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I submitted my thesis nearly two weeks ago now.

And as clichéd as it may sound, it feels like an absolute eternity.

For several days afterwards, as I posted about in my previous post, it felt like I had emerged from a massive, never-ending nightmare where I was constantly on the go and constantly, narrowly, blindly obsessing about this central, all-consuming thing in my life: My thesis. Well, it’s gone now. The light-headedness has faded away. The shock has subsided. I feel like maybe I have returned to a degree of normality in my life, even though, at this point, I concede I am not all too sure what normality is supposed to feel like.

There are still things going on that have been keeping me occupied. I am due to give some talks over the next few weeks so there have been presentations to prepare. I’ve been worrying about whether my thesis has reached my examiners safely. I’ve managed to ascertain, through my supervisor, that my internal examiner and chair have their copies, but am still waiting for confirmation from the external. That’s a real worrying point for me. I’ve been having horrible thoughts of the grad school posting it out to the wrong address or the package getting lost in the post or the postal services going on strike. I’ve been trying to block these out but don’t think they will go away until I know the thesis has arrived safely. And going on two weeks now, I really would have expected it to have arrived. To block these thoughts out, I’ve also taken on some paper-grading work, which I finished just yesterday well ahead of the deadline.

Then there’s my life in general…but I’m really not up for talking about that at any length right now.

My viva has been provisionally scheduled for July 29th. I am apprehensive about it to say the least, and for all my hoarding of viva advice from across the breadth of the internet, my nerves still aren’t settled. I feel jumpy, uncertain, and restless about my viva. I don’t know what anything’s going to be like. I have no idea what the examiners are going to think about my thesis or whether they are going to go easy on me or eat me alive, or whether some horrific untoward event is going to happen that cancels my viva altogether, leading to a massive anti-climax.

Thinking about it too much makes me nauseous.

I feel blank, like I don’t know what to do or what to focus my energy and attention on. I feel blank like after having emerged from such an intense, sustained period of disciplined work I am at a loss as to how to spend my time or what to do with myself that will yield something productive and worthwhile.

I just got a phone call from my supervisor. Our external examiner, who is apparently The One, has said she will examine my thesis.

Then, I bumped into my other supervisor, who told me our internal examiner has had a heart attack.

Chaos, I tell you! I’m in complete chaos!!

Esperanto’s my last resort!

The external examiner saga continues. My supervisor finally arrived back from an emergency trip overseas, and, upon looking up the background information I’d sent her last week, declared the external I’d suggested to be “The One”.

Yes. The One.

She’s not a psychologist, not even a scientist, and yet, she’s The One.

It’s all getting a bit dramatic now.

Anyway, my other supervisor has now sent a formal invitation to the professor and we’re waiting for a response. She only sent it yesterday afternoon but I’ve found it’s constantly been popping in and out of my mind, wondering whether she’s read it yet, what she might think when she reads it, how she’s going to respond. It feels hard to concentrate on what I should actually be doing, which is finishing off yesterday’s lecture slides, going to a meeting with a colleague I’m supposed to be lecturing for, and getting a move on with my data collection.

I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge hit to my academic ego to get another examiner rejection, so I’m really hoping this professor will accept. The again, if she declines, I’ll be launched into another bout of rampant searching and mental chaos until my supervisors and I can decide on an alternative. And that’s even though we already have alternatives!

 

 These titles are, if you need explanation, derived from the home countries of the external examiners my supervisors and I are considering.

Yesterday I met with my supervisor to talk about externals again. Since our first choice declined because of other commitments at the time my viva is scheduled, we talked about two other possibilities that are on the cards. The first, a colleague of the Danish gentleman who had been our first choice, seemed to fit my thesis better, while the second, a professor based in Portugal, was decidedly a last resort (though not necessarily because Quero Formar** sounds more like the Latin motto of some well-to-do white middle class college in West London).

We agreed that my supervisor would approach the Dane the next day. But sitting around in my overheated office, frustrated at the headache that had been pounding away in my head all day, I suddenly wondered if we weren’t perhaps looking for my external in the wrong places. When you’re doing a PhD in psychology you reasonably expect that your external will also be a psychologist of some sort. But what if someone else’s expertise fits better with your thesis than any psychologist you’ve been able to find? That’s when I thought of…well, the woman I’m thinking of now.

She isn’t a psychologist.

Actually, she isn’t technically even a scientist, though the boundaries between scientific disciplines, and between science and art, are usually more blurred than we’d like to think.

The thing is, sometimes PhD theses are at the intersection of so many different obscure lines of enquiry across art and science that it is almost impossible to locate an external who is as well-versed in your uber-obscure area of expertise as you are. I mean, if I could have the ideal external for my thesis, it would be myself. Failing that, though, if there’s someone out there who is interested in, and published widely on, the topic I’m focusing on, though from a perspective other than psychology, I’ve begun to wonder whether that person is better qualified to examine me than a psychologist who, although vaguely knowledgeable about my area by virtue of the fact that they are a psychologist, would probably have to go to considerable lengths to do background reading before they could confidently question me at my viva.

This is all so confusing. I’m not sure I even have an academic identity any more. What am I? A psychologist? By virtue of the fact that my first degree is in psychology, or because I do research in a psychology department, or because I am supervised by psychologists? Does it matter that my research includes as much sociology, philosophy, economics and political science as it does psychological theory? Are non-psychologists, and indeed non-scientists, if there are such things, qualified to grant, or recommend the granting of, psychology PhDs?

I just don’t understand.

And in further news, I’ve just found out my other supervisor, whom we really need to consult on all matters relating to external examiners, is overseas tending to some urgent family issue and may not be back for a week. I’m glad I asked my supervisors to begin the examiner search 8 months in advance, but I’m beginning to think with all the unavoidable, unforeseen delays we might end up being only just in time.

I just really, really want to graduate. And though I know I’ll do everything I can to meet my responsibilities, the uncertainty surrounding factors out of my control often worries me and gets me down.

I want to graduate! And I will irrationally translate this into any language known to man until I do!

*Dutch for “I want to graduate” …at least according to Google Translate.

**And the Portugese.

In my little world today, far from the eyes of supervisors, reviewers, my family and friends, and just about everyone else in the world, I’m in the midst of an equally frustrating and exciting storm in which I am once more searching for external examiners.

I feel a bit silly, because although this is something very important to me now, I know that in another few years I’ll look back on these times and think how pathetic I was! As much as I try to stop worrying about my viva, I can’t help it. I’m a worrier. I worry about everything, especially my viva, and the closer my viva comes in my diary, the more I am worrying about it. If I stop worrying for a while, I start to worry that I’m taking it too easy when there’s something important I should be worrying about. I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a good external. I’m worried that even if I do find a good external, that they’ll say no or they won’t be available at the time I need them. I’m worried that even if they say yes and they’re available, they’ll turn up to my viva and eat me alive like a savage rabid thesis-gobbling monster.

I guess today’s just going to be one of those worrying days.

Everything is shaken up today. Like one of James Bond’s ubiquitous vodka martinis.

First up: My preferred internal has provisionally agreed to examine my thesis. This is great. Here’s the downside: He can’t make July. Or August. Instead, he has offered June, September, or October. June is cutting it a bit fine for me, and September and October seem so far down the line I’m afraid I could lose all motivation by then.

Is this news good or bad?

One of the primary reasons why Chekhov set himself apart from other 19th century Russian literary artists is the fact that his characters (especially the ones in his plays) are neither good nor bad. You watch the plays, read and reread the scripts, try to work out if Ivanov is a hero or a villain. The truth is he is neither. Chekhov set out to show his audiences that humans – and life itself – are neither all good nor all bad. They are, instead, impossibly complex, sometimes tending towards goodness and sometimes towards evil.

If life is, like Ivanov, impossibly complex, then try my examiners!

Next: If my supervisors and I agree to take on my preferred internal, we would need to decide whether we will take him on for the sooner viva, in June, or the later one, in September. What we decide will then have a knock-on effect on my thesis submission date, which, if we take the June option, would mean I might even have to submit in April. That’s really cutting it fine. But let’s say I do manage to submit early. Then, there’s the issues of finding and agreeing with a new external, whom we haven’t even decided on yet, and chance being that this person can make a June viva. What if they can’t? Then we’re stuck till September for my internal to be available again. And then what? What if my external (whoever that is) isn’t available in September? Then what?

Sometimes I look at all the postdocs and lecturers and tenured professors around the department and am struck with awe at how they ever managed to get two examiners together at the same time in the same place to conduct their vivas. It’s a one in a million chance and they managed it. People with PhDs all over Europe manage it every year.

Maybe I’m just not as smart as them?

Maybe I’m going to fail the whole thing?

Then what?

It’s quiet in the office today. There’s an intern typing calmly away on her Mac. Some postdocs are passing to and fro in the corridor outside, going about their business. There’s the muffled laughter of undergrads on their way to lectures outside. Life is idyllic, just like any other day. I, too, am calm. I am quiet and typing the last lines of this post at my desk. Yet inside I’m in turmoil. I’m trying to reconcile the impossible chaos of my immediate future in academia with the equally impossible chaos of…I don’t know. Lovelust maybe, or more likely wanderlust. Just the increasingly strong impulse to be…free.

Years ago, I think some time in the mid-1990s, there used to be a TV commercial in Australia for Pantene shampoo. Mandatorily for a shampoo commercial, it contained a woman (in this case Rachel Hunter) with long, squeeky-clean hair, smiling and twirling about and flicking her hair over her shoulder, which soared gracefully in slow motion through the air, catching the light and shining its dazzling shine before settling softly on her back. Then the voiceover would say, “Pantene. For hair so healthy, it shines.” Then the camera would cut back to Rachel, who, gently caressing her hair, would say: It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

If you don’t remember it or haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the link below. It’s hilarious. And it has obviously had a large enough impact to be available on Youtube today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EweM_ILVt4

Anyway, after finding out the external examiner I wanted for my viva wouldn’t be coming, I got to thinking about this commercial’s tagline and to what extent, if any, it might apply to PhD students’ motivation. If you haven’t started thinking about your thesis examiners yet, trust me, it’s nerve-wracking. Usually it all goes well at the end, but until you come to a point in your viva where the examiners have both agreed to examine you, you’ve waited out the 6 to 8 weeks that you have to wait out for them to read the thesis, they’ve made it to the viva without catching on fire, being kidnapped, or succumbing to bubonic plague, and the ice has been broken between them and yourself, it is nerve-wracking. In the months leading up to the viva, which I’m in the middle of waiting out right now, it feels like the frustration caused by knock-backs and hiccups in the planning will go on forever and I will never make any progress, and all the rejections from countless examiners will eventually lead to me going mad and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, never to see the light of day again.

Sometimes it really feels like it’s never going to happen. ‘It’ being whatever short- or long-term goal I’m trying to achieve at any given time, particularly ones for which I must rely partly or wholly on other people. I hate commitment because ‘other people’ often includes people who are unreliable, unknowledgeable, careless, and disinterested, however well-meaning they might be. There are so many things out of my control that could go wrong. My examiners – even if we eventually find them and get them to actually agree to examine me – might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva. Worse than this, I might catch on fire, be kidnapped, or succumb to bubonic plague on exactly the day of my viva.

Then the whole thing would be postponed until goodness knows when – if I struggle for 3 weeks to get just two of my supervisors to a meeting at the same time on the same day, I guess it could take months to co-ordinate two completely unacquainted professors, one of whom is based elsewhere in Europe.

Suddenly a hologram of Rachel Hunter pops up in my head. It won’t happen overnight, she says, but it will happen.

I burst into laughter.

Whatever happens folks, we’re getting there. We’re taking steps forward and getting it wrong, then changing direction, realising we’ve walked around in a circle, then moving forward again. We’re going to get there in the end.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

The external examiner I’d been hoping to engage for my viva has officially declined my supervisor’s invitation.

In other words he has refused to examine me.

He has rejected my thesis.

Won’t do the job.

Apparently because of other pressing commitments.

For a little while now, I’m going to feel teary and depressed about this seemingly apocalyptic, end-of-the-world development. I don’t know how long it’s going to last – maybe a week or so. Then, I hope, I’ll pick myself up and continue searching.

Where on earth am I going to find another external? All the alternatives I had been considering turned out to be nutcases!

And suddenly everything is plunged into chaos again.

I hate waiting in limbo. To borrow a phrase from Megan Mullally, I am very spit-spot Mary Poppins – once I’ve done something I like to finish up and move on. So I’m in mental agony waiting from my intended external to get round to replying to my supervisor’s invitation to examine my thesis in July.

Who would say no to reading an 80,000-word book and interrogating me about it for a couple hours in return for a free, all expenses paid summer holiday to London, with £500 spending money?

Seriously.

When o when will he reply? Oh, it’s too much to bear sometimes!

Don’t you just love Monday mornings? I’ve been in the office for over an hour and a half already and have only just finished wading through a swamp of weekend emails. Now I have to blog some of the chaos in my head before moving on to some light data collection.

I’ve been worrying about writing my thesis. Although about half of it’s drafted, I still worry about it because it’s, well, a draft. There are so many imperfections in the drafts that I’ve forgotten about, and I know that when I some across them in the editing stage they’re just going to make me flip. I’ve been battling this perfectionism for years and still it seems stronger than ever. Then there’s the half that’s still, gasp, undrafted. Unwritten. Thin air. Non-existent. Where on earth is that going to come from? How am I ever going to write all that? When the hell am I going to graduate?

Thinking back over the last couple of weeks, the main thing that’s changed drastically is my perspective on my thesis. Two weeks ago my thesis seemed like something an obscure suit-clad academic would read and interrogate me about over the tops of his wire-rimmed spectacles. Now, he is gone and instead I have two jolly old sweet-tempered professors (hopefully) coming to examine me. I have a concrete idea of who is going to read my thesis. The pressure is officially on to impress them!

Suddenly my ability to graduate at the time scheduled in my work plan seems to be almost completely dependent on me submitting my absolutely perfect hurriedly written and edited thesis on time, my examiners reading it in a timely fashion, and all of us meeting up in July to have the viva without having caught on fire, been taken hostage, or accidentally fallen down a bottomless hole whilst following a plump white rabbit. Why do there have to be so many things that could go wrong?!

I’m going to go and collect some data now.

*Danish for “I want to graduate”…at least according to Google Translate.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!