Birthing my doctorate

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I’ve posted on metaphors before. I’ve found the use of metaphor helpful as a way of conceptualising my experiences as a doctoral student and also of making sense of particular components of that (the literature review as an octopus being pushed into a vase, for example).

After reflecting on the first few research interviews, I started routinely including a question that asked parents to use a metaphor to describe an aspect of their experience, and this has for the most part been an extraordinarily powerful approach. In fact, in a couple of weeks I’ll be opening a conference presentation with one parent’s metaphor.

This month’s post is going back to seeing my own experiences through metaphor – in this case focusing on the gestation (pregnancy) of my thesis. This came about because of a question in the context of students who were ‘half way’ through their candidature. I was going to blog about my half-way update in October, but October was an especially busy month, so that will be held over for the next post instead. My dilemma was figuring out exactly when my half-way point was. Having started part-time, experienced a long down-time before my recruitment yielded results, and then suddenly finding that I have an end point that is visible on the horizon (how did that happen? Squawk!) I could pin down at least three different ‘half-way’ points.

What I found more helpful was to think of my candidature as having three distinct phases (counting from the day of first enrolment): phase one ended with granting of ethics approval to proceed, phase two ends with the completion of data production – ie. final interview – and phase three is all the analysis, writing up, submission and through to graduation. Being an ex-midwife, this lent itself to the image of pregnancy trimesters. And here’s how it looks from there. Warning: there are some massive generalisations in what follows. This is a personal perspective – both in terms of pregnancy and doctorate – and it might not fit for everyone!

Trimester 1: “I’m [having a baby/doing my PhD]!
You’re excited. A bit nervous. Maybe feeling a bit sick, in all honesty. You’re likely to be a little overwhelmed by what you’ve committed yourself to.

You’re learning a new vocabulary. You thought you knew your own body’s basic anatomy and physiology, but this is a whole new world (metaphor within metaphor there…).

Everyone seems to have advice for you, whether you asked for it or not. At parties, you discover friends are simultaneously excited for, and bored by, your new adventure. They say they are there for you, but when you start talking about the details, the glazing of their eyes gives you cause for a teensy bit of doubt.

Unhelpful as the advice usually is, the horror stories are worse. Nightmare deliveries, crashed computers, the loss of any sort of satisfying adult life…people relish their opportunity to admire you while, at the same moment, terrifying your socks off.

Trimester 2: “You look great!/You’re so smart!”
Well, the nausea has passed, apart from the occasional flash of heartburn. You’ve passed the ‘danger stage’ – your proposal/confirmation is behind you, ethics approval is done, and the data has started to come in. It’s interesting! You’re learning! You’re contributing to a better future for the world!

You’re right into the swing of this now. You’re making steady progress in the accumulation of the trappings of your new role in life (baby furniture, wraps, apps for writing/note-taking/productivity/referencing, software and hardware of all kinds).

Importantly, you are starting to have something to show for your efforts, so your pregnancy/thesis is becoming real to the people around you, and (if you’re lucky) they show genuine interest in your progress. People see your swelling belly, or ask how many interviews you’ve done. You understand a whole lot of things that were incomprehensible to you when you started out. You feel good. The advice and horror stories continue, but you think “Hey, I can do this!”

Trimester 3: “Haven’t you [had that baby/finished that thesis] yet?”
That mid-pregnancy glow is fading…fading….gone. It’s starting to feel like a long time since you began, and yet only the blink of an eye. And so little time till birth/thesis submission! You can’t imagine being pregnant/thesis-writing for ever, and yet it’s equally impossible to imagine that this phase will ever end and some unfathomable new life will take its place.

You feel like a whale/fraud. You’re uncomfortable, and (dare you admit it?) a bit bored. Your partner/midwife/obstetrician/supervisor is heartless and doesn’t understand. You are super-sensitive to advice and horror stories (which doesn’t stop people sharing them. All. The. Time.) and arguably even worse are the stories of bliss and ease. You think “Aagh! I can’t do this!” Passing, and not passing, are equally inconceivable options.

So…

In midwifery terms, there is a fourth trimester. Weird though the terminology is, it’s a thing. That time after the baby is born/thesis has been passed, when transition into the next phase of life occurs. Of course, metaphors are always imperfect. We could talk about that time between submission and graduation as a kind of labour, but really I would have to work quite hard to draw meaningful parallels there. Also, I’m only just reaching the end of my second doctoral trimester, so what do I know about the next section of the journey? My friends are mostly a bit ahead of me and I’m watching, listening and learning. I’m lucky that I have a great deal of confidence in my supervisors and feel comfortable to talk to them; I’m discovering that this is not something that can be taken for granted.

I don’t want to be a source of unsolicited advice to those starting out, so if you read on you accept that advice is going to be there.

To continue the metaphor:

1. Gather a support group around you. You know those people who tell you horror stories, or alternatively tales of success that just make you feel like a failure before you even start? They don’t have a place in your group. Smile politely, but inside your ears, be singing ‘lalalalala’. Your support group will have a mix of people – those who know more than you do and know how to teach you, those that are going through some similar stuff and can share as equals, and those that will be quietly present, maybe needed for support/chocolate/fun/tissues and maybe not, but loving you regardless.

2. Filter and focus. This is related to the horror stories and the sheer quantity of information that bombards you throughout the whole process. Gradually you will learn what you need to listen to. Let the other stuff go. Some of it mihght be valuable, but you simply can’t take it all on, all of the time. Filter and focus. If you take away nothing else, take away that.

3. Prepare. This phase won’t last for ever. Also, it will be hard work. So, to get through those two things in good shape: be physically as fit as you can. Get physical exercise, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy varied diet. No kidding, it really matters regardless whether you’re pregnant or doing a doctorate. And if you’re doing both simultaneously, then…yes. Same advice. Put together a list, and start packing your bag. You need things that are informative, things that are inspiring, things that bring you comfort, things that ease the pain. Snacks, heat packs, writing apps, you know the sort of thing.

4. Be open to alternatives. Lofty ideals about refusing pain relief (or being accepted for publication in a highly-regarded journal, for example) are a good thing to aim for, but unless there’s a really good reason, keep your options open. Don’t make these into things that shatter you if they don’t happen as planned.

5. Above all, keep your pregnancy/doctorate in perspective. Childbirth, though undoubtedly a unique milestone in life, is but a small percentage of parenting. Doctoral studies might feel as though they consume you for some years, but you are more than your PhD.

At this moment, I’m approaching my final research interview. I’ve started to draft my Methodology Chapter. I have an out-of-date version of my Lit Review waiting to be given a total overhaul. I’ll be transcribing almost full-time for the next few weeks (I’m still hoping to do this all myself, for methodological reasons…I don’t need to ask for pain relief yet…ok so far…)

I know I have some hard work ahead of me, and some of it is just going to feel like a great big slog. Is it taking the metaphor a step to0 far if I compare the testamur to a baby photo…?

About postgradpanda

I'm a full-time PhD student, researching the perspectives of parents who are caring for a child with high-level physical care needs, on their relationships with diverse service systems and on their identity within or outside those systems. In December 2014 I left my social work position with a genetic support group but remain associated with the group as President of the Committee of Management. In other hours I write poetry and short stories, go sailing, and am learning to play my double bass.

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