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Life after Graduation
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My Top Tips for Surviving and Thriving on a PhD in Poetry (NEW)
Anna Woodford
Anna Woodford offers her top ten survival tips for other writers who find themselves enrolling on a Creative Writing PhD as she herself did after graduating from Newcastle University with a Creative Writing MA in 2003.

Questions and some answers. The whys, hows and the, err, wherefores. 

You know your way round a couplet, a sonnet - heck, even a sestina. You're at home in the world of the little magazine, the T S Eliot shortlist and the poetry reading with its warm free wine. You're happily ensconced with other like-minded souls on a Creative Writing MA, not wanting it ever to end. Now is the time, as Plath might have said, to 'Beware!', 'Beware!' These are dangerous days: you're vulnerable to enrolling on a Creative Writing PhD. Before you know it, summer is over and you're looking at the demands of a phone-book-size thesis from the wrong end of the word count. How do you survive, pay the bills and keep writing? Read onâ?¦

1    Start!

At the very beginning. Or wherever. Just start. And on the academic bit - not on writing another poem, the bit you would be doing anyway. You'll have a rough idea of your research question, so get some stuff on paper before you get too many polite enquiries from your supervisor. I fannied around (for want of a more academic turn of phrase) straightening out paperclips and compiling endless lists of books that I'd get round to reading as soon as the University library was better stocked. In the end - following a suggestion from a friend - I wrote a book review on Sharon Olds's (who became the subject of my thesis) Collected Poems. This gave me a good overview of her work and immersed me in something relevant but with an end point. The review was published in Poetry London which was a great boost and felt like I was furthering my writing career as well as my academic one. Hurrah! So start. (Related to this, see points 2 and 10)

2    And keep going!

And going and going and going. It's black on white. It's however many words a day.  It's a slog. Don't listen to your:

inner blurt/your sarcastic friend down the pub - or anywhere else - who thinks you're navel-gazing/anyone who thinks Drs are only for medicine/any other academics who think its not a 'real' PhD.

Keep on writing. It's one word after another after another. Think of that Dr on your credit cardâ?¦

3    On the subject of your credit card

Did you hear the one about the person who got the funding? Nope. Not often. However, this can be a good thing. There are people out there who will pay you for doing things you will - on a good day - feel like paying them for: teaching, readings, commissions, reviews, articles and many etcs. I started out with a poetry commission for the Tyne & Wear Fire & Rescue Service and during the course of my PhD was also writer in residence at Alnwick Garden and Durham Cathedral. The work, and poetry it generated, fed into my academic studies. The wolf is obviously still going to know your address but if you're even vaguely following a career in writing you'll a) get by and b) know it's not about the money.

4    If you can do it, teach

Get out of the library and into a different world - no more or less real - but one with other people in it too. Ask around for any teaching at your University. Try your local college (adult education, if it still exists in your area). The Open University run creative writing courses and regularly recruit for associate lecturers - this is particularly good if you have family or other commitments because their programmes are conducted online which means you can be marking at 2am if you so wish. Start teaching on the subject of your thesis if you can: the act of having to process your thoughts for others will help you structure your arguments. It doesn't matter how many years you've been exploring your subject from every ingenious angle, someone - probably a fresher - will offer you a fresh insight.

5    Stop. Write. 

Your own stuff now. Don't forget this is what it's all about. Having the writer's guilt gene, you will probably give yourself a hard time for not producing poetry with your other hand as you simultaneously research your thesis. Try not to do this but equally don't neglect your own writing. If you haven't produced a poem for months, you're unlikely to be happy in your academic work.

6    Sending out

Make sure you're still sending out poems and taking part in readings, competitions, conferences and any other opportunities that come your way. You need the boost of the acceptance even more when the end of your thesis is somewhere over the rainbow and it's just you and the low hum of the computer.

7    Compile your bibliography and footnotes as you go along

Practical one thisâ?¦otherwise the bibliography could be the most creative part of your PhD. Nothing kills the spirit more than having to do five years' worth of footnotes in a month. I know. Every PhD textbook says this, everyone ignores it - but hey, don't.

8    Trust yourself and someone else

The creative writing PhD is a comparatively new beast. There are different approaches, institutions, binders, folders, footnoting systems, paginations, widths of margins, dedication protocolsâ?¦you get the point. Refer to a few examples in the British Library. Use your interlibrary loan system. Speak to your colleagues and go along to any training sessions that seem relevant. But don't get obsessed with the differences between your thesis and other people's, don't worry if there's alarming rumours going round your university about changes in the demands of word-counts or the need to write a limerick in Latin between each chapter. Trust yourself and someone else too - your supervisor is a good place to start. If they think you can do it and are on the right track - who are you to argue? (with them or with yourself). 

9    The viva

This seems like it should have a point to itself. It's a discussion. It's two-way. It's maybe the last time people will be paid to listen to you talk about your subject at length. It's (often) OK.

10    Finish

Do finish. Don't hang on and on. Sail your boat on the water. Then move on to the next thing. Does a creative writing PhD count for anything? It means a lot to me. And makes a difference in an academic setting - I recently received a major Leverhulme Grant to work as a poet in residence at Durham University for a year. A doctorate is your contribution to a body of knowledge - your own and other people's. It is an endless thrill every time you fill out a form that demands your title. It gives you confidence. Does it stop you writing your own poetry? No, of course not. Does it rival the (sometime) pleasure of writing your own poetry? Don't be silly.


Anna Woodford's pamphlet Party Piece (Smith Doorstop 2009) was a winner in the international Poetry Business Competition, judged by Michael Longley, and is available from www.poetrybusiness.co.uk. Her pamphlet Trailer (Five Leaves 2007) which explores the history of her Polish Jewish grandfather, a victim of the holocaust, was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She has received a major Leverhulme Award, an Eric Gregory Award, an Arvon/Jerwood Apprenticeship and a Hawthornden Fellowship. She has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Newcastle University.


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