On not writing from the PhD

This was originally published on patter

On March 26th 2014 I finally submitted my thesis for the PhD I had begun almost six years earlier. The event itself was somewhat anticlimactic after a false start the day before when ebullience at having finished gave way to irritation upon realising I’d misread the formatting guidelines and had to get my thesis reprinted. Thus I shuffled into University House the following day, somewhat hungover, with my now correctly printed thesis only to be told that I was in the wrong place and had to make my way across campus if I wanted the university to take receipt of this document which had dominated my life for the past six years. In retrospect this subdued comedy of errors seems rather appropriate because it helped detract from what might otherwise have been unreasonable expectations about how I would feel once it was over. I never really liked being a PhD student yet I never wanted to let go of my thesis. I felt about it rather like this panda feels about his green ball:


I’d got used to sitting with it. It’s simply what I was doing: sitting with my green ball. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable and at times it became downright tedious. But it was comfortable and familiar to an extent that made the impending reality of it being snatched away from me feel bizarrely traumatic. But in reality, it wasn’t snatched away, as much as the belittling objectivity of a final deadline from the university made it seem as if it would be. From the mildly chaotic handing in process through to a six month long wait for a viva and the weirdly familiar process of getting a library copy printed and going to hand this in, it simply rolled away from me in a manner I was only dimly aware of at the time. This thing that had provided such structure to my life since the age of 23 faded slowly into the distance until I one day discovered that I was Dr. Carrigan giving a lecture to a room full of masters students. That first lecture on the masters module I convened was the closest thing I’ve experienced to a culmination of the process and it wasn’t all that close. The graduation ceremony was another occasion on which to wear a suit that doesn’t fit me properly, coupled with an ever sillier hat perched upon my head than last time.

The point of this naval-gazing is to address a question Patter asked me after a conversation on Twitter: why I am so averse to going back to publish from my PhD? It’s been over a year since I handed it in and yet a begrudging cover-to-cover reading the day before my viva is the only point at which I’ve looked at in this time. This was the double sided misprint which my false start at handing in left me with, a document I scrawled upon before relegating to the corner of my book shelf. The slightly diminished status of the volume feels oddly appropriate and yet mildly upsetting. Oddly enough for someone who once agonised over whether instrumentalism would win out in deciding what to do with my PhD thesis (http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/12530) I now find myself struggling to motivate myself to do anything with it.

When I say ‘my PhD’ what do I actually mean? It occurs to me that it was both process and outcome. It’s something I did for six years, entirely subjugating every other aspect of my life to it, but it’s also the outcome of that process. This lends the document itself a tremendously ambiguous status which I think goes some way to explaining my reluctance to part with at the time of submission. I’ve never known quite how to feel about it, least of all when the university was telling me I had to finally hand it over or they’d kick me out.

My PhD has its material existence as sheets of paper, sequentially bound together according to a strict rubric, upon which its intellectual content is inscribed. But it also has a more spectral existence, something which postmodernists might describe as hauntalogical: its existence as a physical document brings to a close all which came before it and yet these angst-ridden years linger on through the physicality of those pages. As a marker of intellectual progress, it captures all the mistakes I made and grants an acidulous permanence to the missteps which I realise on a reflective level are an unavoidable part of the process. But it was also the horizon of that progress, as well as my life as a whole during that time in which so much happened to make me the person I am now, some fantastic, a little that was truly terrible and much that was simply tedious. In view of this, the materiality of the thesis seems almost pathetically mundane to me.

I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable with my PhD. It’s not that I think it’s a bad PhD… it’s an unusual piece of work but I’ve had enough people I respect understand what I was trying to do for me to feel confident that it has intellectual value. But the document itself feels so unendingly strange to me, even now over a year later when I find myself reflecting on it for the first time in weeks, I’d like nothing more than to leave it in the past as an awkward and confusing encounter I doubt I’ll ever be sure what to make of. In spite of this, I know my PhD will in reality follow me wherever I go, intensifying my avoidance in the knowledge that I can’t ever entirely avoid it. I might very well end up producing the handful of journal articles which could very easily be adapted from my thesis. I don’t really want to though and the evidence thus far suggests I probably won’t. Hopefully in writing this I’ve helped explain why this is the case and I’m curious to know if others share my antipathy towards something which the culture of the academy suggests we should be proud of.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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3 replies »

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Mark, as someone who was told ‘get it done or you lose your job’ and has very similar feelings. Seven years on (actually, I just had to try to work that out – I think it was that long ago) I’ve managed to publish 3 papers. I don’t think it does follow you though, I think it just becomes an even sadder single line in your CV that no-one, least of all you, particularly cares about!

  2. As someone on step 1 of the journey (ie: my application has been accepted) I read this with conflicting feelings of excitement and dread! It seems such a long road to travel with plenty of self doubt speed bumps along the way. I hope I enjoy at least 60% of it!

  3. This resonates with my own experience. I loved and hated being a doctoral student, and the latter mostly revolved around producing the thesis. By the end, I had no faith in what I had written (and still don’t have much) and was amazed to pass the viva without major revisions. I loved the teaching side of being a doctoral student, and the amount of time/freedom I had to explore whatever particular academic alleyways I felt like exploring, and the associated discussion of ideas, misteps, worries, grand plans, etc. with others going through the same experience. But in the end, submission was disappointing and I didn’t even look at the thesis for a couple of years afterwards. I published one article, four years after submission, but I had moved on to a different area of interest in which I have published reasonably regularly. What I learned during that period proivides me with a pretty solid grounding as an academic, which I like to think I have built on. When I now read what I wrote, it is much better than I remember, but as whole the thesis (I feel) remains fundamentally flawed. It was an apprentice piece, and remains just that.

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