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"It would be great to call myself 'Doctor'": Refining your PhD topic

Planning a PhD

Nearly two decades ago, I started thinking about what it would be like to do a PhD. I think I was attracted by the title and how great it would be to call myself “Doctor”. I was encouraged by a tutor at Stirling University and one of my friends was also undertaking his PhD at the time and he told me what it was like, telling me I was capable of doing one. I don’t think I took either of them seriously. I didn’t think that I was clever enough to do a degree, let alone a PhD. But I started to make enquiries. A couple of friends encouraged me to go to the English Studies Postgraduate lectures – called Phantom FX. And when we went to the pub after one of the sessions, I suddenly found myself talking with a member of staff. In desperation of something “Intelligent” to say, I asked if he had a sufficient number of speakers for the next term. He said no and would I like to do one?

During the following hangover I hoped that I hadn’t said something stupid the night before, but there I was, down on a list to deliver a 45 minute lecture – a Derridian reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the presentation and I enjoyed the fact that staff were listening to what I had to say. I found it very hard to take the student position in the classroom after that.

Fast forward a couple of years – I’m just picking out the highlights relevant to the PhD. On one occasion, my favourite university tutor asked me what I was going to do next. I told her that it was a PhD in Fantasy literature and she made a gesture to narrow it down. So I suggested that it might be “Representations of the Fantastic in Medieval Literature” and she made the same gesture: narrow it down further.

And that’s the principal point of the discussion. When we start on quest to wonder what our PhD should look like, our ideas are SO massive that they could fill an entire library. It needs to be focused. As they say, an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.

I finished by Bachelor’s degree and then moved on to a Master’s degree in Late Medieval Studies in York. I had targeted the supervisor I wanted to work with within about two weeks. He was a very genial man, and came across as both fiercely intelligent and at the same time, there was a general “scattiness” that I saw in myself (that’s not the right word, because my God, this bloke was focused). I brought in my undergraduate dissertation so he could see my style of writing and he guided me through my MA, particularly working on my Master’s dissertation. He also helped me with all the relevant forms to help go through the transfer from MA to PhD study, which included writing the proposal for my PhD. (I did ask for two weeks off between my degrees. I think I ended up only getting a few days!) There’s a story about my MA dissertation a trip to India and a leaking roof, but that can wait for another time.

When the new term started, I was asked to write down the texts that I thought would be appropriate for study. I think I listed about thirty texts and then took this to my Second Supervisor. When she had finished laughing, she said I would have to speak a dozen languages and the PhD would take about a hundred years. She told me to narrow it down to about three texts. To be honest, this was quite a refreshing instruction as previously the PhD had looked like it might be hard work. I did as I was asked and stripped it down to three texts: Mandeville’s Travels, the Travels of Marco Polo, and the Voyage of St Brendan. This was much better. I was looking at Fantasy in Medieval travel literature. Marco Polo was (supposedly) historical, Mandeville’s Travels was supposed to be a travelogue, although totally fictitious (based on the Marvels of the East) and Brendan looked at religious depictions of “travel fantasy”. This was a much more manageable thesis.

When I presented this to my supervisor, he nodded sagely and said, “Yes, but now cut it down by two thirds”. Literally, playing “eeny meeny” I ended up with five versions of the Voyage of Brendan. I started to work on all of them (Latin, Anglo-Norman, Middle Dutch, Middle English Metrical and Middle English prose) but even this was totally unwieldy and I finally spent my “English degree” focusing on the Latin and Anglo-Norman versions. Even then, the work I submitted was right up against the top word count and then the two appendixes pushed it right over. I sometimes think what I would have been able to write on the version of my PhD which had thirty texts. I would have been able to dedicate about 2500 words on each text, and that doesn’t really include the theory I could have used to underpin my research.

My point in writing this is that my initial proposal was accepted, even though my supervisors knew that it was totally unworkable, they had seen enough of my work to know that I was able to undertake (and, more importantly, complete) my PhD research, but honing done the content and the topic was part of the process. A book that I found really helpful is Phillips and Pugh, How to get a PhD, now in its sixth edition. It told me what I was supposed to be feeling and when. It helped me through the dark time of my second year and with the planning for submission and viva. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone contemplating doctoral research. One of the things they say is that Karl Marx did his PhD on two obscure philosophers; Einstein did his PhD on Brownian motion. Your plans for your career may be VAST, but the research for the PhD is comparatively little. That said, it’s not easy. It’s just not quite as hard as folks often think it is. You don’t have to change the world.

A final note on the topic: one morning my external examiner rang me and told me “Your thesis is acceptable” (e.g. we are able to accept it, rather than the lowest grading of “Excellent, very good, good, satisfactory or acceptable” – just one step up from “rubbish”). He told me there were a couple of punctuation points to change. And then he said, “You need to change your title to something that totally encapsulates the thesis”, which turned out to be The Legend of St. Brendan: a Comparative Study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Versions, With Special Consideration of the Element of the Fantastic. Not exactly the catchy title of a bestseller.

When you approach a PhD, your work is very likely to change over the years of study, from honing your topic down to something that is manageable, and then to having a title that encapsulates it. And the feeling of “wouldn’t it be nice to call myself doctor” thought doesn’t last for long. When you start on that writing treadmill, you suddenly realise just how much work is involved.

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