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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


PhD Advice

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Over on Twitter, Nadine Muller has started an insightful discussion on #phdadvice, which is now being collated at The New Academic. The premise is simple: "What #phdadvice do you wish someone had given you earlier, before you had to find out for yourself?" The community of PhDs, postdocs and lecturers have been sharing tips in 140 characters - and it inspired me to reflect back on the Postgraduate Diary I kept on this blog when I was doing my PhD work (was it really three years ago?).

At risk of sounding like Baz Luhrman, if I could offer only one piece of advice, this would be it: don't let your PhD get in the way of your education. A PhD will get you...a PhD. It's all the things that you do around it that will establish you in a career, particularly in academia but no doubt elsewhere as well.

To demonstrate the basis for this advice, I am going to be shamelessly self-promotional (something which, advice to self, I'm usually rubbish at doing). I am at present and for the foreseeable future something of a portfolio postdoc. I have a number of different jobs and roles that collectively add up to (more than) full time employment. I teach at two universities, including two-thirds time at the Open University. I am currently working on a fixed-term project for Durham University's Institute of Advanced Study, preparing a report. I am writing a textbook for a distance learning university in Singapore. I am developing an impact blog, outreach podcasts and social media in Durham's English Department. I occasionally run workshops to encourage A-level students to blog as a way of enhancing their CVs.

I can trace the genesis of virtually all of these things to work I did extraneously to my PhD. Most obviously, for example, I did a lot of teaching alongside my research, which got me into the Open University. The research institute asked me to write their reports, because I had been a co-founding editor of their postgraduate journal. My work on the impact blog has emerged from the fact that I woke up one day during my PhD years and decided we were not doing enough to promote the rich array of literary events in the region - I volunteered to produce a monthly email newsletter, and now get paid for doing this, and for my other online work. I helped out on the developing website, Graduate Junction, and built up my online skills there as well as on this blog.

On the research side of things, too, my PhD - which was on postmodern fiction and cybernetics - has dropped into an incidental role in my post-PhD career (though my plans for the Summer include redeveloping a monograph proposal based upon it). Midway through my PhD, a conference came up on the legacies of Darwinism. Very tentatively, I put in a proposal to present a paper on Darwinian computer games - something which had nothing to do with my thesis, and certainly little to do with books. It was accepted, and subsequently published as a book chapter. The next year, I set off for a BSLS conference and gave a speculative and rough-hewn paper on Fredric Jameson and Grand Theft Auto. This too will shortly (if belatedly) be published as a journal article. I came into the PhD as a literature scholar, and I left with a literature PhD. But pure literature is not going to be the field that occupies me for the next five years, due to the things I explored outside the PhD. Most of my future research plans involve reading computer games in a literary kind of way, to put it simply.

Which brings me to one corollary bit of advice: enjoy it. Never again, other than as a PhD student, will you have time, freedom and opportunity to explore things that do not seem to have a direct relevance to your field of research. The sheer amount of time that you will have to read and write freely can be bewildering - and a lot of #phdadvice rightly surrounds time management. But this is a glorious chance to romp for three years in the open fields of research. It is a time - ah, time! - that you will lose and never rediscover, once the rat race of professional academia begins.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:07 pm

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