PhDs: Creative W̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶

I almost went to college to study art. I even interviewed for a place. I had a portfolio and everything. That was more than a decade ago and honestly, I can’t even remember if I got in. But I didn’t go. Things changed, life took a drastic turn, and I wanted to leave everything behind. And so I did. I ended up at university, pursuing another passion of mine: archaeology; history, anthropology.

I have never strayed that far from art. It’s always been there, in my life. But recently, it’s been a lot more… present.

You may have noticed (if you follow this blog, or me, elsewhere on social media) that in the past few months there have been a lot more posts about sketches, doodles, paintings, and uhh… other endeavours. I have become semi-obsessed with the creation of anything and everything that enters my mind. My house is full of pencils and pens. There are stacks of paper and boxes of paints. My kitchen table covered in pencil shavings and eraser rubbings. Paintbrushes and dishes of water frequent the draining board. Behind the stairs are baskets full of art supplies and scrap paper drafts. And I think that I’ve finally figured out why.

I am writing my PhD.

Up until a few months ago, when I began seriously writing up my thesis (yes, PhD supervisor, if you are reading this, I am actually writing, I swear), my PhD studies were filled with creativity. I was absorbing lots of fascinating research almost every day, developing new methods for investigating past populations, playing with facts and figures from history to try and solve a problem – and it worked (sort of). I discovered that I had results, and by interpreting them within an archaeological context, they actually meant something. Oh, the elation. It was the peak of my PhD creation! But then I had to start writing it down.

It’s probably a bit harsh of me to say above that the creativity stopped when I started writing, because of course writing is its own art form (trust me, it is, and one that I am struggling with at the moment). It’s different though. In the case of my PhD: at this point, I already know what I’m going to say. So now, it’s just* writing it down. This change in either the type or amount of creativity needed is enough, that for me at least, I need another outlet. And there follows my return to art.

I have been wandering around a bit though. There have been archaeological doodles, paintings of animals, jewellery based on TV documentaries and while it is gloriously fulfilling, I do feel like I need a bit of direction. Sometimes the freedom to create whatever you want can become a little overwhelming.

Which brings me back to my thesis.

If you’ve seen my plague poster or watched my presentation from the TAG conference, you may know that I’ve been trying to do academia a little differently (admittedly, this is the same as a lot of people). Not a lot different, just a little, but hopefully enough that it makes a… well, a difference.

I would love to create a PhD thesis that accurately reflects my position on the dissemination of academic research. To me, this means making it accessible, which fundamentally comes down to it not being one million overly complex words that follow increasingly Inception-like narratives. I’m working on this. But I also think that research should reflect the personality of the individuals involved. And unfortunately it is there that the current go-to PhD thesis doesn’t do it for me.

Therefore, I thought it would be wonderful to create an illustrated thesis. There are academics out there who have done – and are doing – this, to a much more intense extent than what I am proposing. Aside from the fact that I have already written significant portions of my thesis (yes, seriously, supervisor) I do think that my particular topic will benefit from some of the more traditional thesis elements (e.g. format, text, figures, etc).

So what am I proposing? I am proposing a subject-appropriate artistic element to my final thesis:


If you don’t know what that is – then get off this blog right now… AND GO LEARN ALL ABOUT THE AWESOMENESS THAT IS MEDIEVAL MARGINALIA!

I do intend to try and make this happen and so after arriving at this idea, uhh… last night (although I think it’s been brewing for a while) I made a little sketch.


Click to embiggen.

I imagine something like this heading up each of my thesis chapters and then I can include proper marginalia (that’s actually, you know, in the margins) throughout the thesis. It is important to me that this adds something to the thesis though and since I mean other than adorable medieval-style doodles, I’d aim to use this marginalia to emphasise certain points, illustrate specific ideas, or other generally useful things.

The next step for me (other than, umm, writing my thesis) is to ink that sketch and paint it, so I can get a more complete idea of the final effort required (and whether it looks like something I’d want to put into the final result of three plus years of academic blood, sweat, and tears, that… you know, a whole three people are going to read). In the meantime, I would really like to know what other people think of this potentially viva-failing (or maybe viva-winning) idea.

If nothing else, it’ll give me a creative distraction that might just keep me on topic while I’m writing up…

*Ha, if only it were that easy.

14 responses to “PhDs: Creative W̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶

  1. I wonder how many scientists there are out there that almost studied art? I did an Art Foundation course and almost when to university to study Textile design. I really like your idea of including creativity in your thesis! I try to include as many photos as I can in my work, maybe I can sneak some drawings in there too 😉

    • Thanks for your comment. After I read it I asked on Twitter how many people either studies art or almost did, but are now in some kind of science/research/academia and I was really surprised by the response. I definitely think there is more room for blending the two things together!

  2. Found your post via Twitter, and just had to comment. I’m currently writing my Masters dissertation about marginalia in fourteenth-century devotional manuscripts (specifically focusing on the recurrent ape), and purely for that reason, I think that incorporating marginalia into your PhD would be a brilliant idea. If I had an inch of artistic talent, I would do the same with my dissertation (even if only for my own amusement and that of my supervisor and friends).

    But on a broader level, I agree that there should be an element of creativity allowed (even encouraged) in a PhD thesis. The only reason that I can sort-of see why such creativity is not permitted or encouraged enough is that it makes the grading and ranking process far more complex than it already is – but frankly, by the time one gets to a PhD level, work should be assessed on its own merits. Academic work, I believe, should be accessible and engaging, and encouraging a greater range of expression is important in achieving that end.

    Also, marginalia is awesome, and I wholeheartedly agree with the first response that your drawing is brilliant.

    • Thank you for that very thoughtful comment.

      I agree that grading works that include different creative elements may make things more complex. I suppose with my thesis, I imagine the marginalia will be extra – as all of the ‘traditional’ academic content will still be there.

      But surely there is a precedent for the more extreme versions of creatively presented academic research? They do exist, so someone must have marked them. Hmm…

      And yes, marginalia is awesome! I’m glad we agree. *goes to check out monkeys* 😀

  3. Reblogged this on Bliss is a steaming mug of coffee and a paperback novel… and commented:
    I’m not normally in the habit of sharing posts, but I think that this is a fantastic idea. If I had an inch of artistic talent, I would incorporate some marginalia into my own dissertation – if for no other reason than to amuse myself, my supervisor, and my friends! (Yes, the things that I do for amusement! 😛 )

  4. Sounds wonderful! Art was my other great passion, and to that end I did an illustration for the front cover of my undergrad dissertation. But I love your idea much more!

  5. This is fantastic! As a random anonymous PhD student at the same stage as you, I wish I were talented enough to do my own marginalia – the closest I can get is artefact illustration, which, given the amount of convention attached isn’t always the most creative of processes. For what it’s worth though, I don’t think you could possibly be penalised for the marginalia, and I do know an archaeobotanist friend who illustrated her title pages with tiny phytolith illustrations, and even used these as bullet points. Hooray for creativity!

  6. I was so excited to read this, because I’m working on a zoology PhD that’s illustrated with etchings that I made during my research – my aim is to mesh the art making and science making processes together and see if something new comes out of it. I’ve been looking for other people’s PhDs that taken an even remotely similar approach, and yours is the first I’ve heard of – it sounds great & I’d love to see the finished product.

  7. deviation from the standard written format for a written dissertation was the subject of a forum called #Remixthediss for remix the dissertation.
    One participant in the forum produced his dissertation in comics form. this person has since been hired at the University of Calgary and attended a conference in December 2014 in Sweden in genres of scholarly knowledge production #gskp. Harvard University Press will print the dissertation in comics form in March of 2015.
    The conference in Sweden suggests that the Academy welcomes and is exploring new forms of scholarly exchange beyond the printed word or image. At the level of a doctoral researcher, how doctoral programs will support this new genres of scholarly production and grade it is a work in progress.
    If you want to argue with your supervisor for the use of illustration in your dissertation, the genres of scholarly knowledge production and comics dissertation which was picked up by Harvard would be fodder. The committee for the comics dissertation should publish insights into how to grade a dissertation in comics form, but your supervisor could just ask them for guidelines or considerations.

  8. Marginalia = awesome.

    But…I want to know how you think that these drawings will make the thesis more accessible. Who will see the thesis in this form, just the examiners? Are they an audience that requires your doctoral-level research to be made more accessible?

    • I intend to make my thesis available online post-viva corrections. Therefore, any individual who read it (or skimmed it) would see the marginalia. I would hope that it would keep people interested or perhaps highlight key points. But I am open to other people’s thoughts on the matter!

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