By Fraser Raeburn |
It seems impossible, but the notion that I was in the process of ‘finishing’ my PhD somehow snuck up on me. Sure, I’ve told faintly sceptical friends and family that it was coming along (not too far off, won’t be too long…) for some time now. That, of course, was mostly formulaic, the sort of reassurance you give people who either implicitly or overtly wonder what it is you’ve been wasting your time on.
Actually feeling like I’m finishing, though, is quite a recent phenomenon. Not that I’m handing in next week or anything, probably not this month, maybe not even this year. What I’m talking about is the feeling that the back of the thesis has been broken, that the bulk of the intellectual labour is done, that what remains is tying things up, polishing, tweaking and getting to grips with formatting.
It’s a deeply ambivalent feeling, not nearly what I expected, if I expected anything. There’s no pride in achievement (that’s still premature) but there is certainly anxiety aplenty. The PhD pressure has redoubled – it’s easy enough to pace yourself when you’ve got a mountain left to climb, but it’s hard to suppress the instinct to start sprinting when you glimpse the finish line. More than that though, all the questions you’ve carefully avoided or put off as premature suddenly aren’t. Finding a job isn’t a future problem – it needs to be thought about and prepared for, starting now. When did I last look at my CV? How, exactly, does one actually compose a teaching portfolio? More to the point, how does one compose a teaching portfolio while trying to sort out your last chapter’s footnotes?
The fundamental crisis of ‘what next?’ must surely hit every PhD at some point. Perhaps for the better planners, it hits earlier, when it felt like there was still time to deal with it sensibly. Of course, I knew that something had to come next, and have tried to prepare for it. Think of it as the difference between knowing that you need to graduate with a strong CV, and knowing that you also need to write the damn thing, format it and get friends and supervisors to give you some feedback on it before it’s actually usable. It’s the difference between daydreaming about future projects and interesting tangents, and actually getting cracking with writing some proposals and seeking out collaborators.
Maybe the sensible ones hold off until after submission, when you might actually have enough time for this stuff, and thinking about your thesis is only an invitation to agonise about typos. To be honest, much of what I need to do next will likely get done after submission, when I (hopefully) will get my brain back from the ever-increasing demands of actually finishing. But in the meantime I’m still left with the knowledge of what needs to be done. This knowledge looms over everything else. It means that I’m now afraid of finishing, in the knowledge that my triumph over the thesis will be fleeting, and I’ll immediately have to throw myself into a very different struggle, with a much more uncertain outcome.
That’s not the only reason I’m afraid. Finishing means leaving a community, leaving a home, leaving friends, leaving a way of life. Sure, they’ll be replaced some day, but at this stage it’s hard to know when, where or how this is going to happen. Finishing is a step into the unknown, with all that brings with it. There’s a genuine temptation to press pause, to pull back, to find a reason to delay and obfuscate and push the day away when I’ll need to close the book on the PhD.
The real world doesn’t work like that, of course. Not finishing isn’t an option, and I’d prefer to think that I’ll walk into an unknown future with my head held high rather than prolong the inevitable. I doubt the coming months are going to be fun, but they need to happen. This PhD too shall pass, hopefully with minor corrections.
One of the things that is about to finish is my time here at Pubs and Pubs. It has been one of the amazing, unexpected pleasures of the PhD process to find myself part of this project over the past couple of years. It’s been a space to air grievances, explore ideas and, more often than not, be immensely silly. It has introduced me to many fantastic people, not least the wonderful souls who inhabit the editorial committee. I’ll miss it, but as I’ve come to realise, that’s not quite a good enough reason to try to hold onto something.
Fraser is (was?) an editor at Pubs and Pubs, which is a very fine job you should definitely consider doing. He still has his own occasional blog if you’ll miss him that much, along with details of things like teaching and research if you’re hiring. He will probably spend the rest of the day being angsty on Twitter.
Cover image (CC) wikimedia.org