On Pretending to be in a PhD (pt. 2)

003_22AIn my 400th blog post I noted that in 2011 I began pretending I was in a PhD. It is doubtless an odd thing to say, though it has been normal for me for so long I didn’t even think about it! One of the readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia asked me about it. So here is my story of how pretending to be a PhD student led to my place in a (real!) doctoral program.

Most C.S. Lewis scholars come from the world of English literature—as critics, theorists, literary historians, archivists, biographers, or, occasionally, experts in comparative literature. I was, by contrast, a theologian rooted in biblical studies. I decided not to get hung up on whatever deficits I might possess. Biblical studies is a discipline that combines theology with literary studies. This interdiciplinarity is exactly what is needed in C.S. Lewis studies, so I dove in, trusting I would find confederates along the way (which I did).

Among all the great things I knew I could learn, I had one main goal: get into a PhD program. Once in the program, the school’s community and my relationship with my supervisor would help shape the project as it evolved. So I began the project of getting into a PhD.

C.S. Lewis at his deskI did something perhaps a little unusual. In the summer of 2011 I began to pretend that I was already in a PhD program. I had already written a lengthy masters thesis (200+ pages), and I had taught more than 40 undergraduate classes. My PhD program would, essentially, be the project of writing a PhD dissertation and building a network. That, I decided, was something I could begin before I got into an actual program. So, almost exactly 4 years ago today, I woke up and began my fake PhD.

Here is how I approached my pretend PhD program:

  1. Our Home: This may seem an unlikely place to start, but it was key to everything. My wife and I agreed that working toward a PhD was important, so we made a number of family adjustments. We reduced our budget so I could work less and we could begin saving money. We reconfigured our family rhythms, and said “no” to a number of very cool opportunities.
    All of this was done so that I could take as little work as needed for our household to stay afloat. If I ever finish this PhD thesis, it will be because I have an amazing partner who trusts that I am doing something essential. Except for painting a few houses, which I can do with an audiobook in my earbuds, all of my work since 2011 has either been academic or in the field of education—things that overlap with what I am doing.
    Those who underestimate the mutual impact of academics and family with fail in one or the other–or both.
  2. Work Schedule: Once I was able to trim up the amount of work I was doing outside of the home, the first thing I did was set a demanding work schedule.
    On an ideal day I wake up at 6:00am and spend an hour at my desk. I am with the family from 7-8, doing breakfast and getting everyone out of the house. I work until suppertime doing the harder reading and writing that requires quiet. Evenings are set aside for lighter reading, blogging, and fiction writing.
    Very often I fail–sometimes because of other work or because family things pop up. This whole program falls apart in the summer and at the beginning and end of term. If I am teaching or consulting in education, I get a lot less done. But in the last 4 years I have had two 10-month periods where I could work ¾ time or more on research. I have also had an 8-month period where I only had a couple of hours a day for my own work. Flexibility is key, but flexibility depends upon the knowledge that I can make great use of a long day of independent study.
  3. Reading Schedule: Key to a PhD is a terrifyingly demanding reading schedule. At first I was reading in a scattered way, picking up things as they come. Then one day I decided to read C.S. Lewis chronologically. This meant starting again and reading, as much as possible, the things that he wrote before looking at what others say about him.
    I paced my reading schedule to Lewis’ letters, reading books and essays as they appear. Sometimes I end up zooming through his letters; sometimes I only read a couple of letters a day. For me this has been an excellent way to get a sense of my subject.
    I have interrupted this schedule twice as I wrote papers that required fairly intense work. Again, a flexible program based on rigid principles has paid off for me. As a result, I read 100 books a year, and about as many articles, even though I work outside the home about 25-30 hours per week. I also listen to a dozen or so iTunesU classes or other lecture series. I know that this will have to intensify further at some point, but it is all I can handle while working.
  4. JBS Haldane possible worldsConnections and Focus: Not all readers will see how the threads of my work connect. That’s okay. I have allowed the edges of my work to look somewhat undisciplined. This allows me to hunt down ideas that I think are essential. Recently, I began researching the 16th. The last two years I have been working on the King Arthur legends and exploring the work of Charles Williams. I have kept theory on fantasy literature at my left hand, and will be diving deeper into George MacDonald and Christology over the next year. I have been slowly stabilizing myself in the ever-moving field of feminist criticism, and will continue to do so.
    These things sound widely disparate, but they all focus around the worldview-soaked imaginative literature of some of our most rooted writers (Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Ursula K. LeGuin, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, etc.). This rootedness gives them the ability to build authentic worlds with engaging narratives that have the power to speak into culture today.
    With this central focus, I allow connections to lead me where they must.
  5. 400th post image and headerBlogging: Almost immediately I began blogging the results of my reading. I have just hit 400 blogs. Of those about 300 have emerged from my research, reading, and imaginative writing. This blog is moderately successful, with 4000 people on the blogrolls and about 100,000 views a year. I know what I could do to make this a really popular blog, but I don’t want to do (all of) that. For me, the blog has value as a place where I can let ideas play. I have never dumbed anything down on here, and I know I lose readers for it. On the upside, the criticism I receive, even when painful, is truly helpful.
    Each week I blog one thing that comes out of my reading, and one small essay that captures an idea I’m struggling with. I also keep Fridays open to feature a friend’s blog or reblog something that I’m really jonesed about. Blogging won’t work for every academic, but it is important for me—especially when I’m not in the classroom a lot. I suspect that social networking will be key to academic CVs of the future.
  6. Social-Networking-SitesDigital Networks: Out of my blogging has emerged a growing sacred circles of friends and critics. Elsewhere I have thanked those who have formed me most deeply, and they form the most significant of my digital networks. This is an area where I could do better—spending time on the listserves and facebook reading groups. I simply haven’t the time, unfortunately.
  7. Conferences: This has been hit and miss for me. I presented at a Canadian humanities scholars conference in May 2012. The response was pretty lame, really. But I followed that with a presentation at a combined C.S. Lewis & Inklings conference in Taylor, IN in June 2012. I presented the paper, “The Pedagogical Value of The Screwtape Letters for a New Generation,” which won a prize at the conference.
    This conference led me to some of the most important Lewisian friendships I have made. It also gave me a sense of the field I was entering, and showed me some places where I could contribute.
    My presentation at Mythcon last year was equally as important, and I am sorry to miss it this year. I presented in a regional conference on the anniversary of Lewis’ death. I also gave a paper at the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture in Leuven, Belgium. I hope to return to next year’s ISRLC conference at the University of Glasgow. We’ll see. The problem with being an independent scholar is that funds are always so very low.
  8. Marion Wade Center frontArchive Work: This will not be relevant to many hopeful academics. One of the strengths of the field of emerging Inklings academics is their ability to integrate work in archives with relevant biography or criticism. There is also a rush right now to get the great things that are hidden in archives around the world into the hands of readers and researchers. And in academics, publication is king.
    So when I knew I was going to be in the Midwest in June 2012, I went out of my way to go to the Marion E. Wade Center—the premiere archive for the Inklings on this continent. I went with a project in mind, and soon discovered that it was lame. Rather than give up, I kept digging, and found something absolutely amazing. Within 8 months I had had a publication of this material accepted by Oxford’s Notes & Queries.
    Since then I have returned to the Wade twice. I have also visited:

These visits have shaped my career in unpredictable ways.

  1. Paper Publication: When I was in an interview for my PhD placement, one of the professors said, “Your academic CV is very strong.” Part of that is my experience teaching. But before I applied for a PhD I had:
    1. Several academic book reviews;
    2. A number of conference presentations;
    3. A successful blogging schedule;
    4. An archive publication; and
    5. Two peer-reviewed papers.

Strictly speaking, you do not need papers to get into a PhD. But as academics is shaped by peer-review publication, I knew it was something I could do on the way to becoming a registered student. It worked.

This was my strategy to landing a place in a PhD where I could study C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in an interdisciplinary approach that combined theology, literature, and cultural criticism.

I should note that as I began my fake PhD I did not have a research project in mind (see part 1 here where I talk about it). As I went, ideas emerged and I would test them out through research and writing. Out of my archive work a great PhD proposal came about. In the first two years of my PhD, that proposal has refined and evolved, and now I am fairly focussed, working on a Spiritual Theology of C.S. Lewis. Early on I decided not to fret over what my exact project would be, and I am glad.

This is what the Oxford University Master of Arts robe and hood looks like, along with an illustration of how it is worn and a description below from the book: Venables, D. R. and Clifford, R. E. Academic Dress: Of The University Of Oxford. Oxford : Thomas-Photos, 1985. The Wade Center owns both the robes and hoods of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis. The robe featured in this display belonged to Lewis.Will doing a pretend PhD work for you? I don’t know. But it paid off for me in these ways:

  1. I got to test how combining my life as a student and as a worker would play out for my family. This is still the hardest part of doing academic work, so I’m glad I knew this going in.
  2. I had a great application ready for graduate school. My project was well-founded and my academic CV was strong. My years as a fake PhD student were essential.
  3. I was able to begin my networking early. At some point I am going to need to call on colleagues for a teaching position, a book project, a reference, or a conference. I’m glad I began early.
  4. I was well into a reading project before the PhD began, saving a lot of time (and, ultimately, tuition).
  5. I am able to be patient on the slow process of academic publishing. It takes 1-3 years to move a publication through submission, editorial review, peer-review, editing, and print. Because I started early, I will have a good CV by the time I am finished the PhD and looking for a job.
  6. I am extrinsically motivated. Giving myself goals and challenges has meant that I am much more productive than I might have been if I hadn’t taken the risk early.

Has anyone else tried this project? I would love to hear of your experiences or answer any questions.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to On Pretending to be in a PhD (pt. 2)

  1. Kerry says:

    So many years of hard work. While it may not always feel like it, you are doing great! I as very proud of you! ..and someday you will be writing your follow-up blog ‘On finishing a Ph.D’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. paulfford says:

    Brenton, our careers are not too dissimilar. After writing my MA thesis on Lewis’s eschatology, I wrote my spiritual theology Ph.D. dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California) on “C. S. Lewis: Ecumenical Spiritual Director: A Study of His Experience and Theology of Prayer and Discernment in the Process of Becoming a Self” (1987). I’d be happy to help you with yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. robstroud says:

    “For me, the blog has value as a place where I can let ideas play. I have never dumbed anything down on here, and I know I lose readers for it.”
    Presenting readers with matters of substance will invariably cause those who are looking for something less filling to graze elsewhere. Count me among those who appreciate the way you offer ideas worth “chewing” on.

    Your academic pilgrimage is fascinating. My own path has been more traditional. I have completely nearly all of my coursework, however, and hope to complete the dissertation and oral defense in time to graduate with my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) next May.

    Keep up the great work. And blessings with your studies, career, and (most importantly) your family.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There’s no way to leave a photo on here is there? – of my little grandkids, the first time they saw The Wardrobe at Wade, climbing in (and, hopefully, through . . . !!!! they are true believers!!). They also invented a Wheel of Fortune game based on Narnia facts – do you think that perhaps, somewhere, C.S. smiles?! Was it the imagination, the pathos, the humanity? In more than one dark hour, he was simply “my best friend”. A Grief Observed. Real Presence. He answered every child’s letters. Inspired my work as a child trauma psychologist and global humanitarian, — amazing to see the next two generations far more knowledgeable and just as blessed. As a professor, I’d say you’ve way overshot admission to a doctoral program (and it may well constrain you!) – rather, you’re ensuring you’ll be on faculty as a post-doc !! Good for you!!


    • That’s pretty cool, all of it. I would love to hear your story in write up of how Lewis had that sort of influence through your work–a guest blog perhaps? If so, then pics are key!
      And thanks for the academic encouragement. I was a little heavy on the front end, but given that many think that CS Lewis and fantasy lit is not de rigeur in academia, being overly strong is better than the opposite.
      And I have been wondering lots about what comes after.


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