Diary of a PhD completion: All the feels

The thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me In borrowed robes? ~ Shakespeare’s Macbeth

In my last post, I described how I felt once I knew that my thesis amendments had been approved by my supervisors. I really didn’t think that this very pointy end of the PhD would be complex. Surely there would be a quiet moment of joy followed by the pop of a champagne cork. Well, I was right about the champagne, but the last week has been more of a rollercoaster than I imagined. It turns out that finishing a doctorate is wound up in some messy identity-entangled feelings. Below, I try to give a sense of what that looked and felt like for me.

My week’s diary of PhD completion went something like this.

Friday: Supervisors sign off on the amended thesis. Form goes to the Dean for university sign off. Elation. Excitement. Light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Hugs. Champagne. I tell my kids. My 5 year old shouts “Wooohooo! No more PhD!” I remember that I’ve been doing this most of their lives (they were 6 months and 2 years old when I started; now they are 4 and 5).

Saturday and Sunday: Checking and re-checking the thesis, especially the amendments. I fully proof the first and last chapters, line by line, punctuation mark by punctuation mark. Obsess over commas and hyphens, or the lack of commas and hyphens. Wonder why I’m so unable to let go of a document which I’ve been told is done. My husband takes me to lunch on the coast on a glorious day. I drink a bellini. We cheers to the thesis being done.

Monday: Dean signs off on my thesis. It’s through. Accepted. Officially done. I jump up and down. Whooping. Air-punching. Triumph.

Tuesday: I’m still tinkering with the already-approved thesis. I’m haunted by nightmares and daydreams of mistakes existing somewhere in the 300 page document despite it being checked by me, two supervisors and three examiners. Impossible obsession with checking over and over. And over. I keep reminding myself the thesis has been signed off. It is considered doctorate worthy. I save the document as a pdf to stop myself from my compulsive tinkering. I sneak another peek. Ok, maybe more than one.

Wednesday: Wake with a cracking headache, knowing that today is the day I print the final final final copies for permanent binding (buckram cloth! gold letters!). One of which will live on the library shelf (maybe never to be opened). Anxiety builds as I worry that this final copy means there can be no more tinkering. I am overwhelmed by the pressure of printing the tangible final pages. It’s a relinquishing of control. If there are errors, they will be inked there for eternity. I feel increasingly ill as I print and check the final copies of my thesis. I take the box of printed pages in to university and submit them to the library to be sent for final binding. I drive to pick up sick child from school; no time to savour the moment. I upload the thesis document to the university library. Fall into a heap of exhaustion and hollowness. It’s the thesis finishing comedown, an emotional and energetic crumbling, a descent into the post-thesis abyss. I tweet my feelings of emptiness and strangeness. Responses come: yes, the mourning, the crash, the void. Others have felt this, too. I head out for dinner and champagne. Company helps and I’m reminded that – without lab partners, a writing group or colleagues at the university – my journey is mostly in my head. I’ve been the working mama who comes and goes from uni in a blinding flash, working mostly alone, often in the night. It’s good to be out, and to talk about it. And to talk about other things to forget about it.

Thursday: I get word that my thesis is online. There it is, a citation with my name on it, and a downloadable document. My thesis title in black and white. My words out of my head and into the world. My work now in the public realm. Elation again. Pride. And then the crack of the Imposter Syndrome whip. I hadn’t felt it until now. I was perfectly comfortable being a PhD candidate. An eager student. A work in progress. Of course I am still a neophyte. A partially-formed apprentice scholar. I realise I’m almost doctored, but feel unworthy of the title. I know I’ve worked hard for this. My family has both sacrificed and benefited from my doing the PhD; we’ve lived it. I know I’ve walked the path that leads to the ‘Dr’ and the medieval flourish of the Tudor bonnet. Yet I hear Macbeth’s line in my head “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” My sense of identity hasn’t caught up with the reality of finishing the PhD. My new almost-doctor-ness feels ill-fitting. My neverending PhD story is coming to an end. Or is that a beginning? When I started the doctorate I saw its completion as the pinnacle. Now I realise it’s entry level.

Friday: I notice missing Oxford commas in the text. I begin to think about the work I’ve now projected out into the world. I remember how non-traditional my thesis is. That it was risky. That some might be inspired by my novel approach and others bemused or horrified. I reflect on how I have attempted to push at the boundaries of what an acceptable thesis is. I’ve worked within the accepted parameters of a thesis (introduction, literature, method, results, discussion; some use of the distant academic voice). But I’ve also challenged the traditional thesis genre by embracing creativity, shifting voices, and a literary lens as a way to make meaning. I wonder how my attempt to create a text which compels and propels the reader will be received now that it lives outside of my laptop and my head. I’m comforted by accepted journal articles and conference papers which affirm that my work fits somewhere. I breathe.

The ride continues. Maybe soon, I’ll grow into the robes.

all the feels means all the bubbles

all the feels means all the bubbles

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16 thoughts on “Diary of a PhD completion: All the feels

  1. Magnify this by a year and that’s my 2015 in a nutshell. I’ve a friend who went through the same crashing low as me, and we’re writing an article about it. I’m all better now, of course. Here for a chat if the feelings of ‘what do I do now?’ don’t subside. Expect grief in the coming months. Real grief. Or maybe not! It’s a personal journey.

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    • Thanks, Jess. The anxiety, grief and at-sea-ness took me by surprise. It’s good to know I’m not alone in the experience.

      I’m kind of treating it like booking another adventure after the reality crash of returning home from a trip. Trying to find a new project to fill the void! We’ll see how successful I am at that.

      Deb

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  2. Also: social constructionist, narrative inquirist, singer and teacher identity are all my things too. Maybe not phenomenology. Love your use of Alice in Wonderland as a guiding structure. Synchronicity!

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  3. Ooh. Another thing to consider in the coming months is the slide of identity from journeyman scholar, new graduate (that’s Dr to you, thank you bank, airline and miss snooty at the fashion shop), to “oh, that old thing?” Finally, the small falling away of knowledge, memory, even mental agility: day by day, until you can barely remember the thrum of new epiphanies and deep learning. And then, the sloughing of old skin for a new identity. Took time for me but I’m learning to see possibilities in new ideas and ways of being.

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    • What a wonderful way of putting the doctoral experience: the thrum of new epiphanies and deep learning. Such an epic intellectual experience! I find the shifting identity stuff fascinating and am interested to see where mine takes me. I’m still obsessed with narratology so want to hold onto the storyteller in me.

      Liked by 1 person

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