Doctoral Journeys: Chris Stokes (DPhil in English)

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This is the fourthin a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Chris Stokes (DPhil in English) talked to Profolio 2007 participants.


I am a PhD (I haven’t had my viva yet) in English, and I’ve just completed my thesis which was “Coleridge and the Sublime: Language, Subjectivity, Aesthetics”, which I won’t talk about too much in specific terms but, for those of you who do do English, it was centred on readings of poetry, and it was informed by literary theory primarily. And to give you a vague idea, hopefully intelligibly, this is the first half of my abstract that goes at the beginning of the thesis:

“Working from sublimity’s contested place in recent thought, critiqued by some as an outmoded desire for transcendence, and yet invoked by others as an experience of finitude, this thesis traces types of sublimity in Coleridge’s poetry. It contends that he was always drawn to strong, transcendent modes of the sublime, modes associated with the romantic ideology. The sublime in its transcendent form offered passage to a higher point or ground that would reconcile and organise all the conflicting difficult energies of a given field. However Coleridge faced with peculiar intensity the failure of the romantic ideology, as his faith in the capacities of poetry and humanity alike began to wane. New forms of sublimity, based more on its negative moment, its experience of limit, finitude and weakness, arose in the space where the desires of the old were relinquished.”

So, that probably makes no sense!

I handed in at the end of February, after three and a half years. Briefly, how I came to be here: I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Oxford, which was a fairly traditional place, and I became interested in a certain strand of doing the subject, which caused me to move to University College London, where I did my Masters. Unlike most Masters, where you narrow down your focus in preparation for your thesis, mine actually broadened out, which gave me some difficulties when it came to first organising my thesis and proposing what I was going to write about. Which leads on to the progress of my thesis, which you may be interested in: how it functioned as an arc from the first year to the third year.

Initially it was going to be a much broader thesis, it was actually going to be about documents of romanticism, various writers writing about what they conceive literature to be in the romantic period. And after a term working on Keats, I decided I felt this was too broad, and although my supervisor was happy with it, I personally felt that I was willing to make a change and enough time had elapsed that it wouldn’t be a problem: it would be a term’s work here or there, it would be ok. So all that got ditched, and we then chose Coleridge to work on. And like all theses, in my experience, it altered considerably. So if you look at the chapters that represent my earliest work, which is the first year, I would say about a quarter of those chapters ended up in any recognisable shape in the final draft. Obviously that goes up as you go towards later chapters, but a lot of what you write in the first year will disappear –  but that’s a good thing because it disappears because you’re advancing, progressing, your knowledge. So that shouldn’t be a worry at all.

I’d say in the whole course of the three years there were two points that were changes, pivots, around which the project…pivoted (ironically enough). One was a chapter I wrote, and it was primarily on philosophy, it was primarily on Kant, and my supervisor went ‘What’s the title for this?’ and I went ‘Oh, I don’t really have one’. And he was like ‘I think that’s symptomatic of something’. And I realised at that point that that chapter enabled me to work out a certain piece of thinking, which was fine, but I realised at that point that I really wanted to write on poetry, I wanted to write literary stuff, and this philosophy stuff was very much a kind of diversion. And that led to a kind of turn in the road, if you like. That was in the second year, if I remember correctly.

In the third year – this was kind of interesting – I did a totally separate piece of research, totally unrelated to my thesis, but when I was doing the research for that (it was for a conference), this structure jumped out at me and it became the structure out of which every single chapter became organised. I thought “Yes, this is how I can organise my material”. And that’s more or less what I was describing in the abstract.

By the end of the third year, that was the point where I had a more or less final draft. Obviously some chapters had been reworked, some chapters had been junked, some chapters were new, but by the end of the third year, the beginning of the fourth year, I was looking to revise the chapters in preparation for the final draft. So that was done by about Christmas. I’d made some quite heavy changes to my initial, earliest work. And then I took about two to three months to write up, get all the final drafts back from the supervisor. What was surprising was, a) how much it came together, in a sense; I mean you oscillate between thinking “Oh, this is crap” and “Oh actually this all fits together rather nicely”; and just how much I wanted to put in new stuff, which is a desire you’ve got to work with, because you can’t do too much new stuff. But I was kind of surprised how much new writing I did do at that stage. The other thing was reference checking and proof reading took a lot longer than I thought. So if you’re thinking about planning, be really careful with your references and stuff, it’s amazing how many mistakes I picked up at that stage.

So it took me three and a half years, which I think is about normal. My everyday research was reading about 100-150 pages a day, maybe, that’s optimistic, but nominally that’s what it was.

But obviously the research experience – and [this is] one of the reasons it took three and a half years rather than under three years – was…leavened with other activities. So I’m going to talk about these things you can do. Three things: teaching, conferences, and writing articles.

Teaching took a lot of my time. I’ve been teaching non-stop, more or less, since the second year, here and at the University of Brighton. It’s fun, it’s good, it’s really satisfying for a number of reasons. It’s actually nice to be in a position where you feel you’ve got knowledge, whereas in the postgraduate, doctoral position you usually feel that you’re just getting more and more stupid, as you don’t feel you’ve got enough knowledge! But this is one position where you can actually feel alright about yourself. It’s also a relief from the monotony of being at the same topic for three years. It’s nice to have a break, and to look at other topics, or in my field, other texts. And it can lead to insights into your own research, particularly if you are looking at – say in my case I was privileged enough to teach one of the third year undergraduate courses on 1740-1830, which is my period. Of course I got to spend time – paid – researching texts around that period, and of course you begin to build up a nicer, more textured picture of your research area, and sometimes you go “Yes, that’s something that came up” – a student might have said it, a critic might have said it, you might have even made it up on the spur of the moment in one of the seminars – you think “actually that’s quite a nice little point, and that reminds me of something in Coleridge”. And therefore you can get impetuses into your research from teaching.

The only problem is time, it does take a lot of time, particularly when you start you’ll find your research goes out the window, depending on how conscientious you are. Particularly the first course you teach, you’ll find it very hard to get more than 25% or a third of your normal research load done. But obviously if you’re looking to go into an academic career it’s absolutely a necessity anyway.

Conferences are definitely worth doing; I’m sure you’ve talked about them already. It’s great to formulate ideas, to work out bits of your thesis, to meet new people – I’m not a big fan of networking, I can’t say I’ve had any brilliant job offers through conferences – but it’s nice to meet people, get out and about. One thing to be aware of: there are different types of conferences, and they can all be fun, but they will give you different things in terms of yield, if you like. Something like the HUMS – Humanities – postgraduate conference here, great fun, great to see what everyone’s doing, probably not that useful for your thesis, but well worth doing. A general conference that’s got a very general topic, again will be very interesting, you’ll get to meet people in a broad sense, particularly if it’s one of those international conferences, but the chances are the questions you field will be not from positions of expertise. The flip-side to that is the conferences that are very tightly focused around say an author or a particular topic, and therefore you know that everyone will be on the same page as you, and therefore your questions will be that little bit more rigorous, and the papers will be very very closely related. So it’s worth trying to do a range of different conferences, to see what you get out of each one.

The third one was writing articles. I’ve written a few that will be published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s worth trying to do, because…particularly if you’re going into academia, that is an absolute necessity, and the lead times on publications are huge. You submit an article, they’ll get it back to you in three months, you may get rejected, and you’ll have to apply again to a different journal or revise it. The revision process may take some time and they’ll give you revisions [to carry out]. So basically it can take two years, [one of] mine’s going to come out in 2009, and I wrote it in 2007. So it can take an awful long time. There are postgraduate journals, which [are] particularly [useful] at the beginning of your thesis – obviously their standards are slightly lower, it doesn’t mean your writing’s less good, but you just have less knowledge. You can have a crack at one of those, that’s a nice place to get a publication on your cv without necessarily going to the top journal in your field, where even great academics will get regularly rejected, faculty here will get regularly rejected from journals, so it’s just part and parcel of article life.

To conclude: problems, lessons, and so forth, from this exciting journey that I went on! I found motivation was a kind of problem. Never with the subject itself – I never fell out of love with literature, I’m perhaps lucky that English literature is a subject that people generally go into because they’re passionate about (I’m sure that’s true of other subjects as well). But going on again and again at the same thing, it can get difficult motivation-wise, and I had a kind of slump in the second half of the thesis. Certainly my desire to go into academia waned as I met more and more academics (!), and then I was lucky enough (this isn’t going to happen to all of you unfortunately) to get an all-expenses-paid conference to Singapore, with flights and hotel, which kind of reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the whole discipline, and was actually great in terms of people. I’d had an article rejection just before, and I was motivationally at a low ebb, and then I came to this conference, and people said nice things about my paper, and then I came back, and I got a journal acceptance from somewhere else, and it began to look up again. Writing-up stress would be another big problem. I think it’s impossible to avoid. It’s probably a long way off for you guys but nearly everyone I know has broken up with someone during writing-up, including myself. It’s hard to avoid. You’ve just got to plan well, and don’t grind yourself into the ground, don’t lock yourself away. It will be over, and if you finish a month later than planned it’s not the end of the world.

Three pieces of advice. One: supervision. It’s really important to keep up your relationship with your supervisor, not just seeing them regularly, but making sure you’re on the same page, making sure you feel confident in them and vice versa. If you want some praise, if you’re feeling low, then you can go and ask for some. This is alright, because supervisors, depending on their styles, can be quite relentlessly negative. You want to know that what you’re doing is on the right lines. You should feel confidence in your supervisor. Your supervisor should, I hope, ask you to write regularly, particularly if you’re in a humanities subject it’s really important. Because then you’re building the foundation for later revisions, and you’re keeping the whole process going, whereas just endless research would be extremely dull.

Second: keep up your interest. Part of the reason for this slump was that I just got disenchanted, because when I did literature at undergraduate and MA level I was reading a lot of stuff I found really exciting, what we call primary texts, so novels, poetry, and important works of philosophy. It was great, it was all new knowledge, and I was chomping at the bit. I was reading say 80%, 70% that, and 30% critics and commentators and guides and so forth. And I felt by my second year or third year that the ratio had reversed, and suddenly I was reading endless reams of commentary, kind of parasitic commentary and commentary and commentary. I’d almost lost the contact with what had made me do the subject in the first place. So I made a kind of contract with myself to lay aside some time to read primary texts, that weren’t necessarily related to my project, but I said “I’m going to read some theory, I’m going to read some Deleuze, or I’m going to read a novel, because I want to”. It will feed back, and you’ll find, particularly with this theorist thing (which might not make sense unless you’re studying literature, but literary theory tends to be something out there, very self contained) – but I was reading stuff, and it would find its way into the thesis in the strangest ways, and create some of the most interesting (or what I hope is interesting – I’ll have to ask the examiners) bits of the thesis.

And finally, self-doubt. When myself and Karen – who’s another PhD – did a similar thing last year, the one thing we agreed on more than anything is: everyone, even those people you see slogging away at 7am, and just seem to be brilliant, they all don’t think they’re good enough at some point, probably most of the time if you’re normal. So self-doubt is absolutely normal, everyone feels it. If you don’t think you’re good enough to be doing it that’s absolutely normal, and it will not be a problem.


One thought on “Doctoral Journeys: Chris Stokes (DPhil in English)

    cathr said:
    July 5, 2011 at 22:57

    Wooow, this is really helpful, thank you, Chris! It’s so good to hear about the process others have been through. You clearly had a different (but valuable) experience when preparing for conference than during the rest of your Phd.

    Multiple sources of learning and different voices make this Blog such a useful and effective resource for all Phd researchers. Thank you to all the contributors.

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