“When the weight we carry breaks us, we’re tempted to stay down; But every road to recovery starts at the breakdown.”
Rise Against - Miracle
I had my second viva on Friday. It was OK this time. I’m going to be a doctor! My work is actually good!
I spent the days and hours leading up to this viva in a state of absolute dread. Never mind that I had addressed the comments from the last viva. Never mind that I now had several answers to the stock viva questions about the importance of my work. Never mind that I could tell that this version of my thesis was better than the one I submitted before. I was hyper-aware of the shortcomings of my work (the result of running out of time towards the end) and convinced that what I’d done wasn’t enough and I was going to fail. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the moment I was told I had failed, warned everyone not to expect too much, and wondered how well I was going to deal with the fact of wasting pretty much five years of my life.
But it was better than I even imagined in my more optimistic moments. I didn’t even get asked those hard ‘what exactly is your argument here?’ and ‘why should historians of childhood care?’ questions I couldn’t produce a satisfactory answer to last time. I must have answered them enough in the text.
Instead, I was mainly asked to elaborate on and clarify things I’d written because the examiners were interested in them, rather than because I’d written anything horribly wrong. It was the proverbial ‘nice but gruelling chat about my work’, except I had a banging tension headache from all the anxiety beforehand, including a nasty dream in which they told me my work had no value whatsoever.
I have corrections, so it’ll be a few months before I’m officially a doctor (and then I won’t graduate until July next year, but I’ll be among friends so it’s OK). Even they weren’t as bad as I feared they would be - mostly typos (and my chronic inability to figure out when not to use en dashes) and extra reading, which is a) fun, and b) something I expected what with running out of time and all.
We also talked, after the formalities were done, about publication and further research. I have Some Thoughts about these.
Do I even want to publish?
Before the viva, my answer to this was ‘no, absolutely not. I’m sick of this piece of work, I don’t want to endure more criticism, I don’t think it’s very good.’ Now, I’m more ambivalent.
It would be cool to publish my thesis in book format - the examiners suggested that both trade and short-turnaround were possibilities. It would allay my guilt about my public funding, appease the god Researchfish, appeal to my more narcissistic qualities, and maybe generate some teeny tiny royalties. It would be hard work, but it might get the whole publishing thing out of the way in one lump so I can get on with my life.
I don’t hate writing, or spending my time writing by any means. Last year, when I was spending 4-5 hours every Saturday and Sunday morning/early afternoon on my thesis, I did like feeling productive, although whenever I caught myself enjoying it, I would shut it down with ‘yeah but it might be a load of crap and this might be a complete waste of time.’
Now I know my work isn’t bad, I can allow myself that enjoyment. And I haven’t really found another productive outlet like that. I bought some books of creative writing exercises, and they’re fun, but there’s a feeling of futility; every story idea I come up with has been done before, and what am I doing it for anyway?
That ‘what am I doing this for?’ question also applies to journal articles. The examiners made a very tempting case, but as I’m definitely not staying in academia and I’m going to lose my affiliation after I complete, is there any point? Do I really want to deal with Reviewer 2 so I can have my work published in a journal I won’t even be able to access, if they even accept articles from independent researchers?
I didn’t choose the independent researcher life
Another tempting idea the examiners had was further research, and they pointed out some possible directions I could take my work in. On the one hand, I still love history. I’ve read some books recently about the history of housing, and class, and women, that have really fired me up and given me ideas.
On the other hand, again, I’m not staying in academia, so I’m not sure what it would be for, precisely. I mean yeah, fun, but I don’t think I’m so pure about my love for my subject that I can spend time and money doing research just for the sake of it. Maybe I’d be happy enough just reading other people’s books.
Neither publishing, nor further research, is going to boost my payslip. The time I’d be spending on them is time I could be using to develop my actual career. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet - my favourite elements of my job are drawing people’s attention to things, finding out about books, and working for a non-profit - but I’m looking forward to finding out. I thought getting my doctorate would be the End Of All This, but there’s still so much to think about. Hopefully, whatever I end up doing, changes lie ahead now I’ve been freed from the amber of referral.
I haven’t really done much to celebrate passing my viva. I was really wiped out after it and basically had a nap and a takeaway with my partner. My friends all live far away these days, so we’ll have to go out when I next see them. I have, however, booked a tattoo as a present for myself, and to symbolise what I’ve been through. It features the words ‘every day is a chance to change the story.’ I leave you, for now, with the song I took them from, which is one among a few which have got me through the last 18 months.