The Search for Supervision: The story of a creative writing degree holder

The Scottish Book Trust’s Agony Aunt, Miss Write, has responded to the question, ‘Will a creative writing degree help?’ Miss Write states, ‘Generally, I support anything which helps a writer to write. Creative writing degrees can be incredibly helpful and above all they allow writers to dedicate some serious time to writing. Obviously the quality of courses does vary, but careful research will help you make an informed decision, because that’s the sensible adult thing to do.’

This advice — and the rest of the piece — is sound, and I would highly recommend reading the article if you’re thinking of embarking on a creative writing degree. She concisely summarizes the benefits, but I’d like to add to her note that careful research is important, especially if you’re looking at a postgraduate qualification.

I suggest interviewing prospective Universities before applying. Don’t just look at the programmes nearest to you, those with big-name authors on the tutorial registry, or those at the top of the league tables. Look into the ethos of the programme.

For example, some programmes are very competitive and just being on the course can bring you that extra step closer to an agent or publisher. Others focus on dedicated writing time, leaving you to get on with your work, which is a blessing for those who want to complete a long-term project.

Furthermore, response to the question, ‘Can creative writing be taught?’, is instrumental in how the course is developed and run. Some courses are founded on the belief that creative writing cannot be taught; therefore, only students who would succeed with or without the degree are selected. These tutors see the creative writing programme as a mentorship. Other courses view the degree as a way to work with students who are passionate about writing but still have a way to go in their work. While other Universities see the creative writing degree as a cash cow to support other courses — — especially if you’re a high-fee paying student (i.e. overseas student).

So, how do you avoid being matched with the wrong programme? Easy. Interview the University.

Talk to current and former students. Meet with the tutors. Outline what you want from the programme, and talk to curriculum moderators about your goals. You may be thinking, ‘Oh they’re busy, and they won’t have time to meet with me.’ But, if the Head of a programme doesn’t have time to peak to a potential student, do you want to be a part of that department? Remember, Universities need students, and without you they won’t survive.

When it comes to being matched with the ‘correct’ programme of study, I learned the hard way.

I finished one University qualification and began looking for an institution to complete my next degree. I chose one that had a ‘decent’ reputation and that was nearby. At the time, it was very important that I stay in the area, so I didn’t look too far afield when applying for programmes. This was a terrible mistake as I ended up studying in a department that was riddled with internal politics, archaic notions, and apathy towards students. I received my degree but not without years of struggle. Studying for that degree at that University put a serious strain on my mental and physical health.

In the end, my qualification was achieved, and — after a bit of necessary recovery time — I began searching for a University that would host my next academic endeavour. With a bit of time and perspective on my side, my previous bad experience helped me realise how important research and scrutiny are when looking for a place to study. This time, when searching for an institution in which to be a future alumnus, I researched Universities based on specific criteria that fit with my own goals and study styles. Then — within the selected Universities — I searched for supervisors that matched my interests. Next, I emailed those supervisors to ‘pitch’ my research project. This time, I wasn’t begging someone to take me as a postgraduate research student, I was interviewing them as well.

I emailed a couple of competitive programmes at Universities that are very high ranked, and I expected my emails to be ignored. In the back of my mind, ‘I thought they could choose anyone. I’m sure they’re inundated with proposals.’ However, I sent the pitches anyway, thinking ‘sending an email won’t hurt’. But, instead of being ignored, they responded immediately and were incredibly helpful.

One potential supervisor helped me rework my proposal, and even provided me with feedback based on the Admissions report when I didn’t get a place. Another institution replied to my email by stating that he wouldn’t be the best person to supervise me, but he had passed my proposal along to a colleague. Then, so that I wouldn’t go through the laborious task of applying and not getting into the programme, he brought my proposal to the departmental Admissions board to get an informal ‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ before beginning the paperwork. Both these universities had the ‘pick of the litter’, but they understand that the vetting process works both ways, and they went out of their way to help.

I wasn’t admitted into either programme, but the feedback I received for both indicated my research was swerving into a different discipline, and — without a first degree in that discipline — they could not admit me. This information was extremely valuable; so I took it, reworked my proposal, and pitched it to other institutions.

During this second round of searching, one University immediately stood out as a place I did not want to study. This University replied to my ‘pitch’ email stating that they don’t accept pre-application contact from prospective students. I was to apply to the programme, and they would then match me with a supervisor if I was offered a place. I was to have no say in who I get as a supervisor. That University was immediately scratched from my list of potential places to study, despite its excellent reputation and convenient proximity to where I live.

After taking a year to search for the right university and the best supervisor for me, I found one. I am now working towards my PhD in creative writing, and I couldn’t be happier with the time I have spent so far as a PGR (postgraduate researcher) at the University of Surrey. Yes, it’s early days, but — because I’ve learned from my mistakes — one worry I won’t have is the incompatibility trap.

Deciding if you want to study for a creative writing degree is the first step. If the answer is ‘yes’, the next step is equally important. Finding that place and those people who will make the experience perfect just takes a little time and a patience. But once you’ve found it, you won’t regret your decision.

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