Four Things I Learned from my PhD Supervisor

I defended my PhD thesis at the University of Toronto in August of 2001, under the supervision of a renowned literary scholar and theorist. Linda Hutcheon has written about a dozen books, scores of articles, is respected by her peers, adored by students, and is one of the best examples of a successful writer-teacher you can find.

In the fall of 2000, I was in the fifth year of my doctorate, and there was no end in sight. Even though I was applying for jobs and postdocs, deep down I didn’t really believe I would ever finish my dissertation. Then, in January of 2001, I learned I had won a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and had twelve weeks to submit a finished thesis, or lose the fellowship.

In those twelve weeks, I learned some of my most important lessons about writing. Four of these came from Linda.

1) It’s not supposed to be easy: One day I showed up at Linda’s door, out of breath and exhausted. “This is hard!” I complained, plopping myself down in a chair opposite her desk. “Julija,” she replied. “It’s a PhD. It’s not supposed to be easy.” Neither is writing books. And it’s worth doing, in part, because it is hard.

2) Enough is enough: The key to finishing my dissertation was to set limits. When I told Linda that I thought I would have to write a whole chapter on the concept of the “other,” she shook her head and told me no. This was beyond the scope of my dissertation, and would only throw me off track. Only once I accepted that there were things that had to fall by the wayside could I actually finish my dissertation. And only once I’d allowed the reality of the text I’d written to replace the fantasy of the text I’d dreamed of could I move on to the next thing.

3) It’s not supposed to be torture: During those twelve weeks of intense writing, I had to read a lot. Some of this was the kind of reading I love (manuscripts, novels), but some of it was reading I felt I had to do. One highly theoretical book defeated and frustrated me to the point of tears. In my next meeting with Linda, I confessed this, and promised to keep trying to work through the text until I got it. She looked at me with a grin, and said, “Julija, if a book makes you cry, put it down, and for goodness sake, read something else!” Writing isn’t supposed to be easy, but it should be rewarding and meaningful. I learned to steer myself in directions that fed me.

4) Onward!: Every time I finished a chapter of the dissertation, I would hand it off to Linda to read. After marking it up and offering suggestions throughout, she would write a single word on the bottom of the last page: “Onward!” The lesson I’ve kept from that word: don’t rest on your laurels, don’t get too self-contented, don’t stop for too long, always look forward and think about what comes next.

[Photo by mlahtinen]

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4 Replies to “Four Things I Learned from my PhD Supervisor”

  1. Something I learned from writing my Master’s thesis (which is completely different from a PhD dissertation, I know) is that the most important thing is the get it done, and the second most important thing is to get it done well. If you don’t get it done, what’s the point?

    I’ve started bringing this lesson to my fiction writing. For about three years now, I’ve been writing short stories and children’s picture book manuscripts just in the goal of learning the form. But lately I’ve been feeling like, what’s the point if I don’t actually *do* anything with these manuscripts (i.e. if I don’t “finish”)? This has lead me to start submitting to competitions and magazines, and has also prompted me to start a manuscript for a novel in stories.

  2. Hmmm. Both your post and Sarah’s comment leave me wondering if perhaps I set myself up backwards. During my Master’s thesis (particularly during the research phase), I fought tooth and nail to ‘get it done well’. The Faculty advice was ‘it’s just a Master’s thesis’, but my response was always, ‘perhaps, but it’s *mine*’. So, I took a lot of extra time, wrote my wrists off, and did it my way (and published from it, and it was widely used and, and, and, actually it DID change the world, a little, and so I felt vindicated). But, now I wonder if this insistence on doing it *my* way (with my peculiar hybrid style, my disregard for convention, etc) is part of what has stalled me in my creative writing. There is a real confidence required to insist on *mine*.

    ‘It’s not supposed to be easy’… I love that.

  3. Munju, I think there are lots of ways to think about and experience the process of coming to writing. There are grad students who produce amazing, beautiful, publishable dissertations and theses. (It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that you were one of those!)

    My dissertation was fine, but a dissertation nonetheless. And even though it wasn’t a groundbreaking book, the process of writing and finishing it set me up for the next phase — what Sarah calls the phase of “doing it well” — of writing bigger and better books.

    What has traditionally paralyzed me is not the insistence on doing it my way, but a creeping suspicion that I’m not doing it right, that my instincts are wrong, that I haven’t read enough, that what I have to say isn’t at all interesting, that my ideas are corny, and that I write the wrong kinds of texts. I wasted a lot of time on my second book (on Simaite), for example, trying to write a “straight” biography. Only after my publisher looked at me and said “Why would you want to do that when you’re capable of so much more?” did I smarten up and stop shushing myself. Finally, things started coming together.

    Part of what finishing the diss taught me was that I could do it my way (i.e. reject the books that made my head hurt, and refuse to enter abstract debates that I had no interest in) and still succeed.

    Maybe we’re actually talking about the same thing, except that you found your ground early and defended it, whereas I had to be coaxed onto mine.

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