Academic conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Fallow time: Waiting for the literary muse to show

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I don’t agree with sitting around and waiting for anything, much less a muse to come and whisper in my ear. As a writer, I am too impatient, too demanding – very demanding, in fact. And yet, it is as if the muse is laughing at me now. Because I have landed in the becalmed sea of fallow time. The post doctoral submission state of limbo.

In short, I feel inert. I suppose this is to be expected when a major project comes to an end, and a period of great focus and intensity such as the doctorate in creative writing comes to its conclusion. There was no period from when I applied to do the course through to submitting my first proposal and then jumping every hurdle placed before me over the four years – culminating with submission – that I allowed myself time for any reflection.

That time is now.

Well, ‘now’ is actually a relative term because, like all good workaholics, I have made sure that on top of my full time job in arts communication, I am again teaching an evening class in entrepreneurship for creative practitioners. As we explore how a writer can sell themselves, without selling out, it makes me reflect about my own work. That old question – who am I? It’s not a bad thing to pause and explore this, take some time out from doing to being.

In my job in a large public art gallery, the cycles of intensity revolve around each exhibition. I have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of this world over the past four years, but this is the first doctorate I have done, and therefore, the end of studying has been a blessing and a curse. I am probably not alone when I say there is a sense of loss from the structure and the focus – and indeed the need to block out all other distractions in order to complete.

In The Thesis Whisperer, Lauren Gawne, a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, writes of this post submission limbo. She writes “I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that. ”

I have structure – my full time job, my part time job, my children and my writing – but still…..it is as if there is a big hole in my life, possibly because it was overfull to begin with. And now that the super structure of the doctorate has gone, I am forced to look at the world around me.

On the plus side, the distractions have flooded back in – and though they are life itself, friends and family and the odd, wonderful realisation that there is a world out there beyond my desk – it means I am getting less done as I do more, well ‘life’. That to me is an odd feeling.

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And then a glance at the diary indicates it’s only weeks until I head overseas, to present the final chapter of my exegesis at a conference, and also do research for the other two books in the trilogy I started with Almost Human – my doctoral novel. In Europe, I will be catching up with friends that tyranny of distance puts between us, even in the age of electronic communication. Melbourne is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Yet as much as I long to see them again, I also feel strongly there is someone else I need to reconnect with after this doctoral journey. And that’s myself. As I wander around, unsure of what I have achieved, unable to put my finger on why I am so flat, and in a fog about starting anything new creatively, I realise that it is because I am trying to find who I am in this post doctoral state. Maybe I will reconnect with that ‘me’ in Europe, where I can be truly introspective. Especially in countries where I do not speak the language!

People keep on saying to me – what now? Where are you going? What’s next? And in truth, I don’t know. When you undertake any major project, you only think about getting to the end. Getting through – you really have no idea of how you will emerge after the journey, and where those experiences will take you.

You are in a sense, missing – searching for yourself. The new you. The old you, too, that you perhaps put aside while you studied so hard. Maybe that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist anymore…

The trouble with this period of reflection is that I am too exhausted and flat to enjoy it. I suppose that is to be expected. My most popular blogs at 100 Days To The Doctorate are ones that talk about doctoral misery – and it seems a quick glance on the Internet reveals that this comes in several forms – the misery of doing the doctorate, of having finished the doctorate, and are wondering why the hell you did the doctorate when there aren’t enough academic jobs out there.  Mind you, I am not so sure if I want an academic job. The more I read about life in the academic lane, the less appealing it sounds.

But that’s not why one does a doctorate, surely. I certainly didn’t opt for a vocational course, not with creative writing!

Let’s move on to misery. The misery of actually doing a doctorate is for me a blur of highs and lows and focus. The lows were not so much giving up things so I could work and study – it’s amazing how the body and soul adjusts to social solitary confinement like that – but were in fact the lows of the hard, and it must be said, often tedious grunt work. For instance, it’s harder to make sure you are up on all the administrative details of your doctoral process than it is to make sure you are aware of the latest journal article in your field. The constant academic hurdles – every six months or so, confirmation, progress, and then finally completion. Paper work, more paperwork, and often conflicting advice. Sometimes – no advice. After all, at this point, you should be able to go solo, right?

Now – the joy. The great joy of doctoral study, besides the sheer buzz of research and writing (well, I say this as a writer) was engaging on an intense level with people passionate about the same things.

I spent the four years presenting at seven conferences, and each one drew me to people who expanded my life somehow, people I would not have met if I hadn’t undertaken this journey.

I imagine the worst thing would be to try and undertake doctoral study without engaging with other students and peers in your area. For me, the highs were actually forming concepts and exploring ideas based on my research, and the giddy feeling of exploration and eureka moments of discovery along the way – especially when shared with others. And I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sit and hear about other people’s research as well, and hear the passion in their voice – yes, the struggle and the pain as well, and the constant fear of ‘am I good enough’? But conferences are where we can shine, and spread our wings, show our true colors – it’s worth the leap of faith in exposing yourself and your ideas to the academy.

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But – that doctoral journey demands its pound of flesh. Yes, if you are determined, organised, selfish, ruthless, clever, attentive, gracious, and bloody minded, you will emerge and hopefully be able to relish the feeling of having achieved a major academic hurdle – submitting your doctorate.

Just don’t expect to come through in one piece! At a writing workshop a few days ago, I quizzed other authors who had done the doctoral slog and asked if they got sick – and depressed – after submission. Yes! It was a resounding reply. One they don’t tell you about at the Gradate Research Office when you submit.

One author had such bad eye strain he got a tear behind his retina. Another was sick for months. I promptly came down with a major sinus infection that hit hard, so hard I was in bed for a week. And then came a strange inability to commit to my writing. Oh no –

Was I having – writer’s block?

“Oh good!” said a friend, gleefully. “It will make the rest of us feel better! At last you are not doing five projects or more at once…”

Postscript:

Of course, fallow time, in the end, didn’t lasted that long, thank goodness. No sooner than I wrote this blog and let it languish a day or two on the computer screen than the call came from my supervisor that heralded the start of the next phase of the doctoral journey.

But you know what? Like all good crime writers, I am going to leave this blog on a cliffhanger, and keep you waiting until next blog tell you the news.

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, publishing the novel, Writing strategies

It’s not me, it’s you: falling out of love with your fictional character

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My dearest fictional character – we’ve been together for many years, and you’ve sat with me long into the night as we have tried to work it out. You’ve gone deep into the heart of academia with me, you’ve faced the Master of Creative Writing examiners – and passed, with flying colors – and I have good friends who will go into bat for you.

And I have loved and cared for you, it’s true. I made you from nothing but the figment of my imagination. I gave you flesh and blood and backstory. I fashioned your hair and clothes and gave you your name. You feel like you are part of me.

But recently, or actually, not so recently, things haven’t been the same between us. I’ve noticed your flaws. Those charming idiosyncrasies that at first were just slightly annoying, but have now started grating on me. Even though, it is true, I was responsible for everything about you, even the awful bits.

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But some of the things you’ve done, and let’s be honest, the people you’ve killed in my Gothic horror novel, have indicated that you are unbalanced. And people don’t necessarily like that.

There is no harder word to defend in fiction than ‘antagonist’. Except perhaps the words ‘female antihero’.

No one likes a woman who kills in fiction. They like her even less if she kills her lover’s wife. It’s true that even in the horror genre, people get very moralistic like that. Though I agree with you, the wife had it coming to her. She after all turned your lover’s life support off, didn’t she? And if that’s not motivation enough to propel you on your bloody journey of revenge, I don’t know what is.

And I thought refusing to say ‘till death do us part’ was romantic. Apparently not.  People just think you are unhinged.

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You see, Xanthe, I have a new set of people reading about you. And they don’t like you, not one little bit. One author was ready to throw you against a wall – a pretty strong reaction to a fictional character, I know. She said it out loud, to my face. “I just don’t like her.”

Others in my new writing workshop have started saying it as well. It began with a read through and a glass of wine. They called you objectionable. That hurt. To be told that the person you cared about – even if only fictional – was not quite up to scratch. Not worthy of me. Not only that, they didn’t even like the man you loved. I was trying to make him sympathetic, but I was told he was too perfect. They said he needed to be flawed, cheating man that he is – he needed to be real. Everyone likes the bad boy in books.

What’s that I hear you say? You think I am being unfaithful with my writer’s affections? Okay. So, I admit it. There’s someone else. That’s the truth. They are as intense as you, but less neurotic. And for some reason, even though he (yes, it’s a man this time) inhabits a world where he has sold his soul to the devil, and you still have yours, people prefer him.

How did that happen?

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I am the writer who created you both, and people prefer JD Howard to you, Xanthe. It’s just the way it is. They want me to leave you, toss you aside, and move in with him, so to speak.

In fact, when I presented the latest piece of writing at my workshop featuring you, Xanthe, this is what they said.

“Oh, we were hoping for more of Howard, after what we read last time. We loved Howard, he was ambiguous, morally objectionable, but interesting – well dressed, dark, mysterious, and we loved the way he tried to seduce that nurse in the first chapter…”

And you, my poor dear Xanthe, love of my heart, a woman I so painstakingly created throughout my Masters degree – they just thought you were crazy. They didn’t get you at all.

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So now, after all this time, I have decided to consign you to third person. Howard is going to take the prized first person protag place in my novel.

What can I say, Xanthe? It’s not me, it’s you. I think you are the reason my novel hasn’t found a publisher. Now, maybe I am being too harsh, that’s not totally the case, but in all relationship breakups, someone has to take the blame, so it might as well be you.

If I wanted to be really honest, I could tell you this – obviously in the course of the four years that I have pursued my doctorate in creative writing, I have grown stronger, leaner, meaner, better as a writer, and you, my dearest, just don’t cut it any more.

Yes, I know we go back a long way, and you are the first love of my MA. But now it is time to face the facts. We have grown apart. I have outgrown you, and it’s over. It really is.

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I could let you down gently, I suppose, tell you that I just need some space to think about things. But actually, I have told you those lies already. How many years now have I said to you that I am too busy to spend time with you? That I can’t pursue our endless redrafts any more because I have to work on other projects, or I have a conference to attend? I keep saying I’ll get back to you in due course, but it never happens, does it? You should have realized then there was another book taking my time and affections.

You should have realized my neglect was actually an indication of a deeper betrayal – that of lack of interest. But it hurts me to do this. To create another you. A better you. A you without the flaws. A you perfectly drawn, who will do what I want, when I want. The thing is, Xanthe. I am selfish. I want to get my novel published. And you are holding me back.

You see, Xanthe, now I have submitted that other novel as part of my doctorate, I am ready to come back to the MA novel, and I don’t like what I see anymore. I don’t like you, Xanthe.

So here we are now, with me about to commit the ultimate in writer’s divorce. I am going to move all our work together into an old draft folder, and start again.

That’s it. I have had enough. I have tried and tried, but it’s just not working. I have to be mature about this, and do the right thing by you – and by me – and call it quits. I can’t waste any more time with you. I can’t keep providing you with better dialogue, more complex motivations that still render you believable. I need to have time to write the book my book could be without you.

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Even though I spent years creating you, and rewriting you, it’s not working. You are not working. It’s over. I want to start afresh with someone else. Another character. A clean slate. Someone I can project my darkest fantasies upon. Someone who will do what I want and have the readers cheering.

Goodbye Xanthe. If this were a Stephen King novel, you’d stab me in my sleep for ending it this way. I know you – you are like that, aren’t you?

Just as well you are not real. Only a figment of my imagination.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Time management, Writing strategies

Productive study habits exposed: Larks versus night owls

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Apparently, insanely productive people do their best work before the sun rises. I’d concur with that – if it means not going to bed first. I am not a morning person, I never have been and the only way I got my doctorate finished while also working full time with two children was to work long into the night.

Over the four years of the PhD journey, I clocked up more all nighters than I’d care to remember – and went to work the next day. On the day I handed in my doctorate, I managed about two and a half hours sleep, a full day’s work and went on to teach my night class in entrepreneurship. I am not Wonder Woman, but I do know a thing or two about my circadian rhythms. And that is I am toast in the morning.

I can’t utter a coherent sentence at 6 am, much less write anything that anyone would want to read – certainly not a sentence that would pass muster in my thesis. I am not a morning person. I feel nauseous in the morning, probably because I have such a hard time getting to sleep.

Like the late Margaret Thatcher, a woman to be admired for her work ethic if nothing else, I am at my best on no more than five hours sleep a night. The Iron Lady favored three or four. She’d think me a slacker, for sure. It’s not like I have a country to invade – my reasons for staying up late are that’s just when I am more productive. I like the quiet of the house when the kids and pets are asleep. And besides, after a day of slugging back the coffee, I suffer from insomnia.

An article in Fast Company by Paul Dejoe about getting up at 4 am  – and working productively and creatively – has made me feel queasy at the thought of having to get up that early. I have no problems staying up to 4 am working – that’s a given if I have a deadline. But to willingly get out of bed and face the new day that early? Dejoe is clearly cut from a different cloth to me. He is a morning person.

I am not a lark – no way. And yet, I do know about working productively in the early mornings. Daily journalism is by its very nature about shift work, and there was a period of time when I was working on a long defunct afternoon newspaper and needed to get into work by 6 am, file the first story before 7.15 am and then go and have a much needed coffee and start working on the update for the second edition.

I’ll never forget calling a night owl politician at 6 am  for a quote – in Perth – and forgetting the time difference. “Do you know what bloody time it is???!!” he screamed at me. Then, quickly realising that he did indeed want to add his right of reply to the story, mumbled “give my five minutes while I grab a coffee and call me back.” Like me, he certainly didn’t see the joy of clarity at 4 am.

It got worse when I did a stint as assistant Chief of Staff in the morning – that was a 5 am start. I don’t know how bright and perky breakfast news presenters do it. I hated leaving evening events by 10 pm to rush to bed. I still recall – all these years later – resenting having to leave the final act of a play so I could get up for that early shift.

I don’t care what anyone says, I hate seeing the sun rise. I find nothing compelling about the freezing cold of the dawn and I loathe everything about the smugness of early morning people who run out of steam by 8 pm at night. Yes, I’ll say it now – larks can be very smug indeed.

I much preferred my stint as Night Chief of Staff on the afternoon paper, and chatting into the long night with journalists on the road phoning in their stories and tips (yes, that was before the mobile phone). Back then, the printing presses were part of the old newspaper building and the whole place would lurch and shudder to life as the presses started. There was something about working well after the others had gone home or gone to bed that inspired camaraderie and a certain black humor that everyone working under communal deadline pressure knows so well.

Of course, for a writer of crime, horror and SF, the night has always been my playground. It’s hard to feel inspired by the possibilities of ghosts, demons and strange creatures that come out – at 6 am? I think not. Can you imagine seminal horror television shows such as The Night Stalker set in the morning? With everyone bright and perky? Why do you think there are night terrors and night fears, not bright and cheerful early morning ones? It’s in the dead of night, after all, that the imagination wanders. Not in the insipid morning light.

There are two notable occasions I realized I was not a morning person – and nothing would make me one. I was invited to a business breakfast featuring His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I tried my best, rising at 5 am, feeling as usual, utterly sick from being up so early. I sat at the table at the five star hotel and promptly fell asleep. Yes, I know it was the exiled leader of Tibet in front of me – but it made no difference – I simply could not keep my eyes open.

The second early morning disaster occurred when I was invited onto a US frigate. I had to be at South Melbourne pier at 5 am. I remember vividly the nausea that overcame me as I tried to remain upright on the vessel that ploughed through the choppy waters of Port Philip Bay at a rapid speed, smelling the spread of fatty American food – glazed donuts and pastries – spread on the buffet table before me. The view of Melbourne on the top deck in the grey dawn would have looked so much better at sunset.

I kept being told “you’ll always remember this” – and indeed, it was impressive being in the control room and seeing in the red light gloom (so your eyes do not have to adjust if it is dark outside, I was told) how the frigate was equipped to blow up Melbourne. But what I remember most is how awful I felt because it was so early.

I come from a family of night owls. My mother tells the story of how competitive housewives in England in the 1960s would make sure they got up earlier than each other to hang their washing on the line. My mother would stay up late, and hang hers out before she went to bed. None of the other women ever figured out how her washing was always on the line before theirs.

Mind you, as it was in England – not Australia –  the clothes dried stiff from frost. But she found a way around the moral superiority of the early riser.

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Similarly, I was always worried about combining motherhood and writing as I read so many stories of women writers who would rise at 5 am before the kids were up and write chapters of their books. How was I going to manage?

The answer of course, if you belong to the night, is to work into the night. Write after you put the kids to bed. Avoid brain work in the morning – and never get up at 4 am unless the smoke alarm goes off or your child is sick. Simple.

I have adjusted my working day to according to my circadian rhythms – I do grunt emails and administrative tasks early, as I drink many cups of coffee. I sit next to a night owl at work and his Red Bull cans hit the bin we share along with my Diet Coke bottles. By 11 am, I am flying, and rarely get to lunch until after 2 pm. I am quite content to do my creative work late into the night, and have learnt that I am not slack just because I hate to start the day at the crack of dawn. In fact, Researchers from the London School of Economics say that being a night owl is an “evolutionarily novel preference” made by people with “a higher level of cognitive complexity.” Take heart, those of you slogging on your doctorates late into the night – smart people have evolved to stay up later.

Just don’t ask me to do anything at 5 am. Especially get on a frigate.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.