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Heather - PhD experience
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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 - PhD experience
Heather reflects on her PhD experience. She identies aspects of it that she found rewarding and those which were frustrating.

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Can we talk now a bit about your experience of being a PhD student?

Well I think I found the first year very liberating because you feel like you've got all this time ahead of you and it's a kind of free roaming year that first year where you can explore lots of different ideas and I pursued lots of different kinds of tangents and it was very exciting and liberating. I wasn't given, you know, in taught courses always you're given reading lists and things that you're directed to look at whereas suddenly you were left to do what you wanted and I took real advantage of that and read a very wide variety of quite strange things in that first year and I really enjoyed that. It was very liberating. But as the process went on I found it increasingly frustrating and found myself developing quite unwieldy chapters and a lack of structure - and this was partly to do with the fact that I hadn't quite fully understood how the fact that I'm dyslexic affected my ability to manage very large documents, very large kind of arguments and I didn't feel that I was given the appropriate support by my supervisor who didn't really understand the difficulties. So I found the process increasingly frustrating and it just got harder and harder basically as time went on and the last sort of six months weren't particularly enjoyable. They were just writing up and trying to get something down that was, you know, going to work as a linear argument and it was very, very difficult. I also found the department that I was in a bit too conservative for me in the long run. The kinds of ideas that I was working on in the first half of the thesis which excited me a great deal and were very interesting to me, whilst they worked very well as seminar presentations and I very much enjoyed giving graduate talks with other graduates and presenting ideas and exploring ideas together, I found that in fact when it came to the crunch, the thesis was required to be more conservative than I felt was suitable for me. So I felt ultimately that I wasn't quite in the right department and I would have benefited from being in a slightly more flexible literature department. So there was a certain level of disappointment with my final product of my thesis. Bits of it I was very, very pleased with. Bits of it I just thought were quite kind of pedestrian and functioned simply to get the thesis done so it was a mixture, a very mixed experience I'd say.

So in the beginning you felt quite liberated but by the end you felt quite constrained?

Yes I think that's exactly right, yeah. I think that was partly a learning – a very – part of me feels that that was a useful thing in learning how ideas can't always materialise and that gap between fantastic, exciting ideas and your ability to realise them in practice was something I had to learn, that the thesis taught me and I think I was perhaps a bit too ambitious when I started out doing the thesis.  I had very grand ambitions about it that I didn't quite have the skills to realise so it was a learning experience about that and I feel that perhaps I wasn't given enough guidance by my supervisor earlier on as to what was realistic – but in a way I had great fun exploring ideas. Yeah so I learnt lots of things, some of which, all of which, was helpful but not always enjoyable I'd say.

What didn't you find enjoyable?

I didn't enjoy erm......I think I just ended up with, I struggled to make the realities of the thesis meet my ambitions and that was very frustrating. I didn't enjoy that. I didn't enjoy the last stages of writing up. It was just intensely stressful and I think the viva and the whole experience of passing the PhD was highly mythologized in my department, in my university and overly sort of treated by all PhD researchers, graduates as a kind of impossible Herculean task and no supervisors or academics were really offering sufficient advice about what it was in practice and they just fostered this atmosphere of fear amongst graduates about the viva and about passing which I think was very unhelpful and intensely stressful. The thing that I enjoyed most about doing the PhD was the fellow graduates that I met, working in English on humanities, and the intellectual friendships that I developed, I found incredibly stimulating and I value highly and it's one of the best things I've taken from the PhD experiences – a group of really interesting friends who really shared that experience, the sort of ups and downs and I think my friends who were doing their own PhDs helped me more than my supervisor in the end actually and particularly my partner who's also – who I met during the process of doing the PhD and who also did a PhD in English. We really helped each other and our intellectual sort of endeavours are very central to our relationship and that was a really exciting and wonderful thing. So that was very supportive. I think friends who weren't doing PhDs didn't always understand what I was doing and it's something that's quite difficult to explain to other people who aren't doing it what it's actually like so friends who were pursuing other kinds of careers found it a bit baffling. Similarly family who hadn't done – you know – I don't come from a university background family and they found it very baffling and didn't really understand why it took so long. They kept thinking it would be finished and they just didn't really grasp how difficult it was or how long it takes although they were supportive in many respects, they really were, but they couldn't really grasp it. But they certainly weren't, I don't feel that they were detrimental to the process. I just think they didn't fully understand it.

Did you ever doubt that you would get to the end?

Yes I really did. About two thirds through I went through a stage – and everyone seems to go through it – of feeling like it's never going to be finished. You can't actually see the end at all and you get totally stuck inside it and you can't see the wood for the trees so that definitely happened and it's a real heave to get it finished but everyone seemed to experience that. It seemed to be quite common but I definitely remember having quite an overwhelming sense that this was never going to end but it did you know. 

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