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?

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

Academic Study

100 Days to the Doctorate – and Beyond

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Dr Evelyn Tsitas started 100 Days to the Doctorate in 2013 with literally 100 days to go before she handed in her doctorate in Creative Writing at RMIT University, investigating the human animal hybrid in science fiction.

As a journalist exploring literary journalism and creative non fiction through blogs, Evelyn decided to go public with the trials and hopefully, triumphs ahead in her doctoral journey, and the intense pressure-cooker of life with two kids, two pets, and a full time job and part-time teaching load on top of full time doctoral study. It was a wild ride!

In the second year of this blog, Evelyn offers hard-won advice for completing a doctorate, and explores writing, life and career opportunities after post graduate study. Reflection about this is useful – why do a doctorate when academic employment opportunities are rapidly shrinking around the globe? Doesn’t a Creative Writing doctorate by its very nature suck the life and creativity out of a creative writer? How do you fit in full time doctoral study around parenting and a full time – and unrelated – job? To also teach or not to teach as part of the doctoral journey?

This blog is now called 100 Days to the Doctorate – & Beyond to encompass the reflective nature of the post graduate life. What was it all about, anyway? Was it worth the long years of delayed gratification? Evelyn knows all too well the questions that plague successful doctoral graduates at this point: What do I do with my career now I have a PhD? How do I get my novel published? Can I turn my Creative Writing exegesis into a book as well? How does not just what I have studied – but how I studied and learned to research – impact on my thought process?

Evelyn also blogs about doctoral and other matters at Online Opinion and The Thesis Whisperer, and on her main website  evelyntsitas.com and also motherland Evelyn Tsitas Motherland. She writes about the academic journey, the writing life, parenting, feminism, social change and social commentary.

A literary journalist, Evelyn puts herself in the story. As the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn) observed, “everything is copy”.

Please join Evelyn in this (mostly) weekly blog about the doctorate – and beyond!