Regular readers will be aware that I’ve gone through the doctoral thesis-writing journey over the past few years, and that I submitted and passed my oral exam recently. It was a long road. From enrolment to submission it took five years (juggling work, family, and research) – then it took months on top of that to get through examinations and make it to graduation.
Last week, I finally got to don my academic robes, march in the parade, and cross the stage to receive my PhD.
Ah, the long-awaited floppy hat!
As I prepared to graduate, I reflected on the long road to graduation. There are many things I would do differently, if I were to do this again. But one mistake stands out in my mind.
I let the PhD seem impossibly hard.
I figured that anyone with Dr. in front of their name must be some kind of Mensa-leading mastermind, and that earning the title must require a rare and prodigious intellect. I thought that a thesis needed to contain zero errors, zero vulnerabilities, and zero ambiguities. I thought that my writing must be so careful that no-one could ever question it, debate it, or make a point against it. I thought that I needed to have read every book on every topic that was even tangentially related to mine. I thought that, come my oral exam, I would need to have memorised every fact, theorist, and quote about which I could be questioned.
In short, the project of earning a PhD seemed unfinishable. If I hadn’t had extenuating circumstances (a baby on the way) I’d probably still be working on it. In the end, what I submitted felt rushed and imperfect. I thought I would fail.
But you know what? My examiners’ reports were positive. I passed the oral exam without memorising anything at all, and I graduated.
Now I’m no genius – sometimes I forget who the Prime Minister is, and last week I found my earrings in the fridge. But I earned my doctorate because I put in enough work. Not as much as I thought I should, but enough. I wonder how much stress and time I could have saved if I’d realised that a thesis isn’t required to be the final word on a given topic?
My favourite piece of advice comes from an anonymous thesis examiner who was interviewed for some research on the examination process:
“‘A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize.'” (Mullins & Kiley, 2002, p.386)
The same goes for a Masters; writing a thesis is a process of proving your capabilities. You don’t have to make earth-shattering discoveries. You don’t have to be a walking, talking font of all knowledge. You just have to do the work, and put forth a modest set of findings in clear, readable writing.
It’s not impossible; it’s doable. And one day, when you have put in the hours, it will be done.
Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have one too many celebratory cocktails and accidentally refrigerate your jewellery. But you’ll do so as a graduate.
Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386. doi: 10.1080/0307507022000011507.