I have much advice to impart on anyone who is enrolled in a PhD. Every person who has finished a PhD – recently or not – has a lot of advice to give. But we don’t go around giving it. That’s because the first thing to realise about a PhD is that it’s a fairly unique experience for every person. And I really, really loathe the word ‘unique’. That’s why I’m so annoyed by the glut of articles giving advice about finishing a PhD (I’m sure you can all guess which specific recent article *cough*THE*cough* has sparked this post).
My own experience led to a complete disconnect between achievement and celebrating (I don’t think this is unique…), and like many people I came out with a pretty mixed bag of good and bad things to say. I cannot claim to have gone through everything possible, though I did do a fair amount of stuff during my PhD (both directly and indirectly related to my work at a PhD candidate). So, I don’t tend to give advice unless asked. Or actually, I think I am fairly fond of giving advice, and will sometimes do so unasked, but only if I feel my particular situation matches the particular situation of the person I am talking to.
That is the crux of my problem with this/these articles. It’s fine to give advice when asked, or when you think it will actually help a person and is relevant in their context. But articles like this are so rarely relevant to everyone’s context that they cannot really be taken seriously. I think authors of posts like this realise this fact, which is why the most recent offender is written in a style that, I guess, is meant to be funny. How to fail your PhD?
With the amount of mental health issues (from both the acute and chronic to the temporary and more ‘mild’*) that are rife in academia, particularly among PhD candidates and early career scholars, it is absolutely not funny or clever to frame an article so negatively. What PhDs need is advice about how to compensate for possible shortfalls. If a student must stay at the same university because they have caring duties, for example, then what they need is some advice about how to network widely and what social networking or other digital tools can do to help them achieve the level of networking they need. If a student decides to fund their own PhD (and I don’t want to say anything about the ridiculous notion of a department not being ‘invested’ in a self-funding candidate…) then what they need is some specific advice about how they can work their studies around other financial commitments they have, and how they can perhaps supplement their income with smaller grants. This list could go on forever.
This brief post actually began because I wanted to make a plea for THE and others to stop sharing that article on my Twitter feed, because it’s driving me crazy. It’s not helpful. It wouldn’t have helped me during my PhD, and all I can see is the ways that is shames PhD candidates for the ‘choices’ they might not even be able to make for themselves. Without individual context advice is meaningless. So, stop giving advice.
*I want to be EXPLICITLY clear that I think that even ‘mild’ mental health issues are serious, because they absolutely are. What I mean by ‘mild’ is something that is not debilitating, does not necessarily require medication or medical intervention, is temporary, and perhaps induced by a specific event. For example, anxiety in the days leading up to a conference presentation, or similar.
I have become interested in how people write, and - specifically I guess - how I write and why I write the way I do. By writing I mean everything that goes into making up a manuscript, essay, thesis, or similar; from the notes at the very start of a project to the moment you press submit. This is for two reasons (1) I am typing up my monograph manuscript to submit for review. Yes, I said 'typing it up' and yes, that does mean that I started from the very beginning and will type the whole thing (more on that in a moment) and (2) Andrew and I are going to start a business (because starting a 'business on the side' is a good thing and not in any way taking on any extra unneeded work when one already has a full plate, ho hum...). I will come to (2) more in the next few weeks when we have some solid ideas about the three main products that we are going to produce.
But more on (1). This is what I am currently looking at:
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will be immediately familiar with that book. It is the hard-copy draft of my monograph, which I have taken to with a pen. I prefer to write edits with a pen because I think better with a pen. I type quite fast, and often type faster than I think, which results in going back and forward in a typed text to make changes. On a printed page everything is immediately visible, and the changes are etched in (although I know some people feel that ink gives a sense of permanence, I hold no such idea and am happy to scribble over, cross out, mark up, and generally make a mess on the page).
So, my general process involves a lot of writing and a lot of typing, because I also type up each new draft from scratch (expect for lengthy passages which have no changes, then I will copy and paste those from the old document, and I will usually copy-paste Greek passages from the old draft). In effect, this gives me two rounds of editing for the price of one - one round when I write and one round when I type. It's not the fastest way of doing things, but it has got me though three degrees, three theses of increasing length, and now it has almost got me to the end of this book.
More generally, though, I want to know how other people research, write, and edit. I find the way that people work really interesting - both from a personal point of view and from a pedagogical point of view. I was never taught how to write (although I did take an 'Academic Writing' course during the first year of my undergraduate degree...) but I did play around with writing style and method during my studies. I have run 'essay writing' tutorials before, and I never really know what to say about writing method beyond 'try some stuff out and see what works for you'. I would never recommend my method to another person (and especially not to an undergraduate who has a significant work load already), because it is laborious and time consuming, but I wonder if I am missing a trick here because my method could work for a student as well as it works for me.
The short answer (to the apparently unasked question) is: I have no idea. I don't know why my method works, and I don't know why I am reluctant to suggest it as a possible writing method for another person. Having said all of that, I would be very interested to hear about other people's writing methods (and particularly if your method is like mine!). Feel free to leave a comment or shout out on Twitter and let me know!
Edited to add: The way that I edit and write also has the odd by-product of unusual natural stopping points, because I re-type up page by page (and mark pages which have been complete). This means that I will often stop typing in mid sentence, as a perfectly natural thing. It only just struck me as (probably) a rather odd practice.
I have been putting off writing this post because it wasn’t hugely relevant, since many of these thoughts came after the second time I went to see the Almeida Theatre’s production of Oresteia, which was right at the end of the season. But, with the news that Robert Icke’s adaptation of Aischylos’s trilogy is being moved to the West End, it has indeed become relevant again. Some notes on spoilers: there will be some. Not so much in the sense that I think anyone reading this will not already be familiar with Aeschylus’s story, but that I am going to discuss things from Icke’s script and the Almeida staging.
I saw the Oresteia at the Almeida twice, once during the previews and once right at the end. There were several things which struck me about the production the first time and (somewhat shamefully?) a huge amount that I didn’t really pick up on until the second viewing. I think this had a lot to do with how I approached the experience. I wrote my (50,000 word research) MA thesis on the subtext of Orestes’s coming-of-age in Aischylos’s Eumenides, so I am quite familiar with Aischylos’s script, although I haven’t looked at it in great detail since finishing my MA. Prior to the Almeida, the only other time I had seen the Oresteia staged was Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 production, which was surreal and weird, and to me it felt very disassociated from Aischylos. I really did not want these things to colour my potential enjoyment of this production (how naïve of me!) and so I attempted to watch this production ‘fresh’. I’m not sure it was entirely successful but I didn’t try to connect what I was seeing on the stage to the background in my own head. My immediate impression at the end was ‘I want to read the script’, and then ‘I must see this again’. I don’t think I enjoyed that first viewing, but something stayed with me. I was moved and overwhelmed.
The second time I was alone, and it was the end of a very long, very tense, very emotional day, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend four hours watching a play I had already seen. But off I went (actually, I ran from Angel tube to the theatre, so sorry to anyone who I may have bumped into). I arrived at the moment the door closed, and so I watched the first act on a tiny screen in the foyer of the Almeida. Actually, I am infinitely grateful for this. The screen closed in on Iphigeneia’s face as she slowly slipped away into death, and it was moving and breath-taking and beautiful to watch. Agamemnon was very secretive about it, insisting that it should never get out that he had killed Iphigeneia. He even says: ‘I don’t want it public. We cover it up. We bury it down so no one ever finds out.’ In Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis it becomes clear when Klytaimestra and Iphigeneia arrive in Aulis that the throngs of Greeks don’t know about the prophecy. They, like the two women, assume that Iphigeneia is to be offered to someone in marriage, but then it becomes clear that the truth is about to come out:
Agamemnon: ‘… we have reached the point where we are forced to commit the bloody murder of my daughter’
And then Agamemnon lays out that Klytaimestra should not find out about the plan until Iphigeneia is dead. There is a marked difference between this girl and the one who appears in Icke’s play. The very young child of Icke’s Oresteia would not have been called for a wedding, this is partly taken care of by staging – the sacrifice occurs at ‘home’ (wherever that might be) rather than away in a military camp, but for those who had preconceived ideas about what is happening in the ancient tradition and what’s going happening on the Almeida stage there is a very large disconnect. It heightens the connection between father and daughter, perhaps, because of her absolute reliance on him – this connection is repeated several times in Euripides’s play, and also in Aischylos. The chorus in Agamemnon quotes him as calling Iphigeneia ‘the delight of my house’ (Aisch. Ag. 207), so there is certainly the assumption of closeness from our perspective.
In Aischylos, it becomes clear that everyone knows that Agamemnon was involved in Iphigeneia’s death. After Agamemnon’s slaughter, Klytaimestra accuse the Argive elders of unjust judgement, throwing out at them: ‘but you didn’t show any opposition at all to this man at the former time, when, setting no special value on her – treating her death as if it were the death of one beast out of large flocks of well-fleeced sheep – he sacrifices his own child, the darling offspring of my pangs.’ (Ag. 1415-1418). At this stage, Klytaimestra isn’t shy about shouting out about Agamemnon’s crime against her. This is not the impression that Icke’s Klytemestra gives off, she is not a raging, mad woman even when she spits out so fiercely after the actual killing of Agamemnon (the script includes the stage direction Klytemnestra is entirely rational, quiet, collected, forceful, and Lia William’s beautiful, poignant, empathetic Klytemnestra is all these things, but there is a moment that she falls apart. It is just a moment, and then she is again recollected.)
I got the strong impression that the trial was the first time that all of this background came out. For full disclosure, I actually am not completely sold on the end of Icke’s version of the play. The first time I saw the Almeida Oresteia I actually quite strongly didn’t like it. But, I think it serves a wonderful purpose in creating the openness of Aischylos’s trilogy, which necessarily takes place outside the palace doors. Icke’s play predominantly takes place inside, in a sparse and alienating home. The public knowledge of Iphigeneia’s death mirrors this internal/external dichotomy perfectly, and creates an anticipation that really swept me, as an onlooker – more than an audience member – into the action of the play in a memorising and thoughtful way.
*The savy among you might have noticed that this post contains two different spellings of Klytaimestra/Klytemnestra. The first relates to Aischylos's character, whose name does not include the nu. Icke's Klytemnestra includes an 'n', and so I have included it here (particularly given my Twitter rant about reviews of Icke's play calling the character 'Clytemnestra' when it was obvious from a quick glance at the website - not to mention actuallyon screen during the show - that this wasn't what Icke has called her at all...).
 P. 46 of the Oberon Classics printing of the script, which was available for purchase from the Almeida during the run (and now available on Amazon). Translations from Euripides are David Kovaks 2002 Loeb, and Aischylos is Alan Sommerstein’s 2008 Loeb.
 Which, of course, is not cited in Icke’s adaptation but must have, at least in part, influenced Act One of his play. Icke does mention Euripides’s version of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice in the talkback session that was held after the performance on June 29. There’s a transcript available here: http://www.almeida.co.uk/oresteia-talkback
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