Creative Writing PhD

Perfect PhD supervision match? How to find your academic sweetheart

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Choosing a PhD supervisor is like looking for a perfect romantic match. From feeling like your met your soulmate after a cautious ‘getting to know you’ to a flirty, frenzied hookup in a bar…how do you find the right one for you? How many boxes do you have to tick? Like love, is the adage ‘commit in haste and repent at leisure’ true of academic supervision?

If you are about to commit to postgraduate study and are desperately seeking academic supervision, are there matchmakers who can help? Is there some scientific process of selecting your academic sweetheart? How do you choose your perfect supervision match?

As Australia is coming up to the cut off time for applying for doctoral programs for 2015, I am again asked by potential candidates just how they find their perfect match. I have had my own experience, and I have of course talked to others. What I have discovered is that potential academic supervisors are much like potential lovers. And trying to find enduring academic supervision is a lot like wading into the dating scene.

Don’t believe me? One potential doctoral candidate looking for supervision complained that her potential interest had ‘cooled’ after an initial burst of enthusiasm. It was like being dumped.

And it’s not just the supervisor that needs to be considered in this quest for academic love. There are other factors that are important. Where might you have the most chance of getting a scholarship? And for those embarking on the creative writing PhD, there is the balance of creative and academic work to consider. Some universities split the workload 50/50 – others weigh it heavily towards the creative component.

Often a writer can have years of publishing, teaching and accolades in the ‘real world’ before deciding on postgraduate study. That might mean they don’t have the academic track record of a typical literature PhD candidate, despite a string of fiction books to their credit. So, they have to find a supervisor who will guide them down the academic path and into the world of academic language. For these candidates, motivation time management and the ability to produce 100,000 words on a topic is rarely going to be an issue. Rather, the goal is finding a trusted supervisor who can guide them through the labyrinth of the academy, the torture of referencing and the rigid requirements of a thesis. Not always an easy task.

How do you find the supervisor who hits the sweet spot? How do you select the creative writing PhD program that gives you the right balance of creative and academic? Not too strong perhaps on the thesis – and not too light on the creative? How do you find that perfect confection?

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I have been interrogated in forensic detail on academics I might know, and how they might fare as potential supervisors.  Academics – be aware of this. You are constantly being judged on your performance, and the report cards are critical in whether you get people queuing up for your favours or not.

Typically, I am asked about academics:

Are they a ‘cheater’ – taking too many students and never giving each candidate enough time?

Did they ‘ghost’ and fade out after an initial enthusiastic burst of delight?

Were they too tired to indulge in lengthy sessions – of research interaction?

Did they always want to be on top – when it came to author order on papers?

As similar questions are asked of potential lovers, I wonder if the search for academic supervisor and doctoral candidate shouldn’t be conducted like an old fashioned matchmaking service. Just like the prospects for love, there are two parties who both want a liaison that will provide mutual benefits, but each wants due diligence conducted on the other so they will know the possible pitfalls of a relationship.

Academia, as in love, works best when there is equal reciprocity. The candidate will finish on time, publish with the supervisor and make the supervisor look good. The supervisor will guide, assist and mentor the candidate to a successful completion, opening doors and having enough confidence and a strong enough publication record not to be threatened by their candidate’s burgeoning success. Can you hear the church bells, see the flock of white doves, and  want to throw the confetti all over the happy couple? How sweet this fantasy is….

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Alas, we know the other side of the story, don’t we? Cross words, missed calls, betrayals, candidates who refuse to do the work, supervisors who abscond their duties. An inability to hear each other. Backstabbing, fighting, and finally – a supervisory divorce.  I’ve known candidates who have bolted from a university and a supervisor mid PhD. And equally, I have heard other people praise the very same supervisor who has brought such misery to another’s life. Just as in marriage, it’s a case of ‘he said, she said’, and a realisation that sometimes, two people can bring out the worst in each other, or have so little in common it was only that initial research attraction that brought them together.

Just like love, research lust is that glorious spark of academic desire when it seems you are both speaking the same language but are really just getting a sexy dopamine rush from new ideas. It doesn’t last. There needs to be more than sexual attraction between two people to make any relationship last a distance. Same with academic supervision. Oh yes, there needs to be some mutual respect between the supervisor and the candidate for sparks to fly in the academic house of love.

 

But what if the warm and fuzzy feeling you have with someone who seems to be your academic soulmate turns out to be interstate – or overseas? Should you dismiss the potential supervision – and indeed, university – because of the problem of distance?

I have had friends who have had successful long distance relationships with doctoral supervisors. When my own MA supervisor spent a year interstate, she gave me the option of finding someone else. But when you feel you share so much in common – similar interests, opinions and a sense of humor and that strong sense of having met someone who should be in your life, you are as loathe to give them up in academia as in love, so we had a long distance supervision relationship.

How does long distance supervision work? The same as with love. Regular contact via email, skype, phone calls, and as many meetings face to face as you can both manage. But caution – it may not work for you. After all, out of sight can be out of mind. And when you, the candidate, are the one being dumped and duped long distance, the ramifications are great as the stakes are so high.

 

Then again, you could get lucky.

In the age of the internet, with so much support and information online, having access to a university data base means that you only need to be enrolled to take advantage of this and not in the same city as the campus. The computer doesn’t know if you are logging in from a few suburbs away or across the country. And Skype is free and convenient. It’s only a time zone, day and night problem if you are in different hemispheres, after all.

As I suggested to a fellow writer asking for advice, if you have kids, take them with you on a long weekend trip interstate and they can be part of the doctoral journey as well. I have known several people who have had great experiences with long distance academic supervision. 

Indeed, I kept my relationship with my MA supervisor together by emailing and skyping regularly. I would send my work to her each fortnight and she would send it back with comments. When she was down in Melbourne we would meet face to face. In fact, so highly did I regard her and her writing and teaching ability (for the record, the brilliant Alison Goodman) that when it was suggested I convert my MA to a PhD I refused as it would mean losing her as a supervisor. Like love again, meaningful academic supervision, when it works, should be jealously and carefully protected – I knew that I would learn more from Alison in my creative writing and how important that was as opposed to galloping through a doctorate for the sheer desire to have the ‘piece of paper’.

I do not regret my choice for a minute and hear Alison Goodman in my head every time I become lazy with my narrative, every time I lapse into tell not show, every time I miss a set up and pay off in the plot. Like true romantic love, brilliant academic supervision is a thing to be cherished and remembered forever.

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So, with location out of the way, how do you go about finding your perfect match?

How can you avoid becoming the victim of an academic narcissist? How do you avoid the cheaters, the lazy and the inept? And even worse, the leaches who will drain you for their own glory? If only there was an Academic Tinder App, where you could swipe the winners from the losers. But just as you have to venture beyond the surface when looking for love, to pays to ask some probing questions of your potential supervisor:

* what’s their track record? How many PhD students have they supervised successfully?

* Have they taken on too many candidates at once? Beware the academic slut who just wants the numbers!

* What’s their publication record? How recent is it? Are they keeping up with the latest in their field?

* Are they approachable? Do they reply to your overtures? Or are they not that into you?

* If you are offered joint supervision, are both academics willing to put in equal half time?

If you meet someone and it clicks, the list does tend to get thrown out of the window. In life and academic love however, passion isn’t the best way forward. If you have firm ground rules and expectations, you will hopefully avoid being swept along by infatuation and promises, only to be left broken hearted when it all goes pear shaped a year before you are supposed to hand in. In other words, the ideal place to start is for both you and your supervisor to be on the same page to begin with. I am all in favour of an ‘academic pre-nup’ where you produce a document outlining your expectations.

A contract now can save heartache later. As it stands, universities often make you sign one in what feels like your own blood, but you have a right to expect your pound of flesh from them – and your supervisor – as well. Remember, you represent MONEY to them. You, potential candidate, are a little gold mine. So don’t sell yourself short with shoddy supervision.  

 

 

One final thought. You know how there are many fish in the ocean when it comes to finding love? The same applies to academic supervision. Don’t imagine that the world will end if that one true academic love turns you down. If they turn out to be pushy, lazy or lacking in motivation…Have faith in yourself and your own worth, and if they don’t want you, it’s their great loss. Take your talent and energy elsewhere and make then rue the day they cast you aside. Your success, in academia as in love, is the best revenge after all.

 

 

 

 

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academic cohort, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, peer support, Writing strategies, writing workshops

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

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Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.