A letter to my dissertation, after the break up

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that, although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me.  I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and connections I found and I realised I had to find my way to you, and to the qualification you would earn me as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months. I just focused on work, and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and Making Progress. But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again, but on a new topic, a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal, and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together and I needed to get us back on track.

I realised that what I was finally starting to feel was the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to sense of self and a scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travellers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement ‘I’m working on my PhD’. I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. ‘We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year rather’. It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails and reorganise my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important and scholarly and smart, and now I feel duller, less colourful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you, and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore, and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in that question-mark-space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr, which still feels alien,  and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know.  I will get there, of course,  in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.


Waiting, anxiety and impatience

Happy new year one and all! It is January, and Christmas and New Year are over, and 2014 is beginning. It has been almost exactly a month since my thesis was submitted. Thank goodness for Christmas and New Year and a small holiday away to distract me from wondering about my examiners and whether they have read my thesis yet, and if they liked it or hated it and what corrections they have for me and how much more work I am going to have to do when the reports come in and if they will withhold their identities or declare them and how much of the reports I will therefore get to read and if they have worked out yet that I might be a fake. You may be able to tell that I am (a bit) anxious and uncomfortable with this concept of waiting. I am not, by nature, a patient person. And I have not been as distracted as I hoped to be.

The last thing that I mentioned in that long, anxiety-filled list is the thing that makes me most uncomfortable. That I may be found out as a fake, an imposter, someone who should not be called ‘Dr’ anything. I am sure I am not the first PhD student that, either before, during or after PhD study, has felt like someone is going to leap out at a conference or from the pages of an examiner’s report and out me as an imposter doing a very good impersonation of a competent researcher. All the same, the idea that I am not alone in this doesn’t offer much comfort. I am the one, for now at least, in the midst of all this waiting and impatience and anxiety feeling like all the other PhD students and post-Docs all have it licked and I am the weirdo who is wondering when the other shoe will drop.

Perhaps this is normal. A normal part of this thing called ‘the PhD journey’ that we all have to go through. I am sure my second conference presentation will go better than the first (which was a disaster – perhaps for another post). I am sure I will get less freaked out when people ask me what my work is about and I have to tell them in short, comprehensible soundbites. I am sure I will get less defensive about my research around my colleagues, many of whom don’t fully agree with some of my findings and conclusions. I am sure the idea of writing papers out of my thesis and submitting them to journals will (hopefully very soon) become less than absolutely terrifying. But right now I am freaked out and defensive and terrified, and feel like, in spite of just have written over 83000 words on the subject of my research, I really have no idea what I am talking about. So, this is not a great part of the journey for me. But, I shall try to embrace the waiting, anxiety and impatience and endure this part of the journey with as much grace as I can, and try to keep the neurotic panic to a minimum. I will probably fail at this at least once, but I will claim that as part of the journey too!

PS: the posts between now and when the reports come in won’t all be like this. Just in case you were starting to worry :-). Next week: some thoughts on the relationship between your data and your theoretical framework.