The neverending story of the PhD

Rhymes that keep their secrets / Will unfold behind the clouds / And there upon the rainbow / Is the answer to a neverending story ~ Lyrics to ‘Neverending Story’ by Limahl. Watch the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vf2sDgeu7k

Bastian atop Falkor; just like PhD-finishing triumph Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Bastian atop Falkor the luckdragon in the film; just like PhD-finishing triumph
Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Children of the 80s like myself will remember The Neverending Story, a quest narrative in which the protagonist escapes into a fantastical world through the pages of a magical book. What started as a 1979 German fantasy novel by Michael Ende became a 1984 film directed by Wolfgang Peterson with a deliciously-80s theme song by Limahl. When I’ve been asked what the song of my PhD would be, I often answer ‘The Neverending Story’ as it just goes on and on!

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming neverendingness of the PhD. I’ve had people in life and on Twitter congratulating me on the completion of my PhD … despite the fact I have not submitted! I think it is because I announced with glee that I had finished my full thesis draft in July. People seem to think that I surely MUST be done by now.

But no.

While the first full draft means that all the chapters are written, it does not mean that the document is (anywhere near) finished. There are some great online resources to help doctoral students with long and laborious revision and editing. Pat Thomson talks about the process of revision, as opposed to editing. Rachel Cayley’s great piece outlines the stages and layers of editing. Katherine Firth’s post on editing gives thorough and accessible strategies. And Tara Brabazon penned this Times Higher Education article which includes ten editing cycles, including ‘read every sentence underlined with a ruler’ (I have tried this). A finished first draft is 3-6 months from a finished final draft.

I kicked off my full-draft revision with a writing retreat, in which I spent about two full days and nights on the first 40 pages. This wasn’t editing. It was Frankensteinesque dismemberment and radical textual surgery, as Pat Thomson puts it. After making it through my first lot of revisions, I talked about my willingness to chop chop chop, to improve the text’s argument by streamlining it closer to its essence. I have now managed to cut what was a 110,000 word draft to 95,000 words. And the text is stronger for it, reflecting Katherine Firth’s comments on the pruning required of verbose texts:

Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breathe, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.

But still, I didn’t think that I’d be making such big changes this close to the end of the game. Just when I think I’m an Oxford comma away from being done, a new ‘a-ha’ moment or a feedback curveball comes my way.

Last week I met with my secondary supervisor who posed a question about a ten-page section of my literature review: How did it fit with the threads of argument in my thesis? On reflection, I realised that this ten pages was relevant but not central. It was something I had been strongly driven by at the beginning of my PhD, but which had become a distraction from my main argument. I was so close to the document that I hadn’t been able to question it in this way. I was attached to something that had been in my thesis from the beginning, but which no longer fit. Luckily, I was attached but not precious about this section, so when its inclusion was interrogated, I was able to say, “Ok, maybe this doesn’t fit. I’ll try lifting it out and see how it works.” I’ve cut the offending section and pasted it into another document, with the intention of reworking the material into a paper. A little of the material I’ve added into my rationale and context sections, in very small bits. The literature review now feels stronger, punchier, less bogged down, leaving the main threads of my argument to breathe.

With less than a month to go, on and on I go. Read, revise, edit, proof, receive feedback, add literature (I can’t stop myself from reading!), apply feedback, read again.

Yet despite what can feel like the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, almost-finisheds and never-finisheds of the PhD, the doctoral experience is a great example of what good learning can look like. The candidate gets to work on a project of personal passion and importance. They are invested in the work and own its purpose. They work over a long period of time, getting (hopefully) regular feedback from their Falkor-luckdragonesque supervisors which (hopefully) helps them to develop their research and writing into the best it can be within PhD parameters.

Even at submission my PhD story won’t end. Then it will be waiting for three examiners’ reports, making corrections, resubmitting. It’s a long road to ‘Dr Deb’. It’s “the neverending storrrrr-yyyyyyy! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahhhhhh!” It’s not over yet!

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10 thoughts on “The neverending story of the PhD

  1. You have just told the story of my PhD journey. I am at the same stage as you and I have also relied heavily on the lovely ‘advisers’ as you have. They are indispensable to PhD students. Keep calm and carry on revising. That is my motto or I would go nuts with the uncertainty of whether I am on the right track or not. Thank you.

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