Doing PhD revisions: The last thesis embrace

Gustav Klimt's 'Der Kuss', 1908

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Der Kuss’, 1908

This week I received news that my PhD will be awarded, subject to changes to my thesis. Wahoo! What a relief after months of examination limbo.

The requirement to address examiner comments is interchangeably referred to as doing corrections, amendments or revisions to the thesis. The actual process from receiving the official letter and examiners’ reports goes like this at my Australian university. Under the direction of my supervisors, I am to address the recommendations suggested in the examiners’ reports. When my supervisors and I are happy that all comments have been considered and any relevant changes made, we can sign off that it’s been done. This needs to be documented in the kind of table sent to journal editors outlining recommendation, response, and any resulting change to the text. Our response to the examiners’ reports then goes to the Dean, for sign off at that level. Then I’ll be notified that I can print my thesis and lodge it at the library for binding (one for me, one for the university library, one for each of my supervisors, and any more I fancy). I also need to submit to the library a digital copy of the thesis for the online repository of university theses. At this point my degree can be tabled at the university’s appropriate council (when they next meet after all these steps) at which I will be conferred the degree: PhD me!

While it is tempting to feel like getting revisions recommended in the examiners’ reports is some kind of failure, I am grateful to my examiners for their advice. I thought I wanted the ‘Gold star! Perfect work! Here, have a PhD without as much as a corrected typo!’ response (hey, who wouldn’t?), but of course it turns out that drawing on the expertise of three experienced academics will help me to strengthen my work before it goes out into the world and onto the interweb plastered with my name.

Some examiner comments were glowing (yay!). Others confirmed what was original about my work (phew!). There were some comments which were a delight to read and a wonderful affirmation of my thinking, researching and writing. There were no referencing errors and only a couple of typos in the 300 odd pages, despite me choosing to edit the work myself rather than employ a copy editor to check it for me.

Some of the examiners’ comments pointed towards the need for me to clarify areas of the thesis. These comments showed me the importance of the first chapter in setting up the readers’ expectations for the thesis. My thesis takes a novel approach (no doubt not to everyone’s taste and probably unexpected to many thesis readers) so I am doing some work on the first page of the introduction and elsewhere to make my approach clear. I can see that I need to help the reader know what to expect – or as one examiner said, ‘pre-imagine’ – the journey on which my thesis will take them.

Other examiner comments were around the need to cite less and take on the role of expert more in my closing chapters. I have struggled with that before (you can read about it here and here) and it seems I can move my closing chapters more convincingly towards authority and, as one examiner put it, audaciousness. This is all part of the PhD as identity work; becoming a researcher, becoming a writer, becoming a scholar. This seems to me an ongoing process of self reimagining. As we rework our scholarly texts, we rewrite our scholarly identities. We write ourselves through our work. I write myself into being.

Thesis corrections are an exercise in considering feedback. It requires being open to seeing our work through others’ eyes and working to apply that understanding to strengthen the text, and to our writing of future academic texts. If someone has misunderstood something, how can I make it clearer? If someone has suggested a new direction or additional layer of analysis, how might I consider that for now, or for the future? If someone has a criticism, how might I present a response or strengthen my case? It’s important to (do our best to) put any emotion or attachment aside and consider how expertise, and even criticism, from others might help us to develop our scholarly thinking, our research method and our academic writing.

Responding to reviewer comments for academic journals has given me some practice at applying professional distance to revisions, but thesis corrections are different. While a journal article often goes back to the reviewers for re-reading, the PhD thesis (unless required to be re-examined) does not go back to examiners for another look. The PhD candidate awarded amendments without re-examination needs to engage with, consider and respond to all examiner recommendations. But the candidate, as soon-to-be-doctored researcher and expert in their own research, can make decisions (under the advisement of their supervisors) on what is appropriate for their thesis. As Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn says in her post about doing thesis amendments, the examiner reports are suggestions, not a shopping list.

Personally, I have found this opportunity to get back into my thesis (albeit, briefly!) as a moment to luxuriate for the last time in an experience which I have found so personally rewarding. While, as wishcrys (Crystal Abidin) writes recently, it can be a lonely and seemingly neverending road, I resonate too with this post by almost-double-doctored Carloyn Ee on feeling misty-eyed fondness for the PhD experience. As a working mother of small children who has been doing a PhD in the ‘spare’ moments of my life, it has been an indulgence and a pleasure. That’s not to say it has been easy (it hasn’t) or that life hasn’t gotten in the way (it has). But my PhD has been an artistic endeavour and a love affair. This is my last embrace and I am enjoying it!


Doctoral examination limbo: Frozen in PhD carbonite

So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ~ Stephen King, On writing: A memoir of the craft

The irony isn’t lost on me that, the same month I set a blog writing challenge for PhD and other research students (and others in the academic pre- and post- doctoral world), I am struggling to find content for a PhD-related blog post. So, following Stephen King’s above-quoted advice from his excellent On writing: A memoir of the craft, I’ll write about ‘anything I damn well want’; or perhaps just anything that comes into my head as I type. This follows Pat Thomson’s technique (which she also attributes to Ray Bradbury) of writing with a blank screen and a few selected words which spark associations. Pat says it’s ‘writing fast’ or ‘running writing’ rather than ‘free writing’, but I’ll call my approach free writing here, because that’s what it feels like to me. Screen. Keypad. Words. Let them form as they will, then revisit and see what’s been made.

Part of the reason I’m finding a PhD-related post difficult is that I am currently in examination limbo. I’ve submitted the thesis and it’s been posted to three examiners, so now comes a wait of two to six months.

In this limbo period, I’ve got some papers to revise and to write, and I have work, parenting and life which go on. And thank goodness! Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer, has likened completing the doctorate to running off a cliff. I can certainly relate to that, in a Road Runner cartoon kind of a way. My little animated PhD legs are still sprinting even though the thesis is submitted and I’ve run off the edge. Suspended in mid-air, legs madly cycling, I’m grateful to have work to keep me busy, purposeful and grounded.

selfie scribble

selfie scribble

Meanwhile, today as part of the #aussieED Twitter chat, we were asked to ‘sketch note’ an introduction to ourselves. I have declared my love of notebooks in previous posts about my flânerial packing list and on my pre-professional-fellowship art journalling. So I sat with my kids and scribbled some bits and pieces, watching them join together. The interesting thing about the process of thinking-while-scribbling is that thoughts and ideas emerge, seemingly through the very process of the pen scratching across the paper. Before beginning, I hadn’t mapped out what I was going to include. Much like this blog post, which is free-written, I was free-drawing. I surrendered to the moment and watched what emerged. If I did the same exercise tomorrow, or in a week, or a year, I’m sure the result would be very different (there’s a time-lapse video idea!).

And how about free-talking? I am connected with educators and doctoral students on Voxer, and I sometimes find myself using that walkie-talkie app as a useful ‘think aloud’ tool. I find that if I press the ‘transmit’ button and start talking, I don’t know what I’ll say until I’m saying it (sorry VoxSquad for the occasional ramblings). The act of talking aloud helps me to surface my thinking.

What can we learn about ourselves, what internal thoughts can we surface or capture, through the acts of writing, drawing, or talking aloud?

Here I am, in limbo between PhD submission and PhD completion, frozen in carbonite as an almost-Dr (yes – I’m anticipating The Force Awakens and am reminiscing about my favourite Star Wars moments, like Han Solo being unfrozen from carbonite). I’m wondering what might come next. Continuing to work in my current job, at my current school, business as usual? Considering what kind of role might be possible in my present context? Starting at the bottom of the pile, after a 15 year career as teacher and school leader, by dipping my toe in the academe? Heading down a consulting or alternate/indie academic pathway?

I know my current thinking, but I’m open to being carried in other directions. Free-writing, free-drawing and free-talking open up possibilities, so why not free-professional-decision-making? Lay out the materials and see what surfaces.

* This post is for the #HDRblog15 challenge. Join me to blog all things higher-degree-by-research this November!

my PhD notebook stack <3

my PhD notebook stack ❤