How it feels to finish – really finish – a PhD thesis

No book can ever be finished. While working on it we learn just enough to find it immature the moment we turn away from it. ~ Karl Popper

Yesterday, I watched my supervisors sign the form which declares that I have completed my thesis revisions and adequately addressed the examiners’ reports. In fact, my amendments go over and above those required by the examiners. I’ve taken on plenty of non-compulsory feedback and done some extra editing, so that (as Mullins and Kiley, 2002, put it) my thesis will ‘glow more brightly’ on the library shelf (or online repository).

The reason I’ve been revising more than necessary is that while the thesis is still in my hands and control, my perfectionism has been running rampant. I’ve been waking in the night thinking about the minutest of textual details and having night terrors of opening a freshly bound copy to a jarring typographical error. I’ve been proofing chapters line by line, unable to limit myself to addressing the recommended amendments. But finally, it seems, the thesis is done. Soon I will be notified that I can print the final copies for permanent binding. You know, the glorious ones with buckram covers and golden lettering.

After my final supervision meeting, in which the thesis was finished and signed off on, I tweeted out that I felt somewhere between these images …

Jay Gatsby & Frodo Baggins as metaphors for doctoral completion

Jay Gatsby & Frodo Baggins as metaphors for doctoral completion

Jay Gatsby is an interesting analogy for someone at the end of the doctoral journey. Perhaps there’s a celebratory note, glorification of the doctorate, the pursuit of greatness, party-like excitement, or even a smugness to completing the PhD. But Gatsby was the ultimate imposter who re-invented his identity. He pursued an outward appearance that belied his own past and insecurities. Imposter syndrome can encroach into the nearly-doctored or newly-doctored persona. Do I deserve this? Do others know my limitations? Was my dissertation really enough to warrant a PhD? Am I worthy of the title ‘Dr’?

Frodo Baggins can also provide a lens for reflection on finishing the thesis. In some ways the PhD can seem like the quest to return the ring to the fires of Mordor. Frodo Baggins, as the ring-bearer tasked with a seemingly impossible mission, is central to the job. He emerges emotional, exhausted and battle weary. But it’s the multi-membered fellowship, and additional others supporting them, which work together for ultimate success. Luck and coincidence play a part, too. And persistence. Frodo doesn’t have magical powers or super strength or skill. He is ordinary. But he has persistence, grit, stick-to-it-iveness. In the PhD, the doctoral researcher is central to the successful completion of the task. They need to work through challenges, persist despite being knocked down, move onwards even when hitting a dead end or sinking into a swamp. But they cannot do it alone. Supervisors, family, friends and others are critical to completion.

Additionally, at the Crack of Doom Frodo struggles to release the ring. He has become attached to it. So while his friends fight armies of evil, he stands at the precipice of the end of his quest, above the fires of Mount Doom, unable to let go of the thing which he has carried, like an ever-heavier burden, for so long. Of course not all doctorates feel like a burden. One can love the PhD, but maybe even this fondness can have a Stockholm Syndrome type attachment; we learn to feel comfortable in capture. I feel a sadness that my PhD is coming to an end. It’s hard to let it go.

And when is a piece of writing finished? Ninna Meier recently explored the unfinishedness of writing, the layering of writerly thinking and identity, and the ways that reviewers and co-authors help to move a piece of writing forward. She talks about revisiting earlier writing and being appalled at its unfinishedness. How, she asks, could her past-writer-self have thought it was ok when her present-writer-self is surprised and horrified?

My thesis felt finished when I submitted it for examination, but after space and time away from it, along with the lens of examiners’ comments, I was able to see it as still requiring work. Now, after the amendments have been done, it has been signed off on as complete and worthy of the doctorate. No doubt, however, my future writer self will look back in surprise that I ever thought it was ok. I will see glaring naivety and cringe worthy phrasing. I can already see a (somewhat experimental and diversionary) paragraph which might well cause my future writer self to wince, but for now I’m attached to leaving it in.

Although the PhD can feel never ending, it does end. For me, the work is done. So, for now, while I wait for the wheel of academia to slowly turn, for university administration to do its administering, I wait, work, write papers, read trashy fiction. And drink champagne. I finally feel like I’ve hit a milestone worth stopping to celebrate, no matter what my future self might think. Next will come more steps: final printing, binding, the floppy velvet hat and the two letters in front of my name. Then achievement will really be unlocked.

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10 thoughts on “How it feels to finish – really finish – a PhD thesis

  1. Congratulations! I recently finished and submitted my Master’s thesis. I’m waiting for the results now and I’m absolutely certain that I’ll go through the same endless need to pick at my writing. Also, is it bad that one of the main reasons I want a PhD is for the floppy hat?

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  2. Well, the signed form and response to examiners’ comments table went to the Dean on Friday and he signed it on Monday! So now I get to print copies of the beast and submit them for permanent binding. Then: conferal next month! I’m really enjoying this part of the journey: elation and celebration.
    Deb

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