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Agonising over your Creative Writing PhD proposal?

One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask  you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits of the normal way of doing things you need to  mutate, and how.

So, for what it's worth, this is what I said to someone who asked me about their PhD proposal. I won't pretend that it's The Answer: all I know is that mine did get me onto my course, and, indeed, out the other end. But, as I was discussing in that earlier post, different universities have different regulations, and different departments have different interests, and that's before we've started worrying about how it works in Australia, or the US, or anywhere else. So do read what follows with that in mind. But I hope gives you an idea of what to think about.

When you're glaring at that blank paper or online form and panicking, I suggest that your first port of call is the coffee pot, your second any notes the form has about what you should cover, and your third the Creative Writing department you’re applying to. Ask to speak to your potential supervisor or someone else who supervises PhDs, because they’ll know what they want to see in a proposal, and should be willing to offer some guidelines. They do actually want good, coherent proposals, after all, so they can work out which of those are by good students who will finish the course. It’s in their interests to be helpful.

The next thing to do is to look at the regulations for the CW PhD itself, and think of them as a set of questions. How will you demonstrate the things they’re saying the PhD should have? It's a bit like when you apply for a job by reading what the spec is, and shape your CV  and interview so as to explain just why you fulfil each part of it so well. For anything you really don't, then say something about how you'll set about filling that gap. And don't forget that at least some of the people assessing your application won't be writers,: try to make sure that you explain what you plan in terms which make academic sense to - say - a historian and a German Literature specialist.


  • What will the creative piece be, and how will you set about writing it?
  • Will it need substantial research, and how might you set about that?
  • How will you reflect on your writing of it?
  • What other creative writing will you explore and why?
  • What other critical writing will you explore and why?
  • What theory might be useful to you, as a reflective creative practitioner (it's worth trying to get a few academic buzz-words in) and why?
  • For each of these three sources - creative, critical, theoretical - which will inform your creative piece, which your critical work, and which is relevant to your work on both?
  • What do you hope to end up with, in terms of a discussion and conclusion which hasn't been made before?

Then check that it's clear how your plans meet the criteria in the regs:  for example "the critical and theoretical field associated with your genre" or any other such phrase?

Also, I'd suggest that being reasonably (if provisionally) clear about what you'll read and research makes it clear, by implication, how you're going to keep things manageable. One of the things which makes PhD students flounder most often is when the initial idea was simply too big, and too amorphous. Those deciding about your application will be thinking, first and last, "Will s/he finish?" How you describe your project should imply where the boundaries of it are.

You also need a bibliography, and that's another important element: many academics get their first, quick sense of how good any student is by looking at the length of the bibliography and what kind of books are in it. Mine had about sixteen references for a 2,300 words statement, and it wasn't any too many.

You need to cover all those bases, but the CW PhD does have one thing in common with the others:  it should all take place under the arc of the question you hope to explore. By definition a PhD has to say something original but, luckily a creative piece is original by definition: it is something that didn't exist before. But you should also be setting yourself up to say something in the commentary or exegisis/essay-type-piece which presents genuinely new understanding. That might be writing about a writer or an issue which has never been written about coherently before, or it might be by providing a new insight into stuff which has been written about, but not in the way you're going to.

But you don't have to know the answer now - finding that is what writing the PhD is all about - and it doesn't have to be a Yes Or No. Your question may be the more open sort of "What's going on when...?" (mine was), but it still needs to be well-defined and specific. It can be helpful to think in terms of Richard Sennet's idea of Problem Finding: you need to have (provisionally) found your problem, but not answered it.

Don’t be too daunted, though. You aren’t locked into what you say you want to do – everyone knows PhDs evolve and change as you work on them. The right problem to base your PhD on may not be the one you first thought it would be at all. The only thing about my proposal that stayed the same was the novel – and I have friends whose creative piece changed hugely too. The first few meetings with your supervisor will be all about thrashing out what you're actually planning to do.

Just to pull it together: the main thing your proposal needs to demonstrate is that you DO have

  • a huge and thought-through enthusiasm for a project,
  • a clear plan of action which will mean you've a good chance of not getting too lost along the way, and
  • a goal of creating a coherent piece of critical as well as creative writing at the end.