Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, editing, PhD completion, The Hero's Journey, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

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As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

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Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

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And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?

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Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Before Midnight: Women, Motherhood and Creativity

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Do creativity, academic study and having children mix, or is this an oil and water combination best avoided by female writers seeking fame, glory, a doctorate – and publication?

In the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy, the love affair between American writer Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and French singer and student Celine (Julie Delpy) begins because of an impulsive decision by Jessie to ask Celine to hop off a train with him and see what happens – all because they felt a spark after talking to each other.

In Before Midnight  we see the couple after nearly 20 years, with their unfulfilled dreams rising like bile. As I watched the middle aged versions of  Celine and Jessie argue in the final, cringe making “he said, she said” scene in the Greek hotel at the end of the movie, the dialogue succinctly captured the dilemma women face with their creativity. To paraphrase:

Celine said: you never stopped writing or being creative even after we had children, and that’s because I do all the work – I earn a stable living, and I am home every night on time to deal with the kids. What about me, when do I think and have time to be creative?

Jessie says: I wish you’d just take the time and do it, be a bit more selfish about what you need and stop looking after everyone.

I think that says it all, really. Not enough women are selfish about the work that matters to them, and in order to be creative, you need to  spend time alone with yourself, thinking, working, doing the daily grind of writing and making your work. You have to keep up fluency, you have to keep up an inner dialogue with yourself.

The number one advice I’d give anyone wanting to do a doctorate who has family responsibilities is that you have to be selfish with your time.

I attended a very good session early on in my PhD research by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.  This had nothing to do with my research but plenty on how to approach the doctoral journey. I kept their booklet “The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students” and read and re-read it religiously. Every time I got that cold, sweaty panic of “I can’t do this!” I would pull out the booklet and read it again.

Here are the seven secrets according to Kearns and Gardiner:

  1. It’s your thesis – you need to be the driver
  2. Write and show as you go
  3. Be realistic
  4. Say no to distractions
  5. It’s a job
  6. Get help
  7. You can do it!

Apart from points 1 and 2, which are related to work and study skills (more on this in future blogs), the rest of the seven tips are about time management and approach to study.

Here are Kearns and Gardiner’s versions through the motherhood prism:

Be realistic:

Don’t sweat the domestic stuff. Let other people help out and look after your children, and don’t think you have to be the only one to do everything. I have one iron clad rule – who ever is looking after the children is in charge. We have a saying in my house and that’s “if grandma has you, it’s grandma rules”. The kids know this, and obey. Don’t try to rule remotely – let the designated minder take the authority.

In Before Midnight, Julie Delpy makes salad in the kitchen and then complains about this in the hotel room – “look at you, you are the big writer, talking about the next book with your genius friends while I make the salad you stuff down your face!”

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If you don’t want to end up resentful about cooking – don’t cook. Simple. The only people I will cook for are my children, and even then I have taught them how to fend for themselves. Women are prone to being domestic martyrs, and my attitude is – Nigella Lawson has a lot to answer for. It is frankly unhealthy for women to glamorize being in the kitchen, making food for men. Unless you are writing your doctorate about cooking, get out of the kitchen.

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Now, if I was the Julie Delpy’s character Celine, I’d pour a glass of wine, stroll down to the terrace overlooking the ocean, and take my guitar with me and write a song and chat to the men. I wish I could play music, so in my case, I’d take a sketch book instead and draw – and chat to the men. And leave the salad making to the other women for whom this is a creative outlet. Bless the people who like to cook and do it well, for they shall feed you. The bottom line is – seriously, no one wants to eat my cooking, not even me, or my dog. I did not make the Greek dish featured above, although I have tried. It is never as good as my cousin’s, possibly because she spends as much time cooking as I do writing. You need to put in the work for anything to be good.

Say no to distractions:

Children do not in fact impede a creative life, not if you are judicious about what you do and when you do it. I am not the only female writer to find I am more efficient – and selfish – with her time once she had children.

How do we do it? Say no to distractions. This is what Jessie (Ethan Hawke) tells Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight – put yourself first.

Women make many obstacles for themselves, that men do not. Perhaps this is a form of excuse to back away from the demands and intensity of the creative life.

It’s a job:

Sure, we all know a doctorate is a job – but what if you have a full time job and family responsibilities? Then you need to get serious about your time and what you can set aside and what you do with it.

Kearns and Gardiner recommend writing for two hours a day on your thesis – every day. This is good advice. If  you are doing a creative writing doctorate, like me, then you have to juggle that writing time with time on your doctoral novel and time on the exegesis.

I found it impossible to switch from one to the other every day. The best thing was for me to spend a week on the novel, and then swap to the exegesis. And to take small bites at the writing, rather than feel I have to write a huge amount every day. Kearns and Gardiner call this “snack writing”

When research would spark ideas for the novel, I would have the two files open on the computer – exegesis and novel – and write little chunks of each.

A career in journalism has made me a deadline junkie. Give me a word limit and a deadline and I’ll give you a story – it’s almost a reflex action. Therefore, I found it really useful to present my novel writing at workshops and writing groups, or to look around for short story competitions and enter chapters in those.

This same approach served me well for the exegesis – I blogged about my ideas, turned those blogs into conference abstracts, and those conference papers into chapters. By treating the doctorate as a job – professional writing – and chunking that writing and research up into real-world outcomes – conference papers and competition entries – I had my 100,000 word limit and arguments ready within four years.

Get help

My university has a great graduate research centre and I spent my lunch hour going to every class on offer. I also made friends with my liaison librarian and you know that enthusiastic, talkative doctoral student who speaks to everyone – and I mean everyone – at a conference? That was me. Even when I had no idea what I was doing or saying, I waded in, and listened, contributed and learned. Throwing myself in the deep end from the beginning rather than sitting quietly in my room researching made all the difference.

In the last 100 days, I was lucky enough to get even more help – my wonderful second supervisor, who held my hand, did a close reading of my exegesis and really pushed me forward. Then friends from the academy and publishing who offered to do beta reads and provided much needed advice, support and proof reading. Sometimes just knowing at this final lap – the last month or so – someone had your back was enough to get you through the last desperate days. I can’t thank them all enough.

This is what Jessie tells Celine in Before Midnight – don’t try to do everything yourself. Get help.

You can do it!

Yes, you can. You are smart enough, if you made it into a doctoral program. Though I bet like me you have tried to Google “I am not smart enough for my PhD”. It’s not intelligence that gets you through (that’s a given) – it’s persistence. What my grandfather called “stick-ability”. Just don’t give up. The four year journey is one of constant hurdles, ups and downs, dead ends, false starts, brilliant insights, corrupted computer files, library fines, exhaustion, depression and then there is everything your regular life can throw at you as well.

So, what’s the secret? Be persistent – and selfish. Don’t go offering to make anyone’s salad, unless you gave birth to them, and then, start nurturing some self reliance in your children. They can actually cope without you being their servant. If you do everything for them, and other people, you and your doctorate will suffer and your creative life will wither. Learn to say yes to yourself first.

Julie Delpy – I love your movie but I wish Celine was more selfish and less bitter. I am pleased that in this interview, Julie Delpy says she is not the same sort of mother as Celine, but that motherhood helped her contribute to writing the movie. And as Ethan Hawke observes, there are consequences to following your dreams. Indeed – that’s what makes the future, and the unknown, so tantalising. A bit like starting out on the doctorate. Who knows where you’ll end up after a couple of years? It’s a leap of faith.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion

Through the labyrinth: passing my doctorate

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At last – the long wait is over. The doctoral results have come through.  And it ended in rather dramatic circumstances. I discovered I had passed my doctorate via a text message from my supervisor: “call me NOW!!!” and an urgent email saying “OMG Evelyn – you are through and you have done it and done so well! Congrats!!!”

Where you are when the big news arrives is always important – and who you are with. I was in the university art gallery where I work as a publicist, emerging after a long meeting regarding an upcoming exhibition. The group of people from the music industry waited patiently for me to show them out, while I rushed to check my phone messages. It was after 6 pm and being a working mother, it’s always wise to see if there has been a hitch in the complex after-school child-minding procedures.

Suddenly I was jumping up and down and yelling out “I have passed! I have passed!”

They are used to dealing with major rock stars so I guess a little flamboyant gesture on my part meant nothing. “What have you passed?” one inquired, politely.

“My doctorate – I have passed my doctorate!”

There was hugging, pats on the back – and then the questions:

“So – do we have to call you Dr Evelyn?”

“What did you do your doctorate in?”

“How long did it take?”

My brain was in that adrenalin buzz when thoughts tangled like cotton wool on carpet. I mumbled, “No – not yet – paperwork- ceremony – humans animal hybrids in science fiction – took four years – felt longer…”

“Human animal WHAT???” came the bemused reply.

“Go on – tell them what your conference paper is about,” said the Gallery director, smiling.

You see, I had just outlined the dates of my upcoming holidays to the group at the meeting – telling them I’d be in Oxford in a few weeks, presenting a paper at the 8th Global Conference of  The Erotic: Exploring Critical Issues. They were about to find out what a strange topic it was that I had selected….

“The erotic and the non human – specifically, bestiality and science fiction…well, with hybrids…”

There was a moment’s silence. “Fantastic!” “Very interesting!” Well, these guys are used to dealing with big name rock stars and their foibles, so I guess the exhibition publicist travelling across the world to talk about mutants and erotica isn’t so alarming.

The advantages of working in the arts are that, frankly, no one is shocked by anything. The advantages of working in a university are that everyone understands and appreciates all the anxiety of the years wandering through the doctoral maze.

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When I told the esteemed musicologist who is curating the music exhibition with the director, he became quite emotional. “Oh – that is just so fantastic – I know how good it feels to have passed.”  It was a heartfelt comment – both as an academic who once jumped through that hoop himself, and as a supervisor mentoring his own students through the labyrinth. While everyone is happy for me, those who have been through the doctoral process, or are going through it now, know how it feels to have finally passed.

It feels fantastic!

As luck would have it, I was due to meet a fellow crime writer, the author Angela Savage , for drinks after work. She is also interested in doing a doctorate and I was to give her some tips, and celebrate the release of her latest novel, The Dying Beach. Now at least I felt qualified to give advice on the doctoral maze!

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I told her the good news straight away. Angela, an early adopter of social media, had her smart phone out in a flash and posted a picture of me looking happy and a little dazed on Facebook before I knew it. I am pictured sitting in The Moat, the bar and café located in the basement of the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing in Melbourne’s grand State Library, smiling like a Cheshire Cat, sipping a red wine cheekily (and aptly) called Ladies Who Shoot Their Own Lunch  for like me, Angela is a winner of a coveted Scarlet Stiletto trophy for Crime Writing. I was proud to take a glorious photo of her beaming and triumphant when she won her Red Shoe trophy, so it felt like the tables were turned. Indeed, at that moment, it started to feel as if those four hard years were actually behind me.

But – not quite. I do have to some make minor changes to the exegesis, which are the dreaded ‘literals’ – misplaced words, errors found in errant upper and lower case, and so on – the sort of thing that a thorough going over by a copy editor would sort out. I can live with that. Juggling two children, a  full time job and a full time doctorate meant something had to give. So, if my final presentation was a little ‘wabi sabi’  at least I can be pleased with the fact that I didn’t have to change any of my arguments, ideas, or content in my novel – for both the exegesis (about 38,000 words) and the novel (about 70,000 words) were both part of my doctorate in creative writing.

I have a full three months to resubmit a pristine version of the exegesis, and I have two gratifyingly glowing reports from the examiners who loved both the academic work and the novel. In fact, I have quotes I’d be keen to use on the back of the novel as a selling point once it is published. I had the added bonus of examiners who had taken the time and effort to suggest ideas for further refining the manuscript before submitting to publishers. They put considerable effort into their reports, for which I am very appreciative. I know how hard it is to get such strategic and insightful feedback about your creative writing.

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As I am heading off overseas on my much deserved holiday – and conference trip – in early September, I will get this revision into the Graduate Research Office well before the three month period is up. I want this doctoral monkey off my back, and I want the paperwork finalised, ready for the next countdown – 100 days to graduation at the end of the year.

There have been endless hurdles along the way during the past four years – from confirmation of candidature to six monthly progress seminars and the final completion seminar, then submission – and the limbo wait for the examiners reports – and finally, minor revisions.

But I have also discovered there have been endless celebrations as well at the end – excited family and friends taking me out for indulgent events to mark submission and then the results. And I am not finished yet. As a lecturer told me once when I was an undergraduate – celebrate all your successes [for they may be few and far between]. How I feel now is best summed up by this exuberant song by Queen. “We Are the Champions”:

it’s been no bed of roses

No pleasure cruise

I consider it a challenge before

The whole human race

And I ain’t gonna lose

There is of course that big, final celebration of graduation, which I fully intend to participate in, floppy hat and all. It’s a rite of passage after the long journey through the maze of higher education – the Bachelor of Education (when I wanted to be an art teacher), the Graduate Diploma in Media Law (when I was a journalist), then the Master of Arts in Creative Writing (resetting the clock post children to a new post-newspaper career) and finally completing the Doctor of Philosophy. That’s more than a decade as a university student – though not undertaken all at once.

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I guess the other question that has come up in the past two weeks since I discovered I passed is whether I would do any more study. I know plenty of people who have a PhD and two Masters degrees. Others who have two doctorates. Am I done yet? I met someone at a party on the weekend who was about to embark on her second doctorate. I felt a little envious. Oh, a new start – a new topic – a new university – a new challenge…

It’s a bit like looking at your cute baby lying momentarily asleep and peaceful in the cot and thinking – I’ll have another one – without fully comprehending in the fantasy the complete upheaval in your life that frankly, never ends. So, maybe I should quit while I am ahead. Then again, unlike having children, there’s no biological clock when it comes to studying. Never say never – right?