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

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.

The PhD as collaborative work not lone journey

light at the end of the tunnel

light at the end of the tunnel (taken with an iPhone & Olloclip in an old train tunnel)

though the road is rocky / sure feels good to me ~ Bob Marley

Sometimes my PhD has felt like a solitary slog, with long isolated times deep in the subterranean thesis cave. At times of intellectual and emotional struggle, the embers of self-belief and persistence can seem to be dying in the darkness and enormity of the work at hand. The sounds of keystrokes and the scratching of pen on paper echo through seemingly empty caverns. Hands knead and brows furrow in the silence. Fist-pump moments of success swirl in a vortex of separateness. The occasional tweet is sent out as a kind of SOS, with hashtags punctuating the despair or grim solitude; #amwriting #sendhelp #needcoffee #phdchat.

The feeling of isolation is partly why I am so grateful when anyone asks about my PhD. I know that others don’t like being asked about their progress on what is a long process seemingly without an end. But for me, “How’s it going?” becomes an invitation to bring my experiences out from inside my head and make them real through talk. Sharing with someone who seems interested is a relief. I am awash with gratefulness for those who have been willing to hear about my PhD work.

In fact the PhD is not a solo effort, but collaborative, work. It is shaped by personal and supervisory relationships, by reading, by feedback, and by the examination process. As I do my post-examination thesis revisions, I’m aware that the final document, while stamped with my name, only exists in its final form because of the fluid interactions, over years, with others.

I have been influenced by the words and work of scholars (there are 376 references in my reference list at last count). In this way, my work emerges out of, situates itself alongside, or reacts against, the work of others. Research is academic conversation.

I have read the blogged experiences of others and the advice of online academics, which have shaped my understanding of my own experiences. People I know through social media have shown support and engaged me in conversation.

My supervisors have read my work, given feedback, and coached me through challenges. My mum read my work, especially early on, and helped me to talk about and think through my ideas. My research proposal panel provided advice and feedback on the direction I intended to take. Editors and peer reviewers, from journals and conferences, have commented on the ways in which I have shared my doctoral work through the writing of academic papers. Conference goers have listened to me present and engaged me in conversation about my work, or asked questions which have helped me think it through. My examiners have provided feedback to which I am currently responding.

So whose work is the PhD? Mine, all mine? Not really. The words are those I have written but on which others have made comment. The sweat and tears on the page are mine, but informed and supported by the words and actions of others. A PhD thesis is indelibly shaped by webs of influence. As Pat Thomson points out, the PhD is not a wholly individualistic journey, but a social and relational one. Even a political one. Whose is the responsibility for a candidate’s progress, success or failure, and the quality of the final thesis?

As I finish up my post-examination amendments, I’m aware that the text I’m presenting to the world is what it is because of the messy web of influences on me, my work and my writing. The one page of acknowledgements seems to be hardly enough to communicate the social networked nature of a dissertation.


PhD thesis S. U. B. M. I. T. T. E. D.

thesis submission gift to self: my favourite bubbles

thesis submission gift to self: my favourite bubbles

 Yay. Yay. And yay.

Right now I have very few words left in me to write a blog post, which says in itself a lot about what the final days of the PhD are like.

But here I am.

2 years and 359 days after enrolling.

I have 95,777 words (not including front matter, references or appendices).

355 cited references.

3 illustrations.

1 figure.

4 appendices.

Exhaustion gratitude excitement pride.

Delirium relief disbelief happiness.

It is Ph.inishe.D.

For now.

Until the examiners’ reports arrive.

by @debsnet

3 spiral bound copies, ready to be posted to examiners

As predicted, submission didn’t bring with it ceremonious trumpeting, thunderous cheers, or a blessing of unicorns galloping over a shimmering rainbow. But I did get hugs from my supervisors and heartfelt congratulations from the staff in the Graduate Research Office, as well as a signed congratulations card, a Polaroid photograph of me holding my thesis and a Freddo frog chocolate.

And on the way home I gifted myself a bottle of my favourite champagne, because if you can’t do that when you’ve submitted a PhD thesis, when can you?

Tonight I’m off to my school’s valedictory dinner for our Year 12 students, a big milestone for them. So I’ll get to relax and celebrate with colleagues and my Year 12s. Then I’ll celebrate with my husband and children over the weekend.

I’ve loved the PhD journey so far, but I’m looking forward to taking a break from the obsession and luxuriating in some family time and self care.

Thanks to all who supported me thus far in my PhD narrative. Your support has been so important to me.

It’s a wonderful milestone, but it’s not over! I’ve yet to see what the examiners make of my work, or the extent of recommended revisions.

To be continued … 


Preparing the thesis for examination: Days until submission

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.. ~ Paul Valery

by @debsnet

I have reached that point of the PhD which every candidate feels might never come … only days until submission. While I have been pushing to the end, it has not been a manic panic to a firm deadline. I will be submitting within three years from enrolling but there was no real reason to work to this submission date except that I had a personal goal of completing within three years, and the thesis played along so it became possible (yay!). I did have Plans B and C in the back of my mind in case it didn’t happen as I hoped it would. I considered pushing out my self-imposed deadline, or if I was really struggling, taking six months off work and applying for a completion scholarship. As it happened, I’ve managed to achieve my personal deadline while working, so I didn’t need to activate alternate plans.

In this last week, I’ll have no more meetings with supervisors. They have a new electronic copy of the thesis and will be giving me their final feedback by phone two days before I finalise the document. Then I will be sending the final copy electronically to my principal supervisor for sighting, before we both sign off on it, after which point I’ll walk my usb stick ceremoniously to the print shop, and ask for four copies of the thesis to be printed. Whenever the printing is done (I’m told it might be same-day, or up to two working days) I’ll submit it and receive … glory? champagne? fanfare? the sound of angels singing and unicorns galloping over shimmery rainbows? … a receipt of submission.

In this post, I’d like to share a couple of tech tools that I’ve found useful in this last few weeks to submission.

While I decided not to use a professional editor for my thesis (I’ll let you know how that goes!), I was so pleased when a comment on this blog led me to PerfectIt editing software, which has a 30 day free trial – just in time for me in the month before submission. PerfectIt checks for consistency of language such as hyphenated words, use of numerals and abbreviations. Just like a spell check, you need to consider each individual case rather than clicking ‘Fix All’. Finding this software was brilliant because it helped me look at what is a really big document with a view to ensuring my word choice was consistent from start to finish.

I was also delighted to discover, just yesterday, the free online tool Recite, which checks references, including between the reference list and the body of the document. So helpful for someone like me who has done manual referencing throughout!

So the thesis is feeling, not finished, but ready for examination. The above quote by Paul Valery is often misquoted as “art is never finished; it is abandoned”. The thesis is never finished, it is submitted. I think that’s different because I could keep reading (and reading and reading). I could keep editing over and over, although I’m finding mostly minor errors now. But it’s a little like renovating a house. Just as you improve one thing (replace the curtains!) you realise the next thing to be done (the walls need to be painted!). The layers of final thesis refinement go on and on as small iterations and improvements are made. The final formatting makes it feel like the real deal; a document coming together in readiness for a home open. Yet despite my best efforts, the observer-examiner coming through might think it needs a new bathroom or a different kind of flooring, no matter how much I’ve painted or polished.

As Valery says, it is finished because of the need to deliver. And it is one in a series of small transformations; not an end-of-the-road magnum opus but a beginning-of-being-a-researcher moment of identity formation. So it feels finished enough to take flight to be judged by those outside of myself and my supervisors. We think the thesis is at doctoral examinable quality, but I’ll be interested in what three external experts, each with their own lens, think about it. Perhaps they’ll have questions about theory or method. Perhaps corrections will be minor. Maybe there’ll be no corrections at all! Isn’t that the PhD dream?

I’m trying to look at examination through the rose-coloured lens that it is a process to improve and strengthen my work, so that, as one examiner in the Mullins and Kiley (2002) paper said, it ‘glows more brightly’ on the library shelf. Surely, I think, the examiners have agreed to examine my thesis because the abstract piqued their interest in some way? And surely they will approach it with a view to both recognising my work and giving feedback to make the thesis a better product. Right?

Risky business: Living on the PhD edge

The doctoral requirement for the candidate to produce a significant and original piece of work … indicates that the most significant and original ideas can be those that are most likely to challenge the status quo or the scholarly paradigm within which they are examined. … the ‘best’ doctoral research is likely to be much riskier than modest research. ~ Professor Terry Evans



As I inch towards the thesis submission finish line, I have been pointed towards Terry Evans’ 2004 AARE paper, ‘Risky doctorates: Managing doctoral studies in Australia as managing risk’ by the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC. The above quote is from this paper and surfaces the interesting point that the pursuit of knowledge and science is perhaps better served by research which is willing to take risks and challenge accepted knowledge and paradigms. Yet Evans goes on to note that the performative measures imposed on academics and universities encourage modest paradigm-following research, rather than that which is risky, status-quo-challenging and paradigm-bending. That is, PhD researchers are most likely to play within the established rules of the game, in order to complete within time and assure a pass. Evans argues that this results in the loss of “unknown and incalculable benefits” to science and scholarship.

This makes me feel better and worse about the PhD thesis which I’m hoping to submit in the next few weeks. Better, because I think my research is risky; at least the bricolaged – that is, bespoke and woven-together from a number of traditions – paradigm and the way I’ve chosen to communicate my findings. I haven’t totally smashed through academic norms; my thesis is still recognisable as such. But I have pushed at the edges of what is accepted. I’ve been ok with embracing my discomfort and doing things that seem, within the traditional schema of the academe, ‘out there’. My work proposes slightly new ways to go about protecting participant anonymity and communicating participant stories. It is these things about which I am presenting at the AARE conference in November.

While I am feeling proud of my research and my writing (despite having chosen not to employ a professional editor), Evans’ paper also makes me feel nervous because I am getting ready to send my thesis off to three external experts who are to examine my thesis. In the USA and the UK PhD examination usually involves a viva voce, or oral defense, of the thesis, followed by questions. Examiners are then able to deliberate before deciding on the result. In the USA the committee is made up primarily of professors from the candidate’s university, including their supervisor (who hopefully supports the work). Under the Australian system, my thesis will be sent off to three different individuals, including one external Australian examiner and two international examiners, who don’t know me or the work at all. These three people will read my thesis and send in their (potentially conflicting reports), without any discussion between them. At least if examiners’ reports disagree about the quality of thesis, there is a majority one way or another.

While I hope that my thesis is one in which the examiners think the work is interesting an original, and the text worth reading, there’s a lot riding on the opinions of three people, coming from different places, different perspectives and different paradigms. That’s part of the challenge of a bricolaged thesis which weaves together multiple phenomena and methodological threads; there isn’t a clear box in which it fits. Risky.

writing retreat collage, by @debsnet

Having just come back from a mini revision retreat in Sydney (read: 2 nights solo, away from work and family commitments – a PhD-working-parent’s dream), I am so deep ‘in’ my text that I can’t see the wood from the trees. As I have worked at the various levels of editing, I’ve been in the forest, sometimes looking at the whole lot together, sometimes at patches in between and sometimes at teeny micro details. Undergrowth. Canopy. Bark. Branches. Veins of leaves. Reflections in dewdrops. The feel of earth and sound of sticks underfoot. Birdsong. I’m so immersed at this point that I’ve lost direction. Time to take a brief step back to regain perspective. A helicopter ride to survey the scene wouldn’t go astray.

A couple of iterations ago, my primary supervisor said, ‘You could hand it in like this,’ which gives me hope that if the text is better now, it can only be more submittable. I’ll have to see what my supervisors say tomorrow about the most recent version of my thesis. Is it good? Is it good enough? Is it risky? Is it finished? Is it finished enough? Are there mistakes? Will the examiners be sympathetic to my approach? It’s so hard to know because, while I can read other dissertations, the PhD process for me has been in isolation from other students; I don’t know where my work sits on a continuum of doctoral standards.

I guess at some point, it’s time to trust, print, send, and see.

Recipe of a good reference list: Ingredients for PhD success

The doctoral researcher invites to the table the scholars she would like to join her for a conversation over the evening meal. … As host to this party, she makes space for the guests to talk about their work, but in relation to her own work. ~ Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision

Who's coming to dinner? by @debsnet

Who’s coming to dinner?

The reference list of a doctoral thesis is the summary of years of reading and developing ways to critically and respectfully talk about reading in an academic voice. It’s also a list of the ingredients of the thesis, of what was collected and selected from which to create our work.

With over 300 references, my PhD thesis reference list runs to 19 pages and almost 8000 words. As I (check and check and check and) consider that list, I ponder what makes a ‘good’ reference list.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, in their book Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, talk about using literatures to ‘establish the territory’ or ‘assemble the dinner party guests’. In their dinner party metaphor, which they attribute originally to John Smyth, they discuss the choosing of what literature to include as hosting a dinner party, in which the thesis writer invites to the table those scholars with which their work engages. This gets the candidate to think about what academic conversation/s their thesis inserts itself into, and with which scholarly groups they belong.

I have also read and heard that examiners sometimes read the thesis from the back (urban PhD legend or real deal?). That is, they flick straight to the references, then perhaps to the introduction, the conclusion, then … the findings? Who knows?

Tara Brabazon, for instance, in her 2010 article in the Times, writes:

Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.

The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located. …

If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.

If my reference list was the first thing my examiners looked at I wonder what they would be looking for or what they might think. If I’m being judged on the calibre of my sources, I wonder how my reference list reflects the quality of my scholarship.

I wonder about the ratio of old and new references. My list includes some of the godfathers and matriarchs of the areas of my research; the early works. But when it comes to texts cited from the 1990s, will the reader be wondering why I’m citing not-foundational-but-not-recent texts? Do these texts help to show that I know the field or do they call the relevancy of my list into question? I have also included recent references, including a number published this year. I’m hoping that this shows that my work draws on the very newest thinking in my field. So, I’m hopeful that this combination of old/foundational, middle (some of which are seminal texts for their field), and brand-spanking-new will create a portrait of literatures well canvassed. As Pat Thomson notes in this blog post, examiners know the field, and so will know ‘the originals’. It’s the doctoral candidate’s job to show that they know where their field came from, as well as where it is now.

I have also been thinking about the kinds of texts expected to make up the doctoral reference list. My Voxer doctoral group has thrown up the question about whether blogs and social media can be included in the reference list of a dissertation. My own understanding is that they can be – each style has guidelines for how to cite blog posts and tweets – but that the accepted norm is that a reference list is made up of academic texts, articles from peer-reviewed journals, a few doctoral dissertations and some reports from large organisations. The doctoral dissertations give me hope that mine may get cited on day too! While I’ve seen blogs and tweets used as data, I don’t see them as being considered appropriate references in most PhD theses, unless that medium is central to the field. I haven’t cited any in my own thesis.

Both Pat Thomson and Tara Brabazon mentioned the perils of sloppy or lazy scholarship, which can be revealed through an inaccurate or incomplete (according to the reader) reference list. How is the candidate to know what is enough and when is enough? I am in my final revisions, planning to submit within a month, and still I am reading and inserting citations and references! A recent post on the Thesis Whisperer blog talked about academic FOMO (fear of missing out). I have reading FOMO: the overwhelming fear that if I don’t keep reading, I will miss a seminal paper or a text of importance to my work. And as my thesis uses a bricolaged methodology (different traditions woven together), as well as three phenomena, plus some important contextual factors, there’s plenty to know and plenty to read.

So how, to use Kamler and Thomson’s metaphor, do I know when I’ve invited enough people to my dinner party? Or if they are the right guests?

I found that I started relaxing about the scope of my reference list when I began seeing the same names appearing and reappearing in the texts I was reading. ‘Oh yes,’ I could finally say, ‘I’m familiar with the key names cited here; reading this hasn’t led me to hunt down ten new references.’ But I’m pretty sure I’ll know that the reference-list-litmus-test will only be finished when I press ‘print’ on the final copy.

Professional editing for the PhD thesis?

An editor is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one then you are better off alone. ~ Toni Morrison

NYC Central Park statue, by @debsnet

I am at the pointy end of thesis revision. I’ve had some lessons in revising, and even a brief local writing retreat. I’m intending to submit my PhD dissertation next month, 3 years after I enrolled. Can I get a ‘Woooot!’?

And as I quadruple cross-check my references, re-read for APA comma use, and re-re-re-re-re-read each chapter, I’m wondering if I should get an editor or proof-reader for my thesis. Of course my thesis has been read by others – my two supervisors and my mum (hooray for mums!) – but for now, despite knowing that being so close to my text might mean I’m not seeing its problems, I’m not intending to employ an editor.

I know people who have paid in the vicinity of AUD$2000, tax deductible, to have their thesis copy-edited by a freelance academic-slash-editor or an academic editing company. It costs marginally less for a simpler copy check which refines accuracy, rather than also ‘improving’ the quality of the writing.

While this post on the Thesis Whisperer blog is written by an editing company (and look at that – it’s pro editing!), there are some interesting comments there from those who have used editors and proof-readers to varying degrees.

I can see the argument for getting a thesis professionally edited. If I was writing a novel or a book through a publisher, it would be professionally edited. This would ensure that any typos or errors I am missing would be picked up. It might streamline, strengthen or dilute my writing, according to the editor’s discretion. I know of one post-PhD person who swears by her editor, saying that he made her writing better, stronger and more accurate. I know of another who used the same editor, who was annoyed at him for trying to change the voice of her writing and disagreed with many of his edits.

From my personal perspective, a few things are influencing my decision. English is my first language, I’m an English and Literature teacher, and a writer of sorts (if you consider my amateur attempts at blogging, copy writing, dissertating and the occasional dabble in poetry to be writing). So I feel like I should be capable of this task. And I want the thesis to be a work that is totally mine. Maybe it’s because, as Pat Thomson wrote yesterday, and as I mused in this post about writing the discussion chapter, writing is more than writing a text, it is writing ourselves into scholarly being. I’ve been writing myself into my researcher/academic-writer identity. I feel as though I don’t want that being-becoming-researcher ‘me’ to be shaped by an editor’s hand or moulded by a both-proverbial-and-tangible red pen, externally poised to correct and erase.

I’ve been very deliberate about the way I’ve written my thesis, and I know my style of academic writing might be considered idiosyncratic. I’m simultaneously proud of what I’ve produced, and aware that it is very ‘me’, which might be seen by examiners and readers as positive or questionable. My work might be seen as operating at the edges of PhD scholarship, of pushing against those edges a bit in an attempt to see if they move, just a little. Maybe it’s the non-conformist anti-authoritarian in me who doesn’t want to invest in this opportunity. Perhaps I see it as having my writing, and therefore my researcher-self, boxed in by the expectations and rules of someone else (even thought I know that of course a PhD conforms to rules of style). I don’t want an editor to change the voice of the text, and while a proof reader might pick up some un-picked-up typographical errors, I want to own the text, typos and all (while at the same time hoping that there aren’t any errors).

It’s perhaps ironic that I would expect my students to consider my writing advice or suggested corrections, and that I listen attentively my supervisors’ comments. Perhaps this is about relationships and trust; the unknown faceless editor, as opposed to someone who knows me and my work. And yet I know that this is precisely why the editor is able to see the text anew and without the bias which comes from being the deep-in-the-thesis-cave candidate or the have-worked-with-the-student-for-years-and-know-the-project-inside-out supervisor.

What do you think? Can you make sense of my confused and contradictory thinking around having or not having a doctoral thesis edited or proof-read professionally? Is choosing not to use an editor’s services honourable purism or deluded idiocy?

Thinking about doctoral study? How to get started.

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ~ Anaïs Nin

thinking of opening the PhD door? ~ Oia, Santorini

thinking of opening the doctoral door? ~ Oia, Santorini

In response to a number of questions from friends and colleagues about how to get started on a doctorate, I’ve written this blog post. It deals with what to consider when starting on your doctoral journey, and a bit about my story and how I went about it.

Remember that each person who is doing or has done a doctorate (including your supervisors!) has only done one. We will each base our recommendations on our singular experience, although supervisors have the additional experiences of guiding and examining doctoral students. My experience is not your experience, but it has been positive, and I would wish that for anyone taking on the doctoral thesis beast.

PhD or EdD?

The boundaries between doctoral degrees seem blurry to me, but my understanding is that the PhD is seen as the more academic qualification and the EdD is seen as the more professional qualification. The EdD is apparently about knowledge for and in practice, of more relevance to practitioners in the world of schools, whereas the PhD is seen as focused on the theoretical, of more relevance to those in the academe.

It seems, though, in Education, that many PhDs are undertaken by practitioners, around their own practice, and with practical implications. And I can’t imagine a school leadership appointment being affected by the Ed/Ph difference. So I’m not entirely sure why the distinction is necessary (apart from that Harvard started the professional doctorate trend and everyone else got on board). Please, someone, enlighten me!

From a course-content viewpoint, in universities local to me, the EdD has both coursework and (smaller than PhD) dissertation, while the PhD is a pure research degree with no coursework components. This means that an EdD candidate is required to turn up at courses, intended to help them prepare for the scholarly work of the dissertation, while a PhD candidate is not. In this way, the EdD candidate is provided with more formal support, as their coursework is usually done in preparation for their research project/s.

When I enrolled in my degree, I had a 6 month old and a 2 year old, and shortly after enrolling I went back to work, so coursework for which I needed to be in a particular place at a particular time did not work for me. My circumstances were more suited to doing my research in flexi times, often late at night or while children slept. While I was an educator not thinking about a job in the academy, as a book-and-writing-loving nerd I happily committed to the Doctor of Philosophy.

From a financial perspective, Australian citizens or permanent residents studying their doctorate (professional or PhD) in Australia are currently not required to pay fees (except the usual university student fees). These higher degrees are subsidised by the Research Training Scheme (RTS), although this may change from 2016. A funded RTS place is granted for four years’ full-time study equivalent, so it doesn’t go on forever!

The Doctor of Philosophy / Doctor of Education choice is worth thinking about from your own perspective. Where are you coming from? What are your circumstances? Where do you want your study to take you? Would you benefit from some coursework to kick start your degree, and a smaller thesis to manage?

Talk to people who’ve done both options. Talk to academics and university offices. Talk to school leaders. Talk to potential supervisors. Ask the Twitterverse or the blogosphere. Figure out your best option.

PhD by ‘big book’ or ‘publication’

If undertaking a PhD, it is worth thinking from the outset about whether you want to prepare a ‘big book’ thesis, or take the option of ‘thesis by publication’ in which your thesis includes a series of papers, some of which are published and which can be co-authored. These papers would stand alone, but also be tied together in the thesis by an introduction and conclusion in which you explain how they work together for your research purposes.

While the ‘by paper’ option is increasingly popular, I chose the big book variety as I conceptualised my study as a whole narrative. While I have been writing conference papers and journal articles from my thesis material, I did not want my thesis to be a collection of papers, which felt disjointed to me. I envisaged (I had a dream!) my thesis as a holistic magnum opus which would bend my mind and test the limits of my researcherly readerly writerly thinkerly muscles. A little theatrical, but it was my choice, and it has suited me. I’m sure it would be some people’s idea of a nightmare!

To help you make your decision about the big book vs. the publications, you might find these blog posts useful:

How to get started? Local university or the perfect supervisor at a remote campus?

Apart from you, I think the most important thing to help you complete your doctorate is a good supervisory relationship. It’s worth thinking about who and where your supervisors might be. My university required me to have two supervisors before I enrolled so this was an early decision; you forge this relationship before you begin.

You might know some academics who can steer you towards appropriate supervisors. I didn’t, so performed a combination of cyber stalking and cold calling. I looked at academics’ profiles and publications at local universities, and sent emails to the Deans of Education and HDR officers, and/or to individual professors. My email included an introduction and a brief outline of my idea for my study, as well as an attached curriculum vitae.

After receiving a number of positive replies, I ended up going with the person who showed the most genuine interest and excitement in me and my project. That supervisor then helped to find a second supervisor who was complementary. These two individuals have been wonderful for me. I have no dramatic personal stories of supervisory angst or neglect. My supervisors have provided me with a thoughtful combination of encouragement and critique, comfort and discomfort. They have allowed me to walk my own path and shape my research into something in which I believe. When I have suggested left-of-field ideas they have provided challenge, but also the space for me to argue my case and provide a rationale that will stand up to the academy, and then cheered as I carved out my space as a researcher.

Amber Davis has recently penned some good tips for being supervised. I agree with her that supervisors are very busy academics, often under many pressures. As a PhD candidate I see the responsibility for managing my project as up to me. They help me through it as advisors, mentors and colleagues (there is a point in the PhD when supervision starts to feel more like a peer-to-peer process), but I need to have ownership and drive my own study as researcher.

My experience of supervision at a local university is that the face-to-face meetings have been an important aspect of my PhD experience and have often propelled me forward. While we have used Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox and email to supplement face to face interaction, I am glad I chose to be supervised at a university in my own city, as the person-to-person interaction has borne the most powerful feedback and progress.

Choose your path

So I chose to study a PhD via a big book thesis at a local university. Mine is one set of choices and experiences. I would love to hear other stories and other perspectives.

Good luck with your doctoral travels, however they may begin and wherever they may lead you!

traversing the PhD road? ~ London in the snow

traversing the doctoral road? ~ London in the snow

Revising writing: Lessons from the PhD thesis

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in. ~ Henry Green

Musée d’Orsay clock - the neverending tick tick of the PhD

Musée d’Orsay clock – the neverending tick tick of the PhD

The PhD is a long journey which seemingly goes on infinitely. Just as the doctoral researcher reaches one summit or one horizon, another appears. It’s easy to feel like there is little time to stop at each point, take a breath, enjoy the view, and look at how far we’ve come. Usually the researcher straightens her shoulders beneath her rucksack and begins trudging up the next slope. (Or is it skipping up the slope? Storming the incline? I don’t want my language to be too negative. I love my PhD but its hard work is part of its transformativity.)

This weekend I hit a point in my PhD which I decided warranted celebration. 2 years and 9 months after enrolling, I sent my revised full thesis draft to my principal supervisor.

There are still revisions to go and work to do (of course) but making my way through the full text to the point where I felt it hung together as a whole, felt like a summit worth stopping at. Sitting on a rock, taking a peanut butter sandwich out of my pack and reflecting on the path I’ve traversed so far. (Ok, peanut butter sandwiches are not my culinary celebratory choice; I went out with friends for lychee martinis.)

Gullfoss waterfall ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you've come

Gullfoss waterfall after a blizzard ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you’ve come

So, how did the revisions go?

To give some context, my qualitative PhD has 10 chapters which roughly cover: 1) Introduction; 2) Literature Review; 3) Research Question; 4) Methodology; 5) Method; 6) Data/Story/Findings #1; 7) Data/Story/Findings #2; 8) Data/Story/Findings #3; 9) Discussion; and 10) Conclusion. The review of literature covers my three studied phenomena, plus a contextual issue. The narrative data chapters are split into three chapters, one story for each group of participants.

When I finished the first full unrevised draft, I sent my supervisors Chapters 9 and 10. After the consequent supervision meeting, I revised these. That way, I had the end in mind when I went back to the Introduction. I could see the beginning and end as matching book ends to be viewed together.

Revision from the start of the text began on my PhD writing (well, revision) retreat, which got me into a revision routine and mindset.

My revision system was: take a hard copy chapter and make annotated revisions -> go back to the Word document and make revisions, highlighting any sections of text that still felt rough, or that I hadn’t yet ‘solved’ -> go to next chapter. I worked through from chapters 1 to 10 like this. Then I revisited my highlighted sections. Then I went over the Introduction again, which needed the most work. I always tell my students that the introduction is your reader’s first impression, and your conclusion is what you leave your reader with. Spend time on them.

Other revision bits and pieces included checking references, checking for APA comma use, and the most desperate of phdcrastination techniques: changing the font! (I chose Garamond for its classic serif 16th century gorgeousness).

I found that the first half of the thesis needed more work than the second half. Luckily, as I got towards the end and felt like I was lumbering through wet cement, the text was better, the meaning was clearer, the writing was more assured.

One thing that helped me at the end of this full draft revision was the support of the Twitter community. Curled up on the couch with my Surface on my lap, I tweeted out an academic SOS and had a number of people reply. Not only that, but they followed up in the next days to see how I was travelling. I was so grateful to these doctoral candidates and scholars who took the time to make me feel as though I wasn’t isolated in my struggle deep in the shadows of the PhD cave. Solidarity. Inspiration. Advice. Thank you #phdchat community and others who responded to my despondence when I was fighting to my deadline!

So, what might be my advice for the full draft revision stage of the PhD?

1. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to revise your text. The first three chapters, about 40 pages, took me my entire writing retreat weekend. There are many layers of revision. Revision for continuity of argument, consistency of language use, for paragraph sequence and structure, for accuracy of language, consistency of referencing and compliance to style. The earlier your writing, the more work it is likely to need.

2. Be open to really changing your text. This revision stage isn’t as much for moving punctuation around as it is for thinking about the essence and elegance of argument. What is necessary? What is superlative? What belongs or doesn’t belong? How is the argument hanging together? Is it consistent from beginning to end? Am I dropping the flags for the reader to follow?

3. Don’t be afraid to chop chop chop. I cut 8000 words from my bloated thesis in this first round of revision. It was great to be at a stage where I didn’t feel sentimentally attached to my words, where I was able to consider their purpose and let them go if they weren’t strengthening the narrative. As the quote at the beginning of this post says, what we leave out serves to highlight what we leave in. I knew my argument would benefit from being strengthened through streamlining (and my readers would rejoice – less words!).

As I edited, I was thinking of this post by Pat Thomson in which she writes “Pat is in the lounge room reading a thesis. She is finding it hard going and wants to go back to bed.” This put me in the frame of mind to think about my reader. I don’t want reading my thesis to be hard going or painful or ‘when will she just get to the point?’ I want the reader to be propelled through the text, with enough detail and a sense of excitement of what is to come.

I’m excited to hear my supervisor’s feedback in a few weeks. My supervisors have seen the chapters bit by bit over time, but not the whole text together. And I’ve left a couple of flourishes as a surprise.

The draft is at a stage that has me feeling pleased and proud that my study has resulted in a thesis document which makes an exciting contribution to my area in a way that is systematic, creative, full of powerful authentic stories, and maybe slightly subversive in the realm of traditional academic writing.

While there is more work to go, it felt right to pause and celebrate a PhD moment.