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Three weeks – and counting


I reckon I have about 3 weeks of actual writing time left, given the need for final proof checking, last minute minor edits and printing.

Last week went well. By Friday afternoon I was feeling quietly confident that I could get this thesis finished and it might be in reasonable shape.

Then, Friday evening, derailed!

The actual source of the derailment was some feedback that appeared to contradict previous comments I had received and which I didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately the support was there on Saturday to help me see a way through and to get back on track, though I freely confess that I did ask myself for the thousandth time why am I letting myself go through this pain when I could just pick up my knitting needles and be an old lady!

This morning, I find myself reflecting on what derailments mean on the doctoral journey. Although each of us has an individual journey, there may be points in common.

For me, there have been three points when I could have walked away from the journey, each time for different reasons.

The first potential derailment was about six months into my doctoral programme. I had a very clear idea what my research would be about, but the planned project did not work out as it should for reasons completely beyond my control. I could simply have decided things were not working out and it was time to cut my losses. What kept me going was that I had got hooked! I had anticipated enjoying the research process, but was discovering that I was enjoying reading and learning stuff. I had a very mixed academic journey behind me that had left me highly sceptical about my capacity to understand academic writing, but I was reading things that I could understand and apply and I wanted more. In fact, it was worth the effort to read more in order to identify a new research direction.

The second serious potential for derailment came just over two years into my revised project when I was trying to work out my theoretical and analytic framework. Since the first potential problem, I had changed direction completely and had moved into a different school of study. I ran into a conflict with my advisers which amounted to tribal warfare. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but I can now frame what was happening as being about my identity in terms of what academic tribe I was, or was not joining. I wanted to apply a methodological framework that I was familiar with from another context, but it transpired the very words that described that framework had a completely different meaning in the academic area I was located in. I was not prepared to let go of what I believed was the right way forward – I can be stubborn! Similarly, I was not prepared to adapt to a set of tribal requirements that I neither understood nor agreed with (maybe the lack of agreement reflected lack of understanding). It took several weeks to get back on track, and I am still unsure how it was achieved, but that was a point when I could have walked away, angry at a waste of time and a waste of money and cross with a system that tried to make me fit into a mould rather than letting me explore and expand my horizons.

However, every cloud has a silver lining. The effect of the second derailment was that I read more and came to understand the problem of terminology and the contribution of different disciplines to the methodology I wanted to use (a systems approach, if anybody is interested). Fighting and resolution did not mean capitulation, but challenged me to get to know my game better.

So what of this third, fortunately short derailment. It arrived when least expected. I had moved beyond feeling a total imposter and had got to a point where I understood my theoretical framework and knew what story I wanted to tell. I had received positive comments and was eyeing the finishing straight. Why was it that a feedback, that was intended to be constructive, felt like an Exocet and had me reaching for my knitting needles? I think it had something to do with how fragile and uncertain I am of my academic credibility and identity beneath the confident exterior I was developing. Although I am so near finishing writing – or at least this phase of writing – I am also vulnerable and by no means certain I will make the grade. Did becoming rattled present a possible way of exiting, and placing the blame for my exit other than on my own competency, or lack of it?

Fortunately, there was support around. I was enabled to step back, see where the problem was (at least from my perspective) and see a way ahead. It actually clarified that I do know what I am doing and why, but it also means I am making changes in what I am writing – not because I have been told to, and not necessarily the changes that have been suggested, but changes that I can see need making and I know why I am making them.

I am not the same person now that I was four and a half years ago. Fundamentally, I am unchanged in that my values and beliefs are unaltered, but I have discovered another side of me. Twenty years or so ago, I went through a counselling process that enabled me to recognise areas of my emotional life that I had neglected and led to me recognising my desire for motherhood. Through this doctoral journey, I am recognising and embracing another part of myself that I can’t quite put a name to yet, but has something to do with becoming something that I wasn’t before – maybe I could whisper it very, very quietly – I think I am allowing myself to include being an academic as part of my persona.

And now – I need to get on and get that thesis written!



  1. Glad you are making it through these derailments, something akin to the liminal experiences that bound my own study! http://silenceandvoice.com/doctoral-thesis/

    Nearly there . . .

  2. You’re so close, keep going 🙂 I keep my yarn and knitting needles in a woven bag in the corner of the study, the colours and shapes invite my attention every day. Sometimes I look longingly at what the bag represents in my future – enjoying a hobby free of guilt that I should be doing something else. It is so very hard to keep choosing the path that includes painful anguish…it’s very encouraging that we are not alone in this. Well done, and not long now!

  3. Anna says:

    What a well-expressed post. These derailments are sent to try us – and they do! but the people who make it and get their PhDs are the people who can get past these set backs and be bloody-minded enough to just keep on going, solve the problems in some way and get back on track!
    Good luck for the final few weeks. I’m handing in (again) on 12th Dec so I can empathise fully. Leave those knitting needles alone just for the moment… 😉

  4. lizit says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words and fellow feeling 🙂

  5. Janshs says:

    That whole issue about feeling an imposter, feeling like an academic etc etc – I can really empathise with. Even now, five years on I still get rather surprised when professors speak with me as an equal and as if I know what I’m on about!

    Perturbations – possibly the only way to truly learn?

    Well done indeed Liz. You’re almost there (well you are there really)


  6. lizit says:

    Thanks Jan! I really do value all the encouragement I am getting at the moment, both through comments like yours and from other sources 🙂

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