Writing up a DPhil: things which help

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.

 

BBC Oxford & viva

On Friday, I made my radio debut! I was on BBC Oxford’s afternoon show, presented by Sybil Ruscoe, talking about my research & myself, as well as the show’s daily topics – which, on Friday, included disappearing surnames and readings. For reasons not unrelated to a passionate desire to be (you can’t really say ‘appear’) on Woman’s Hour, an average of 8 hours daily spent listening to Radio 4, and an unnaturally early acquaintance with The Archers, I have always wanted to be on the radio. The producer got in touch on Wednesday (a researcher had found my blog and twitter and thought it was funny), and I remained delighted until late Thursday evening, when I became so nervous I more or less wanted to die. A psychosomatic cough and 90 minutes’ worry about my outfit (for radio) ensued; the nerves receded slightly after I was talked down by my taxi driver, an elderly rocker who builds motorcycles for African midwives (apparently. I think he’s driven me before and spent that journey claiming to know Gary Barlow).

Everyone at the studio was lovely (especially Cristina Parry, the producer, and Sybil Ruscoe, who hosts the show), and apart from ten hideous seconds when I put on the headphones and remembered this was live, I really enjoyed myself. Unlike in Frasier, we all sat round a table, as opposed to facing out, which made more sense when I remembered that Frasier was a fictional radio psychiatrist whose booth only had three walls. I was profoundly but (thank God) silently excited to discover that Cristina, as producer, actually did sit on the other side of a glass panel, just like Roz Doyle. If you want to listen to the show (I’m on in the first hour), it’s on BBC iPlayer for the rest of this week, and, excitingly, they’ve asked me back – so tune in again on 22 March. I am, surely, only weeks from meeting Sandi Toksvig and Jeremy Hardy.

Also on the show with me (similarly for the first time) was wildlife photographer Andy Walmsley, whose work can be seen at awimages.net. Hopefully, he’ll also be back on 22 March – it was lovely to meet him.

I have my confirmation-of-status viva tomorrow. This is the Faculty’s final DPhil hurdle before, you know, actual thesis submission, and in stark contrast to the dreaded transfer of status, we’ve all been a bit… underinformed. I’m currently not nearly as scared as I was before transfer (though that particular maelstrom of terror set the bar high), although there are, of course, hours yet. I know a lot of first-year DPhil students are working towards the transition from PRS to DPhil, and remember (all too clearly) the combination of misinformation and panic which ensued. I wrote about it here, in 2011. My clearest memories are still 1) the total panic that my interviewer’s chair (an ex-theatrical prop, papier-mache) was going to dissolve beneath my rain-sodden state, and 2) being told by my supervisor that my interviewers had told me during the viva that I’d passed – something, conversely, that I don’t remember at all.

I just hope tomorrow goes well. I don’t mind being rained on, if it does.

The thesis itself seems to be going reasonably well – I’ve got a better overview of the project, now I’m revisiting all the chapters and redrafting more than one at a time. I do really like my research, and part of me is incredibly sad that this project ever has to end. Not so sad that I want to finish late or have the ending go anything but smoothly and swiftly – and I do know exactly what project(s) I want to do next. Apart from dreadful skirmishes with bits of rewriting, I know I’m lucky not to be in what the Thesis Whisperer calls The Valley of Shit. The hubris-obsessed part of me is very aware it could still strike as submission approaches. Basically: I’m still here, there’s another hurdle to jump, I’m still writing, and I have mixed feelings about being so close to the end. Not that I particularly want to do transfer again, of course… anyway, confirmation’s tomorrow. Wish me luck?

Any DPhil/PhD types reading this – how did your confirmation viva differ from your transfer/upgrade? Do you have any tips?