Finishing my PhD (in the midst of a global pandemic)15 February 2021
By Julie Primon, School of English, Communication and Philosophy
The end of my PhD was not the big fireworks display I would have expected, long ago, when I embarked on this journey. Rather, it was a series of smaller, more modest fireworks, the kind you might hear coming from your neighbour’s garden, but that you wouldn’t really notice from a few streets away.
In April 2020, as we got used to lockdown and slowly began to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the world we knew, I felt grateful to be at the end of my PhD, reading and re-reading through my novel and my thesis, editing a paragraph here, a sentence there, checking footnotes against my bibliography.
‘I don’t think I could have produced anything new at such a stressful time,’ I told a friend. Of course, the limited access to library services was inconvenient, and I wished more than once for a working printer – my eyes hurt from scrolling through chapters on my laptop’s screen. Still, at least the bulk of my research was done, the novel finished, my critical chapters needing only adjustments. I could not imagine the way in which COVID restrictions would affect students starting out, especially when their research depended on field trips or archival visits.
I submitted my PhD on 10 August. With the pandemic, the rules have changed: instead of getting copies of the thesis printed, instead of walking through familiar corridors of the John Percival building and talking to the friendly staff in the postgraduate office, I just emailed a PDF of my thesis and the required forms. ‘Underwhelming’ doesn’t quite cover it. I had heard that submission was about reaching the stage when you simply cannot work on the thesis anymore – you cannot stand to spend another minute looking at it – and this turned out to be true in my case. I had a list of changes I wanted to make, and I ended up picking the things that I felt were most important on that list and letting the little ones slide. It’s important to keep in mind that there is a window of opportunity, post-viva, for making small changes when readying the thesis for final submission.
Submission was one of the small fireworks; getting through the viva was another. I was awarded a Category 3 pass, which meant I had some substantial changes and corrections to make – the most important was cutting out one of the critical chapters, which the examiners felt did not bring much to the thesis overall. I was given three months. Out of those three months, I would say a good one and a half were spent fighting my reluctance to return to the thesis. One of my close friends, who went through her viva two weeks later, was awarded a Category 1 pass (no corrections!). I was thrilled that her hard work had paid off, but in the following months I wished desperately that the same had happened for me. I wanted the whole thing to be done. The thought of opening the document filled me with dread.
Eventually, I overcame this inner resistance, following the advice of former PhD students – start with the small, easy things, the typos, the addition of a footnote. I cut out my first chapter and edited the rest accordingly, removing references to it, adjusting the summary of the thesis, the introduction, the conclusion. In the end, I think the actual process took less than a month. I just needed to reach a place where I could start working again, without bitterness.
Submitting the corrections; hearing that they had been accepted; sending in the final PDF of the thesis for the ORCA repository: all small fireworks, sighs of relief. I don’t know if, maybe, graduation will embody this moment of triumph that has eluded me. I’m enjoying the little things: I have the head space to begin new projects, short stories, poems, to start working on an old novel. I’m translating one of my favourite French YA novels, because I can, because it’s fun. The thesis was, for so long, a heavy coat draped over my shoulders, buttons coming undone, needing attention. Now, it feels as though I have stepped out of the coat: it hangs on a mannequin so it will keep its shape, and in a certain lighting, it looks almost perfect, the defects too small for anyone but me to notice.
Without the coat on, I feel exposed, a new-born lamb blinking in the world’s harsh light. But I also feel weightless. I feel free.
To anyone submitting their PhD in this difficult time, I would say – even though it may feel impossible – to celebrate every little step, be it submission, viva, or corrections. Bake a cake, order a book you’ve been wanting to read which has nothing to do your research, go for a long walk in the park. Breathe. Whatever form the celebration takes, give yourself that space, that mental pat on the back. Try to enjoy your newfound freedom.
Follow Julie on Twitter @JuliePrimon