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!