As a plethora of PhD comics available for browsing will show, there are common themes that PhD candidates express about the thesis research and writing process. Largely, I am sure I don’t have to inform anyone, these focus on the anxiety that such an overwhelmingly massive undertaking is a task to which the candidate is just not fully equipped. There’s the fear you have no idea what you’re talking about and the equal measures of quiet resentment, admiration and suspicion with which you regard more confident peers; the inability to discipline yourself when left to your own devices; the sense that you have never really done enough work.

PhD Comics 1

These issues seem universal. Or at least, that’s what I gather from what other people have said. Maybe they’re just trying to make me feel better. Despite some broad commonalities, however, PhD experiences are likely to be totally different from one to the next. Even between those researching a single medium such as television, the triumphs and failings that go along with each topic, method, archive or individual circumstance will be so totally unique that it is often hard to relate to specific experiences amongst PhD candidates. So, while I wish to talk about what I have found to be unique to my PhD experience, that isn’t to say I think it has been any more unique than anyone else’s – these are just a few elements that make me feel like the way I view my research is different to the way that other PhD researchers might view theirs. And by “research” I mean “crippling anxieties”.

I started my PhD in January of 2012, which makes me just over a year and a half in. I’m studying creativity and comedy production at Channel 4, looking at government legislation and research interviews to analyse discourses that underpin the genre itself and popular culture more broadly. What is somewhat unusual is that my thesis is attached to a three year, AHRC funded research project called Make Me Laugh, conducted by a principle investigator and an associate researcher. The completion of my PhD was one of the academic aims of the project and a stipulation of its funding. As a result, I too am funded and that is an element of my experience about which I have only nice things to say. But, surrounded by PhD candidates studying a topic, a method and mode analysis of their own design, there are some notable differences between the perspective I have on the project I have come to work on and the PhD I first proposed which was entirely of my own design.

Firstly, the project I am working on now wasn’t my idea at all. The PI, who is also my supervisor, wrote the proposal for the project, including what the PhD should aim to achieve. Applying for the candidacy, it was my job to show how I would approach such a proposal and what research skills I would bring to the project. I applied in a way that someone might apply for a job, or a PhD graduate might apply for a post doctoral research position – being interviewed over the phone, in an apron, while I stood in the kitchen of the bar I was working in, letting the fried onions burn. The proposal to which I was applying was not my “brainchild” nor was it my “baby”; it was, at least to begin with, someone else’s. I just had to show I could look after it and take it in the right direction/not let it starve/not drop it on its head/clean up after it when it makes a mess.

(NB: While this did at first rock my confidence in the ownership department, it also made me overly-confident when having to justify the project: “What? It’s got funding and a proper academic came up with it, what else do you need? Transfer Schmansfer…”).

Secondly, my background isn’t strictly in the field in which I’m currently researching. Though I had experience studying comedy and boundless enthusiasm for the subject, my previous areas of interest have been in film, in the Hollywood film text specifically and in representations of gender. This project is all about British telly and research into the industry itself, and what did I know about that? (See: imposter syndrome).

PhD Comic 2

Thirdly, I started in January while everyone else in my school was either six months behind me or six months ahead of me. It seems like it shouldn’t matter, but it does. Or at least for me it did. I had come from a job running a bar, spending forty hours a week in a social environment where talking to people was compulsory and there was always a chance to share problems about work. I knew I was doing a good job so long as the beer didn’t run out and no one ended up punching anyone. But now there were all these words that everyone else had gotten to know over the last six months that were totally new to me. And no one else thought it was funny that “A viva” is both your final panel for a PhD and a Norwich based insurance company. At a time when I was most bemused about what it was I was supposed to be doing I was the most alone.

What my experiences amount to is an issue with intellectual territory; a sense of security that comes from having a taught background in the subject matter and of being part of a peer group with shared past experiences. This was something I certainly felt when writing my own PhD proposal, based on gender in contemporary Hollywood comedy. I’d studied film at undergraduate and at master’s level and gender and film comedy for my master’s dissertation. But having no experience in studies of creativity and little in television theory rather than film, it’s fair to say I was lost at first. Raymond who? (Gasp, recoil, etc.).

Of course this isn’t to suggest that anyone comes to a PhD having an exhaustive knowledge of what texts they’re studying or the methodology they’re employing: what would be the point in doing any research? But I was acutely aware that I was not hitting the ground running. I had yet to buy any trainers and I had a mouthful of cheesecake, metaphorically speaking.

The upshot for me, however, was perhaps a good one. There was no surprise for me in knowing that I did not yet know, really, what I was doing. I had a far more conscious and clinical attitude to my first year than I would’ve done had the assumptions and gaps in knowledge I’d breezed over in my original proposal been revealed to me.

This approach has left me with specific perspective on how the PhD is positioned in my career, too – gleefully assuming that it is, in fact, the beginning of an academic career. It feels temporary.

In research seminars we are reminded that our PhD is not the be all and end all of our research trajectories; we will be allowed to study other things! To me, this seemed obvious: I fully intend to include gender in my research in the future and look forward to that. I have a few ideas for where I’d like my study of comedy to pursue. But the fact that our seminar leaders feel the need to remind us of this possibility suggests that in the midst of the PhD process, shifting sites of research and the notion that this might not be the biggest deal in your research career can be forgotten. Instead we have one area of intellectual safety, and anything else is simply not on our turf.

Being part of a research team with your supervisor and an associate researcher also helps to remind you that your PhD, while never not important, is a temporary project. And it effects how you position yourself in relation to your more (far more) established colleagues. For me, there has been a great comfort in being part of a team due, in part, to the amenable grace of the project’s PI and associate researcher under constant badgering for guidance and reassurance. And, particularly starting at a different time to everyone else in my school, this provided a much needed sense that I had a peer group. It can also make you feel part of a cohesive research unit, with, if not academic equals, at least your own legitimate space as a researcher – if it passed you by, I just referred to my supervisor as a colleague, a fairly outrageous slur for a second year PhD researcher. I also refer to myself as a researcher rather than a student, because that’s what I feel I’m doing. It says it right there on the project’s web site, I’m part of the “Research Team”. See?

What the contrast between the PhD I first proposed and the one I ended up doing has made me think about, is the ways in which our first big research project can be so loaded with the idea that it will always define us, that it is our one great idea and everything afterwards will be underpinned by this first stab at being a real academic. That it will be so draining an experience that we will have to rely on that research in the years to come – who would be mad enough to take on another three year research project?

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I assume there is a culture of this emphasis on PhD projects not only because candidates are reminded regularly that this is not the case, but also because this was how I felt about the proposal with which I initially got a PhD placement, but for which I was unsuccessful in receiving funding. I felt like that project was one I already had enough knowledge about to envisage, which took away some of the fear of finding out quite how daunting writing a thesis is. I was confident with the idea and felt like I was on my own turf.

But academics often aren’t on their own turf. They teach outside of their disciplines, they bend their skills to cater for other people’s research projects; they adapt their basic ability to make sense of stuff for a variety of different types of stuff. For me, that’s one of the exciting prospects of working in media studies: the opportunity to test your abilities and ultimately to carry on learning after the PhD process. Perhaps I first liked the idea of staying within my exclusive sites of interest and in a comfort zone. But with the interdisciplinary nature of a career in media studies, what are the chances of that happening?


Erica Horton began studying comedy during a year abroad at San Francisco State University, for her BA in Film and American Studies with the University of East Anglia. This interest was pursued in her Masters dissertation, ‘No Girls Allowed: Gender Politics in the Contemporary Film Comedy of Judd Apatow and the Frat Pack’. During time away from academia, Erica writes sketch comedy and produces a podcast as part of writing duo Bad Jacket. Returning to UEA, Erica is working towards an academic career, researching comedy performance, agency and creative processes in film and television studies.