As part of #AcWriBloMo, an academic writing blogging month where the aim is to write a blog post a week and to keep it up, I’ve been challenged to write a post about ‘taking stock’.
This week I finished the first full draft of my PhD thesis. I use the term ‘finished’ loosely, of course. Throughout the latter part of the PhD there are many milestones but there is very little ‘finishing’. You have the first draft, the second draft, the intent to submit, the formal submission, the viva, the final submission, and the graduation, a process that can take anything from a year to eternity. Ok, maybe it just feels like that. And then, just when you might begin to think it’s finally ‘done’, you have a thesis that you should do something with and so comes the monograph proposal from the thesis, preparing, editing, developing, and submitting the monograph, the process of editing and reviewing for publication, typesetting and proofing, and, when it ever comes out, applying to the REF (if you have managed to score an academic job in research, that is). It’s never really over. And even if it is, the thesis will always be there. A door-stop of a document, hanging over you. Probably to cringe at, hopefully to be proud of, a reminder of x years’ hard graft. The point is, it takes ages and it’s gonna hang around.
The Perfect PhD
The thesis is hard. That much is clear. And that’s how it is supposed to be. But there are ways to make it harder and ways to make it more bearable. And one of these ways is by thinking about the concept of perfection. Many PhD-survivors advise that the perfect PhD doesn’t exist – as Alex Hope puts it on the Thesis Whisperer, ‘finished is better than perfect’.
The idea that the PhD thesis will never be perfect can be a bit heart-breaking. After all, if I’ve spent so damned long working on this thing, I want it to be bloody good. Moreover, each time you revisit the thesis you put a little bit more of yourself into it. Putting this on display to be criticised, questioned, and told it’ll never be perfect feels horrible. I want my thesis to be fantastic and so I was painstakingly printing, scrutinising, and rewriting each page, paragraph, and sentence during the revision of my draft. At around the 60,000 word mark I began to realise that this might have been a little too much. Not only was I feeling emotionally drained from such intense work, every time I revisited a paragraph again I’d want to make more and more and more changes. This isn’t a bad thing. Changes help you solidify and clarify your points, and I certainly need that. But my love of language and crafting individual sentences was holding me back from the wider picture – the thesis understood in its entirety. The ideas need to be clear and most of all, it needs to show that you can do and have done this piece of research. Yes, language will help with this, but it’s not the be all and end all. And anyway, when faced with an 80,000+ word document, who is going to criticise the fact that you have used highlight twice in two consecutive sentences on page 138? Perhaps I’m being naive. But in reading the theses by other PhDers, I looked at the language and even picked up on the flaws, because there are some. The theses I have read by my peers are undeniably beautifully written and excellent pieces of research, but they still have slight flaws or niggles, mostly where I would do things differently. This is OK. This is even good. A thesis can still be a great thesis even if every page is not ideally wonderful and fantastic – and let’s face it, to complete in a reasonable timeframe (or even to complete at all), the thesis has to have imperfections. And with that thought, I clicked send on the email contained the full draft of my thesis, which I have to say, was highly anti-climactic. I could have been expecting too much from that little send button, but still…
This concept of perfection in the thesis really ties in with the two key elements mentioned above: ongoing milestones and the PhD process. Firstly, I think, somewhat bizarrely, a lot of life is about starting things, doing them, and finishing them. The issue of completeness (no matter how erroneous or fallacious a concept it is) is of upmost importance to us. Especially in education: completing exams, completing coursework, completing high school and degrees – we’re taught from a very young age that things can be finished and can be left. So the idea of something being so drawn out as the thesis is difficult to deal with. Especially as academia and academic scholarship seems so predicated on the notion of the Academic as a complete figure, and Research as a completed concept, enveloped in tweed and dusty tombs. Moving away from the question of completeness and being done is a necessary emotional and mental step that we need to take as researchers to get used to the constant back and forth of drafts and revisions, and doing this as a PhD student amongst printed volumes shelved on our office walls seems both difficult and not really academic. But it is, and this notion of doing over done is something all of us need to learn to accept as PhD students – it doesn’t mean we’re any lesser as researchers. In fact, what it really means is that we are doing research. And this leads me to my second point, that the PhD itself really is a process not a product. It’s not about producing the thesis. It’s about learning, studying, and developing as a researcher. Really, a PhD degree is an apprenticeship in doing research, working in scholarship, and, ultimately, surviving in academia.
Making time, taking stock
This whole stretched out process of submitting, dealing with criticism, and adjusting takes its toll emotionally and financially. Especially as funding in the humanities doesn’t stretch to the writing up year, the few paltry hours teaching available are few and far between, and recently job advertisements have started saying ‘PhD in hand’ required – but those are different issues for another day. As I was saying, the constant process of waiting and editing and editing and waiting is long and hard. Awaiting feedback, replies, paperwork, examiners, and more feedback feels like living in limbo, and because you’re waiting on others, or, even worse, on the system, you can’t do anything!
The waiting, the lack of ‘finishing’, and inevitability of imperfection all mean that taking time out is so so important. So next time you reach a goal, even if it’s finishing that one paragraph, editing a chapter, or even submitting the whole thesis, make sure to take time: take a step back, breathe, give yourself a pat on the back and tell yourself ‘yeah, I did good’. I did good.