By Ian MacNeill |
There are some things in life that you simply can’t avoid: taxes, disappointing sports results (although being Scottish I feel like I endure more of these than is fair), and, not including prequels, Game of Thrones is going to end this year (for what it’s worth, my money is on Sansa sitting on The Iron Throne at the end). I was recently forced to face up to a further unavoidable fact: I am not going to submit my thesis within 3 years.
When planning this post, I couldn’t find any reliable figures re the percentage of doctoral candidates who submit within 3 years, but then I am also conscious that the research period can be different dependent on your discipline. However, I did find numerous articles which offered advice on how to complete within 3 years – a worrying number of which seemed to include regularly working 14-hour days and not having a weekend off, ever.
Going beyond 3 years has some implications. Firstly, I need to finish within the next 12 months or I risk not being awarded a doctorate (a scenario which might lead to my wife actually murdering me). Secondly, I need to find a new source of income. I was fortunate to have been awarded a stipend to support my research and I now need to replace those earnings but also still find the time to finish writing up. Lastly, I need to consider what consequences over-running have might for my future academic career? With those things in mind, I thought I would devote this blog to reflecting on how I got here and where I might end up.
A reality check (with some caveats)
If I am honest with myself, the fact that I wasn’t going to submit at the end of 3 years has been pretty obvious for some time. In accepting that, I have done some reflecting on some of the factors that resulted in my not finishing on time. I think an important aspect of this process is recognising that in the, to say the least, hyper-competitive academic job market, I might be asked by someone to explain why I needed extra time to finish when up against other candidates who finished within 3-years.
My most significant error, there are too many minor ones to list, was taking WAAAY too long to acknowledge that I had a pretty big problem with anxiety related to my academic writing. While I had no problems arranging and conducting, what I believe to be anyway, high-quality fieldwork in some challenging settings, writing was another matter. There were times when I was completely paralysed by anxiety about my writing and struggled to produce almost anything of substance for the first 18 months of my PhD. Had I been more self-aware and been honest with my supervisors (who have been amazingly supportive), I could have addressed this issue far earlier and put in place some strategies to help overcome my issues (one of which happened to be joining Pubs and Pubs!!).
However, following that admission, I think it also important to acknowledge, and this will be the case for many PhD candidates out there, that a lot of things have happened in my life over the last 3-years. Like all jobs (and a PhD very much is a job, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!!), our work does not take place in a vacuum; it can be impacted on and hampered by external events. Here are a few examples of the events that took place over my PhD: I moved home after living in China for 4 years; I became a dad; I moved back to China for 4 months and then came back again; my knees literally exploded forcing me to take a rather inconvenient sabbatical (I did get some sweet scars though); oh and I bought a house that was almost totally ruined when our central heating failed during the winter… I don’t proffer these life-events in search of sympathy, and no doubt there are some people out there who have coped with far worse during their PhD, but if someone was to ask my about why I didn’t finish on time I would likely refer to one or two of them.
We know what we are, but not what we may be…
One of my favourite Pubs and Pub posts, is by Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung on the concept of liminality and the PhD experience, where he described how we sometimes fall between the stools of several roles; are we students, employees, slaves to the neo-liberal construct that is the modern iteration of higher education or simply novice researchers? Whilst I was always firm in the view that as a doctoral candidate I was an apprentice researcher (and not a student!) at the moment I feel like I have entered a sort of academic twilight zone: I have not yet finished, but I desperately want to move on to something else; I am exploring other opportunities but not yet comfortable enough with the quality of my thesis to fully commit to something; and my PhD is the key to an academic career but I have not got it, yet I am anxious about seemingly ideal opportunities passing me by.
What comes next?
So, now that I am where I am, what are the next steps? Weirdly, I found accepting that I am not going to submit on time oddly liberating. I actually feel more in control of my submission process than I have in a long time, perhaps because the pressure to submit bang on 3 years is no longer there and I have since taken the time to plan out a realistic timetable to get me to the finish line!
Ian is (for a few more days anyway) a 3rd Year PhD candidate at The University of Glasgow. His research explores the role of sporting organisations in supporting young people leaving prison. He once had a job that mainly involved putting price stickers on CDs. He’d love you to follow him on Twitter .