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Heather - the meaning of the PhD
Name: Heather
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: Self-employed writer; dyslexia support tutor; tutor in creative writing
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 07/05/2008

Now Playing: Heather - the meaning of the PhD
Heather reflects on what the PhD means to her and considers the bearing it has on her self-perception and identity.

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Did it ever create any ambivalence in your mind about the value of the PhD when there were others around you that didn't value it?  Or did it shape you; did it make you more determined or more defiant about it, the value of it?

Hmm. I think I always had some kind of deep seated sense of its value. I knew it was a valuable thing to do and it seemed like a purposeful thing to do in your life no matter what you do next. It seemed like a way of developing my own intellectual life, of being able to write, all these sorts of skills that are developed and just the inherent value of literature I felt very, very clear about. But I think it's probably true that my; some people around me; I don't feel that very strongly but some people's bafflement about what a PhD is and why one would do it probably did raise certain questions in my mind on the surface of feeling perhaps a little bit uncertain and insecure about what I was doing. But I don't remember that being particularly strong as a feeling but I think I did protect myself from that by surrounding myself with other people who were doing PhDs and having very sort of close friendships with them and not really spending a lot of time with people who weren't pursuing intellectual things. So I kind of protected myself from that ambivalence slightly I think cos I think you need to to keep motivated and to keep your sense of purpose in what you're doing. And in our culture a lot of people can be very undermining about what you're supposed to be doing with your life and what's important but I think it's important to stick to your intuitions and your instincts and your gut feelings about things and mine was always very strongly that this was the right thing to be doing at the moment.

Did you ever doubt the value of it?

I never doubted the value of it while I was doing it but shortly after I finished it I did. I had a period of doubt immediately after I finished it before I'd established myself separately into my writing career and had sorted, had sort of set up my direction.  I was in this in-between phase of finishing the doctorate and then trying to change my writing style and change my approach to writing to move in the direction I needed to go, towards creative writing and I think it was in that period that I had some ambivalence and thought 'oh well, maybe I shouldn't have done it. Maybe I should have just stopped after the Masters and then pursued my writing' but I sort of went through that and out the other side and now feel that it was really essential that I did it. For many reasons. I mean the simplest reason is my agent said to me that as a young woman you are taken a lot more seriously as a non-fiction writer if you have a PhD. The kind of prejudices in the non-fiction mainstream publishing are such that it is actually really beneficial. So that was a; you know I got the agent I think partially through the fact of doing the PhD so it was a step in the direction I wanted to go but I definitely had a feeling of ambivalence for about a year after I finished it, maybe a year and a half of wondering whether it was the right thing or not.

So has it shaped your identity having a PhD or achieving the PhD?

I think it probably has in the sense of feeling; I think it does give you a sense of pride having that, the fact that it changes your name, that you have the kind of doctor thing. It sounds sort of silly but a bit superficial but I don't think it is really. It has given me a sense of intellectual achievement and status and a sense of confidence about myself intellectually and it's a very demanding thing to do and to have got through it and to have done it is something I'm very proud of, especially given that I was an undiagnosed dyslexic at school and often struggled in certain subjects and wasn't always treated as someone who was clever. But for me it was a personal triumph to have done that and I think for me it finally put to bed permanently certain difficult experiences that I'd had earlier on at school where questions were raised about my intelligence because the teachers were ill informed and ignorant about dyslexia. So it has definitely changed my sense of identity I think, in a very positive way. The benefit of the PhD for me in creative terms was that it developed my reading skills and my intellectual engagement with literature and how it works but also that it gave me space and time. I basically had four years of time to read and to think and to develop my ideas which I think, looking back now, was incredibly useful even though it wasn't as clear as that at the time of doing it. It was a space and a time to sort of develop intellectually in a very free sort of way.

How did you see yourself when you'd finished?  What had changed?

Well I think, you know, it all happened very quickly. You've been working away for years and years and then suddenly it's finished and it's in to examiners and then suddenly you have your viva and it's all quite terrifying but it was over quite quickly and painlessly and it was fine and it just took me a while to absorb it I think. I felt so happy when it was finished and that I'd passed, that was a brilliant feeling but I think it took me a while to recover from the strain of it, finishing, it was very demanding. And it's one of those things that I feel has kept on giving to me. Once it's been finished and once I'd recovered from it, it's kept on and it does keep on sort of giving me things back even when I; you know now that I've realised it was the right thing for me to do and it wasn't a distraction from getting on with the writing, I think it was just incredibly useful. It gave me an amazing range of skills, time to read and think, network of people I met through it.

What about your self-perception?

It took a long time for me to integrate into my self-perception – the fact that I'd done it and the whole sort of doctor thing. It did take a while. It took my family a while. It was all sort of treated as a bit of a joke to start with and I felt quite ambivalent about it and I wasn't sure if I really deserved it and it felt quite strange. So it took about a year to really absorb the fact that I'd done it and that I did deserve it and I had achieved something, you know that it had worked. So it was a very gradual thing of integrating this achievement into my wider sense of myself but I've sort of gone through that and out the other side in the way that now I don't in my career as a freelance writer – I don't use 'Dr' and I don't sort of promote that side because I don't know that it's terribly useful if you're wanting to present yourself in certain ways. I can seem overly intellectual now. It's a kind of irony that I've spent years trying to prove to myself that I was kind of intellectually an achiever and now I'm trying to kind of shed that a little bit and approach my writing and my thinking in a more intuitive, emotionally nuanced way so it's a sort of funny identity that I use when it's useful and I drop when I don't need it or don't want it.

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