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?

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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?