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No going back – and thanks for the company

The purpose in setting up this blog, over four years ago now, was to have a place to track my doctoral journey and to share some of my ideas and things I was reading. Over time, it had focused increasingly on the journey and, in particular, on the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that has been my personal journey.

Yesterday was a landmark day – it was the day when I handed over three copies of my thesis for examination. Anybody who has read this blog will know that even a week ago I was questioning whether I would actually make it to this point, as I fought and quibbled yet again with doing what was expected of me. At this point I want to say a huge thanks to all my friends, colleagues and acquaintances inhabiting #phdchat – so often you’ve picked me up and dusted me down, put a virtual coffee mug in my hands and helped me see the way forward. Sometimes you have given me a good talking to – seeing it was the child in me refusing to play the game – and at other times you have shared your own experiences of similar issues and how you dealt with them. I will never meet most of the folk I have got to know so well, but nevertheless #phdchat is a living community and I am just so glad it has come into being during my doctoral journey and been there for me.

I am now entering the next phase – the waiting game until the examination and whatever verdict there will be.

For the moment, I am trying to get used to not having to get up and think, write, produce. In some ways my position is enviable. I am at least semi-retired – I still work a little for the Open University – which means my time is my own. At the same time, I have things I want to do, things I want to write, things I want to be involved in – some are pursuing my research and academic interests, but others are the things that have been on ice – my lacemaking, leisure reading, homemaking…

I can’t move backwards – none of us ever can – so here’s to the journey ahead!

The end is in sight – or is it?

Draft thesis went to supervisors about ten days ago and received comments/suggestions/advice from one. I don’t really expect to hear from other until end of next week – hang it all, it is the holidays!

I’ve got a list of things I need to do before I can submit thesis. Most are fairly minor, like decoupling EndNote and making a few minor amendments to my bibliography that I can’t do while still using EndNote.

The only challenging bit still to do is getting my Conclusions into shape – and I’m struggling with that! Spent a fair bit of yesterday afternoon throwing my rattle out of my pram, not helped by those closest to me – and who have PhDs – trying to tell me the conclusions are the easy bit and a place to ‘big up’ what I’ve done. All that’s doing is making me question whether I have actually done anything that I can claim in any way contributes to knowledge.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the doctoral journey so far and I’ve learned a lot about myself and other stuff, but have I actually done anything which I can claim adds to knowledge? I’m not so sure. In fact, I feel that any claim I make will be sheer arrogance. The question is whether that is my old friend ‘imposter syndrome’ popping its head above the parapet again, or am I making a realistic and honest assessment of what I have achieved, or not achieved, over the past four years?

I know that with a bit of effort, I can make the minor changes to my draft conclusions that are needed and add a few more paragraphs in order to have a thesis fit to submit. I am also unsure whether I want to. Part of me feels I owe it to my husband, my advisers, my friends – all those folk who have put up with me over the past months as I’ve disappeared into my mental cave – to finish what I have started. Another part of me feels that it would be so much easier to walk away now before I make an even bigger fool of myself and really do show myself to be the fraud I am. If I had the time, now would be good for a couple of days away from the desk, but deadlines loom and I’ve either got to get the job done, or forget it, and I want whatever decision I make to be a positive one, not an act of sabotage.

I have learned stuff that I do consider useful and valuable. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a room in a church hall talking to two women. All three of us have sons on the autism spectrum. Mine is now adult and living pretty independently while studying for a foundation degree. Their sons are both in the middle years of primary school and one has a younger son, who may also be on the spectrum. We were chatting about a meeting one of them had been involved in at school and she was talking about the difficulty of getting school personnel to accept her son was not the same as other kids – yes, they accepted the diagnosis and had put some strategies in place, but the expectation was that the boy would then become like the others. We got to talking about difference, accepting difference and the role of schools in normalising and socialising children – OK, those were not the words we were using, but they were the ideas, and they were ideas that were coming directly out of my research findings. The other woman was a teacher as well as a parent and talked about how her perceptions of children with special needs had changed as a result of her own experience, but she also experienced difficulties relating to professionals when talking about her son. The conversation moved to how a knowledgeable parent can be perceived as a threat by a less knowledgeable practitioner – effectively we had moved on to Bourdieu and cultural capital and the field of struggle…

Yes, I have learned things that help me to understand the dynamic of what is happening in some situations where parents struggle, and parents and practitioners end up fighting each other. I can apply that knowledge directly in my support role – and the ideas I share resonate with the parents I share them with. The question is whether or not that knowledge, those insights, actually count as contributing to knowledge in the way academia understands knowledge? Is completing and submitting my thesis the way to share that knowledge and those insights, or is now the time to walk away and seek a different way of disseminating what I have learned – or maybe I can do both.

Whatever I decide, I need to decide quickly!

Last few days of ‘real’ writing

The end is in sight – yes really.

I’ve agreed to let supervisors have draft next Tuesday – which means I have three days writing time – but I also have time after that for final tweaking before heading for printshop…. As one of my supervisors reminded me ‘its my baby’!

This morning, I’ve written a ‘to do’ list. At the top is:

Tidy desk and remove all material not using

That should help me not to look at mountains of paper and old comments and other assorted bits and bobs.

Then I have a list of 8 things I need to do. Four relate to thesis content and things I know I need to make sure I have done by way of making connections and tying up ends. Four relate to practicalities, like appendices and front matter. Effectively a road map of things I can tick off.

I know the finished thesis will not be perfect. Hopefully it will be good enough, but whether or not it is ‘good enough’ in the sense of being judged of doctoral standard, from a personal perspective I’ve learned so much from this journey, it doesn’t actually matter how anybody else judges my work.

Right, time for tea and then on with the desk tidying and the ‘to do’ list.

Two weeks and counting

Well actually, a bit more than two weeks, but have to fit in Christmas, return home of student son and a few more bits and bobs before submitting in week beginning 7th January.

What a difference a week can make!

Last Saturday, I was ready to throw the towel in, pick up my knitting needles and retreat to my rocking chair and grow old gracefully. This week, I am pumped up and ready to get on with completing the writing task.

What has made the difference?


A supervisor who has seen it all before giving freely of her time to hear what was troubling me and help me understand my confusion and how to get beyond it.

Friends, especially the network of other graduate researchers using the Twitter #phdchat hashtag, who understand all too well the highs and lows of this very odd journey.

So, with enthusiasm, I will be doing a lot of writing over the next few days, followed by a fair bit of editing and all should be ready for printing once the printshop is open again after the Christmas recess…

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!

Four weeks writing ahead

I reckon I have about 4 weeks of writing time available to me now – or perhaps a little less! Then a week or so for final proofreading and edits before heading off to the print shop and finally submitting my thesis.

Although I had an initial draft of my thesis over a year ago, it has undergone a major metamorphosis since then – there are a few words from that initial draft present in the current version, but not many. Even over the past month, some chapters have been pretty well re-written, or moved to a different place in the ‘big document’ to better support the argument I am presenting. There are even some chapters that have been reduced to little more than notes and need quite a lot of work to be presentable in any way whatever!

Despite the chaos I am surrounded by, I am feeling moderately optimistic that the task will be completed on time. What I submit will not be as I would like it to be, but hopefully it may be good enough.

For the moment, I see the next four weeks as a time when I will live, eat, sleep, and write thesis. At least, I now know what I want to say!

And don’t anybody talk to me about Christmas – that is postponed until 12th night!

Eight weeks to go

Form completed and submitted, indicating my intention to submit my thesis at the beginning of January!

If all had gone according to plan, I would now have a reasonably complete thesis draft which would need a certain amount of tinkering and correcting.

But things do not go according to plan!

I am sitting here with lots of versions of draft chapters, rough notes and supervisors’ suggestions . Somehow in the next 8 weeks this chaotic mess has to be sorted out into an orderly and scholarly presentation, correctly formatted, proof-read, printed and soft bound and submitted to the university!

Bit by bit I am realising how much of this journey is psychological as much as intellectual. Yesterday, I got comments back on some of my work. The covering email was complimentary while indicating there were omissions that I needed to address, but that these were not major problems. As I sat there reading the comments, it struck me that what was minor to my supervisor felt like mountains to me. On reflection, I recognised that from my supervisor’s perspective, with her frame of reference, the suggestions were indeed minor. However, from my perspective and frame of reference, they are anything but minor. I further realised that central to my difficulty – and probably to my more general difficulties in getting this thesis finished – is how I identify myself in relation to the philosophical constructs of academia. I guess I am talking about epistemology and ontology, but I still haven’t got a real grasp on what those words mean, let alone how to apply them to myself.

Part of the deal of undertaking a doctorate is agreeing to play by the rules of the doctoral process and that process is essentially a fairly lengthy apprenticeship, or enculturation into an academic club.  That club is made up of tribes according to discipline and philosophical tradition. During the period of apprenticeship, part of the task is sorting out which tribe one is seeking to be part of. For most people, this seems to be relatively straightforward, however for me, it has presented major challenges as I do not comfortably identify either with either a single discipline or with any particular philosophical tradition – in fact, I am not at all clear what the differences are between structuralism, neo-liberalism, interpretivism, post-modernism, etc, etc.

Part of my lack of clarity relates to my academic background. Many of this ‘isms’ were simply not around when I was an undergraduate  40 years ago and I haven’t really caught up on what is what and why it matters. Secondly, but as importantly, throughout my professional life, I have gathered ideas from different places and melded them together to use as tools for dealing with situations and problems. Years ago, when running various workshops, I used to speak of having a rucksack of tools and techniques and understandings and experiences which could be used as appropriate in different circumstances. I have always crossed boundaries, pillaging good ideas which I could use elsewhere. My approach to academia is similar, if I see an idea which resonates, I grab it and apply it. However, this eclecticism which has served me well in other settings is proving a difficulty in this one!

I really do believe there should be scope for square pegs in round holes in academia as elsewhere. I do not see or understand the need to declare allegiance to a specific tribe. The challenge of completing my thesis is one of how do I play the game, remain true to my own ideals, and demonstrate my understanding of the application of academic ideas and principles.

Guess the next 8 weeks are going to be interesting!