Looking back …

Today I received a letter addressed to Dr Dawson confirming my degree award. The email also advised me that on the day of my graduation, I will lose all access to my university personal drive and email address. It is a reminder that I have now come to the end, and perhaps it is therefore a fitting time to reflect on the months leading up to the end of the doctoral process. Funnily enough, I began drafting a reflection in this blog on 1st September, just a few weeks before I finally submitted, but it never got finished as the submission itself seemed to take every spare drop of mental energy. However, it does remind me of some of the thoughts and emotions associated with those days and weeks, and I will reflect briefly on them here.

The weeks between my last annual review and that draft post might best be described as a ‘plod’, and a fairly uninspired one at that. As I wrote in that original draft, I found myself meandering along between corrections, checking and rechecking, staring at a sentence for what seemed like for ever, playing with it, and then reverting to the original anyway. I seemed to have lost the drive to actually finish the thing. Perhaps I was bored with it – after all, I had been writing it pretty much non-stop for many months at this stage. But I don’t think that was the main reason. If I’m honest, I was actually sacred of submitting. Submission seemed so final, and even though my supervisors rightly assured me that this was an examination copy, not the finished product, it still felt quite a vulnerable step to take. There was a sense of opening up to scrutiny the product of three years’ work, work which the more I edited, redrafted and so on, I felt less and less confident about. There were moments when I seemed to grasp what I thought I was really trying to do, and yet, the 86,000 words I had in front of me didn’t quite seem to do it. Perhaps self-doubt is normal at this stage, but it’s disconcerting none the less. I hung on to the fact that my supervisors seemed to think it was submitable, and concluded it was probably best to trust their judgement at this stage rather than my own, stop all the phaffing, and just get the thing submitted – which I duly did.

I ordered the two obligatory examination copies, but not one for myself. This was partly because I ran out of time and could not physically print, bind and hand in the copies to the office, but also because I was absolutely dreading seeing the final thing. It took me almost two months to pluck up the courage to print a copy for myself, to open it up and to start engaging with it again – and that was only because the viva was looming and I needed to prepare.

In terms of the viva itself, I have little to say as it all passed in a bit of a blur. Some people say they enjoy it – I’m not sure I can second that. Having questions fired at you for a long period of time has never been my idea of fun, but it certainly wasn’t a bad experience. I think I even began to relax a bit towards the end when I realised that I had not yet wished for the floor to open up and swallow me whole. The examiners prodded and probed, but in a nice, encouraging way, and then it was all over, and with it my life as a student.

There is a lot of advice and help out there on how to prepare for a viva, but two things stood out for me, and I have Richard and Juup to thank for them. The first was with regards to preparation. Rather than going through it all chapter by chapter again focussing on the detail, think about the big picture, the main story: how do the title, the research questions, the methods, findings and contributions all hang together in a coherent whole? I think it was through this exercise that I finally began to understand what my thesis was about, and perhaps therefore a useful one to do leading up to submission as well. The second was given to me by Richard about an hour before the viva when I expressed my fear of questions that I had no idea how to answer. He told me to take it back to a place I felt comfortable with and sure about, and start from there – from the main pillars of the thesis in a way. That’s what I tried to do, and it certainly helped me out of a couple of tough spots, although there is always the danger I suppose of going so far back that you never actually address the question.

Anyhow, the doctoral student chapter of my life is now over, and it is with sadness that I will move my profile on this blog from ‘current’ to ‘wider’ membership. I’ve had a fabulous and rewarding three years, and so I say to those of you who are still part of that ‘current’ membership – enjoy it while it lasts!

One comment

  • Mariam Attia

    Thank you, Susan, for sharing your reflections, especially the affective elements associated with the final stages of a PhD. I think it is particularly useful to highlight that ending up with no corrections does not necessarily mean that the viva was a happy encounter. All best wishes for the next stage in your life 🙂