Tag Archives: thesis

Life After Submission

I submitted my thesis last Thursday, on 1st August, on schedule, and while functioning the human embodiment of mixed feelings. Most immediately, submitting the thesis meant not having to spend another day worrying about my inability to use semicolons or the en dash correctly. Or whether I’d pitched my acknowledgments correctly.

Or whether I should cut those two paragraphs of megalols on the all-cursed eighteenth-century performance history of All’s Well, in a spirit of kill-your-darlings/academic maturity (answer: NEVER!!1). It also meant sticking to the date that, in a spirit of accountability, I’d given everyone for my submission, despite the fact that the precise date was something that only really mattered to me (and, okay, my university). People sent lovely messages, one of my viva examiners hugged me outside the exam schools, a friend was on hand to act as my administrator, I cried in Pret, and a dozen or so of my favourite people went out for cocktails and then on to Chiang Mai.

You probably noticed the bit where I cried in Pret. You are probably all bored of the posts where I swoon and wail about how much I love my research, so take that as read and skip to the bit where I’m sitting in Pret, having left my thesis in the superlatively capable but indomitably low-key hands of the Holywell Street print shop (to whom all praise), and Emily’s getting concerned because for the first time in three years (excluding the evening where my throat was so bad that I could only throw cushions and mime death to attract her attention), I’ve stopped talking.

OBVIOUSLY submitting is a good thing. I am delighted to have managed it. I had a perfectly splendid afternoon and evening, despite having submitted in the devil’s own weather and then, oh god, hugged my examiner while slimy and disgusting. It was all lovely. But in Pret, I felt so sad. And then, later on in Brasenose M/HCR, while I obsessively counted and re-counted all 425 pages of each of my triplicate theses to see whether the Holywell print shop had messed up the numbering (SPOILERS: they hadn’t), things became reminiscent of that scene in Friends where Phoebe’s left alone with the triplets. This isn’t new behaviour – I’ve cried after pretty much every play I’ve directed or been in. I well up when Michaelmas ends (but not Hilary. No-one loves Hilary). I can’t so much as look at the BBC Sherlock Reichenbach Fall and I turn off Four Weddings and a Funeral at the first glimpse of tartan. I didn’t cry after Finals because that would be certifiable, but the morning after the St John’s Commemoration Ball which followed Finals, I made all my graduating friends cry by bringing my hangover into their kitchen and reciting Larkin. To put it another, more obvious way: I loved being a DPhil student and I’m so sorry it’s (almost) over.

Submitting a DPhil isn’t the same as getting a DPhil. I’m technically (and in the eyes of the council tax people, thank god) still a student. My viva date is 27 September. I can cushion the psychological blow by reminding myself that there’s still a lot to do – and reminding myself, of course, that I have plans for this thesis. I hope it’ll one day be a book. I’m even luckier in that I have teaching jobs lined up for the next year, here in Oxford, across two wonderful colleges. One of them (say it quietly) even includes a book allowance.

And I do know that I’m meant to take time off (but if I choose to spend a sizeable chunk of it reading the reading list my Freshers should be receiving, who are you to judge me?!). So: I am doing downtime. I went to a village fete on Saturday (dog show = splendid. Lack of murders = not what ITV has led me to expect). I ate fajitas with E. I did a leaping shrieking dance at the announcement that P. Capaldi, god amongst cadaverous Scottish men, is going to play the next Doctor. My mum and I are planning a trip to London, not least to deal with the fact that a teaching wardrobe of Skinny Jeans And Tops With Leopard-Print is probably not acceptable for a proper job (except, talking of proper job and more specifically of grown up: on the way to submit my DPhil thesis, I got ID’d buying scissors. You have to be sixteen to buy scissors. I am twenty-six. This follows hot on the heels of The Time I Was Stopped As An Unaccompanied Minor By Border Control At Heathrow Airport). Later this summer, I am attending ANY NUMBER of weddings and going to the seaside. I am completely au fait with events on Coronation Street. I am doing downtime with a vengeance and if a small part of me still wants to buy a new A4 pad and get back to making myself to-do lists with two columns dividing tasks up as PRIORITIES or alternatively BONUS… then that’s sick and wrong and if you see me doing that you should buy me a cocktail. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to re-reading the entire nineteenth century relaxing.

I do have some posts coming up, though, along the lines of “The PhD Acknowledgments It Seemed Better Not To Include [With Especial Reference to Kentish B&Bs And/Or Sheenagh’s Stephen Fry Impression]”, “Since I Apparently Managed It, Here’s How To Survive Your DPhil” and “While I Was Writing Up, Misogyny Exploded, How About That”. Oh, and I’m on the radio again tomorrow. BBC Oxford! One-ish! Tune in!

As I said, there will be proper thank yous, but if it takes a village to raise a child (which surely depends on the village), it took an internet to submit my DPhil. If you answered a stupid question, or shared your thoughts/wordcount/CV, or send a kind email, or thought my tweets were funny, or wished me luck in the fortnight when all I seemed to do was go to job interviews, or followed the blog or commented, or wrote something witty and sane, or gave me a teaching tip, or put your teaching resources online and told me to download them (making you a pedagogical superstar and doubtless also sexy), thank you very much indeed.

Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun – not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.

First Draft

I’ve got a draft. Not a military draft or its hononym (e.g. a draught of cooling beer). I’ve got a draft of my thesis.

I’ve actually had one for a while. I’ve enjoyed having it around: I’ve got a draft, you say, when allowed out in public, and people applaud or say urgh or yeech or gosh how clever or do shut up, Sophie, as the mood takes them, but what they never do is ask for any further statement on your progress. Confession of the draft is sufficient, and that suits me just fine. A draft is a useful thing. A settled thing, a clean and finite and accomplished thing, especially when viewed from a very long way in the distance.

I am familiar with the theory and practice of that which follows the creation/achievement of that first draft. I have read the war records of those who have gone before, or rather, back. They go back to their draft – their clean, their settled, their satisfying draft, the embodiment of accomplishment – and they discover that the earliest chapters of that draft might as well have been written by someone on crack. They discover that their arguments were parsed out in crayon, their structures tacked together with hairy wool and their paragraphs riddled with the shrapnel of a thousand square brackets reading [NEEDS MOAR] with reference to detail, evidence and, indeed, references.

It isn’t that I stopped working. Since having my draft (like some smug pregnant waddle-y lady, now post-partum) I’ve

  • written and delivered my first lecture at the English Faculty;
  • given two conference papers, one in Oxford and one in Newcastle;
  • chaired a panel at each (fun and also bizarre), and read.
  • Read all the things, in fact, where “all” involves tiny wartime print and/or endless blissful theatrical memoirs by previously unnoticed mad actresses (Ellaline Terriss, anyone? She didn’t try to tell me about spiritualism – hello Constance Benson – but she was, to put it mildly, weird). I think this photo says it all. Basically, I’ve been filling gaps in my knowledge and working through 2012 To Read.docx with all the insufferable righteousness of the smug/drafted/insane.
  • I’ve also started writing up a commission from OUP USA (which probably deserves its own post, but I’m too paranoid and shall wait til it’s over).
  • Meanwhile, I’m planning two research jaunts (one to the post-industrial north, and one to the inaccessible south) and I’ve also, er, moved house.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I have thought up ways to make two of my chapters (perhaps startlingly) better.

In theory.

I have been reluctant to start writing again, because I know that once you go back, and start writing again, you cease to be a person with a draft. You become a person with a version, a person entangled with a hideous embroiling mass of prose which can no longer be disguised as a draft, and, indeed, how did you think it ever could?

I’ve been reluctant to start writing because I know, deep down, I’ve been enjoying this moment as a rehearsal of that far-off moment when I can say not “I have a draft” but “I have a thesis”. Pretending has been great fun; far more fun, in fact, than facing the bone-deep crapness that I’ve feared was lurking beneath the surface of Chapter 2.

It’s not as if I want my thesis to end. I love my DPhil. Obviously, I want the achievements and the progression and the letters variously before or after my name; I want the possibility of jobs and books and post-docs and more teaching and everything else that comes with post-doctoral academia. Very prosaically, I want submission to coincide with the end of funding (who doesn’t?)!

But I love my DPhil. I still don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily sign up to spend three years studying something that on some level didn’t make them ludicrously happy or interested (this is different from signing up and then realising your thesis topic is dull/flawed/not the thesis you married). Of course, my thesis can also make me excruciatingly miserable. For example, when I’m teetering on the edge of rewrites.

Nevertheless, the fact that this post is being written indicates that I’ve managed it. Not the rewrites or – of course – the thesis in its entirety (yet), but looking the draft in its face and beginning the second draft.

I’ve written here before about tricking yourself into writing, and I’ve managed it. The experience (sustained by Marks & Spencer “reduced fat”, and yet suspiciously all-butter chocolate cookies) has (re)taught me several things:

  • It is never as bad as you think. This applies both to re-confronting your draft chapter and jumping very fast into a swimming pool of cold water. Both build character, and neither will actually kill you (pending bad luck).
  • Keep the faith regarding the two basic maxims of DPhil/PhD existence:
    1) don’t get it right, get it written, and
    2) there is no writing, only rewriting
  • The point about one’s earliest efforts lacking the wit and nuance of a photocopied bum is that it is fantastically easy to improve them (the writing, not the bum. Although SPANX FOR YOUR PHD would be an amazing slogan).
  • Because your first academic daubs were created at the moment of maximum ignorance and minimal scholarly presentation (all right, this might just be me, but apparently in Michaelmas 2010 I was using a referencing format known only to God), you are guaranteed to do better this time (if you detect in this a certain amount of fervent self-reassurance, I can only ask you to pay no attention to the flailing twit behind the curtain).
  • Stop eating the biscuits.

Unfortunately, though, not getting it right but getting it written must eventually evolve into actually getting it right, and it seems I’m at the moment where writing must start hitting rightness. I have been scribbling on paper, designing new templates, and scrolling [Ctrl+F] through hundreds of pages of notes.

My draft does sometimes make me want to shout. Bits of it are good. Bits of it are terrible. Bits of it are unexpected, and largely unexpurgated narratives of copy-cat Ripper killings committed in Yorkshire around Christmas, 1888. To the holding bay these sections must go (along with “Why I Hate Gordon Craig” and “Things Which Seemed Amusing To Me With Regards To Eighteenth-Century Performance History “. My DPhil would have a great blooper reel).

In any case, I’m writing again: slowly, and in a state of uncertainty as to whether the new direction(s) in which the chapter wants to go hold insight or procrastination. It’s been a shock to discover how much more I want to say and to have it confirmed that the chapter of my DPhil that I tried to write first may actually handle the most complex issues.

Thanks for indulging both this navel-gazing and the blog’s recent silence; people have been fantastically kind about the DPhil-based entries, and I hope this consideration of redrafting is useful to someone, too. Certainly, starting the second draft of a thesis is something for which I had no mental map or resources. Cold swimming pool/ripped bandage analogies aside, it’s going well and getting better.

I can’t promise radically more regular updates, however, since BT MESSED UP MY PHONE ORDER and now I shan’t have broadband at the flat until AUGUST 8TH (I have the deluded conviction that if I say this loudly enough, on enough forms of social media, corporate concern for bad publicity will mean everything is MAGICALLY FIXED. Feel free not to disillusion me).

In the meantime, I hope everyone’s having a good “summer” and that, wherever you are, the weather/Olympics/conference guests aren’t annoying you too much. Lots of love.