, most of the time, it is not personal. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


6) What written work to send?

If you receive an email asking for for written work: congratulations, you have made it through the first round. Ask for guidance if it’s not clear exactly what they want to see. Most often, they will ask for a published article. This is worth flagging up because it demonstrates the importance of publishing at least one article during your doctorate. They will also specify a word count that may well be different from your published article. Don’t quibble. Edit it up or down, and make sure to specify ‘This is an edited version of an article published/forthcoming in x.” If you don’t have a published article, that can’t be helped. But make sure to ask what they want from you: a self-contained essay, or a section of your thesis.

Whatever the piece of work is, make sure it is meticulously proofed, and send it in PDF form. Then, sit back and wait again. If rejection follows, the same advice applies as above. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


7) How to prepare for interview? and What to expect at interview?

You’ve got invited to interview: hooray! Give yourself a big pat on the back, and have a celebration (just not the night before the interview itself.) My own experience gets a lot more sparse here, because I only had two interviews – at Cambridge for 1-year teaching post, and Cardiff for a permanent job. They were about as different as could be, though, so I can give a decent overview of the various scenarios that might take place. Hopefully from reading these stories you will get a good idea, too, of what I think is the best way to prepare. I’m not going to cover things like “Dress smartly,” “Make eye contact” and “Get a good night’s sleep” – you can take those as read!

The first of my interviews was for a one-year teaching post at a Cambridge college. I was told there would be a half-hour interview with a panel of several members of staff, and that I should prepare a five-minute presentation about my research. I was pretty worried about being able to summarise my research in five minutes, and came to the conclusion that all I could do was give a broad outline of the argument of my thesis. I researched the interests of the Fellows in English at the college (though none of them worked in my area) and tried to anticipate a few questions. Come the day, I toddled down to Cambridge and turned up at the (very pleasant) college. After waiting for fifteen minutes, I was called into the interview room where there was a panel of six people. There were all the College Fellows in English, the College Principal, and an expert in my period of research brought in from a neighbouring college. So far, so fair enough. They asked me to give my presentation, and nodded sagely while I did so. Then they asked me a couple of questions each. Could I talk a little bit more about this or that aspect of my research? How would I convey the exciting aspects of eighteenth-century literature to students through my teaching? Which two long-eighteenth-century texts would I put down for compulsory reading? (That one threw me a bit: I went for Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Burney’s Cecilia.) What could I contribute to college life? It was a very pleasant chat, and I left the College buzzing. Less than two hours later, I received an email saying that unfortunately they could not offer me the post but they wished me all the best in my career. I asked for feedback and was told that, compared to the successful candidate, my five-minute presentation was not as imaginative as it could have been and I did not answer questions as directly as I could have done. I was a bit crushed, to say the least. Rejection felt worse when I had gone a long way (without being reimbursed for my travelling expenses) and put in substantial preparation. I wondered who the other candidates had been, why one of them had beaten me. I asked myself the dread ‘Was it an internal candidate?’ question. I concluded that no, it was probably me. My confidence crashed through the floor. But as time passed, I resolved to learn from the experience, to think of a more imaginative way to present my research next time. I got on with the thesis. And just as I was hurtling towards my submission deadline, I got another invitation to interview.

This time, it was for a permanent early career lectureship in Romantic Literature at Cardiff University. Frankly, I didn’t have my hopes up very high when I applied, because I knew that permanent posts generally went to people with postdocs and rafts of teaching experience, who had already published at least one monograph. I did, however, spot that the person specification indicated that a supplementary specialism in creative writing (which I had)  would be an advantage, so I thought it was worth a shot. I received the invitation to interview just before I handed in my thesis, so I could hardly even think about it until I was all handed in and caught up on sleep. Then I replied to say I’d be delighted to attend, and got preparing.

The Cardiff interview was far more formalised than the Cambridge one, and far more similar to the standard interview procedure (as I understand it) in North American universities. It took place over two days, and consisted of two informal interviews, one formal interview, and the fabled ‘job talk’, a twenty-minute presentation about ‘My next research project’, delivered to staff and students from the Department, followed by ten minutes of questions. Perhaps this more formal structure motivated me to prepare more thoroughly; or perhaps my rejection at Cambridge had shaken me up a bit and made me wonder if I prepared adequately. In either case, I prepared obsessively for the Cardiff interview. I researched the interests of every member of staff in the Department with areas of study related even tangentially to my own, and read all of their publications I could get my hands on. I read the University’s and the Department’s strategy documents, and the handbooks and module guides for all years of the undergraduate degree and the taught Masters. I trawled the library holdings at Cardiff to see which collections might be of use in my future research. I emailed friends who had studied at Cardiff to ask what it was like, and emailed fairly new lecturers among my friends and acquaintances to ask about their own ‘job talks’ and how they prepared. I re-drafted my ‘job talk’ probably about ten times, and practised it with a stopwatch. Bearing in mind the feedback from my Cambridge interview, I tried to think of ways to make my presentation engaging: talking the audience through a brief extract of primary text, for example, to show my teaching in action while also pulling out the main ideas that characterised my research.  I got used to pitching myself in brief, succinct paragraphs. My past work. The argument of my thesis. My future plans. My experience of public engagement. My teaching strategy. I devised a sample module that I could talk about with ease, to convince them that I could hit the ground running. Then I flew halfway across the world to attend interview (I was based in California on the interview date – it is to Cardiff’s immense credit that they were willing to cover my travel expenses).

Again, it was a very pleasant experience in the end. The two informal interviews on the first day, with the Heads of Department and the Director of Studies respectively, provided me with a huge amount of helpful information about the School, much of which I managed to work into my presentation that evening. It also gave me a greater desire to work there: I could think in a more informed way about the challenges and opportunities that this particular position presented, and about how I might be able to put up a decent case for myself as the best candidate to address them. That evening, I had a rotten night’s sleep thanks to my jetlag, but fuelled up on a Welsh fry-up the next day and got myself along to my ‘job talk’. I had practised enough that it came reasonably naturally, and my three questions (asking me to clarify an aspect of my project; to talk about the project I’d pursue after my next project; and about my creative work) were addressed in a friendly and interested way. My formal interview (with three members of the School faculty and one external member from the Music department) was a little more nerve-wracking as I was really starting to feel the jetlag by that point. But, like my Cambridge interview, everybody was very pleasant and the questions didn’t seem designed to catch me out. Why did I want the job? Why should they hire me? What new directions lay ahead for Romanticism? What was the place of literary form in my work? Could I talk about my understanding of impact and my experience of public engagement? And finally, would I take the job if they offered it to me? (Apparently some people answer this question with a hesitation or “Hmmmm.” Baffling.) I left feeling pretty good, but chastened by my Cambridge experience. “I have no idea whether I got it,” I said to my partner when we met for a beer afterwards. “But I think I acquitted myself okay.”

Again, I heard very quickly: probably not two hours later, I received an email asking me to call the Head of School around seven o’clock. He told me that they wanted to offer me the position – or rather, a position, since they had decided, in light of a very strong field of candidates, to make two appointments. The job offer was, however, conditional upon me passing my viva. I attempted to stay very calm and cool on the phone, assured him I would pass the viva, confirmed my provisional acceptance of the job, and told the HoS I was really looking forward to working with him. Then I put the phone down, screamed, drank some bubbly, and fell asleep. It wouldn’t be until the next day that it occurred to me that the viva now lay ahead. Which will be the subject of my next post…




I think the key points I’d like to finish up with, aimed at current PhD students, are these. First, I am acutely aware that I was very, very lucky. A job came up at the right time; moreover, it was a job that was right for me. Many people, far more talented than me, do not have that luck, and I would never wish to dismiss or undermine their experiences and entirely valid critiques of the system within which we are forced to work.

But second, the prospect is not necessarily as dreary out there as you imagine. Certainly it may well not be as dreary as that twenty-fifth despondent blog post you read last week, about why the dispirited author left academia, seems to suggest. I know several other recent humanities PhDs who went straight into jobs after submission, and numerous ones who were employed within a year. It is harder to talk about successes than failures online, though. Nobody wants to be that smug git. I know I don’t. But I also get sad when I see friends convinced they shouldn’t even try for academic jobs because it’s such a tough market; when I see them literally losing sleep and making themselves ill because they’re convinced they’ve committed to a dead-end career. I guess the note I’d like to leave it on is: give it a go. Give it lots of goes. You never know. You might be surprised.

Writing up the PhD thesis

I thought it might be useful – for myself and hopefully for readers currently doing a PhD – to jot down a few thoughts about writing up the thesis, while they’re still fresh in my mind. I haven’t personally come across many blogs or thinkpieces that describe the process in any detail, and this in itself strikes me as interesting. (There was this recently, http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2014/jun/11/writing-up-the-home-straight-of-a-phd but despite the title it didn’t really talk about the writing-up process itself – not surprising, considering the author was still 3 months away from submission.) On the grapevine, you hear isolated anecdotes of tears and breakdowns and bizarre eating patterns and sleepless editing marathons. Before getting there myself, I saw several friends and acquaintances fade away from the social scene for a few months and then return, relieved to have Writing Up out of the way but mysteriously muted about how it actually worked. I’m guessing this silence is due to the fact that generally, once you’re out of it, you don’t really want to go back there – and people are too polite to ask you to. 

Nonetheless I think, as with most aspects of academia, we can make a hard thing easier by talking about it. There are a few things I wish I’d known before I started the whole process. So with that in mind, and also with the more selfish motivation that I think it’s useful to reflect upon and learn from your experiences, here are a few observations about Writing Up drawn from my own experience. These are absolutely personal and are not meant to speak for everyone’s experiences – in particular, the way this works will vary hugely between disciplines. I’m an English Literature PhD studying at York, so I guess this should be seen as roughly applicable to the way Writing Up works for UK doctoral students in the humanities. But even then, your experience might be completely different from mine.

1) It took about three drafts, and about six months. 
What I mean by this is that in January 2014 I had five big rambling pieces of work on different authors that each addressed some aspect of naming in eighteenth-century literature, and that I swaggeringly called ‘chapters’. They weren’t chapters. They were overgrown conference papers, or three conference papers linked together, or hybrid lumps of literature review and close reading. I also had thousands of pages of notes and ramblings. I still didn’t know exactly what my argument was; how these things might all link up and form a cogent argument that could actually contribute to current scholarship. I realised this in January, and I panicked a bit. So what happened between January and June?

2) There shouldn’t be one big deadline. There should be several small ones.
Around January, I started to really use my supervisor. That is, I said, ‘I want to send you a draft of my thesis by x. Please hold me to it.’ I tried to make it so that I’d make myself look pretty stupid if I didn’t make the deadline. Then I got to work. And oh god, that first draft. It was awful. I was trying to link these pieces of work together, pulling new arguments out of thin air, jettisoning lovingly crafted ones that I’d worked on for the best part of year but just didn’t fit any more. It made me wonder what the hell I had been doing all my PhD. It made me think, ‘I can’t do this, I should just give up.’ But in the end I got a first draft, in all its awfulness, and sent it off to my supervisor. That first draft took about three months.

Once I got feedback from my supervisor, a funny thing had happened. I kind of knew a lot of what she’d say in advance. Working on the thesis as if it was a large, unitary piece of work – even though I was riddled with self-loathing as I did it – made me aware of many of the weaknesses of my argument, and also – a sadly smaller number – the strengths that I needed to research more, and make more central to the structure. Once I had my supervisor’s thoughts to confirm what I already knew and embellish it with insights that only she could give, I was away on a second draft, which took me from April to May. I passed it on to her again, with a tight turnaround for feedback, and then I wrote the final draft in the last two weeks before hand-in. 

3) Expect to be working right up until the last minute
The last draft in the last two weeks? Sounds a bit… close to the bone? Well, yes. I don’t know if everyone thinks they’ll be done and dusted a few weeks before the submission date, and just be leisurely proofreading, honing their acknowledgments, maybe doing a fun wordcloud. I did. But it didn’t work like that. Over those six months, I became more passionately invested in my subject than I had ever been invested in anything before. I wanted this thesis to be great. I wanted it to say everything. I read and read and read, sometimes scanning seven or eight books a day, following endless paper trails to find that critical source that I knew would bolster my argument, to revisit that text which I didn’t think I’d quite grasped yet. I re-shaped my chapters endlessly, splitting them into two, moving sections around, chasing after the Platonic Thesis, the ur-thesis, the thesis that would say EXACTLY what I wanted to say. This continued until the final week.

Maybe it shouldn’t have done. Maybe I should have eased off at the second draft, polished what I’d got, checked my formatting and sent it in. Or maybe I should have extended my deadline, because…

4) You can set yourself a hard and fast deadline and stick to it, or be more flexible.
At York, you have to file your Intention to Submit two months in advance. So around 6 April, I filled in a form to say I’d hand in on 6 June, and the talks about arranging examiners began. But here’s the thing: if your intention to submit is before the end of your registration period (that is, if you’re planning on finishing before your 4 years has expired) then it’s flexible. You don’t need to stick to the deadline.

But this wouldn’t work for me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. So, I set myself a deadline that I HAD to stick to for handing in my thesis. My motivation for doing so was that I had accepted a short term fellowship at the Huntington Library in California, and booked my flights and accommodation for 8 June. So I had to hand in by June 6th or I’d lose my money and perhaps my fellowship too. 

I suspect my supervisor thought I was mad. No flexibility for emergencies, no time off to recover. But there was method in my madness. I have always found, personally, that I am most productive when I’m working to a deadline that CANNOT be shifted. There’s something about fear that induces a wonderful clarity of purpose. If I had been able to put the deadline back, and back, and back, then I think I’d still be there, labouring after Draft 2. 

Maybe that would have produced a better thesis. I’ll never know. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that I don’t think my health would have taken it. Because…

5) This might be the most physically difficult thing you’ll ever do.
I was prepared for Writing Up to be a mental strain. I was prepared for feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and nerves. What I was’t prepared for was how physically tough it was. It all stemmed from lack of sleep, I think. I found it very hard to get a good night’s sleep where I wasn’t dreaming about tracking changes, and eventually I found myself, near my three deadlines, sleeping and working in shifts – six hours’ work, two hours’ nap, repeat ad nauseam. What this means is that I stopped doing any exercise at all, because I was always too tired. And near my deadlines I ate whatever was in the fridge or takeaways, which made me feel even worse. Smoking didn’t help either.
By the time of my third deadline, the sleep deprivation got to a point where I was actually hurting myself quite badly. I fell over in the street because my balance was constantly off – hilarious pratfall, but I was in pain for days. My face was always aching because I was grinding my teeth when I did sleep. I had a constant agonising crick in my neck. My stomach was a mess. My immune system was buggered, and I picked up a hideous cold in the final weeks. 

This is one thing I really think I could have managed better. If I’d controlled my diet better (maybe by getting a job lot of fruit and veg once a week) and tried to make sure I jogged just 20 minutes every few days, I think it would have paid dividends further along the line.  The time spent at the supermarket or in the park feels like a big sacrifice at the time, but trust me, you don’t want to end up as physically knackered as I was.

6) Deciding to apply for jobs at the same time as writing up is a big decision.
There were a few key moments over the last year of my PhD when, without even really being aware of it, I made some quite important choices about how the very crucial last few months would be organised. The first of these choices was: Should I apply for jobs during my final year, at the same time as I’m trying to write up? I chose yes, back in late summer 2013, because some goodlooking postdocs were starting to crop up on jobs.ac.uk and I would technically be eligible for them because I would be handed in (hopefully) by their start date of autumn 2014. But I could have chosen no, and that would have meant a less stressful year, but a vastly reduced chance of segueing smoothly into a job – instead, most likely, I would have planned on having a year out working in a cafe or bar and picking up teaching where I could, while starting the applications a year later.

It’s impossible to speculate accurately about the road less not taken, but I can tell you about the one I took. Applying for academic jobs is an exhausting process (and it will be the subject of a post for another day). Doing it while trying to write up is pretty hideous in a way, because the moment you feel like you’re finally getting into a work groove, another job comes up and you have to drop everything to write another self-praising spiel. It keeps throwing your rhythm off. Also, unless you are very lucky, you get rejections. And a slew of rejections, while you’re trying your best to keep your morale up, can feel pretty devastating.

But there are also benefits to it. When you get good news, when you get shortlisted or invited to interview or basically open any email saying “We are pleased to tell you…”, Writing Up feels, for a moment, feather-light. Added to that, I think that applying for jobs really helps you hone your ideas towards the thesis. When you’re constantly having to explain succinctly what your thesis is about, when you’re constantly having to send in sample work of different lengths, it’s like a series of min-deadlines that helps you towards your ultimate goal. It’s an irritation in the short term, but genuinely helpful in the long run.

7) You will, finally, feel that you know what you’re talking about. And that will feel amazing.
I don’t want this to be a misery memoir. I’ve saved this point for last, because it is so important. In one very bizarre way, the last six months was one of the best times of my life. I was almost exclusively focused on one thing, one project, one goal. To be working towards it, with few other distractions, was a buzz: I could lose track of time while writing and realise at the end that I had finally made that breakthrough; managed to express that tricky paradox or link up those two awkward thoughts. Finally, at the end of four years of study, I felt that I knew my field very well indeed, and knew where my argument fitted into it. I felt confident that I could defend my thoughts and inform those of my colleagues, and that I was making a genuinely original contribution to knowledge. That is a precious, exquisite feeling. That’s why we do this.

So, if you’re in the home strait (or approaching it) – bon courage. You can do it. Try to stay healthy, and try to enjoy it along the way. This is why we do this. Keep swimming.

(PS Let me know if you found this helpful – I’m considering doing similar posts on the viva and job applications, if they’d be of use to anyone.)

This Much I Know – Starting a PhD

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling and York is suddenly thronged with freshers, both undergrads and postgrads – some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, others clearly already suffering from the first of many appalling hangovers. I arrived here in York exactly two years ago (almost to the day). I remember my sense of wonder at the city itself – the fresh air after the smog of London, the glorious jumble of architecture ranging from the medieval to the kitsch, the buzz of the bars, the smell of warm chocolate from the Nestle factory – and this late September weather always rekindles in me that glorious sense of discovery, possession and potential that makes York such a very special place to live. But I also remember feeling terrified – that I’d left everything I knew to move to a new city where I didn’t know a single soul, but also about the process of starting a PhD. I’d spent my twenties to date flirting with the idea of a PhD – skirting around it, coming close, fleeing into the arms of the civil service, igniting the spark again, finally making the leap and committing myself. I’d done as much research as possible, but I still felt like I had no idea what to expect. I felt like not only a novice but also a fraud.

When I recently wrote a piece for the Independent about the reality of being a humanities doctoral student, I got a vast amount of feedback from people all over the world. The most gratifying messages were from those who were about to start a doctorate and said they were interested and/or reassured by what I had to say. It was lovely to cast my mind back to my own feelings of trepidation two years ago and think that the feature might have helped to set others’ nerves to rest. With that in mind, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a less generalist piece than my Indy one, more targeted at those PhD students starting their humanities doctorates now or contemplating applying for them this year. So here it is. It’s heavily influenced by the late and great Jane Moody’s Top Tips For Surviving A PhD, which was delivered as part of the York Humanities Research Centre’s excellent graduate induction course. And I nicked the ‘This Much I Know’ format from the blog of York head teacher John Tomsett, who in turn nicked it from The Observer magazine. I think it’s a good one because the title manages to connote the sharing of knowledge but also a very important sense of humbleness. Because although I know this much, I very definitely do not know it all. Only two years in out of three (or more likely four), I’m still feeling like a complete chump every day as I regret things I didn’t do earlier, worry about things I won’t do until it’s too late, or ask myself how I didn’t get around to this until now. All the more reason though, I think, to share the tips I wish someone had shared with me back in 2010. Please  share the post if you think it might help someone you know.


1. Often during your first year, you will feel as if you’re flailing around in research outer space without oxygen. This is entirely normal. 

What I mean by this is that it’s okay to have no idea what your project will look like as you blunder your way through your first year. Yes, we all had to write a proposal to get on to the PhD programme, and pretend we were dead certain that it would pan out exactly as we said, but that’s just a hoop that you have to jump through – albeit an entirely necessary one – to demonstrate that you’re capable of knowledge of your area, forethought and careful planning. As you start to read around (hopefully with the guidance of a supportive and knowledgeable supervisor) you’ll realize that some of your assumptions and theories that make up even the best proposal are old news and have no originality whatsoever. Others are wrong. Others are laughable. Part of being a good PhD student is reacting to this by adjusting your project accordingly, which can mean that you rather wildly redefine your project from day to day, hence the floating around in space feeling. Eg. I started off wanting to talk about naming in the novel within a forty year period. In the middle of my first year I read so much exciting stuff about the radical novel that my project lurched rather unsteadily into being about the novel as a forum for political debate, with emphasis on transit and crossing physical borders. I then realized that this subject had been rather exhaustively covered already, and that I was in fact still interested in names, so I went back to my original focus but with a circumscribed time frame and an interdisciplinary focus and a far more carefully historicist approach. My supervisor oversaw this reeling and lurching around with superb calm. It’s all normal.

2.  Your supervisor is, metaphorically speaking, a tool. Not a taskmaster. 

This is not a criticism of the supervisor. Quite the contrary. I and many of my friends started the PhD terrified that each supervision was some kind of test; that we would be found wanting and chastised unless we put in a superb ‘performance’ every time. This is rubbish. They really don’t care how you ‘perform’. I find it far more productive to think of my supervisor as a very sophisticated, expensive, useful tool. She has these vast stores of knowledge, these excellent critical faculties, these unrivalled contacts. But fundamentally the relationship exists to make my research better. Not so I can get a gold star every term. It’s tough to bear this in mind when your supervisor’s as impressive as mine is, but I try very hard and I think it helps.

On a related note…

3. Your project takes up about 75% of your mental space. It takes up about 0.75% of your supervisor’s. If that.

As per above. Submitting work is an intimidating process. I and my peers used to operate on the principle that that each quavering book report submitted for inspection would be dissected with the ferocity of a mad surgeon intent on finding a tumour of bullshit. This is not the case. Your supervisor will have a gazillion other things to think about, including their own research, the research of their other PhD students, the MA and undergrad courses they’re teaching, departmental duties, conferences, networking and their personal lives. They will be reading your initial work briskly and broadly, and commenting on only the things that jump out to them (though they will obviously be giving more careful attention to, say, your final thesis). I found this thought extraordinarily comforting for some reason. It stopped me feeling that submitting work was an ordeal, and gave me the confidence to challenge my supervisor’s criticisms on the basis that, even if I wasn’t as extraordinarily intelligent or experienced as her, I had given my project more thought than she probably had.

4. Do the boring stuff now. You’ll be glad of it later.

I’m talking about all the induction week things that you miss because you’re suffering from last night’s Cheeky Vimtos. The library tour. The ‘Using Resources’ session. The IT induction. Go. Go. Go. By listening carefully and taking away the notes to consult in the future, you will save yourself hundreds of hours of future grief agonizing about how to work the catalogue, the best archive search, the referencing guide. This stuff is bum-numblingly dull, but it is important. And it is necessary, if you’re to waltz off at the end of three or four years with that delightful doctorate.

5. Use Zotero. 

I CANNOT BELLOW  THIS LOUDLY ENOUGH. I did the first two years of my PhD without any referencing software whatsoever, largely because I failed to follow Tip #4 above and failed to realize that such things existed. Embarrassing. This meant, in short, that I had to manually enter every citation and every bibliography, which resulted in (a) boredom (b) errors (c) mislaying useful references or late-night Google books discoveries because it was too much of a blag to note them properly. Zotero is a free iTunes-style library of bibliographic information, which lives in your web browser and enables you to record all the information (publisher, ISBN number etc) of any useful resource you find on the internet with just one click of the mouse. You can then insert this info into your writing, in one of thousands of referencing styles, by dragging and dropping. It is like magic.

I’d like to note that I’m not paid by Zotero to say this. Honest. I believe there are other similar programmes out there and they might be just as good. But personally I’m loved up with Zotero now. You should be too. http://www.zotero.org/

6. Join Twitter.

JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. If you’re not already on it, that is. I firmly believe that anybody in academia who’s not on Twitter is shooting themselves in the foot every day that they stay away. Their foot is now a puddle of bloody smithereens. Pretty soon they’ll have no foot at all. You get the picture. #overextendedmetaphor

I have found funding opportunities only on Twitter. I have seen amazing jobs advertised only on Twitter. One of my best friends got her studentship after seeing it advertised only on Twitter. I see conferences, Calls for Papers, Calls for Panels and exciting projects advertised only on Twitter. I have obtained valuable research leads and had fascinating discussions with a range of both fellow academics and eclectic others including higher education specialists, novelists, historical biographers, policymakers, Private Eye cartoonists and interested public – ALL ON TWITTER. You can’t rely on posters in the grad common room and the odd expensive conference for your networking opportunities. GET ONTO TWITTER.


7. Go to conferences. 

See my post here for why I think they’re still useful. Although Twitter is an ESSENTIAL part of academic networking, there is nothing like face-to-face contact to forge contacts and enable detailed discussions. Chose your conferences carefully (they are frequent, far-flung and expensive) but try to go to as many as you can within reason. Always try to write a paper that will push your research forward, not distract you from it (I have slipped up here, but am trying to mend my ways). Arrive early and stay late. Talk to as many people as you can. You never know what opportunities will emerge.


8. When somebody is unpleasant to you, ALWAYS try to put it down to awkwardness rather than malice.

This was the Hot Tip of Jane Moody’s that I remember best. She told us that it is one of the downsides to academia that you will meet a lot of very awkward people; brilliant intellectually but not so great socially. Some of them will express this awkwardness in conventional and easily interpreted ways; by blushing, mumbling, shuffling etc. Others will ignore you when you speak to them; or turn away abruptly when you’re talking about your research and start a conversation with someone else; or say something slighting; or react aggressively to an innocuous comment about their own research. All of these things have happened to me on occasion, and my first response was always to run away and cry. My second was to remember Jane’s excellent advice; try where at all possible to understand that these people are awkward and not malicious. Don’t take it personally. Smile and be unruffled. Continue to try to be friendly. Generally, I feel like this is very very effective, although also very very hard to do.

8. Do earthy stuff to stay sane. 

It’s a popular York joke (again perpetuated by Jane) that academics are obsessed with cakes, and baking more widely, and I know a number of PhD students across an international network of institutions who keep food blogs. I think there are good reasons for this. When you spend so much of your time grappling with intellectual problems, there is something marvellous about escaping to an earthly realm for a while, doing something very physical and tangible (no lewd jokes please). And what could be more so than making food with your hands and then stuffing it into your greedy craw? This is one of the ways I stay sane, along with boxing and running, and all three make me feel so much better and saner when I’ve had a long and tortured PhDay. It doesn’t have to be those hobbies, obviously. But I would recommend developing some kind of extracurricular life that’s unrelated to your PhD. Otherwise, you might finish in three years, but you’ll also be a shell of a human being.

9. Don’t compare yourself to others.

One of the things about doing a PhD is that you’re in a cohort. You start at the same time as a few other people – intelligent, talented, competitive people – and you progress at roughly the same pace throughout. What do you think happens? Someone gets a paper published first. Someone gets told their upgrade was the best their supervisor’s ever had. Someone wins a prize. Someone gets offered teaching where others don’t. The easiest thing in the world is to measure yourself up to your peers and wail “I’M SHIT!” and start to resent them for being so bloody excellent and smug. Resist this like the plague. Firstly, it doesn’t do you a shred of good and it does you a lot of bad. Secondly, there’ll be something that hasn’t even crossed your mind that they’ll be resenting you for (or trying not to) at the same time. Collaborate with your peers, learn from them, get drunk and have superb times with them… but when it comes to progress, try to view yourself in splendid isolation. Are you going at the right pace for you? That’s all that matters.

10. Enjoy it.

This, inspired by a fellow PhD student @pathadley on Twitter the other day. “It’s not about ‘getting’ a PhD. It’s about doing one.” Slightly cheesy though it sounds, this is extraordinarily good advice. Try to relax and enjoy what you’re doing – the reading, the drafting, the socializing, all of it. Even the shitty parts, and yes there WILL be shitty parts, like when you’ve been rejected for funding or a conference and your writing makes no sense and you’ve got no money and you’re ill and it’s all gone to hell. Try to find SOMETHING to enjoy. Because when you’ve finished, when you’re holding the diploma and you’ve changed your name on your credit card, I reckon the acquisition of ‘PhD’ will feel pretty anti-climactic. As with most acquisitions, the sense of pride/satisfaction will fade rather quickly, and you’ll be left asking what memories you have from the three or four years of your life you devoted to this. Make ’em good ones.

Stuck In The Middle: 10 tips for writing a novel in 2 weeks

I haven’t updated for a while, but trust me, I’ve got a good excuse. I’ve just been buffeted through the busiest but also perhaps the most amazing week of my life. I’ve been in York, Birmingham, Leamington Spa, Istanbul and back to York again over the space of five days.  I’ve seen, by my last count, almost a hundred friends from a dozen different cities and three different time zones.  I’ve had both my first book launch, and my first review in a national newspaper. I’m thus utterly knackered, and have hardly had a moment to pause and reflect on events since the whole whirlwind began. Today is the first day I’ve had fully to myself; the visiting friends have all departed from York, the holiday washing is folded and the spare bedding put back in the cupboard, and the gorgeous presents have been picked up from Waterstones. The cumulative hangover has finally receded. I am once again curled up on my sofa in my flat , getting my affairs in order and able to turn my attention to this blog. Rites is well and truly launched.

I’m not going to say much about the launch itself, because my friends are probably sick to death of the subject and hopefully there’ll be a brief video available soon which will give a much better flavour of the thing for anyone who missed it. Suffice to say it was the most bizarre, overwhelming and almost painfully proud evening of my life. My cheeks are still a bit achey from smiling so much and so widely; I have memories that will last a lifetime; and I have learned – a most valuable lesson – that I am not remotely photogenic when reading aloud. I apparently have a very animated face.

Neither am I going to say much about the first national review of Rites, which appeared in the Sunday Express the day after the launch. Not that I’m not sickeningly proud (and if you want to see why, head over to the ‘Press and Reviews of Rites‘ section). It’s just that I reckon at the moment it would sound a lot like unadulterated (not to mention prescient) smugitude, and I think I could get a much beefier, more interesting post once out of the idea of reviews once I’ve had a few more, of varying timbre (should I be so lucky).

Instead, I thought I might write a bit about being Stuck in the Middle. The middle of a book, that is. Because for my speech at the launch  I spoke a bit about the beginning of the book, much as I outlined it in a previous post here, but I had to stop at the same bit of the writing process as before, and that reminded me of my earlier promise, to come back to what you do when you’ve written those first striking / gripping / explosive few chapters. What do you do when the novelty wears off? When you find that you’re finished setting the scene and you have to actually make something happen? Something that will actually sustain the reader’s interest? How do you come up with the events, and how do you pattern them so that they have the right kind of narrative arc, a kind that feels good to you and hopefully also to the reader? And how the dirty devil do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing, to keep getting them down on paper, when you’re so brain-sick of the whole thing that the very sight of your embryonic masterpiece makes you want to projectile vomit grey matter out through your nostrils? (trust me, this is a Thing. If you’ve never had a feeling of deep loathing for your own work, I’m not sure you’re really a writer).

Well, these are all big questions, and I don’t think I can answer them comprehensively.  After all, I’ve only done it once. But if it helps, I can not only tell you what the Middle felt like for me, that one time. I can show you what it looked like.

The circumstances under which I wrote the middle to Rites were, well, unusual. After I’d sent off the start of the novel for the competition Route were running, I wiped my brow with relief and took a break from writing it. Quite a long break. Okay, a very long break. Weeks. Months. If ‘m honest, I assumed I was’t going to get anywhere, and I forgot about it. Then one day I got a phone call – I think I was on a train – and I heard the news that I was on the shortlist of five. And they wanted the rest of the novel.


I said I’d send it to them in two weeks. Then I went home and sat in the flat by myself, very quietly, for a little while, and wondered what the hell I was going to do. Eventually I just decided that I’d have to write the rest in two weeks.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: this is not the ideal way to write a novel. Good writing benefits from lots of time, revision and loving perfectionism – indeed, that’s exactly what the first draft of Rites received once I started working with Route a few months later (that’s another story). But for focusing the mind, for that first draft, for the actual creation of something tangible and coherent out of a vacuum of nothingness, I do think that nothing works quite like blind panic and an unforgiving deadline. I give you, therefore,

Coulombeau’s Top Ten Tips To A Middle In Two Weeks

1. Budget your time. Yep. Budget it. Just like you budget money.

This was one point where my training as a student of literature came in handy. Or rather, a professional essay writer. Essays train you, you see, to do this, to meet a deadline. This process started off just the same as that of writing an essay. I needed forty thousand words (not including the 10,000 I’d already written) in 14 days. I worked it out at four 10,000 word chunks. 4,000 words a day for two days, and then on the third day I could stop at 2,000, and spend the rest of the day editing my 10,000 word chunk. Then start again the next morning. That would give me the requisite number in 12 days, leaving a 2-day safety buffer zone for overall editing. ‘Perfect’.

2. Equip yourself. Plan.

I am a great believer in the visuals of essay / novel planning. See Exhibit A above. I got hold of paper, coloured pens, pins and post-its. I drew a timeline for the novel, divided it into four sections. I dredged up all the notes I’d scribbled down for themes, scenes, dialogue, suggestive ideas that I’d thought in the past I might like to fit into the narrative, and I started to write them in on the timeline, roughly where I thought I’d like them to occur. If I wasn’t really sure then I put the idea on a post-it and moved it around in different places, trying different things out. I also noted problems as they arose, and stuck them around the edges of the timeline, so I wouldn’t forget a crucial plot tangle or inconsistency and be buggered at the end, so that my mind would always be sort of working away at them. When I had got the first half planned out to my satisfaction – the second looked and still looks rather bare – I stuck it on the cork board above my desk.

Oh, and coffee. You’ll need lots and lots of coffee.

3. Use people #1

Every novel needs research. The delicate subject matter of Rites meant that it needed research – accurate research – perhaps more than most. I figured out that, at the very least, I needed to speak to a doctor, a lawyer familiar with out-of-date sexual offences legislation, and a police officer. I also needed to speak to somebody who was very familiar with Class A drugs. So I sent some emails off  to friends who worked in these fields, or have these experiences, or who might know someone who did, and begged for a phone conversation. They were unbelievably helpful. (Incidentally, other bizarre research experiences involved asking male friends about the gory specifics of their teenage sexual awakening, and reading a Roman Catholic Missal cover to cover).

4. Use People #2

Asking people to read your work in progress is horrible. It’s like asking someone to comment on your looks when you’ve just crawled out of bed with a hangover; you haven’t prepared yourself, you haven’t made it the best it can be, IT’S NOT READY. Tough, when you’re on a tight schedule. You need people to tell you exactly how and why you look terrible – that your hair needs washing, where your smudged mascara is, how to pluck those eyebrows. Because – here’s the thing – YOU DON’T HAVE A MIRROR.

Bearing this in mind, I asked four friends – four very wonderful, very generous friends with totally different taste from one another in fiction – to read my draft and send me comments, to a ludicrously tight schedule. Ten thousand words every two-and-a-half-days with a  twelve-hour turnaround. They did it, every time. They buoyed me up with encouragement and suggestions. Because of them, I sent in a more controlled, thoughtful, consistent, polished text in the end. They have my eternal gratitude.

5. Write.

Simply that. Look at your plan, look at the first event on it. Think, “How do I want to present this? Who’s narrating it? Where does it happen? What kind of tone?” Once a reasonably solid idea has come into your head – prod it a few times to see – write it down. GO. Keep writing. When you’re done, look at the next event on your plan. Do the same. Write for as long as you can. Do not read over what you’ve written, or you will crumple and die.

6. Become a split personality

The best how-to book I have ever read about the craft of creative writing was first published in 1934 by a woman called Dorothea Brande. It’s called ‘Becoming A Writer’, and is seen as something of a cult classic by many in the fiction field. It’s worthy of a blog post by itself, but for now I’ll just paraphrase the best piece of advice from it, the piece that got me through those insane two weeks:

“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer – the craftsman and the critic in him – are actually hostile to the good of the unconscious, the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”

She’s right. You basically need, in my experience, to be able to separate the writer part of you from the critic. To write very freely and desperately and craply, without censoring or self-editing at all – which is what I did for 2 1/2 days – and then to become a pedantic, severe editor and Track Change the whole thing – which I did for half a day, before sending it on to my other editors. If you try to do both at once, you’re doomed to failure and will end up huddled in a corner gnashing your teeth and rending your garments in despair.

7. Don’t be afraid to change things.

As I progressed, and my characters began to take on a life of their own, I realized I had been very mistaken about  some of their traits. For example, one character had been bisexual, but I realized halfway through that he simply wasn’t. Another character had a drinking problem, but I realized near the end that she simply didn’t. It was then a question of going back and painstakingly sifting out all references to these errors. But it was a good sign, I think. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean it’s good, or right.

8. Lean on the Plan to start with, but learn to stand without it.

If you look at Exhibit A above, you’ll see that the final section of the Plan is pretty blank. I found that, whereas I needed the Plan almost like a crutch when I was writing the earlier sections, as my manuscript amassed weight I found myself deviating from it more and more, until eventually I hardly needed it at all. I still jotted the odd thing down, but in general the narrtive now had momentum and I knew where it was going. I preferred to spend my rapidly dwindling time writing than developing a plan I didn’t need.

9. Anticipate the Dark Night Of The Soul

Dorothea Brande, talking about fiction, calls it The Slough Of Despond. The late and great Professor Jane Moody, talking about PhDs, called it The Dark Night Of The Soul. It is that moment when you hit a mental roadblock and gently, soothingly, depression wraps itself around you like the snuggliest of duvets, and a little voice whispers to you that you should just give up. It’s rubbish. What did you think you were trying to do? Save face now. Quit before you embarrass yourself any further.

If I had foolproof advice about how to deal with this, I’d basically be able to save the world. My own strategy was to go on a very long run, have a very long sleep, and go back to writing the next day, stubbornly ignoring the problem that had occasioned my Dark Night. I told myself I’d figure it out subconsciously. I did, in the end.

10. Promise yourself something amazing at the end of it all.

No, not the finished manuscript. That goes without saying. Promise yourself that when you’ve reached target, you can have what you most want (within reason) in the world. My own incentive was a camping trip with friends away to How Stean Gorge. When I hit 50,000 words, I promised myself, I would go somewhere for two days where I couldn’t even see a computer screen if I wanted to, where I wouldn’t even think about books, where I would just eat burned sausages and drink cold beer under a starry sky. I hit 50,000 words about 90 minutes before my lift left.

The ending, of course, hadn’t been written yet. I was saving that for when I came back, because endings are superimportant. But that’s another story.

The Art Of The Conference Paper

I’ve spent most of this offensively glorious summer’s day at my desk inside my flat, desperately boshing away at a conference paper. I’ve just typed the final lines, quickly saved and closed down the document so I can’t look at my horrific handiwork, wiped the sweat from my beleaguered brow and poured myself a nice cold English Garden. It occurred to me that it might be good to get a blog post in about the art of the conference paper (as I see and aspire to it) while I’ve got it all still buzzing around in my head.

Some of you will be only too familiar with conferences as such. Others, not so much. They’re a cornerstone of academic life, and occupy a wide variety of places in the hearts of those who, happily or miserably, attend them. Some see them as the best thing about academia – I have a friend who describes academia as her long-term lover and conferences as their dirty weekends away, when they ‘rejuvenate their relationship’ and she’s reminded of how much she loves it even though most of the time it just gets on her nerves. Others see them as either terrifying (especially if you’re giving a paper) or pointless and expensive (especially if you’re not). Some attend them with a careful strategy to see as many papers as they can to actually maximise their knowledge; others go – quite frankly and openly – just to network, to make those all-important contacts that might help you publish a paper or get a leg-up in a funding competition or even get a job.

Unsurprisingly, they can be all of the above, depending on who’s running them and how the programme shapes up. Personally I love a good conference, and have tried to submit papers to as many as possible over the course of my PhD so far. You often hear some great research, put a face to a revered name, and often get to corner your heroes and heroines and ask them about their work / get their thoughts about yours. When they let their hair down (which they invariably do after a bit of the lukewarm wine that your conference fee pays for, among other things) the academic community is an excellent place to be – full of fiercely intelligent, slightly weird people who have both a great passion for what they do and a keen sense of the ridiculous about the oddities of their profession.

But I want to specifically write about the conference paper today – the twenty minute presentation that you give at these things. The process goes like this; you submit an abstract (usually two hundred words or so) a few months in advance of the conference, outlining the focus of your paper and the argument you want to make. Hopefully you get accepted, at which point your paper is put into a panel with two others, often with a convincing overarching theme to enable discussion. Then you have to write the thing.  Yep, that’s right. You’re basically hypothesizing when you send your firm, confident abstract in. You haven’t yet done the research and have no idea if your argument holds water. You get the nod, and then you have to start researching and writing and hope for the best.

Of course, this is just one way of doing it. It’s my way, and it derives from a sort of principle I have that conferences should be used over the course of a PhD to push research forward. When you get an acceptance and know you have to present your paper, well, you’ve got to write it. The other way of doing it, of course, is to present papers that you’ve already written, that you may have presented already, and just perform them again, slightly tailored. That has its own benefits of course – there’s less work involved. But the one time I did that, I felt rather dead inside without the adrenalin rush in the couple of weeks building up to the conference. I was bereft of the sense that this conference had really helped me inch a bit further along the path to a finished thesis. So, no more of that if I can help it.

This is leading up to something, promise. I have this idea about how the conference paper could be made a better sort of beast than it currently is, which, as an experiment, I’ve been trying out with the paper I’ve just written. Of those papers I’ve seen over the last year or two (and I DO include myself in this statement, and there ARE exceptions) the majority have been – to my mind – based on work that is altogether too polished. What I mean by this is that, whether written years before the conference or days before, they generally appear to be large, finished, carefully reasoned, elaborately footnoted pieces of work, probably originally clocking in at about 10 thousand words or an hour long, BUT then mutilated and squished to fit into a twenty-minute box for the conference. What this means in practice, for the listener, is a very quickly spoken, rather garbled polemic that assumes an awful lot of knowledge and as a result, can rather lose one’s attention. And, invariably, run over time.

Crucially, this kind of process – writing a long piece of work and then cutting it down for a spoken paper – also has a necessary impact on the tone and feel of one’s argument. If you’ve put that much work into a chapter or essay, trust me, you’re going to feel very defensive of your conclusions. As a result, many of the papers I’ve seen are presented in a rather confrontational or else frightened way. There’s a definite feeling among panelists that the audience are an enemy, there to catch you out or attack your theory. As an audience member, I never feel at all hostile to the speakers, but I do frequently feel that I’m just being presented with a range of fait accomplis ; stuff that is often not related to what I study, and doesn’t make an attempt to reach out, link the research to wider questions and engage the diverse specialisms of the audience.

As I mentioned, I have been guilty of all this and more myself. So, this time round, I decided as an experiment to write my paper rather differently. This paper is called “Ne suis-je pas son mari? Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith and Cross-Channel Conjugality”. It’s  for a superb-sounding graduate conference to be held at Newcastle University on 1st June (so, a week today) called ‘Romantic Connections: Networks of Influence’ (full info here, for the that-way-inclined http://www.ncl.ac.uk/niassh/events/supported/RomanticConnections.htm )

What I’ve done differently this time is consciously attempt, in my writing, to destine this piece of work for a conference paper and a conference paper only. I’ve asked myself: As an audience member, what would I love to hear? And I came up with the following:

1) A brief introduction to the work of the writers in question – don’t just assume that everyone knows who they are and what they did and why they’re important

2) A series of exciting questions with broad appeal to be asked about their work and significance – relate their output to themes that everyone can think about and offer thoughts on

3) A clear hypothesis or suspected argument; but more importantly, the sense that actually this is work in progress; that as an audience member I can engage with and possibly influence the direction of the research during the Questions session

4) A sense that the day is interactive – that the speaker has been soaking up the ideas of other people, and that they will actually use their paper to respond to some of these issues.

So, I tried this out. I gave myself a 3000-word cap (still probably a bit too long, but I usually do about 7000 and then cut it down to 2500, so a definite improvement). I have obviously read all my primary texts thoroughly, and have given the nod to a few critics whose work has helped me articulate to myself why this subject is important; but I’ve tried to utterly ignore the demon who sits on your shoulder and hisses, “But you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this“. (I don’t NEED more material! It’s only twenty minutes. ) I’ve given a lot of space to an interesting anecdote and to asking what I think of as broad, exciting questions. And only 1.5 pages to each of three novels that I discuss. Hardly any to criticism. And I’ve left space, or I will, to reflect the content of an earlier paper or two.

The result looks… hmm. It looks a bit sketchy and unfinished. Thinking about showing this or reading it out to someone, I feel as anxious and just WRONG as I would if I showed them an early draft of a short story, or a painting while there were still big swathes of white and unfinished limbs. But I’m trying to ignore that feeling.

The real test will be this time next week, when I’m in Newcastle, being very frank about the fact that this is work in progress and seeing how the audience respond. There is an unfortunate possibility that I will come of as an underprepared amateur. But maybe (hopefully) it will go down well. And I’ll get some feedback and advice and thoughts that will make this little sketchy piece of hypothesis bloom into a wonderful, informed chapter that is something of a collaborative effort. That, I reckon, is what conferences might be for. That and the dear old lukewarm wine.

Ok, enough. I’m off to meet friends at the park. Speaking of wine, I have a champagne-washed cheese and a bottle of Prosecco and I know how to use them. Til next time.