The PhD Diaries #1: Getting Started, or More Accurately, ‘Why the Hell am I Doing This?!’

I hope you look away from those myths and into your own eyes, and see your own strength.

-        Ursula K. Le Guin

This is the end of the first week. One down, approximately 155 to go.

 Masters Graduation - April 2017

Masters Graduation - April 2017

When I asked ‘How to start?’ on the 19th July 2015, I didn’t realise that this starting would encompass not only a Masters degree, but also a PhD. The Masters thesis was truly only the ‘beginning of the beginning’ as I so sagely put it, and now the doctorate is the natural continuation of my introductory foray into arts-based leadership development (the first chapter perhaps?). Without trying to sound too cliché, sometimes it all feels like a dream – I’m being paid by a university to read novels, and in a business school no less. What a beautiful, unexpected event! But what about the sweat, the tears, the struggle that is a PhD? No doubt those moments will come, but I will try and stay in my little idealised bubble just awhile longer before succumbing to the inevitable(?) cyclical stages of triumphant, despair, and sleepless nights.

I don’t think there is much room for normalcy as a postgraduate student. Based on my experiences so far – the dynamic and varied nature of the role (which demands you be student, teacher, researcher, expert, learner, leader, and so on), the very limited social life because you’re so damn busy all the time, the emotional demands and nerve-wracking self-doubt, and the continual pressure to dig deep and then even deeper into yourself to discover what you are capable of – it is a process which necessarily demands extremes.

But it also must, otherwise why would anyone do it? Why would you sacrifice big pay cheques, job security, your social life, free weekends and movie nights, if there wasn’t some brilliant, if elusive, thing/result/feeling to be had?

Is it the chance of recognition and the potential for an exciting and demanding career (even though walking into an academic job is not a given)? The adrenaline rush of success strengthened by the knowledge of the sacrifices and difficulty it took to get there? The possibility of changing how people feel or think about something and the burgeoning impact such changes could have? 

There are stock standard answers of course – ones I have happily, and rather hastily, supplied for people who ask: ‘Why the hell are you doing a PhD?

  • I want an academic career (true)
  • I’m pretty good at research and I enjoy it, so why not use my talents (also true)
  • I’ve got a great topic and I think it will be useful to a lot of people, so why stop now? (I hope this is true)
  • Fate has directed me towards this path (who knows?!)

But while these reasons may form part of an answer, on their own they’re not enough, for me at least. And so it’s the end of week 1, and I’m finally interrogating all the reasons why I’m here doing this, at this particular point in time. I didn’t quite believe I would make it here to be honest and to avoid disappointment I’d (mostly) resigned myself to a 9-5 job in some unknown media company writing copy for press releases or something similarly inane. Until a few weeks ago it was all dreams, illusions, possibilities, not a concrete life happening with a start date. Subsequently, reality only hit home earlier this week after I found myself sitting at a bare desk on the 6th floor of the OOGB (business building) feeling out of my depth and more on the overwhelmed side than the excited one (the week prior someone in the lift remarked – ‘Well you mustn’t be a PhD student if you’re still smiling,’ which I laughed at at the time, but now I think I understand…!). It follows then, that rather than wandering directionless towards a ‘career,’ I clearly list the other, better (and until now, largely unexamined) reasons for doing my doctorate, and establish what I want out of the experience (apart from a job, of course! Because I’d rather not be the ‘struggling artist’ type of academic).

Reason #1 Self-Discovery

Quite a few months back, when I was still trying to decide whether or not to even apply, I wrote, perhaps a tad tongue-in-cheek, that

For me personally, that ivory tower is appealing (I’ve always had grand delusions of hermit-hood). If someone was willing to pay me to sit in an office with a nice window and a pot plant on the desk for the express purpose of researching and writing on interesting ideas and topics all day, with the occasional requirement to dabble in teaching, then I would be more than happy. But doubtless my idealised vision of academic life and the part I might play in it is somewhat unrealistic (and potentially boring). Still, the whole idea of an academic career - a chance to delve to the very deepest depths and explore the vast uncharted horizons of a chosen field - is tantalising. It seems rewarding, and perhaps that is enough.

In all seriousness though, doing my Masters was a deeply personal and life-changing experience for me (read all about it here). 

And those feelings of fulfilment, purpose and contentment (combined with moments of utter frustration, stress and tears) I felt from working on my thesis are ones I’m not ready to let go of yet, or ever, preferably. Reason one then, is purely personal. I want to continue discovering my own strength, as Le Guin would say. I am, by virtue of personality or upbringing or whatever ends up making us who we are, a shy, introverted sort of person. I like being in my comfort zone, I like doing what I know, I like routines and following rules. I don’t think this make me boring, in fact, I have an insatiable desire to learn, but it does make me baulk at doing things like going to UOA rather than staying at good ol’ Massey. Stepping into the unknown at Auckland then is an excellent way to keep unsettling and developing myself, while also doing what I love.

Reason #2 Going Against the Status Quo

Due to a raft of reasons, for a large portion of my life I was always told, or it was implied/expected, that my main aim in life was to get married and have a gaggle of kids; university was a distraction, I wasn’t really going to need a career, nor should I waste time building one. So in some respects, studying has been about going against the status quo and proving people from my childhood wrong (which seems sort of petty in retrospect, but adversity is a powerful motivator). It’s incredible how other people’s expectations and perceptions can influence us (especially when it comes to gendered expectations), but I’d say that for the most part, I’ve learnt to draw strength from criticism rather than succumbing to it. I continue to take inspiration from Sarah Grimke, the real-life heroine from Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings:

It came to me that what I feared most was not speaking. That fear was old and tired. What I feared was the immensity of it all – a female abolition agent traveling the country with a national mandate. I wanted to say, Who am I to do this, a woman? But that voice was not mine. It was Father’s voice. It was Thomas’. It belonged to Israel, to Catherine, and to Mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers in Philadelphia. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me. (p. 366)

Pursuing my PhD is an act of moving away from those myths, expectations, and stereotypes which would otherwise see me living a completely different life.

Reason #3 Saying Something

Finally, I have things I want to say and ideas I’m passionate about, and since I’m good at studying and writing, the PhD provides an excellent platform from which to begin saying things, and (hopefully) be listened too. As the novelist, Margaret Drabble writes: “We live in an uncharted world…Our subject matter is enormous, there are whole new patterns to create…Never before have women had so much to say, and so great a hope of speaking to some effect.”  I didn’t really go looking for the gap in my field – the lack of women’s literary fiction – it jumped out at me; and these women – authors, protagonists, heroines – offer a wealth of creative possibilities to leadership learning and theorising. Based on my own experiences, as well as innumerable others – family, friends, scholars, writers, researchers – ‘reading fiction changes people’s lives.’  So why not in business contexts too? As Sucher (2007) argues, stories have a ‘life of their own’, a life that extends beyond the pages of a management textbook and imbeds itself in the mind of a reader, exerting influence long into the future.

Reason #4 Publishing

I want to be a published author. So in terms of concrete results, I would like to have plenty of publishable material to work with by the end of the PhD. I have ideas for two books (at least one akin to Badaracco’s Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature), as well as plenty of shorter journal publication topics and ideas. Although with regards to academic articles, I’m aiming to have at least 3-4 published by the end of the PhD. I think I can carve out a nice little niche for myself as a cross-disciplinary researcher.

On to More Practical Things Now: Reading Lists & Study Plans

I’ve written up a nice, reasonably concise plan of what I hope to achieve over the next two months. I have a course to finish marking and several ‘tick the box’ tasks to complete. My own academic journal article is in its very last stages of revision and is about to be sent back to AMLE. But what I’m most excited about is delving into my reading – novels, non-fiction, articles, and etc! An immersion process which doesn’t require too much in the way of strenuous thought and zero stress (unless it’s a reading deadline).

Although I have quite a strong core collection of about 18 novels, plays and short stories which could potentially be used in reading groups and book clubs, there are several genres, themes, authors, etc…that would further enhance and improve my current list and selection. I’m particularly interested in speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy which works to consciously disrupt normative structures/accepted ways of doing things and is subversive and/or transgressive. I have a few novels like this already on my list, namely Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Teper, but I would like to explore this genre further as there is a particularly rich seam of feminist writing in this field. The same is true of re-written Greek myths, and mythology and classic epics more generally. Authors like Christa Wolf, Ursula K. Le Guin and Moira Buffini have taken classic Greek myths and re-told the stories from women’s and/or immigrant/refugee perspectives. I am most looking forward to the 2018 release of Madeline Miller’s novel on Circe, the witch from The Odyssey. I am also very keen to expand my reading to include authors from continents other than Europe and America, or those of ethnic minorities, as well as read novels which consider themes like eco-feminism and sustainability, feminist ethics, class, age, and ethnicity, alongside leadership (they are out there!).

My ‘to-read’ list is long, but I’ve chosen these books to read over the next few weeks (listed in no particular order):

  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Margaret Piercy (speculative/science fiction)
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (dystopian)
  • Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Greek mythology re-written)
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong King
  • Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Natslund (a new take on Moby Dick)
  • The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (a reimagining of the Indian epic, The Mahabharat)
  • Native Tongue by Suzette Hoden Elgin (speculative/science fiction)
  • Hild by Nicola Griffith (a novel on the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby)
  • Meridian by Alice Walker (Civil Rights Movement novel)
  • Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (classic feminist fiction. I’ve read bits of Herland but not in its entirety)
  • The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Philips (contemporary workplace fiction)
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme (NZ fiction)

I’m becoming a very fussy reader! I have no qualms about abandoning a book that doesn’t cut it. And you must be ruthless when there is such a HUGE wealth of literature to get through (I have over 450 books on my ‘to-read’ list on Goodreads). And of course, I’ve been following the selection criteria developed in my thesis, although not always to the letter. I prefer to see it as a guide rather than a rigid set of rules.

In terms of non-fiction, literature review-esque stuff, I’m currently reading Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition by Gayle Green, along with Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction by Anne Cranny-Francis. I’m planning another blog entry on ‘women writing differently.’ This was a topic I didn’t have time to explore properly in my thesis, apart from a brief acknowledgement of the poststructuralist feminists, Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, who have each suggested that women’s writing evokes a sense of freedom and unpredictability as it “flows in rhythms outside the stultifying logic and systemising language and linguistic structures” of predominant masculine or phallogocentric language (Parker, 2015, p. 162). A few questions were also raised regarding male/female writing differences, and each sexes ability to write male or female characters when I submitted an article for publication, so it is definitely an issue that merits further attention, and also an opportunity to brush up on my French feminist theory.

Well, that’s pretty much it for now. I think I will return to my reading and have a well-deserved glass of wine!