WAAT #64: On Starting a Ph.D. at 50


This fall, I will start a Ph.D. program in Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Texas in Dallas, Texas. Here are some thoughts about the whys and wherefores.

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Ph.D. at 50

A General Note About Higher Education and the Humanities

At the end of February this year, Nathan Heller wrote in the New Yorker about “the end of the English major.” I’m not on social media much at all this year, but I read accounts of how this essay went viral and spawned a lot of response essays (I did read a good number of these as they popped up in some of my newsletter subscriptions), tweets, posts, and comments.

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This latest handwringing about the humanities is not new but updated to reflect our culture’s latest obsessions (social media, artificial intelligence, etc.) The extreme for and against responses aren’t so shocking, either. It’s just that 24/7 social and new media amplifies everything way more within our echo chambers.

My newsletter today isn’t about adding to all that’s already been said about the whys and wherefores of the humanities or the English major. I hope my stance is clear enough from my writing. So instead, I will share my reasons for starting a Ph.D. program in August this year.

Before we go there, though, if you’ve missed some of the critical aspects of this latest debate, here are just a few of the notable essay responses (from different sides of the political divides) to Heller that you might appreciate:

But Heller is one of many to spot the four horsemen—call them defunding, recession, self-sabotage and artificial intelligence—on the humanities’ horizon.

Newman, Andrew. “Reflecting on ‘The End of the English Major.” Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2023/03/09/reflecting-end-english-major-opinion.

Faced with the New Puritanism, too many universities have waved the white flag.

Herman, David. “Are the Humanities at American Universities in Crisis?” March 08, 2023. https://www.thearticle.com/are-the-humanities-at-american-universities-in-crisis.

But the real sources of distractedness are in economic and technological conditions, not moral lapses.

Smith, Caleb. “We’re Distracted. That’s Nothing New.” March 10, 2023. https://www.chronicle.com/article/were-distracted-thats-nothing-new.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people turned to the humanities in unprecedented numbers to re-evaluate priorities and to deal with what, for many, was an ‘existential’ crisis.

Greenfield, Nathan. “The Crisis in Arts and Humanities: Rhetoric or Reality?” University World News, April 01, 2023. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20230331111300644.

At the English department I chair, our major has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two years.

Blackwood, Sarah. “Letter from an English Department on the Brink.” The New York Review of Books. April 02, 2023. https://www.nybooks.com/online/2023/04/02/letter-from-an-english-department-on-the-brink/.

Why Start a Ph.D. at 50

All of the above was unfolding across news and social media as my Ph.D. application acceptance was making its way to me in late March. My venture had been in the works, though, for months. Years, even. Decades, really.

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And through these decades, I have worn many hats: teacher, saleswoman, waitress, nightclub doorwoman (yes, really), bartender, engineer, marketing executive, management consulting executive, financial advisor, yoga instructor, podcaster, digital media startup founder, and literary editor.

Every five years or so, I’d consider going back to school to study, more formally, literature, creative writing, literary translation, or all of these together. But, mainly, I thought it would be better to have expert guidance and feedback than to flounder and flail about on my own. And, every time, I had to put these ideas aside because, as I’ve written in a 2018 Longreads essay, being an immigrant also means being held hostage to your work permit situation.

So the immigrant hustle defined my twenties and thirties: leaving India, living and working across five countries, thirteen cities, and sixteen homes. Still, in my late twenties and early thirties, I applied to two low-residency MFA programs while working full-time as an engineer in Michigan and Ohio. But unfortunately, I dropped out of both almost immediately for personal and professional reasons.

Eventually, in my forties, I was able to switch to the writing and translating hustle: leaving my Silicon Valley career, running four fairly popular digital magazines (two of them concurrently), creating my own version of a DIY MFA, publishing three critically-acclaimed books (two of them in the pandemic year and on different continents), publishing 100+ bylines at venues like NPR and The Washington Post, teaching creative writing workshops, getting married, becoming a dog mommy, and—yes, wait for it—living and working across two countries, five cities, and six homes.

Late last year, when I turned fifty, I revisited my “Someday/Maybe” list. I do this with every birthday to either strike off things I no longer find necessary or reprioritize the ones I cannot let go of. And finally, there was space for the Ph.D. to move further up.

The reasons for any life-changing decision, especially those that go against the grain somewhat, are complex and depend on many factors. For me, the confluence of these critical drivers helped. While they are particular to my situation and my writing and translating practice, I share them in case they might help others think through their own.

  1. After a decade of finding my writing voice and purpose, my specific interests—historical fiction, literary translation, literary criticism, and teaching—have converged into a more aligned and focused research and study practice.
  2. While I don’t flounder and flail about as much anymore with self-directed learning, it still takes me longer than I would like to gain the skills and knowledge I think I need to become a better writer and translator. I am clearer now about where I have gaps and need expert guidance to help me be more productive and efficient in my approaches.
  3. I find myself living near a university with an excellent center for translation studies and translator faculty. ALTA was founded here, and one of the co-founders, Dr. Rainer Schulte, still teaches here.
  4. Although, given my former working life, I have some independent financial means, the only way I can take on this five-year full-time commitment is that it includes full funding.
  5. I have a life partner who supports and encourages my literary ventures.

Some Initial Thoughts About Goals

One of the benefits of coming to higher education after having gained many other life and career experiences is that I’m not expecting it to blast open the doors of the publishing world or make the process of navigating through the highs and lows of the publishing ecosystem any easier.

Also, while I know some folks take on higher education in creative writing or translation because it may allow them to find a community of practice, I’m not pinning my hopes on that. After my three-year stint of founding and running Desi Books, I’ve learned that literary communities require more than labor to uplift others. More on that some other time.

Sure, I would like to continue teaching as a way to keep sharpening my creative saw. However, at my age, I am not seeking the usual tenure-based academic career as the end game. Let’s see, after five years, what possibilities and opportunities might fit my life then.

Mostly, I have relatively more modest goals: I want to become a more research-driven writer and translator. And I would like, through my dissertation, to make a more material and meaningful contribution to Gujarati literature in translation and historical fiction than I can do right now.

What This Will Mean for the WAAT Newsletter

Some subscriber friends wrote in asking me about this. I hope this newsletter will become more substantial as I hope to share aspects of my learning and the Ph.D. journey using this space.

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To that end, let me share the personal statement I submitted with my application. Perhaps it will help others who may be considering something similar. (Note: There was a separate academic essay as well. You can read parts of that essay within another one published at Words Without Borders in March this year.)

Personal Statement Essay

Why did the historical novel dominate Gujarati literature during the pre-Independence modern period? Beyond being driven by a need for identity-building, a sense of nationalism, and efforts at state formation, are these works, in themselves, also sources of history as modes of collective consciousness, social reform, and earnest attempts to transcend history itself? How did translations and transcreations from English, European, and other Indian languages at that time become crucial interventions for a Renaissance-like profusion? What caused the genre to fall out of favor in the post-Gandhian era and beyond? Can it be revitalized in a new Renaissance era filled with vibrant, abundant, bold, hybrid, and even experimental works? These questions will drive my research as I pursue a Ph.D. in Literature.

Although all my formal education was in English, I grew up with canonical Gujarati historical novels by writers like Dhumketu, Munshi, Mehta, Meghani, and others. As a fiction writer (in English) and translator (from Gujarati into English), I continue to be drawn to their works for what they reveal beyond the stories they contain. In 2020 and 2022, my first book-length translation of Dhumketu’s classic short stories included several historical ones. I’m currently translating two historical works: 1) Jhaverchand Meghani’s folktales, which are historical stories that he wrote while traveling around the Saurashtra region and gathering all the oral folk traditions before they disappeared entirely due to colonization and industrialization; 2) an Independence-era historical novel by Varsha Adalja, an award-winning litterateur.

In 2022, I guest-edited a unique collection of Gujarati literature in translation at Words Without Borders, where I explored the intersections of history, literature, and translation.

Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

For the past year or so, I’ve been working on my historical novel (in English) set in medieval Gujarat, which features events and characters that have only been footnoted in historical texts. Note: An excerpt of my novel-in-progress has been accepted for 2023 publication in a literary magazine.

In addition to my writing, translating, and editing work, I have been working on my writing and translation practices, organizing and sharing my learning, and building small like-minded literary communities through the following:

  1. Since 2021, I have been teaching historical fiction in six-week workshops at Writing Workshops Dallas.
  2. Since 2021, I have been teaching diverse cohort groups at the PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship Program through annual five-month fiction workshops.
  3. Desi Books, which I founded in April 2020 and ran until February 2023 to showcase South Asian literature, often featured this genre through reviews and interviews.
  4. My ongoing book reviews and reading lists at NPR and other venues include many historical novels.
  5. I run two popular newsletters: ‘We Are All Translators‘ and ‘Historical Fiction Craft Notes.’

This lifelong immersion goes beyond a preoccupation with genre or craft. As Hilary Mantel often said, it’s about seeing how the past is never done with us and how “the dead have a vital force still—they have something to tell us, something we need to understand.”

My goal in pursuing a Ph.D. is to do further research, in a more structured manner, around how literary translations and transcreations from English, European, and other Indian languages were crucial interventions leading to the burgeoning rise of the Gujarati historical novel. Such research can provide new insights into how literary translation was a mode of intervention and recovery and give us a clearer understanding of how regional and national conditions and global influences helped this genre emerge and flourish. I propose to do this by analyzing the formative aspects of three specific canonical Gujarati historical novels and translating or transcreating at least one of them into English.

UTD has one of the finest sets of faculty members who approach both the theory and practice of literary translation holistically and in interdisciplinary, diverse ways. I have read their works (and subscribe to the UTD-published journal, Translation Review) and some earlier Ph.D. dissertations. Their resources, guidance, and feedback will be invaluable as I conduct my doctoral research.

As a Ph.D. candidate at UTD, I would also look forward to applying all the communication, analysis, teamwork, administrative, and time management skills gained during my extensive former corporate career. My ultimate goal is to research and teach literary translation as a creative process, particularly in the multilingual South Asian context, where there is no such thing as a discrete, stable, monolingual source or target text; all texts are made up of diverse sources assembled through translation processes and traditions.  

Thank you for considering my application.

In Closing

This newsletter edition began with a general note about yet another death knell for the humanities, particularly the English major. I hope the rest of what I have shared above gives at least one more data point to the contrary.

Over to you. Have you done, are doing, or are considering a Ph.D. in literature and translation? What tips or suggestions would you be okay with me passing on via this newsletter to other readers? With due credit to you, of course. Let me know in the discussion area below, please.


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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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