The last year of the PhD…and out of the other side

This was initially posted by the Bristol Doctoral College ( as part of their current series ‘A Year in the Life of a PhD’…

The last year of my doctorate presented challenges far beyond the intellectual. I started a part-time research assistant role a few months after my three-year scholarship ended, and this was then supplemented by an inter-university project coordination role a month later. Having the thesis, working full time, and having a young family, meant that I was working overtime for what seemed like an eternity. The workload was hellish, but I was still in love with my project; shaping it into a coherent narrative while reflecting on my academic development brought immense satisfaction, and this, along with supervisory support and desperately wanting to be finished, kept me going.

Tracking back a year from the end, I had finished the analysis and had well over half the thesis written. I presented some of the findings at a conference in the autumn and thought I‘d be done by Christmas. I’d underestimated how much was still to do by some margin! Some chapters were far from polished, while others were far too big, and it took me until the end of March to get to a full draft. By that point I’d been beavering away for 20-30 hours a week in addition to work, plus trying to be involved in family life. I had a little respite while my supervisors chewed through the draft, then it was another three months of the same. Draft Mark I went through various incarnations until it reached Mark III, and even then there were weeks of tweaking and tuning. Having thought for long periods that I was never going to be done, I worked through a final list of changes and suddenly, it seemed, it was off my desk.

One of the big problems for me over this period was not knowing where the finishing line was. Trying to work out what ‘enough’ might look like is pretty hard. Your supervisors have a good idea, but it is a tricky thing to articulate. Overall, in addition to the thesis being original and your own work, it has to be presented as a coherent, appropriately justified argument, and you need to know where it sits in the field/literature. These are big questions, and I’ve broken them down in more detail on a previous blog: see ‘Unpacking the viva’.

After submitting in July, I left it alone it for over a month. I needed to reconnect with family life, sleep, and revel in not feeling guilty for loafing about aimlessly in my free time. Free time! A few weeks before the viva, I read it through again. This was initially not very helpful, in that — in addition to the typos — I’d had time to reflect on the whole from a distance; you can’t do this just before submission because you’re too close, too caught up in the detail. I spent a few days worrying about how I could — should — have improved it, and one piece of advice really helped. This was that a PhD was always imperfect. It is supposed to be as far as you can go in the given time frame, and if you tried to perfect it, you’d never hand it in.

By the morning of the viva, I’d worked through rafts of potential questions and felt that I could answer them with confidence. Looking back, this was when I somehow knew that I’d (probably) pass; being able to field those questions made me realise the scale, depth and nuance I’d achieved in the thesis. The chief remaining question was the extent of the corrections: how much would be left to do? I was comfortable in the knowledge that I could have done some things differently; being aware of the pros and cons of all of your decisions over the lifecycle of the project is a key part of the process, not a sign of failure. I spent the morning talking it all through with a friend, and this warm-up — without any pressure — really helped. By the time I walked into the viva itself I was internally contorted with apprehensive tension, but then it got going and I was too busy thinking on my feet to have space for nerves. The defence took about two hours, although it felt like far less. The first half was heavy going and very challenging, but after a while it developed into something more conversational, a healthy exchange and discussion. After a brief break at the end, I was invited back in, was told I’d passed, and had pretty minor corrections.

The corrections took a (very long) day and now, a month after the viva, it has sunk in. At first I couldn’t believe that it was over, that this ‘thing’ I’d been gestating for years no longer needed any attention. I also missed it. There are publications and presentations to come, but the thesis itself is finished. Having it behind you is a serious fillip, a sign of being accepted into the academic ranks. It goes some way to assuaging the ‘imposter syndrome’ that I felt most of the way through my doctorate, that I was woefully short of some of the stuff I was reading, and my unmasking as an imbecile could come any minute. I’m still a little self-conscious about being ‘Dr Budd’, not quite used to wearing it, but it’s a marker of having changed. I’m intellectually unrecognisable from the person who walked into my first supervision meeting, and that’s the point of the whole exercise.



About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
This entry was posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates. Bookmark the permalink.

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