Flashback Friday: The end of the PhD

The end of the PhD. I remember it well, or so my long line of PhD-finishing blog posts might seem to attest. These include (and this is just a selection) …

The end of a doctorate is a rollercoaster of emotion. One, it turns out, I had largely forgotten. While my blog posts act as bread crumbs back to those experiences, the feelings themselves have faded, softened and blunted over time.

Today, I was reminded.

I still connect with the ‘DocVox’ Voxer (voice-to-voice messaging app) group that helped support me through my PhD. This is a group of mostly doctoral (PhD and EdD) candidates from the USA, plus a couple of us from Australasia. I figure staying in the Voxer group despite having finished the PhD helps me to pay back by continuing to support those who are still on their journey. It was via this group that I was today reminded of the visceral nature of the last bit of the PhD.

This morning a candidate from the US was Voxing about the blind panic they were feeling as they near dissertation submission. As I Voxed a response, I tried to reassure the person that their experience was normal. I recalled how in the last months of my PhD I had brutal insomnia. I clenched my jaw in my sleep despite chomping magnesium before bed to try and calm myself down and slow the mania of my obsessive mind. When I did sleep, I had nightmares, a recurring one of which was that I died and my almost-but-not-yet-finished PhD never saw the light of day, but languished, unexamined and unpublished. As I spoke, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice cracked. Some of that emotion returned in an intense flash. Wow, I thought, I didn’t think I was very affected by my experience. I was reminded as I spoke of the isolation of those moments, ones I didn’t really talk about because despite being surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, it didn’t seem something they would understand.

There are times in the PhD when everyone thinks you must be finished by now but you know you have so far to go, and times when it seems you should feel happy but instead you feel strange and empty. It’s a weird, emotional and quite a lonely time.

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It’s almost 13 months since I was doctored. That moment was a glorious one. I awoke in Washington DC, after attending and presenting at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. I had met a number of my academic heroes, as well as colleagues I knew only through Twitter and those that I met at the conference at sessions or in the epically long queue at Starbucks. I had nailed the presentation about my research and spent an hour in the corridor afterwards fielding questions and discussion. One of these discussions carried over to lunch and an ongoing professional connection. I’d had a great conference and was in edu-nerd heaven. It was the perfect moment for doctoring.

So, the day after AERA closed, I awoke in my Dupont Circle Airbnb apartment and checked my email, to find a ‘Congratulations, Doctor Netolicky’ email confirming the conferment of my PhD. I whooped, I shrieked, I clapped. I cried. I fist pumped. I felt overwhelmed and triumphant.

It was my last day in DC and I floated on rainbow-fairy-floss-cloud-nine as I swanned around the city in the magnificent sunshine. I was on my own, so I took this selfie (below) to remind myself of that elation. The iPhone snap mightn’t look like much to anyone else, but whenever I see it, it catapults me back to that moment of pure joy. Unadulterated I-am-now-Dr-Me exhilaration.

Now I have the luxury of being a pracademic, part school leader-teacher-practitioner, part early-career-scholar-researcher. During the PhD, finishing the doctorate always felt like an ending, but as I look back I can see that it was a beginning. I am now able to luxuriate more serenely in the oasis of academic writing, and to enjoy the gentle challenge of scholarly collaboration and conversation. And to apply my doctoral experience to my daily work.

The emotions fade, but it turns out they’re still there, in memory and in deep in the bowels of the iPhone camera roll.

DC doctor selfie

Why selling a house is like finishing a doctorate

Sold! Now what?

Sold! Now what?

This week my husband and I sold our house and bought another one, so it’s been a week filled with terrifying leaps of faith, trembling uncertainty, and dizzying highs that have involved actual whooping and jumping up and down. During this selling-buying-a-home experience, I was viscerally reminded of what it feels like at the end stages of a PhD.

Firstly, no matter how much work you have put in to getting your home ready for sale (or getting your PhD ready for examination), you don’t know how it’s going to go in the marketplace (or examiners’ eyes). There’s nail-biting insecurity that you won’t get the result you want. The waiting is insomnia-inducing. What if there is a low offer or no offer (a major revisions or a revise and resubmit)?

Secondly, there is no clear ending to the process, and no clear-cut moment to celebrate. We put our house on the market in January, like submitting a PhD to examiners, and then we have waited for results to come in. On Sunday night we received an offer, but it didn’t seem time to open the champagne. Nor did it the next night when we accepted that offer. Yes, we had sold our house, but celebrating the possibility of being without a home for our family didn’t seem appropriate. We put an offer on another house, but until it was accepted we didn’t feel we could celebrate. Even then (and we did celebrate) we are still faced with small milestones to complete and dominoes to fall, before we know that both sales are unconditional (finance, inspections, settlement).

Similarly, the end of the PhD seems to go on and on. There’s thesis submission. There’s the waiting game for examiners’ reports. Often, there’re the revisions. There is acceptance of those corrections and conferral of the degree and the title of ‘Doctor’ (which for me, was marked by having just presented at the AERA conference in DC). The printing of the bound PhD thesis that will luxuriate on the library shelf. The rollercoaster of completion emotions. There is graduation. Then there’s the first aeroplane boarding pass with ‘Dr’ on it, and the first post-graduation event when you get to wear the floppy hat and doctoral robes. There’s even the identity tussle as you come to terms with your doctorness, just as I’m sure my husband and I will need to transition from our current home, which we love and in which we have raised two young boys, to a new home which offers up the stage for the next chapter in our story.

It was interesting for me to note the way that an unrelated life event could bring my memories of the tail end of my PhD rushing back so vividly. Perhaps some of life’s most rewarding experiences are those which test our mental toughness, give us sleepless nights, and which don’t have clear cut endings.

PhD: The gift that keeps on giving

my bespoke graduation shoes

my bespoke graduation shoes

I submitted the PhD last October. I finished my corrections in March. My doctorate was conferred in April. I wrote blog posts about completion: how it felt, struggling with my doctorness, what happens in Australian PhD examination.

So it should feel long ago done-and-dusted by now, right? I should have nothing left to say about the PhD.

Yet I still have PhD reflections and I feel as thought I am still having PhD experiences. I’ve remained in a doctoral Voxer group because the after-the-PhD bit still feels like part of the PhD journey. I continue to blog about the PhD as I am still reflecting on its processes, products and outcomes, some of which emerge overtime.

Here are some of the ways that the PhD keeps on giving …

Academic writing

The wonderful thing about completing the thesis and having it passed is that it frees you up to write more tightly-woven pieces from your PhD literature, method, data and findings. Pat Thomson has recently written a very useful post on how to find journal articles in and from the doctoral thesis. You can look for interesting pieces relevant to particular journals, new ways of looking at your data, specific fields in which your work has something to add. This bit—in which you realise that your work has something to offer scholarly conversations and that you can create new offshoots of writing so that it to be heard in appropriate fields—is empowering and even fun. I’m even becoming better at seeing peer review as a growth process in which I am privileged to participate, rather than an ordeal to be endured.

The three solo-authored peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve had published (or accepted for publication) so far include one on coaching as a professional learning intervention, one around the use of literary metaphor as method in academic writing and one on my findings around professional learning (in press). I have a co-authored paper on method that is under review. I have an ethics paper I’m working on with my supervisors. I have a book chapter in preparation which re-considers my school leader data through a new lens, in a previously unfamiliar field. I have more ideas about what bits and pieces of my thesis might have to offer before I retire it. The more I read and write, the more possibilities I see for reporting on or re-seeing my PhD work.


I’ve been told that my PhD adds credibility to my voice when I present and to the work that I do. My thesis has been downloaded from the university website over 250 times since it was uploaded in March. I’m not sure where this number sits in terms of metrics for dissertations, but it does suggest that my thesis is being read (or at least filed away with the intention of reading it).

I’ve been acknowledged via the 2016 ACEL New Voice in educational Research scholarship, which I’ll be receiving in Melbourne in September. My thesis has also been nominated for the Outstanding Research Award in Cognitive Coaching.

Formal recognition of the completed work of the PhD remind me of its worth. Informal feedback, too, in which scholars or PhD candidates get in touch with me to let me know how my work has been influential for them, is also thrilling.

Graduation and the floppy hat

While I’ve been conferred my doctorate and therefore can call myself ‘doctor’, my actual graduation ceremony isn’t until next month.

This is when I get to go up on stage to receive my printed degree. I didn’t attend graduation for my undergraduate degree, but for the PhD I feel like I need this rite of passage, this moment of celebration. To embrace the pomp and find closure in the ceremony. It’s somehow not enough to get the piece of paper delivered to my letterbox.

Unlike Finnish Doctors of Philosphy, who get to wear a top hat and sword as part of their regalia, I get to don a gown, a red-satin-lined hood and the black velvet Tudor bonnet (aka the floppy hat). While I joke that I’ll be wearing my doctoral headgear to the Spring Racing Carnival (Melbourne Cup Day, here I come!), it’s likely that I’ll get more wear out of my graduation shoes, which I designed for the occasion (via Shoes of Prey). After tweeting the above photograph of my shoes, Hilary Davidson pointed me towards her great article on shoes as magical objects, the perfect symbol of PhD power, transformation and completion.

Continuing my research

While my choice has been to continue to work in my school (rather than, for instance, pursuing an alternate career in academia), I’ve also been recently appointed into an honorary research associate role at my university, which allows me to continue to read, research and write in academia after graduation. So I continue to bestride the worlds of practitioner and scholar. Each world, each role and each project informs the others and shapes me.

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So the PhD is done-but-ongoing.

I’m still pursuing doing good work with good people. I’m still thinking, writing and researching around my PhD, although in many ways I can feel myself moving on from it and away from it. The bound thesis is like a frozen snapshot, capturing a moment in time. So, too, each academic paper. As I grow as a scholar, an educator and a writer, I feel freed to frame my PhD data in new ways and to apply alternate theoretical lenses.

Like a pair of shiny red shoes, the finishing of a PhD is both end and beginning. Designed, created and seductively new. Ready to be enjoyed until worn-out, grown-out-of or kicked to the back of the wardrobe. While in many ways I feel that I’m moving away from the PhD, it also continues beyond its end, a shoe that continues to fit and bring joy. For now.

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.