In October, I enrolled at Manchester Metropolitan University to begin work towards a PhD in poetry. Of course, in reality, the work towards it began about eighteen months ago when I sought advice from a member of staff at the university and put together the initial proposal to accompany my application.
So why, at 68 years of age, do I want to begin a PhD? That is a question I have asked myself several times, not least as I sat on the toilet on the morning of the faculty induction day early in October. “Why are you putting yourself through this?’ I asked myself. After all, I am a retired headteacher, have quite a comfortable life, enhanced by a love of and involvement in poetry. I run a Poetry Society Stanza and am on the organising committee of one of Manchester’s most highly valued poetry performance events, Poets and Players. I enjoy the company of lots of like-minded poet friends. Why can’t I be content with life as it is instead of complicating it with another intense three years of study?
The answer to that question probably lies in psychoanalysis! At sixteen I left my grammar school with the harsh words of the headmaster ringing in my ears, that I would ‘end up in the gutter’ for the unforgivable sin of talking to a secondary modern school boy. I seem to have spent my life repudiating that remark, having trained as a mature student to become a teacher, acquiring two bachelor and two post-graduate degrees in the process. Now it seems to me that my climb out of the gutter of my life (I jest) won’t be complete without the ultimate achievement of PhD. Perhaps then I can relax and ‘be retired’. The thing is, if I don’t do it now, I never will. I’m doing it full time in three years (the first time in my life I’ve been a full-time student!) and I’ll be 71 at least before I finish. That’s late enough for anyone. I tell myself I don’t mind if I try and fail but not trying will be a betrayal to myself. Of course, in reality I’ll be devastated if I fail.
So, here I am packing my bag for Uni, reading Freud and the Greek Myths, reading feminist reaction to phallocentric Freudian theory and relating that to the reading of my poetry heroines, Sylvia Plath, Selima Hill and Jackie Kay, among others.
I have been to the faculty induction day and learned about various library facilities that didn’t even exist last time I studied anything; and that was only five years ago when I completed a creative writing MA at MMU. I learned about several research skills mini-courses that I should undertake to enable me as a researcher; I was scared witless by talk of ethics and critical reading and public engagement and presenting to conferences even though I have been considering these things all my professional life. In short, I watched as a great chasm opened up in front of me and I realised I have just three years to negotiate a way to the other side.
First hurdle: the infamous form RD1: the formal proposal that you have to register with the university in order to be accepted on the PhD course. This involves personal information including details of the research skills courses undertaken and a 1000 word abstract of the research study you will undertake. I have to have this first -drafted and with my supervision team by the end of November prior to a meeting to discuss and submit. I met my team for the first time in October, although I knew Jean Sprackland, who supervised my MA creative portfolio and who encouraged me to do the PhD; and I met Angelica Michelis who was a wonderful help to me when I was putting together my application. Antony Rowland was new to me. He is my Director of Studies (DOS) and seems a very helpful and supportive member of the team. So I think I am blessed. After the meeting I completed an RD9 form, a record of the meeting and it’s outcomes. There are lots of bureaucratic forms to know about at these early stages even if you don’t need most of them.
Yesterday I attended the compulsory University Induction Day, which was different from the non-compulsory faculty induction. I received a very nice cotton bag with a file containing PowerPoint printouts of the day’s presentations and another file, my Personal Development Portfolio which I must keep up to date and take along to annual review meetings. Of course, many of the younger members of the research community are seeing this as a career opportunity. I don’t want a career in Academe; I just want a PhD. I’m not even particularly doing it for anyone else, although anyone who wants to can read it. Ultimately I am doing it for myself, just prove to myself that I can.
I intend to keep a weekly blog of my experience of undertaking a PhD. It will be a good record for me, if nothing else. And it might just help someone else who is contemplating their own chasm. Wish me luck, and drop by now and then to see how I’m doing.
I so want to do this PhD. And the Tudor cap and gown that goes with it is really rather fetching, after all.