Information for Applicants:
The Framework for PhD Supervision in Creative Writing
Information for students and supervisors
The Challenge of the Creative Writing PhD
A doctoral award is the highest award that the UK Higher Education system can confer. It is usually seen as a pre-requisite to an academic career and should be anticipated as an extremely challenging and demanding programme of study. Students accepted onto the programme need a strong creative and academic track record, usually including published work; supervisors will be widely published, experienced academics, and regarded as experts in their field.
The PhD in Creative Writing is still relatively new to the academy and brings with it special challenges since it privileges creative output over critical reflection, whilst combining the two. Research in Creative Writing is achieved through praxis as well as through more formal or traditional critical strategies. Critical reflection may also be approached through aspects of creative writing practice in the most adventurous doctoral theses.
Students should expect to have all their ideas and pre-conceptions challenged during doctoral study and to embark upon a relationship with their supervisor that is intensely demanding, both intellectually and emotionally. This is especially true of the Creative Writing PhD where there is an inevitably close emotional connection to the creative work being critiqued. It is important that a strong structure exists for such a relationship and that both supervisors and students have a clear understanding of what to expect from the process.
The Academic Structure of the Creative Writing PhD
The PhD in Creative Writing usually takes the form of a major creative project ('a book length work' of up to 80,000 words) in the student's chosen literary form, plus a critical/reflective thesis of 20,000 words. 1
Creative Writing at Lancaster forms part of the Department of English & Creative Writing, and, increasingly, students are embarking on PhD's that synthesise creative and critical elements. Variations on the basic 80/20 ratio can be negotiated, depending on available supervisors. The most obvious alternative is a 50/50 division, but it should be borne in mind that the creative component has to achieve a 'fully-realised work of literature', so it is difficult for novelists to embark on a split 50/50 portfolio, though this is possible for writers of short fiction, shorter scripts, poetry, and the novella.
The nature of the creative work will necessarily vary from case to case, but can be explored through any literary form after agreement has been reached with a specialist supervisor. The focus of the reflective thesis might range from an intensive focus on personal creative practice and process to reflection that makes reference to a much wider field of creative literature or critical/theoretical writing.
The essence of the PhD in Creative Writing is research through creative practice (see below) and this practice should be seen as the core of your 'original contribution to knowledge' as defined in the PhD regulations. The creative and creative elements of the PhD are not separately realised elements: ideally they form a dynamic process and should represent a dialectic that shapes the final submission to the examiners.
How Supervisors are Appointed
Each application for doctoral study is read by the postgraduate director for Creative Writing, then fielded to two members of staff identified as potential supervisors because they are experts in the student's chosen genre or field of research. If successful, each student is assigned a primary supervisor and a secondary one who can take over in case of illness or sabbatical leave. Alternatively, the supervision may be jointly shared between two supervisors. Typically, this might involve close supervision of the creative work by a specialist Creative Writing tutor, plus some input on the reflective thesis from a colleague in English. The system is flexible and intended to fit the needs of each student as closely as possible.
Research Elements of the PhD
The Creative Writing PhD consists primarily of generative writing process - the production of new stories, poems, novels and scripts. This can be described as 'research through practice'. Such practice might also involve formal aspects of research that draw upon cognate areas of academic study. In addition, the reflective thesis may draw upon critical and theoretical reading in a heterogeneous way - not just literary theory, but writing on a whole range of subject matter that might have been explored in the creative body of the PhD submission.
All PhD's are underpinned by an explicit set of research questions. All writers have tacit questions at some level in their minds when they approach new work. For the PhD, those questions must be made manifest at an early stage. They form part of your application statement. They are often modified in the light of your findings as a researcher. So they are reference points, rather than fixed points. It's a good idea to keep these to around five questions, rather than allowing a list to proliferate into baroque detail. Such questions are also essential in making applications for AHRC funding, so that funding bodies can understand the entry point and proposed trajectory of your enquiry.
The research questions can focus on the creative enterprise itself - what kinds of human experience it seeks to investigate and how. Typically questions will relate to intersections of theme, characters, cultural content and form. Those, in turn, will lead to questions about practice. In simple terms, we might think of research questions relating to the creative work as being quite open or speculative in nature, whilst the questions relating to the reflective thesis might be more evaluative, designed to measure intention against achievement.
Research as Practice
"These black sounds are the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art. Black sounds: so said the celebrated Spaniard, thereby concurring with Goethe, who, in effect, defined the duende when he said, speaking of Paganini: "A mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain."
The Duende: Theory and Divertissement , Federico Garcia Lorca,
Recognition for the Creative Writing PhD has essentially been a recognition that creative writing itself can form 'an original contribution to knowledge' - that through its imaginative strategies, fabulations, interpretations and inventions it can create new insights and understanding. Such insights might be retrospective (the historical novel) or contemporary (a new book of poems) or anticipatory (futuristic fiction). Or they might fuse all three temporal perspectives in the same work.
What is clearly recognised is that an original contribution to knowledge in the field of creative writing is unlikely to be a reflection upon a previously extant work or works. Unlike more theoretical writing, it will draw upon the writer's personal resources of memory, emotion and passion, seeking to explore and trust subconscious urges, to draw energy from the aquifers of the self. Such raw energy will be given form and shaped into a more carefully sculpted textual artefact whilst retaining a sense of original voice and momentum. Spontaneous, exploratory writing is not the opposite of writing as research, but a stage within it.
Writers exploring their thematic material are often drawn into formal kinds of research that underpin acts of invention. In order to situate an invented narrative with fictional characters in a specific culture, place and time, then they may need to find out about their locus. This could involves field visits, exploration of historical archives, interviews with experts, readings of related fictional accounts, literature surveys, the study of maps, work practices, belief systems and cultural practice. The writing itself synthesises these elements, creating credible fictional worlds from actual components.
Writers also have the liberty to invent realities in order to create imaginative conviction on the part of their readers. When the novelist, Jim Crace, wrote about a tree frog in a recent novel he was approached by zoologists intrigued by the species and genus. Of course, he had simply invented the frog - not out of thin air, but from his tacit knowledge of frogs. It has often been said that artistic truth - the creation of original insights - depends upon the deployment of artistic lies.
The area of research most closely related to the Creative Writing PhD is 'action-research', described thus:
The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.
(Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983: 68)
Although usually applied to educational or sociological research, the relationship between practice and reflection and the subsequent modification of practice obviously equates to the writerly process of: spontaneous drafting - considered revision - re-drafting. So we can think of 'writing as research' as a form of exploratory, site-specific or situated research, emanating from and referring to the writing process.
In order to carry out formal aspects of research, it's useful to be able access the appropriate techniques and resources. This almost certainly will involve use of a library and its reference system in order to find out what has been written before that might overlap with the proposed creative project and which theoretical or philosophical perspectives might be useful in deepening understanding of its significance.
Writers often engage in interdisciplinary aspects of research and the University is rich in lectures and resources in a wide range of subject areas from medical science to physics, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, cultural studies, anthropology, music or engineering.
Ethnographic techniques also form part of some creative projects - the carrying out of interviews and the interpretation of the results being the most common. For a creative writer, the environment of the University with its diverse resources can form an exciting environment to draw upon.
At least 20% of the PhD will be formed from critical reflection. This is almost always focused - in some way - upon trying to create an understanding of the creative process as you experienced it. This is facilitated by reflexive strategies - the Learning Log on the LUVLE site, the maintenance of a Writing Journal, notebooks, and a record of source materials. In order to carry out this work successfully you are essentially devising, analysing and rationalising your own system of 'poetics'.
The focus of the critical/reflective thesis will vary, depending on your interests. It may focus on your work in relation to other work in the same genre and so draw upon creative works that allow you to draw comparisons with thematic treatment and technique. You may also wish to draw upon the work of creative writers who have written about writing from a practitioner's point of view: Aristotle, Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, David Lodge, Stephen King, et al. Their work affords the special insights of writers who have themselves forged creative strategies as practitioners working in a particular genre.
Some students have used creative strategies as part of their critical reflection upon creative practice - such as reflecting through the voice of a character in a novel, creating fictional interviews with themselves, or deploying a range of rhetorical devices usually found in creative work. This may be regarded as a high-risk or 'cutting-edge' strategy, depending on your point of view, but such 'writerly' or integrated approaches can be hugely stimulating and precipitate important realisations about the interrogative nature of creative work.
The final source of perspective on your creative work will be critical theory: how theorists who have discussed text and its mediations might have influenced your reading, practice and reflection. This might encompass linguistics, socio-linguistics, formalism, structuralism, post structuralism, Marxism, reader-reception theory, feminist theory, queer theory, post-modernism and beyond.
Research Training & Personal Development Plan
Research training is provided by the Faculty programme and we encourage our students to take part in the sessions - though not all of them may be of obvious appeal to creative writers. It's important that students attend sessions that have a generic appeal such as thesis writing, using the library, and research methods. We are now becoming involved with the provision of such training in order to broaden its appeal and to focus it on research as creative practice.
Students are provided with written information on personal development planning (PDP) and supervisors should encourage students to register on it in order to plan their future as academics and researchers. The PDP site can easily be accessed from the PhD LUVLE site for Creative Writing.
Some funding for research is available for each postgraduate student. This may be used in a number of ways including research trips, conferences, and training courses where appropriate. In the first instance, applications for support should be discussed between supervisors and students and then taken to the Director of Postgraduate studies for Creative Writing.
PhD students often elect to teach Creative Writing to undergraduates on our Part I scheme as a way of developing their experience and supplementing their income. Students wishing to enquire about such teaching should approach the Part I convenor.
Face to Face Supervision
Full-time students are expected to meet with their supervisors once every two weeks in term time for a one-hour supervisory session. This will usually involve the discussion of research strategy, the close reading of new sections of creative text, the review of revised sections of text and discussion of any associated reading recommended by the tutor. It is the student's job to take notes during these sessions and to maintain records of the supervisory process via their LUVLE Learning Log.
Any supervisions that are missed should be carefully logged with reasons. Part-time students are expected to attend for the equivalent of half a full-time student. It's a good policy to provide a reflective cover sheet with every submission of work since this then accumulates as the 'spine' of the reflective thesis. All supervisory submissions and written responses should be exchanged via the LUVLE PhD 'dropzone'.
Supervision can be mediated by distance learning for those students who are resident elsewhere or who may be disabled or otherwise unable to come regularly to the University campus. This is a specialism of our provision at Lancaster, linking writers together across the English-speaking world. As a distance learning student you will be a member of a diverse research community linked to a range of personal and institutional projects and collaborations.
For full-time students, two major tutorials 2 are held each term and the supervisor supplies a detailed report on each piece of work. Exchange can be facilitated via the LUVLE site and a complete record of the exchanges should be maintained there. Again, we recommend the use of reflexive cover sheets to accompany creative work.
An online work-in-progress session will take place at a mind-point in each term. Campus-based and distance learning students will be linked together in small genre-based groups, and you will work with this group of students and a supervisor to exchange new writing and perspectives, to discuss ideas, techniques and approaches, to share reading and to consider key aspects of the research process.
The annual review panel for each student (years 1 & 2) will require attendance at the University, but, in exceptional circumstances, may also be carried out through live video link. We expect that distance learning students will be involved in one such session each year - this may be incorporated into the Annual Review panel and their MPhil/PhD Upgrade Panel in the first 2 years. In the final year it should take the form of preparation for submission and examination by viva voce .
We recommend that every PhD student keeps a personal Writing Journal in electronic form. This should be in the form of a diary, recording developments in both the creative and reflective process. Your tutor will not ask to see the Journal directly, but extracts from it can be brought forward to annual reviews and upgrade panels as evidence that you are engaged with your studies in a reflexive way. Extracts from the Journal may also be sent your tutor as a way of illuminating or opening up areas of discussion.
Lancaster University Virtual Learning Environment (LUVLE)
Whether staff are supporting a student by distance learning, face-to-face or hybrid methods, the Creative Writing LUVLE site is the primary means by which they will exchange work. The site also facilitates the easy contact of students by tutors and features profiles of staff and students so that our rather scattered constituency of doctoral students can be made visible. It features a tutorial 'dropzone' for each student where students can leave work and responses can be left by the supervisor. This means that the entire history of a doctoral student's progress can be recorded and that work is securely stored in a central location. It also facilitates joint supervision because each tutor has equal access to the student's work and supervisory history.
A Learning Log is also provided and this should be maintained after every supervision without exception. It's vital that a full record of supervision exists. The log can be a very important means of recording key achievements or recording differences of opinion that you wish to make a matter of record. It is a fundamental right of the student to have such a record, but we would urge its creative and not merely bureaucratic use. In the event of a supervisory relationship going badly wrong, then you can expect the Learning Log to be reviewed as a record of the supervisory process. The Learning Log is 'date stamped' and cannot be altered retrospectively. Used to its full advantage, the Learning Log can extend supervisory practice and create an invaluable dialogue in relation to the supervisory programme.
The Chat Room on the site will be used primarily by students for informal contact. The Course Materials section contains essential documents relating to your studies, including a guide to the use of the site itself. We hope to use the Work in Progress conference space to discuss work in progress and to create a more comprehensive set of facilities as the site develops. We intend it to form the heart of the PhD programme in creative writing, so you need to become familiar with it as soon as possible.
Only designated supervisors and students can access the work in each dropzone, but the Postgraduate Director can access all areas of the site as the site administrator. This means that they can offer support and advice to new tutors by visiting the relevant section of the site. In the near future we hope to extend the site facilities so that the records of every student are stored there for easy access - though that access will be restricted to key personnel.
Online induction will be given in the use of the LUVLE environment, including familiarity with the structure of the PhD scheme, the use of reflexive writing, dialogue with a tutor, submission zones, online fora and learning logs.
Examination by Viva Voce
At the end of your doctoral studies students will submit their thesis to a panel of examiners, including external and internal examiner. The panel will be independently chaired and your supervisor can be present at your request. You will be questioned closely about your thesis and you will be expected to 'defend' its contents by offering verbal arguments in support of it. The viva is a necessarily rigorous process and even successful candidates are requested to carry out some small revisions to their thesis. Major revisions may be requested, in which case the award may be withheld until the examiners have approved all changes.
The Structure of the PhD Programme
Full-time PhD, Year 1
Student is logged onto the LUVLE site
The PhD proposal is reviewed 3
Termly work plans should be presented
Research training and PDP are undertaken
Student maintains a Writing Journal to log creative/reflective process
Field research begins, if any
Programme of reading begins
Creative project begins, accompanied by reflexive cover sheets
By the end of year 1 the student should have:
Produced a substantial portfolio of creative work - at least a third of the entire project
Maintained a Writing Journal in electronic form
Compiled a bibliography
For their annual review the student is asked to submit to the review panel:
A revised PhD proposal taking account of new developments
A sample of creative work up to 15,000 words
Sample pages from their Writing Journal or Learning Log
A detailed progress report
Full-time PhD, Year 2
Student continues with main body of creative project
Writing Journal is maintained
Bibliography is developed
Reflective thesis is planned
The M/Phil upgrade panel takes place at between 18 and 24 months and for this the student will submit to the panel:
Updated PhD proposal
30,000 words or equivalent of creative text
A chapter plan of the reflective thesis
Sample pages from the writing journal or learning log
A progress report
Full-time PhD, Year 3
The creative project is completely drafted and undergoes revision
The critical/reflective thesis is completely drafted and undergoes revision
A review panel is held to look at a selection of the work
Both elements are combined into a completed PhD thesis
The completed thesis is proofread
Internal and external examiners are identified and approached
The thesis is bound and submitted in triplicate along with an electronic back up
A date for the viva is set
The student is prepared for their viva
Viva takes place
The Departmental Postgraduate Handbook, LUVLE site
The University Postgraduate Handbook and Regulations, University registry
How to Examine a Thesis , Lynne Pearce, Open University Press 2005
The Doctoral Examination Process , Penny Tinkler & Carolyn Jackson, Open University Press, 2004
How to Survive Your Viva , Rowena Murray, Open University Press, 2003
1 Word counts are approximate and vary greatly according to literary form, but they should be regularly reviewed, nonetheless
2 Submissions of up to 6000 words or equivalent, depending on genre, plus 1000 words of reflexive writing entered into a Learning Log
3 Initial and interim proposals for PhD projects should be regarded as flexible frameworks for study - they may change considerably during the course of doctoral study
Click here for information on Postgraduate Bursaries.
Download the Creative Writing Postgraduate Handbook for 2006-07
Download the Examination of Research Degrees Guidance Notes
Provision of laptops for PhD students: As a result of a successful Capital Expenditure bid to Hefce, all new full-time campus based PhD students in the Faculty will be eligible to receive a laptop, which they will be able to keep throughout their (up to) four years of study.
Click here to see what some of our current and previous PhD students say.