Voices from the front line

When I started the Whisperer I was hoping it would become a collaborative affair. If you read the ‘about’ page you will see I put a list of, for lack of a better way of describing it, ‘editorial guidelines’ to suggest ways others might contribute. In particular I was hoping that PhD students would write in and reflect on their experiences for the benefit of others.

I’m happy to say I have my first PhD student piece to present this week. @TheMarquise is doing a PhD by creative project in Fine Arts within an Australian University. Project based PhDs usually involve making things which count as ‘words’, so the text work is generally less. However I think it’s fair to say this does not make their job much easier.

The difficulty with doing a PhD by creative project largely stems from the fact that it is a relatively new model of research. Artists, architects, fashion designers and such people never used to bother doing a PhD because, well, they didn’t need to. They could easily make art, draw buildings and design clothes without one. Used to be they could teach people to do these things without one, but, as competition for jobs in the university sector becomes more intense, a PhD has become an entry ticket into academia.

@TheMarquise, like many other students working in creative disciplines with an evolving research culture, is finding that knowing what constitutes a Project based PhD in fine art- and finding out the best way to go about doing one – can be difficult. Again, like many PhD students, @TheMarquise is past her mid 30s and has left a successful professional life prior to her recent return to study.

In this short post she reflects on working solo and wonders: does her life as a professional help with her thesis – or not?


Jun 29, 2010

How am I REALLY feeling about this PhD by project, so far?

unsure of myself
old and tired

I say ‘proud’ because I believe it is pride that is currently keeping me in the running. I kind of feel as if I’m in a reality TV show where I don’t know who the other contestants are, who has been voted off, or even how contestants behaved last season. So, my basic recourse of action is to be proud, to use pride to keep me going. Whatever the circumstances, I shall persevere.

God dammit.

I also feel an immense sense of ‘unworthiness’. I feel surrounded by exceedingly talented people and can’t believe that I would be considered one  of their peers. Why was I chosen for this opportunity? Is my work good  enough? Will I ever feel like I’m on par?

Reminding myself that I am only 3.5 months in doesn’t help. My ‘professional brain’ that has been in action for the last 10 years keeps screaming ‘Common! This project is way over schedule! I’ll have to give it to another  project manager. We have a major exhibition to open in 3 years people. Work the problem!’

And if anything, I believe it is my ‘professional brain’ that will pull me through this period of wilderness. I know I am capable of working to excruciating deadlines, of being creative under pressure, of thinking logically and laterally, of making regular reports, of being accountable, of working in a team . . .  oh, that would be it.

It’s just me.

I’d always thought that the ‘just me’ bit would be immensely liberating. And it quite possibly is. I just haven’t experienced it yet. It’s pretty telling that ‘isolated’ was the first word on my list. In small ways, I’ve made contact with my fellow PhDers, but given that the majority of us are aged over 30 years and have jobs, partners, children, or other commitments to manage, we don’t see a lot of each other. It’s difficult to maintain a sense
of scholarly, or artistic, identity when you feel so isolated.

So for now, pride and my ‘professional brain’ will keep me going. I hope the creative and scholarly sides of myself find their groove soon, but I guess  I’ll have to go easy on them.

For now.



We’d love to hear about others facing the challenge of becoming a student again after a full professional life.

3 thoughts on “Voices from the front line

  1. bogurk says:

    I was interested to read your comments on how you are finding the PhD experience so far. I submitted my PhD thesis in late March (no news yet, sadly), and my background is very different from yours: I went straight from school to undergrad to honours to PhD, and my field of study is experimental physics. All that said, my feelings during my candidature regularly aligned with the list of emotions you have listed. I’ve experienced the isolation, the bewilderment, the feeling of being old and tired (and I’m 26 years old). Fortunately, I am also by nature determined to succeed, and proud of my achievements so far.

    Whenever I felt isolated, I would talk to friends or family or even people on twitter. It didn’t make the feeling go away entirely, but it did help, and in the end because I had to work on my own so much I feel a real sense of ownership of my results. I also fought a constant battle for respect (being the youngest didn’t help), but in the end my results spoke for themselves. I am sure your work will be equally well received.

    My PhD was sometimes a battle. But it had its good moments, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Best of luck with the rest of your PhD.

  2. TokenLefty says:

    I cannot believe how much these comments apply to me! In particular, thinking ‘Come on! This project is way over schedule!’ was very common. I’ve now adjusted to the pace of people working around me and realised I was being a bit unrealistic. It takes time to think, time to absorb material and time to write well.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts down!

  3. captiveaudience2 says:

    I am at the same stage as you of a creative project PhD and feel exactly the same. Surrounded by so many amazing people I would put “novice” at the top of my list. I have wondered whether it was worth spending as much time as I did in my former professional career as it seems to have only rendered me “old and tired”. Like you, I have many skills from life as a professional that I’m trying to rely on until my academic brain hopefully kicks in.

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