PhD on Board: the agony of the final trimester

31 Mar

IMG_3490I can’t sleep. I dream about the chapter I have just written.

People have started asking for advice – on starting their doctorate. To them I seem like a –sort of – old hand now. They want to do one, but where?

Wait – where have I had these experiences before? Oh yes, when I was pregnant. As a mother of two teenage boys, it has been awhile, but it is coming back to me. The anxiety of the final few weeks before birth. Getting advice from everyone, women desperately wanting to be pregnant asking me for advice on when to have a baby and what’s it really like?

The end of a doctorate is just like the end of a pregnancy – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the all-consuming nature of it. Then there is the sinking realization that you alone are going to have to birth this baby. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger the less time you have.

My supervisor sends me an email. “You’ve put on too much weight!” (Actually, what she said was – “it’s too long!” But you get the picture)

When you are pregnant, it’s a sad fact that people rarely give up their seat on the train for you, but everyone has advice on what you should or should not eat or drink, and especially what to call the baby.

So it is with the doctorate. “What are you doing reading the paper – why aren’t you studying?” or “you can’t have a glass of wine! What are you thinking – you have to hand in soon.” Or “You are calling your exegesis – what?!”

I am taking two week’s leave from my day job at the gallery before my due date. I know the drill. At the last stage, there is no sleep, just swollen ankles, exhaustion and pure fear. Luckily, just as mother nature takes over in pregnancy and washes your brain with hormones that render you somewhat numb to the impending total eradication of your former life, it’s the same with the doctorate.

But this time, what floods your body is adrenalin. It washes through your blood with copious amounts of coffee – like a runner’s high. It’s the result of those endless sessions at the desk, those late nights, those editing sprints and rewrites that give you study high. Or at least that inspired, slightly crazed state that searches for the 4 am miracle. Usually, at 4 am.

A writer I know with a doctorate that’s at least 10 year’s old, almost finished primary school, really, nodded sagely as I related this state of anxiety to her the other day.

“Yes, I remember,” she said, gently. In the same way I’d tell a heavily pregnant woman I remember what it was like. You never forget.

Then she added, “you know once you hand in, it just goes away – all the pain, it just goes…”

Yes – that’s just what they say about labor.

Ah – the actual birth. For women who have been there, a collective shudder. And for those about to hand in their doctorate – nothing is birthed without pain, be it a doctorate or a child or a work of art. At the end, it’s all intense focus and draining, hard yakka.

But just as there is a support team for birth, there is one for the birth of a doctorate. I am so grateful for how people have pitched in to help and offer emotional and practical support. It’s like a collective group around me urging me to – push!

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Here are five reasons why birthing a doctorate is like birthing a baby:

1. Women about to give birth say and do some really, really stupid things. This is a true story.

Just before the birth of my first child, I rang the labor ward and asked a nurse what sort of reading material did she think I should pack? Did she think that I should start off with say Margaret Atwood, then progress to genre crime and onto chick lit and finally, a range of magazines from Vanity Fair to the trashy women’s mags? Her reply:

Nurse: Ooh…so you think you’re going to be reading? (gales of laughter)

And it’s the same with the doctorate. You are too distracted to do anything else. Forget multi tasking. The cat and dog brought in a rat the other day. It has taken up residence under the couch. It comes out to saunter around when I am proof reading. We look at each other. It goes back under the couch. My kids scream and ask me what I am going to do about it. I said “think of a name for it”. What’s the worst that can happen? Plague?

2 There are many forms to fill in. There are forms that were filled in at the beginning of the PhD but have to be filled in again, or are they different forms? Wait, some forms were missed at the beginning, or did they change at the middle? Forms must be sent to the right place at the right time. The website says “It is your responsibility to ensure all forms are completed and correct and done at the right time.” Hospitals are like this. You can’t even get an epidural without filling in a form and by the time you need one you’d sign your firstborn away to aliens. No wonder people freebirth. What’s my course code again?

3. Women are very competitive about birth. Pregnancy is a whole competition in itself. It’s worse after the birth. Men might compare cock size, women compare length of labor, scars, stitches, pain. Don’t even get me started on competitive breastfeeding. PhD students are the same. Who worked longest, latest, hardest, had the least sleep, the biggest bibliography, quoted the most journal articles, had the longest footnotes. 

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4. Conflicting advice Being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child. By my second pregnancy, no one bothered to give me advice. Why? I knew all the secrets.

I suspect those doing a second doctorate never get unsolicited advice, either. People just walk away and shake their head, muttering “don’t they know the world has too many doctoral submissions as it is? What about global warming and the environment and overcrowding in the academic job market?”

5. Nothing fits – you’ve grown too big. Everyone, even supermodels, look like they have swallowed a fridge in the weeks leading up to the birth. This is what it is like with the doctorate. Sure, in the early stages, it’s all small bump and looking cute in that outfit, right? Yeah, and your exegesis was small and manageable at the start as well, wasn’t it? The first year of the doctorate is like a babymoon. Then, once the reality sinks in, you wonder why you ever got up the duff with a doctorate in the first place.

In the last trimester, nothing fits – into the word length. You have too much information, too many footnotes, references, ideas and – stuff.

You know what women worry about before they give birth? How are they going to push out something that big. You know what PhD students worry about before they hand in? The same thing. 

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