My PhD research was about commissioned collaborative texts and other artistic works, and one of the key words that shaped my argument was ‘compromise’.
In the plays, poems, films and songs that the artists I studied created, there were competing priorities. One artist’s artistic vision, the other artists they worked with visions, what they had budget for, what the deadline was, what their medium could do, and what someone would pay for. There were limits on whether your colleagues were efficient or tended to go on multi-day drinking benders and hide in their cottage in Wales and pretend not to read your letters (to draw on a real example). There were the limits of wartime between 1939 and 1945. There were political and strategic and social and emotional priorities in the commissions, which were sometimes ‘I love your work, here’s 100 pounds go write me something’ and sometimes ‘the US has now entered the war as an ally, please write a 2.5hour radio opera about Christopher Columbus’.
These compromises however, were all done with the understanding that they were the realistic accomodations between practical and artistic limitations which, together, are needed to make something into a performance and not just an idea. They also understood that the limitations could be beneficial, producing new and innovative works, rather than sprawling self-indulgent ego-fests. So we see in the meeting notes of the Arts Council commissioning committee that they were willing to accomodate the song about a dying swan in the cycle for the Queen’s Coronation, even though what they’d had in mind had been, shall we say, a little more celebratory.
Moreover, these compromises often made space for some surprising directions in the work. The radio opera about Columbus was not a panegyric to the explorer, but described him as a brutal, gold-hungry character who was a little bit like Mussolini (this written in 1942, right in the middle of the war!). Columbus’ terrible treatment of Native peoples was right there in the middle of the opera, that was broadcast as a flagship event on the BBC. Just because you are compromising doesn’t make your work compromised.
One of the other things that these artists did, was to merge the avant-garde innovations of modernism with traditional forms–they were trying to do new things in well-known genres. So they would take a very set, very formal, very restrictive style of art, and then bring in new elements to make it new and challenging.
(They also went and invented new forms for new genres: ever wondered why documentary films are often so poetic? A lot of the first documentary script writers were poets!)
So what does this have to do with a PhD thesis?
Well, a PhD thesis is also a commissioned collaborative text. An institution (like a faculty, or lab, or funding body) approves your proposal and expects you to produce a work that complies with all their guidelines by their deadline. They may even commission you directly with funding. In writing the text, you are expected to collaborate with a range of other contributors, including your supervisor or committees. You may also collaborate with co-authors, journal editors, reviewers and examiners.
A PhD is often inspired by a particular vision–either your own passion project or a passion project of a more senior researcher. When you pitched the thesis to funders and your faculty, the project was going to be a sweeping, world-changing, life-changing research idea that would proceed without any hitches.
And then you have to deal with real life. You never have enough funding, you never have enough time, your research doesn’t always go to plan, you have to narrow your scope, you don’t agree with all your collaborators, other people run behind, equipment breaks and plagues break out.
When you start out, 3.5 years (FTE) and 80,000 words seems like all the time and space in the world. By the time you finish, you realise that you will probably need an extension or two and you are going to have to ditch a whole lot of your potential ideas because there just isn’t room. (I struggled to squeeze everything into 100,000 words even after I cut out two whole other genres of vocal music.)
What’s more, as you near the end, you and your committees will have to be pragmatic about the difference between what they commissioned and what is going to be possible. This is normal–you should expect them to be supportive, but it’s also a bit disappointing every single time.
Even though a PhD thesis is often quite a restrictive genre, that doesn’t stop you being original within the structure. There is room for innovation, even in the least artistic theses. You may need to develop a new way to display your data, or propose a new method or theory. You may need to create or repurpose words to explain your new concepts. As we adjust to the multiple forms of new portfolio thesis, people are innovating all the time about how to demonstrate the sections make a cohesive work.
Finally, even though a thesis is vetted multiple times, by funding bodies, internal and external progress panels and examiners, by your peers at conferences and in publications… a PhD is also understood to be a place where you should be able to stick to your values. PhD theses have room for you to disagree with other scholars’s findings and approaches. Theses have room not only for the ethics of the ethics committee, but your personal ethics, or the ethics of your communities. Use that space in a thesis to put forward your argument about how the world is, or how the world should be.
Firth, Katherine. “The MacNeices and their circles: poets and composers in collaboration on art song, 1939-54.” PhD diss., Oxford Brookes University, 2008.
‘“Bright flower breaks from charnel bough”: The arts of peace and the 1953 Coronation’, in The Finzi Journal (March, 2014), 90-118.
Your PhD Survival Guide: Planning, Writing and Succeeding in your Final Year, Katherine Firth, Liam Connell and Peta Freestone (London: Routledge, 2020)