We first featured this post from Dr Philippa Smith in 2013
Last year I was part of a panel at the AUT writers’ retreat in Long Bay where we were asked to provide personal perspectives on our recent PhD experiences. One question asked was one I had not really pondered before: “when did you know you had finished your thesis?”. My immediate answer was… “at least three times!”. Everyone laughed – not because they necessarily thought I was being funny – but, I suspect, because they too knew exactly what I was talking about. Getting to the end of that PhD road is not an easy journey and there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. Just when you think you are almost there, or that you have finally cracked it – something surfaces and you “just ain’t there yet!”.
When I do take time to reflect on my PhD experience, I know that I went through stages, rather than times, in believing that I had finished. I describe these stages in the following ways:
- The “final draft” stage. There were numerous occasions when I emailed what I believed were final drafts of my thesis to my supervisors. Only to be told that they needed more work, they were too long, or they did not contain enough analysis. Returning to the drawing board to revise, to edit, to proof and re-submit a better version is all part and parcel of the PhD experience. But this is a stage that sees you working towards perfection. Each time you make it a little better, so that you can produce something that you are really proud of – so that you can prove that you really are a critical thinker. As a good friend once advised me – “your final product is what you are judged on, so you need to make it good!”.
- The “off my plate” stage. The second stage when I thought that I was finished was when my ‘final’ version was sent to the examiners. Indeed it is true to say that it was finally “off my plate” and to actually reach this stage was a milestone. Just getting there had been a major effort taking several years. That feeling of relief – of not actually being able to do any more until I received the examiners reports – signaled that life might be on the verge of returning to normal. I left to go overseas for two weeks the day after I submitted and it was the most wonderful feeling to leave the post-graduate life behind – albeit temporarily. Although it was great to have got this far and people congratulated me on having submitted, I still felt that this celebration was way too premature and, in reality, I had not yet reached the finishing line.
- The “thumbs up” stage. Several months later I had to face the music and defend my thesis which – while a daunting prospect – went very well and my three examiners asked for only minor changes to be made. So you might say that this third stage of actually getting the “thumbs up” from the examiners, the final changes completed, and that massive 230 page document sent off to the binder in time for graduation, might be the crowning moment when I felt that I really was finished. But sadly, it just did not feel right. I guess that nearing the end of that PhD journey, I felt rather flat and deflated after all those years of hard work – blood, sweat and tears. Was this it? Had it been worth it? Did the examiners really think it was good? What would the future hold?
I believe that there must be a condition known as “post-thesis depression” when, although you have finished (technically), you don’t really feel an elated sense of accomplishment. Even on the day of my graduation, I still felt apprehensive as to whether I had really achieved what I had so desperately wanted.
In reality that pinnacle of the PhD journey had, in my eyes, not yet been reached. However all was to change the moment I walked onto the stage at the Auckland Town Hall for graduation last December. From the corner of my eye I saw my primary supervisor and other AUT staff members I knew well, stand up and applaud. I will never forget when the Pro-Chancellor Lex Henry shook my hand, smiled and spoke the words: “Dr Philippa Smith – Congratulations!” that I suddenly felt this overwhelming sense of achievement. That acknowledgement by the people I looked up to at AUT, and by my family cheering in the audience – that was the moment when I truly knew that I had finished. In my heart of hearts I realised that I had achieved something incredibly worthwhile and this time I really believed it.