Adventures of a Film Scholar

I’m currently sinking in a sea of paper and ideas. Not for the next screenplay, but for my PhD. Not that I have yet started or been accepted to a PhD program… there is so much to do before we get to that stage.

Depending how you look at it, I am a filmmaker who is also an academic or an academic who is also a filmmaker. Part of the reality of existing in two worlds is that you must keep developing in those two worlds. To become the best academic I can be, a PhD is the natural path, but as with making a feature, it is not a straightforward, well-signposted path. Like a screenplay, there is much agonizing, research and conceptual fine-tuning to be done before embarking on the actual typing.

So what precisely is a PhD? For those of you not in academia, a PhD is the course of study that results in the graduate being called a “Doctor.” It stands for Doctor of Philosophy, but unless someone shouts “Is there a Doctor in the house?” and they’re in desperate need of an academic consultation, it’s probably still best to keep quiet. A PhD is essentially a research project which culminates in an 80,000-100,000 word thesis which – and here’s the fun part – “adds to the general knowledge bank of the world.” So no pressure.

What often happens is that the writer then becomes THE authority on their particular subject. Many PhD dissertations end up being printed as bona fide buy-at-Amazon books. So your subject area has to be very specific: you must either uncover an area that has not yet been examined or you must explore a well-examined area in a new way.

You do not simply sign up to start a PhD. Before you start, you must, in this order: (1) Research and pick a topic. (2) Research and find a suitable Supervisor. (3) Get the Supervisor to agree to be your Supervisor. (4) Apply to the PhD program at the Supervisor’s university. (5) Get accepted.

I am currently at (1). It is likely that I won’t get to (2) for three more months. And I currently have 27 possible topics.

You have to be very careful when you pick a topic – a PhD takes anywhere between three to ten years to complete. Yes, a potential DECADE of study. So I need to pick a topic that I can imagine doing (and still find interesting) in 2020. A lot of my topics involve (a) storytelling in the transmedia age or (b) non-linear narration (think Pulp Fiction or Memento). The problem with (a) is that it’s such a quick-changing landscape that trying to complete such a long project leaves you open to the “building-a-house-on-shifting-sand” scenario. The problem with (b) is that my mind keeps going back to (a).

Once I have eventually narrowed down my topic, I can research and find a supervisor who is right for that topic, e.g. a specialist in transmedia or narration. No institution has the same set of specialists so this will have a huge impact on where I study. The supervisor is a key player in your PhD. They will be your mentor, and not in a casual “they will mentor you through the process” sense, but in the mythic Obi-Wan/Gandalf sense: they are your Mentor – your guide through often treacherous waters and their decisions and skill (or lack thereof) will have a significant impact on your life.

Once you have found this elusive and well-chosen individual they have to be (i) available to supervise you, (ii) willing to supervise you and (iii) their university has to allow them to supervise you (they can’t be too busy with other responsibilities). Once you’ve nailed all that down… THEN YOU APPLY.

If you have the necessary qualifications (typically a four year Bachelors degree, upper-second class minimum or a Masters), you MIGHT be accepted. Then the actual work begins. Three years full-time or five to seven years part-time. If not, go back to (2) and start again.

Plenty of time to keep you posted…




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