Me and my PhD: A Snapshot on Finishing

I have finished (clap! boo!) . . .

I completed by PhD in August 2008 and graduated in May 2009—in the elegantly titled Autumn Graduation. (Interestingly, all the doctoral graduands—from Arts—were in the autumn—or late summer, like me—of their life.) My thesis was not so elegantly titled “Chamier the Epicurean: the Life and Works of George Chamier (1842-1915),” a five-hundred page excursus through the world of settler life and literature in the Antipodes, guided by Chamier’s life as an engineer and his career as a novelist. After the ceremony, there was much revelry, at which I felt something of a bystander, having done most of my celebrating on handing in my thesis in January 2009 and feeling rather at a loss at now having finished what had once felt like the labour of my life. What next? I thought (and am still thinking).

Sean Graduation Photo from University News

Fig. 1. Me on Graduation. The University of Auckland News 39.9 (29 May 2009): 7.

Hence the ambivalence I exhibit here: happy, bewildered, absent?

* * *

I am what they call a second—in fact, I am a third—chance learner. I tried law (following my father), music (following my instincts), then philosophy and English (following years of treading an extracurricular path, as I read myself into a position to return to University).

When I came back to University at thirty after making music full-time for ten years, I was ready to study. My motivations for returning—and, ultimately, for completing—were personal and financial: a desire to work doing what I enjoyed most (thinking and writing—and, I soon found out, teaching), and a young family whom I wanted to support.

If I have always learnt by making “mistakes,” the same was true, alas, in the case of my doctorate. Specifically, it was spending two years writing papers that I didn’t use in my thesis; being afraid of my supervisor because I have a problem with authority; beginning by writing on behalf of Maori when I ought to have written as a settler (the most valuable nudge my supervisor gave me); and so on. For me, the path of error was the path of truth, but it should be avoided. Get directions from those who are in the know so you don’t repeat the mistakes (or missteps) of others is my advice!

I tutored right through my degree. This was a mixed blessing: less time to write; time away from writing doing the face-to-face work of teaching. But I worked myself into a few jobs. The day I handed in my thesis I started working fulltime as a Senior Tutor at the University and have done so ever since: currently I’m halftime on a permanent basis at the Student Learning Centre and halftime on a limited term basis in the Department of English. At the SLC, I work primarily in the Undergraduate Skills Programme, doing one-on-one consultations and facilitating workshops about reading, writing and workflow. In English, I continue to lecture and tutor in the Writing Studies Programme, and occasionally elsewhere, working at the City, Epsom and Manukau campuses. In all my work, I aim to demystify the process of academic writing for students and to enable them to develop their voice as writing academics by exploring the limits of their “writing zone” at the University.

I’m currently working with Stephen Turner of the English Department on a book about teaching learning (a.k.a. pedagogy, embodied, embedded, and emboldened) and readying myself to return to the round of conference presentations and journal publications with some lessons from teaching writing. I post random reflections on writing on my blog, Te Ipu Pakore (https://seansturm.wordpress.com/).

If I were to share a few less random reflections on the process of doing a PhD, these would be they . . .

1. Method academicks

Ask yourself, like a method actor: what is my motivation for doing a PhD? Get clear about why you’re here. And to try to get some distance on the process: it is easy to take your role too seriously. Bear in mind: you do—and should—bring yourself to the role, but it is just a role, and you have and will have many others: in my case, a parent, a creative, etc.

2. Rope-tricks

Negotiating the institution of the University and the PhD is like learning the ropes—with which you can climb up or hang yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for a hand-up. You are not alone: your supervisor, peers, department, the Graduate Centre, the SLC are there for you. (To my detriment, I never learnt this.) You’re part of what is called in the jargon of higher education a community of practice. No matter how alienated from the institution and the process you feel, someone else has been there before. We’re all aliens here!

Alien on a Rope Ladder

Fig. 2. Alien on Rope Ladder. DisplayStatues.com. 30 July 2009.

Everyone, when they enter the environment of the academic institution, feels what I call the “academic smackdown”: they feel knocked down a peg (or rung) or two. The same is true when we move from a BA Hons or MA into a PhD: we go from begin a postgraduate expert to being a doctoral novice. But we forget that a degree, a doctorate in particular, is an apprenticeship, from which we will learn the most if we give ourselves over to it.

The best advice I can offer is to enjoy the methodical nature of the process: imagine that the rungs of the ladder, viz. the steps in the process, are there for you; enjoy each step: luxuriate in it; use the University for your own ends, personal and political: feed off the institution. In time, you will come to know your chosen territory of the field better than anyone else (and outdistance your supervisor) and grow so as to survey lord- or ladylike it as your domain.

3. Mimicks

Voltaire had it right:

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbour’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.

Learning to be an academic, in particular, learning to write academically, is mostly about mimicry—about learning to write like an academic. It is just another persona (L “mask, character played by an actor”).

And a few last thoughts . . .

4. Me-thinks

And of many last thoughts—about thinking, writing, and teaching—this is the most valuable lesson (it came from Stephen Turner, my confidant throughout my PhD—and now collaborator, and is, if anything, a life lesson, a lesson about understanding where your work fits in your life): a PhD is a finite task, just one step in what might somewhat melodramatically be called a “lifelong learning journey.” It isn’t the last—or most important—thing you will ever write. Though staking your life on a PhD ups the ante, don’t spend all your reserves: keep your life intact.

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2 thoughts on “Me and my PhD: A Snapshot on Finishing

  1. This is inspirational. Thank you for writing this.
    I find it somewhat comforting to know that even you were scared of your supervisor. I know you’re only human too, but you always looked so confident, unique and so grand when I took one of your courses during my undergrad studies. I thought it wasn’t possible for you to be afraid. You probably don’t remember me or know who I am since I didn’t say much in class, but I wanted to say you are an inspiration.
    I’m not doing a phD or anything, only just started my MA, but I feel so lost and terrified…that I could apply this post to my studies now as well. So thank you.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I had forgotten about this post.
      With a project like a Masters or PhD thesis, I reckon we have to give ourselves over to it, putting ourselves in a receptive position to learning and the advice of others. That can be really challenging, even if our supervisor is super-sensitive and -helpful. And we all have such an allegiance to our own (hard) work that direction/criticism is hard to take.
      Good luck with your work!
      Sean.

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