I have read several posts about the role of partners and relatives in the PhD writing-up-process. I have always been slightly iffy about these, because I don’t think writing a PhD makes you the most important person in your relationship or family, nor the most hard-working one, and this genre of posts tends to imply both. Speaking strictly from personal experience, I have enjoyed my DPhil to an almost embarrassing extent, and don’t really deserve to start whinging about the Valley of Shit at this point. I chose to do a DPhil. I work hard, but I’m working at something I enjoy, and whilst I hope and believe I’m making a contribution to my discipline and to [embarrassed handwave, British discomfort] knowledge, I’m also working for myself, on something I love. I’m not trying to do this while working full-time elsewhere, or being a carer, or being a parent. The fact that these last few weeks seem alternately gruesome and boring is merely karmic equilibrium.
I should say that I know I’m ridiculously lucky , not least in that the AHRC had mercy on me for the last two years of doctoral study. Self-funding is necessarily far tougher, and can also be demoralising, exhausting and life-postponing in almost infinite ways. I have huge respect for everyone who sees it through (and, actually, equal respect for everyone who gets out).
But yes. Writing up. Nasty. My parents and partner have been fantastic since day one (the latter submitted her own PhD a couple of weekends ago. Wahoo!). But a myriad other things also help when you’re less than a month (what) off submission (how). And so, at the risk of producing my own post on the care and feeding of overstressed bookworms foolish enough to attempt a career in the Humanities, here is my personal list of That Which Helps To Make The Final Throes of DPhil Writing Infinitely More Bearable:
- Friends who tell you how productive you are, but who don’t question you when you explain that you’re also a disaster.
- Friends who greet your imposter syndrome by confirming that, yes, they will definitely think you’re stupid when they read your chapter, and will not only show your stupidity to other friends, but will also find the secret online forums where other academics hang out, then type up the worst bits there.
- Toddlers who, when you accurately identify what the wooden fruit in their toy kitchen is, tell you not only “well done”, but, a second later, “good boy”.
- People on twitter who will actually enter into your angsty #phdchat discussion about when the right time is to throw away early but annotated drafts of chapters.
- Schoolfriends who turn up, umpteen years on, and have howling, cackling conversations in which you acknowledge a shared personal conviction that your teenage passion for him makes you entirely responsible for Rory Kinnear‘s career success, and remind you that you once drew a tiny Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on their History notes, accompanied by a speech bubble reading ‘Look at my conceptual empire’.
- Friends and colleagues who follow the worst possible remark you can make to a PhD student approaching submission, “Ooh, you seem very calm for someone who’s about to…” with an anecdote about how they spent the weeks before their submission as a hirsute blob with no mental health, who went to sleep at nights hugging their laptop like a teddy (a true compilation of real-life submission stories).
- Loved ones, friends, colleagues and mere acquaintances who have submitted DPhils and who thus prove by their existence that it is possible.
- People who offer to read stuff for you.
- People who offer again.
- People who more or less order you to email stuff to them right now.
- People who follow up all of the above offers with a final words-of-one-syllable missive covering every contingency and confirming that they are actually happy to read your stuff, in language that even your paranoia can understand.
- People who suggest you meet for lunch.
- Parents who are on your side and proud of you, vocally.
- People who make you pasta bake in tupperware containers so you eat recognisable meals for the next few days.
- The same person, who will have umpteen conversations with you about the perfection of Gill Murray, so you stop dying over the new draft of your introduction.
- Supervisors who answer your texts when on holiday, who are patient about your inability to use semicolons, and who find you RA employers who pay their invoices fast.
Unfortunately, a lot of writing up a DPhil is still about being on your own. Working from home is brilliant for me in short bursts. Too much and I go insane and have to emerge from the house to buy food and remember what speech is. This is always the point when I bump into the smartest-dressed students of my acquaintance. Far too much of finishing your DPhil is about you and the desk and the dull/deranged/delightful process of polishing three years’ work. So, here’s a list of popular culture goodies that might stop you setting fire to that desk or indeed, that thesis, when editing’s insupportably dull. Or, at least, Popular Culture Goodies Which Remind Me There Is Joy In The World (For Given Values Of Both “Pop Culture” And “Joy”):
- Stephen Fry doing rubbish dancing while Hugh Laurie plays the piano.
- Jeremy Hardy starting sentences with “My anarchist friends in Leeds…” on The News Quiz.
- Scott and Bailey.
- Alan Coren‘s nine hundred thousand Hemingway parodies.
- YouTubing the following search terms, in conjunction with “puppies”: shorkie, bichon frise, yorkiepoo.
- Emma Thompson’s episode of Ellen.
- The menu at Bill’s.
- A book called Brothel in Pimlico, which my mother bought me, and which is quite genuinely a collection of estate and lettings agency ads placed by a socialist in 1960s London. Imagine the LRB Personals, but for houses.
I’m now off to learn about semicolons and find a rhetorical flourish or seven. And, possibly, to eat some more pasta bake.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.