This article was submitted by Di Rayson, who recently completed her PhD in Theology. Congratulations, Di!
When I started my PhD and had no idea what to do, I was surfing the net and found this little quote:
“Writing a PhD is not just a matter of writing words into chapters. It is a fundamental rewriting of yourself.”
I printed this off and stuck it onto my locker, where it stayed for the next three and a half years. Over that time, I came to realise just how profoundly true this is. I didn’t just write a thesis, I rewrote myself. And you will too, and it will be great.
Change can be scary and our resistance to change characterises much of the fear in our lives, from politics to religion, relationships, and work. If you’re here to do a PhD then you are embarking on a massive change process, so it’s best to embrace that idea from the start.
Perhaps you’ve already made some big changes just getting here, like moving towns or even countries, changing your financial situation, being more (or less!) accountable to a ‘boss’, working with a new crew, and learning lots of new, and sometimes frustrating, systems. When I started my Masters degree, I hadn’t been a student in a long while, and I was so impressed that there were computers throughout the library. “Look at how many places you can search the library catalogue,” I said to my undergraduate daughter. “Mum, most of those people are just on Facebook,” she replied.
Behold: the illusion of activity.
One of the most significant changes for me was the emotional rollercoaster associated with my journey as a PhD. I’d been a pretty successful career woman and raised some kids and run a farm, so a PhD didn’t seem that daunting at first. It was exciting and I was enthusiastic and my Prof was thrilled about the project – so far so good. Even getting through the symposium and Confirmation were good challenges that boosted my confidence and legitimised what I was researching and my methodology.
But then came second year.
Somehow I got it into my brain that unless I read everything that my main research subject, Bonhoeffer, had read, I couldn’t begin to study Bonhoeffer. And he’d studied a lot of philosophy. I spent my second year faffing about,* trying to read a lifetime of tangentially related, off-topic, outside-my-discipline, excruciatingly-difficult-and-boring works. The single chapter that this produced went into the bin. I got to the end of second year with no more than I’d had at Confirmation except a pumpkin-sized pit of dread in my stomach, and the overwhelming sense that I was just not good enough to do a PhD.
What the heck is that? Why do apparently normal, competent adults who are clearly smart enough to be in the program turn into jellyfish blubbering about in an ocean of self-doubt and inadequacy? It’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome’ because every student thinks they’re the imposter in the program, and some day someone is going to discover that they shouldn’t be there. That’s fine, I thought, for all you guys who have imposter syndrome. The trouble is, I AM AN IMPOSTER – a real one.
So, what happened? Well, my Prof ‘suggested’ I put that chapter aside and move on to the next one. I put my head down and worked hard, at difficult material that required blood, sweat and the occasional tears but in time I had a new chapter 2, and then 3 and 4. I got the hang of what I was doing. I gave up on the background material and read like a maniac the relevant stuff.
In third year I went to an international conference, met the authors I’d been reading and hammered out some of the controversies in the material. The clincher was that by the end of the conference there was no paper that threw me, no key reference that I wasn’t aware of, no big idea that I wasn’t across. By the end of that, I realised I really was up to this after all. I’d done the work and I was legitimate. I knew plenty of stuff, and I had fresh ideas that needed publishing. I was ‘as good’ as these people. In fact, these were ‘my people’. I came back to Australia a different person.
In the last 6 months, I wrote my final chapters like Wonder Woman. I worked long days, but now it felt like I was riding the wave to the shore. I would write a paragraph and say to myself, ‘Yeah it is,’ because now I was confident and so excited by my research. The Prof stopped reading the chapters and just wanted the whole thesis, a complete document. He had my back but was so sure of my work by now. We kept meeting, but it was only for me to clarify points in the argument or to touch base.
Suddenly it was all over. The thesis seemed like it had written itself. The celebrations, the walking over to symbolically lodge the document, the drinking cocktails and eating Mexican with the most supportive group of fellow PhDs you could ever find. The relief! Sleeping in on Monday morning.
When my results came back, ‘passed with no corrections’, I thought there was a mistake (sneaky bit of imposterism still there!). But then came a letter from the university addressed to Dr Rayson…and then more international conferences where suddenly I’m the authority, and a book contract, and a lecturing position.
I tell you this story because I’m astounded at the difference between how it was for me early in the candidature compared to the end. I’m a different person now: I’m a doctor and I’m competent and people read my work and cite me. My students and colleagues respect me. More important is that I respect myself.
Going through the process of a PhD is painful, intimidating, heartbreaking. But coming out the other end is the most affirming and delicious moment of all. Wherever you are in your change process, be encouraged that you are not alone and no emotion you go through, or roadblock that you face, is unique to you. It’s part of the rewriting as you become a doctor.
*Shout out to my supervisor who really did tell me to just get back to the main game – which I duly ignored.