NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

How voluntary assisted dying turbo-charged my doctorate

BY LAINIE ANDERSON – Life didn’t get in the way of my PhD. Death did. Or more specifically, it was South Australia’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2020).

I was inducted into my PhD studies at the University of South Australia on 12 February 2021, undertaking a project to explore the life of South Australia’s pioneering policewoman Kate Cocks. In 1915 she became the first policewoman in the British Empire employed on the same salary as men, and with the same powers of arrest. Cocks smashed drug rackets and arrested deceptive clairvoyants preying on the wives of World War One soldiers. She marched young women out of opium dens and found jobs for wayward youths. But most of the time she walked the beat with a five-foot cane, saving women from abusive husbands, from opportunistic men and from themselves (whether they liked it or not). In early 20th century Adelaide, Cocks was a household name. Yet today, like many once-prominent women, she is relatively unknown. My goal was to establish the significance of her policing work, and explore how I might best represent her story to 21st century readers.

Two weeks before my PhD induction, I volunteered as media spokesperson and political lobbyist for Voluntary Assisted Dying South Australia (VADSA), in a bid to help get right-to-die legislation passed for terminally ill patients after 15 failed attempts in the South Australian parliament over 25 years. (Incidentally, my twin sons were also beginning Year 12 that same month, but they don’t factor into my memories of that frantic time. Bless their independent, self-motivated hearts.)

In another life I was state political reporter for Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and my 35-year career in journalism and communications includes a stint as public relations manager of the South Australian Tourism Commission. So I thought I knew what I was getting into with the VADSA team. I definitely thought the voluntary role was doable alongside my PhD studies, a bit of UniSA tutoring and a fortnightly column for Adelaide’s Sunday Mail. That was a little naïve. My diary entries from the first six months of 2021 are a chaotic mix of Research Proposal writing workshops, rallies on the steps of parliament, UniSA seminars, finding talent for media interviews, and meetings with MPs. Sometimes all in the same day.

In hindsight it was the perfect start to my PhD studies.

First, I didn’t have time to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the doctoral journey ahead of me, or grappling with academia for the first time since my Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) in the 1980s. I remember feeling like a deer in headlights at times in those early PhD months, wondering if I’d been too ambitious (or arrogant!) in believing I was capable of achieving the highest academic standard in the world. I applied to do a PhD after writing my debut historic fiction Long Flight Home and co-producing an SBS TV documentary on the first flight across the world by South Australian brothers Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith. I wanted to improve my creative writing practice and become a better, more critical researcher of South Australian history – and as a mid-career student I had a decent body of professional writing and practical research work to underpin my studies. But with no post-graduate experience, I initially felt out of my depth in terms of academic jargon and writing, methodology and theory in particular (i.e. all of it). In those early months of theoretical exploration and writing my research proposal, I often felt almost paralysed by imposter syndrome. I remember sitting through one online seminar on citations and referencing and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here? This sounds like a different language!” 

Being so busy (with my studies, the VADSA role, column writing and dad-to-day life as a mum) forced me to set aside my doubts and focus solely on the next university seminar, the next Zoom meeting or the next VADSA media release. Admittedly, I struck gold with my supervisors. Things may well have gone awry if they hadn’t been so supportive of my extra-curricular schedule and so clear in their direction. In those early months of fortnightly meetings, I never left my principal supervisor’s office without knowing what was expected of me the next time I walked in.

Second, limited time – and knowledge of writing for academia – meant I took advantage of every piece of advice when it was offered, instead of dithering over the way forward. The Research Proposal Writing seminars I attended were a godsend, both in terms of timely tips and getting to know my HDR cohort. Meeting other students, and learning that occasional feelings of self-doubt were fairly universal, was both reassuring and liberating. With each workshop I felt a little more confident, and a little less like an imposter on campus. I followed the advice down to the word, and that set me on course for the remainder of my PhD. I attended, and took heed of advice offered at every similar seminar, from thesis writing through to writing for publication and thesis submission. 

Multi-tasking in those early months also forced me to develop good research and writing habits that set me up for the remainder of my PhD. I’d rise at 5am and write solidly until the rest of the household woke at around 7.30am to get ready for work and school. Any additional writing for the day had to fit around life and lobbying and university seminars and workshops. If I happened to have a full day at home to write or read for my literature review, it felt like Christmas. 

My PhD studies, in turn, had a positive impact on my role with VADSA. Media releases got written pronto because I was too busy to procrastinate. Meetings at parliament house or with the VADSA team were scheduled around seminars at UniSA City West. And everything I was learning about ethics in academia and research-based creative practice reinforced what we were trying to achieve with an objective, evidence-based media and communications strategy. To get the legislation across the line, we needed politicians and the wider community to stop focussing on fear-mongering, and study the evidence. I like to think I’m a stickler for facts after 35 years in journalism, but I have no doubt my introduction to academic theory and ethical rigour right at that time helped to focus my mind on the job at hand. 

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2020) passed both Houses of State Parliament on 24 June 2021. My Research Proposal was submitted a month later.

My days of political lobbying were over, but my PhD was just beginning. And my experience with the VADSA team had an enduring impact on my studies and my creative writing process. After considering a range of genres to represent the story of Kate Cocks, I ultimately chose to write a murder mystery and explore how a work of popular fiction could do justice to her as a complex and significant character in South Australian history. While researching her policing career, it became clear to me that women more generally were underrepresented in the World War One narrative. By shining a spotlight on Cocks through a work of fiction, I could interweave stories of other Adelaide women and celebrate the entire gender. This desire to elevate the role of women was influenced by my work with the VADSA leadership, which consisted largely of women who’d fought quietly and tenaciously for decades to achieve right-to-die legislation for South Australians suffering intolerable pain. Some women, particularly those who are older and wiser, are extraordinarily generous when it comes to supporting younger women coming up behind them. The VADSA president and vice-president in particular were adept at empowering us newcomers with autonomy, unconditional support and praise. Certain scenes in my creative artefact are a direct nod to them. A police sergeant is named in their honour. The housekeeper Mrs Ranford – a woman who plays a profound role in shaping my fictional Kate Cocks – dies after a short but painful illness, in tribute to the women (and men) who fought for so long to end the needless suffering of Australians at end of life. As I wrote my manuscript and explored the nurturing relationships within Adelaide’s ‘old girls’ network’ of World War One, I often reflected on how the VADSA leaders harnessed the potential of those around them to achieve success.

Their determination was also inspirational in terms of getting my thesis written. If the VADSA team could keep getting back in the fight for legislation after 15 failed attempts in 25 years, I could keep going with my PhD. I often thought about that when I was struggling with a particular theoretical element of my exegesis, or a tricky scene in my creative artefact. Throughout my PhD, I maintained the 5am kick-off that was essential during the VADSA campaign. I heeded the wise advice of academic specialists and stuck to my PhD mantra adopted during that frantic time (borrowed from author Jodi Picoult): ‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ With the support of strong women such as my principal supervisor and lecturers, and the VADSA leaders (who remain my good friends and allies) I gradually stopped feeling like an imposter and gave myself permission to be an academic. I put one foot in front of the other – just as Kate Cocks did on the beat in World War One Adelaide – and got the job done. 

On 7 November 2023 I submitted my thesis for examination. A week earlier I signed a two-book publishing deal with Hachette Australia. The Death of Dora Black will be released nationwide on 28 August 2024. 

So when death (and life) got in the way of my doctorate, it did me good.

Lainie Anderson completed her PhD with the University of South Australia in early 2024. Way back in 1989 she scored her first job in journalism at Mildura’s Sunraysia Daily by listing her hobbies as “beer and pasta”. She scored a sub-editing job at The Times in London by telling the night editor she had better legs than everyone else who’d applied. (They were talking on the phone, so he couldn’t tell she was fibbing.) And it’s fair to say she’s had a very lucky, varied and fun career over the past 35 years. The Death of Dora Black will be released by Hachette Australia in September 2024. 

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