To PhD or not to PhD? That is the question…. by James Fountain

When I was asked to write this article, I must admit feeling a little intimidated. The question of whether or not someone should begin a PhD thesis is never simple, as it is a choice often fraught with problems.

I was 24 when invited by the University of Glasgow to commence a PhD, in 2004. I had forgotten I’d applied for it and was working at a lovely Hauptschule in Vienna, teaching motivated young Austrians English Language and living in a beautiful Pension. I was enjoying using my schoolboy German language skills, which had developed a little during my MA in Munich. I was dating a lovely Irish girl, Lisa, who worked at the same school. We were in love. We were going to the opera, drinking in bars. Everything was rosy, idyllic. And then I got the email from the University of Glasgow. The same week I was offered a full-time position at the school. But I had already decided.

Lisa invited me to work with her in Taiwan, and I was keen, until I got that email. The idea of working on my own project in isolation, quiet, fascinating work with the goal of completing the thesis, passing the viva, in the process writing ground-breaking research papers and presenting them at conferences worldwide, maybe get a job at the University after. The possibilities were intoxicating.

We argued and fell out. Then, back at her home in Canterbury, we made up. Then, when discussing my plans, it really ended: she called me every name under the sun and flew off to Taiwan on a two-year contract. It was over. The first sacrifice for my PhD had been made.

Although this story sounds drastic, it is not unusual. If you are thinking of embarking on a PhD, do be aware that it may shred whatever relationship you have. This could arguably reveal their frailty. Or, it could simply be an unfair strain on what was a perfectly good relationship. Either way, you will spend a drastic amount of time alone at your desk, hammering away at your laptop. Many of my friends who did PhDs have maintained the relationships they had prior to beginning their theses. But these often began long before they started their theses. Relationships are a very important consideration.

Money is another. I worked in various jobs, behind a busy bar, my go-to undergraduate job, and for a year pushed a tea trolley around the Cancer ward at the local hospital. Later, I began private tutoring, some students being as far afield as Loch Lomond. Most PhD students gain funding: I was promised it by my University, but this didn’t happen and no funding applications got anywhere. I had to work.

The long hours researching for my chosen PhD title, ‘Comparing British and American literature of the inter-war period’, were something I cherished. It was wonderful to be able to focus on the area of literature I loved. Within months, my first academic article, on W. H. Auden’s Spanish Civil War poem ‘Spain’ was published by The Explicator, a Chicago literary journal with worldwide circulation. Two more appeared. Forty thousand words done on the PhD already. I was flying!

And then came the end of year review. Professor X, who had read through my year’s work sat grimly at the desk as I walked in, and my (at the time) youthful supervisor looked nervous. One painful hour later, I walked out having been told I could not complete the PhD as its scope was too wide. The Professor X was even jovial and laughed “I mean of course it’s not right! Don’t you see?!” Welcome to the wonderful world of academia. Whoopy-do.

I exited sharply and ducked into the postgraduate club and ordered a Guinness. I stared dejectedly at all those who still had ongoing projects which were funded. Almost all would go on to academic jobs at good universities. But not me. I’d worked hard, made lots of progress, got lots of praise from my supervisor, articles published in journals, forty-thousand words in my first year (unheard of). And been told my topic was too wide. Thanks for nothing, Supervisor.

This unkind reality is shone in the face of many a PhD student toward the end of his or her first year, whether funded or unfunded. It is worth bearing in mind its toughness. However, around a week later, the Chair of English, Professor Nigel Leask, approached me. He told me he’d heard I had a useful knowledge and passion for modernist poetry (“Professor X tells me,”) and how would I feel about researching the first-ever PhD on Graham Greene’s best friend, his cousin, forgotten modernist poet, Joseph Macleod? I would gain full access to his letters with W. S. Graham, Graham Greene, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and many more. No one had even looked at them, nor his diaries and over 10,000 papers that lay mostly untouched in different folders. I’d be sure to get funding. And very likely an academic job.  

I was taken aback. But I decided on caution; I would read whatever was in the library of Macleod’s and get back to him. The next day, after reading the mind-blowing Women of the Happy Island (1944), I accepted.

I began researching 6-7 hours a day at the National Library of Scotland in the special collections room, where Macleod’s papers were kept. Only pencil and paper were allowed. Within ten months I had typed up full transcriptions of Macleod’s complete correspondence: three hundred pages. It was fascinating. Letters from Aldous and Julian Huxley, Graham Greene, H. G. Wells, T. S Eliot, W. S. Graham, William Carlos Williams, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Paul Robeson and many more.

I ended up visiting the invitation-only BBC Written Archive in Reading (Macleod worked at the BBC as newsreader and announcer 1938-45), Cambridge University Library, sourcing further documents from Yale University, talking with the great Glasgow poet Tom Leonard (a lifelong aficionado of Williams) for many long hours in his study and over beers. Even my supervisor was famous, Michael Schmidt, poet and founder and owner of PN Review and Carcanet, champion of many great poets contemporary and past, including Seamus Heaney. With his guidance, my knowledge very quickly expanded. I published Macleod’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry and was buzzing with excitement. Then I was forced to take full-time role at Peterborough Regional College to pay for the final two years. I often worked in the small hours of the night when my partner was in bed. It was exhausting. Months before I completed the thesis, the relationship ended (again, as with Lisa and another, ‘The PhD’ was accused of being ‘more important’ than she was).

I got the urge to travel again, settling into teaching abroad, presently based in Saudi Arabia. Two pamphlets of my own poetry have been published in the UK, and many have appeared in magazines. I am almost finished the proofreading of the book of the PhD, soon to be published by Waterloo Press. The Drinan Trilogy (Waterloo Press, 2012) featured three of Macleod’s out-of-print books, including Women of the Happy Island, which I edited and introduced with poet Andrew Duncan. It was launched at The National Library of Scotland, where I gave a long talk – everyone wanted to know more about Macleod. The Times Literary Supplement published a 4000-word article I wrote and has been referenced several times by Valerie Eliot in her edits of her illustrious husband’s four volumes of correspondence. Most importantly, Macleod is now studied in various universities, his name now known to university educators in literature, his wonderful work emerging. That is enormously satisfying to me, as he is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s greatest poets and was previously unknown. The years of work to get there were more satisfying still. For me, it was worth it, but I’m not sure everyone would agree. To be, or not to be? That is the question. Indeed.

About the contributor

James Fountain has two chapbooks of poetry published, Glaciation (Poetry Monthly International, 2010) and The Last Stop (Original Plus Press). Waterloo Press will publish his work on the modernist poet Joseph Macleod soon.

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