Champagne and anxiety: diary of a PhD completion

Deborah Netolicky thought that the submission of her PhD was the end, but now she realises that it is just a beginning

March 18, 2016
Cork popping on a champagne bottle
Source: iStock

The thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me In borrowed robes? – Macbeth

I really didn’t think that the very pointy end of my PhD, once I knew that my thesis amendments had been approved by my supervisors, would be complex. Surely there would be a quiet moment of joy followed by the pop of a champagne cork? Well, I was right about the champagne, but the last week has been more of a roller coaster than I imagined. It turns out that finishing a doctorate is wound up in some messy identity-entangled feelings. Here, I try to give a sense of what that looked and felt like for me.

My week’s diary of PhD completion went something like this:

Friday: Supervisors sign off on the amended thesis. Form goes to the dean for university sign-off. Elation. Excitement. Light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Hugs. Champagne. I tell my kids. My 5-year-old shouts “Wooohooo! No more PhD!” I remember that I’ve been doing this most of their lives (they were six months and two years old when I started; now they are 4 and 5).

Saturday and Sunday: Checking and rechecking the thesis, especially the amendments. I fully proof the first and last chapters, line by line, punctuation mark by punctuation mark. Obsess over commas and hyphens, or the lack of commas and hyphens. Wonder why I’m so unable to let go of a document that I’ve been told is done. My husband takes me to lunch on the coast on a glorious day. I drink a Bellini. We “cheers” to the thesis being done.

Monday: Dean signs off on my thesis. It’s through. Accepted. Officially done. I jump up and down. Whooping. Air-punching. Triumph.

Tuesday: I’m still tinkering with the already-approved thesis. I’m haunted by nightmares and daydreams of mistakes existing somewhere in the 300-page document despite it being checked by me, two supervisors and three examiners. Impossible obsession with checking over and over. And over. I keep reminding myself the thesis has been signed off. It is considered doctorate-worthy. I save the document as a PDF to stop myself from my compulsive tinkering. I sneak another peek. OK, maybe more than one.

Wednesday: Wake with a cracking headache, knowing that today is the day I print the final final final copies for permanent binding (buckram cloth! gold letters!). One will live on the library shelf (maybe never to be opened). Anxiety builds as I worry that this final copy means there can be no more tinkering. I am overwhelmed by the pressure of printing the tangible final pages. It’s a relinquishing of control. If there are errors, they will be inked there for eternity. I feel increasingly ill as I print and check the final copies of my thesis. I take the box of printed pages in to the university and submit them to the library to be sent for final binding. I drive to pick up sick child from school; no time to savour the moment. I upload the thesis document to the university library. Fall into a heap of exhaustion and hollowness. It’s the thesis finishing comedown, an emotional and energetic crumbling, a descent into the post-thesis abyss. I tweet my feelings of emptiness and strangeness. Responses come: yes, the mourning, the crash, the void. Others have felt this, too. I head out for dinner and champagne. Company helps and I’m reminded that – without lab partners, a writing group or colleagues at the university – my journey is mostly in my head. I’ve been the working mama who comes and goes from uni in a blinding flash, working mostly alone, often in the night. It’s good to be out, and to talk about it. And to talk about other things to forget about it.

Thursday: I get word that my thesis is online. There it is, a citation with my name on it, and a downloadable document. My thesis title in black and white. My words out of my head and into the world. My work now in the public realm. Elation again. Pride. And then the crack of the imposter syndrome whip. I hadn’t felt it until now. I was perfectly comfortable being a PhD candidate. An eager student. A work in progress. Of course, I am still a neophyte. A partially-formed apprentice scholar. I realise I’m almost doctored, but feel unworthy of the title. I know I’ve worked hard for this. My family has both sacrificed and benefited from my doing the PhD; we’ve lived it. I know I’ve walked the path that leads to the “Dr” and the medieval flourish of the Tudor bonnet. Yet I hear Macbeth’s line in my head: “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” My sense of identity hasn’t caught up with the reality of finishing the PhD. My new almost-doctor-ness feels ill-fitting. My neverending PhD story is coming to an end. Or is that a beginning? When I started the doctorate, I saw its completion as the pinnacle. Now I realise it’s entry level.

Friday: I notice missing Oxford commas in the text. I begin to think about the work I’ve now projected out into the world. I remember how non-traditional my thesis is. That it was risky. That some might be inspired by my novel approach and others bemused or horrified. I reflect on how I have attempted to push at the boundaries of what an acceptable thesis is. I’ve worked within the accepted parameters of a thesis (introduction, literature, method, results, discussion; some use of the distant academic voice). But I’ve also challenged the traditional thesis genre by embracing creativity, shifting voices and a literary lens as a way to make meaning. I wonder how my attempt to create a text that compels and propels the reader will be received now that it lives outside of my laptop and my head. I’m comforted by accepted journal articles and conference papers that affirm that my work fits somewhere. I breathe.

The ride continues. Maybe soon, I’ll grow into the robes.

Deborah Netolicky is a teacher of English and literature at an Australian school, where she also leads a coaching intervention for teacher growth. She studied for her PhD – Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school – at Murdoch University. Her thesis was completed this month and her doctorate will be conferred in April. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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