Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Diary of a (former) PhD Student: One last panic...

It’s been so long since I last updated this space that it took three attempts to get my password right just to log in here. Off the top of my head I couldn’t actually remember when I’d last rambled on about my PhD but, if Blogger records are anything to go by, it looks like it was back in September 2017 – which must mean that it was immediately before or immediately after handing in the dreaded thesis.

If you’re reading this and we’re friends on Facebook, or you follow me on one social media channel or another, then you’ll already know the outcome. If by some minor chance you have stumbled across this blog without knowing me – or you’ve started to follow this blog, without really knowing who I am – then: SURPRISE! I PASSED MY PHD!

But there were one or two steps between then and now so kick back and let me fill you in (or, alternatively, you could click the top right X and call it a day; I have, after all, given you the ending to this story already).

I handed in my thesis in late September – it was a Thursday, and it was quite sunny for the time of year; I can even tell you what outfit that I was wearing when I submitted my work (isn’t it weird what sticks with you?). On the Tuesday after I handed in my thesis, I started lecturing. Despite this lecturing work being one day a week, I absolutely convinced myself that I had somehow managed to skip over the emotional and psychological lull that follows a thesis submission – the one that everyone had warned me would come.

For those of you reading who haven’t been warned of this, or haven’t experienced it, I’m going to be frank with you. It turns out that finishing your PhD is actually one of the hardest parts of doing a goddamn PhD because when it goes – when this thing that has dominated your life for anywhere between three and six years just disappears, it leaves a hole that you will frantically try and fill (even though you have nothing to hand to fill it with, per se, because everything you have you’ve already given entirely to this PhD project – which is no longer even there). It’s a bitter, bitter moment that I truly believe most long-term students must experience.

But, though I waited, it didn’t come…

What did come was my Viva date: December 18th. Again – in case some of you reading don’t know already – a Viva is when your internal examiner and your external examiner get together and fling a shit-tonne of questions in your direction to see how well you can defend your thesis. It sounds more terrifying than it is – and I’m not just saying that to compensate for the wild sense of impending doom that I’ve described above. Even though your Viva is stressful and even though you put hours and hours of extra work into preparing for it, it’s actually… okay. I’m not going to go as far as enjoyable – because I would have happily accepted my pass via a nicely worded letter, rather than a face to face showdown – but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I had convinced myself it would be.

A few weeks before my Viva my supervisor and I had a frank and honest discussion about the weaknesses in my work, and we meticulously planned the ways in which I could prepare to defend these issues, when they were mentioned by one or both examiners. On the day itself, none of the topics that we had prepared for were mentioned – none of them! Let that be another lesson for you.

What did happen, to my utter bliss and delight, was that all of the information that I had been ferreting away in the back of my brain for the last three years came flooding out, and when they asked me a question, any question, I said:

 And not only was I ready, I was also convincing – because I passed, with minor amendments (although when edit came to shove, they didn’t feel that minor at all). Now, because my examiners were genuinely nice people, and because my Viva was a week to the day before Christmas, they extended my deadline for completing my amendments. This meant that instead of a handful of weeks, I instead had a handful of months (read: I had an even longer amount of time in which I could procrastinate). I eventually went back to my thesis a month before my amendments were due, and I quickly tumbled back into a rabbit hole of research and theories to the point that I was actually considering making changes that they hadn’t told me to make, all for the sake of shoehorning in these new theories that I’d found.

Instead of making more work for myself, I promised myself an hour a day where I would bit by bit deal with the seven issues that I needed to fix. I went through their recommendations, I did extra research, I tabbed up my thesis to within an of its life (and my own, I think) and then, my ‘hour a day’ turned into: I’m going to smash this out in an afternoon. I won’t lie and tell you it was that easy because it sure as hell wasn’t; it was five and a half hours of hair-pulling and argh-ing at my computer screen as I tried to work out how the hell I had ever sounded like an academic on paper, and how the hell I would ever match that tone again. It felt just like old times…

I submitted my amendments on a Friday morning – completed with a document that outlined each and every change, down to the page number, which I then coded into lined and underlined entries so my internal examiner could distinguish between the actual edits and the typographical ones (I hadn’t tabbed and highlighted and colour coded my way through this doctorate just to let things slide at the final hurdle). It took my examiner one weekend to read the changes – and I will never be able to express my authentic and genuine gratitude that he didn’t keep me waiting even longer – and first thing on the Monday morning after submitting my changes, I pulled up at work, checked my emails, and saw:

‘I am pleased to advise you that you have qualified for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy…’

I then went into the same students who had wished me luck on the morning of my Viva – bless their souls for remembering – and told them that it was official. And the panic started some time after that…

It isn’t a state of discontent or disappointment; I have no urge to do another PhD, although I have registered my interest for another Masters (that’s another post for another time), but there is definitely something – unsettling? The sense that something has gone, something has finished, and the more I consider it in this level of detail, the more I think that finishing a PhD might be something like finishing a long-term relationship with a partner that you’re still fond of, despite both of you knowing that you’ve come to the end of the line. There are no bad feelings – in fact, you even miss them sometimes, but you also know that it was time for both of you to part ways, and that when you look back fondly, you should never consider it as more than an enjoyable period of time which has now passed…

I’ve lost myself in that metaphor somewhere, but you get the idea.

So here I am, in the transition period which I thought had started some months ago but, on reflection, I think has probably only really started now. But, as is the case with all endings, something else is starting – has started already, even. And at least whatever happens next and whatever I do with this godforsaken PhD, I’ll be doing with DR printed on my bank card.

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