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Why study a PhD in English literature?

Studying for a PhD in English literature is not just a “run-on from an MA”, writes John Francis Davies, but requires deep introspection and societal awareness

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John Francis Davies

March 30 2017
A pile of books and a cup of tea


What is the point of a doctorate in English literature? It’s an easy trap to become deterministic about this question: it is no single thing. To my mind, there are two main reasons to spend four years in speech, word, and thought. One is to do with the field of study itself, and the other with the lifestyle it sustains.

The study of English literature is primarily heuristic – so, an enabling discipline. There is no escaping language. It’s everywhere: in the waking and the sleeping, through the loud music, over the desk at work, in the mouths and minds of friend and stranger. It’s the thing that strains in the voice during bickering arguments or vindication against family accusations.

It is in the rhetoric and the row. It’s out there in remote places or in the long-watched painting at the gallery. It forms what we see and what we do and how we feel. The omnipresence of language is the greatest serendipity and the greatest struggle. Given that life is so substantially governed by language, it shall never fail to fascinate us.

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A doctorate is not just a run-on from an MA but a genuine effort to make a societal contribution, no matter how small. English as a discipline can be a vivifying force for both individual and social liberty.

One need only to consider great editorial achievements of the 20th century, like Christopher Ricks’ scholarship on Alfred Tennyson or, today, the ongoing 30-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin, and the progress of digital humanities for open access.

It is clear, too, why academics such as C.S. Lewis became more invested in journalism. Today, we need far more literary critics to step forward to provide not only social commentary but alternative social role models. Words are deeds: they create reality.

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A PhD in English, with all its constituent parts, facilitates a cerebral life. In a society of people constantly persuaded to look outside themselves, doctoral students are being inspired by deep thought, and become unequivocally satisfied in the value of their work. The feeling of value about one’s work is capricious, but what is immutable is that work’s value to you.

“What we learn from experience,” C.S. Lewis tells us, “depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to it.” That philosophy finds form and depth through what we study. University is not, or at least should not be, some hiatus before resuming one’s place in the world. It’s a way of living.

John Francis Davies is a Doctor of English based at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, University of Oxford

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