Brianna E Robertson-Kirkland, a PhD Candidate in Music at the University of Glasgow, reflects this week on the mixed feelings that come with the end of the doctoral process.
PhD Submission Day: three years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears now becomes more than electronic words on a computer screen. The printing process transforms it into a physical entity, and seeing the thesis in all its printed glory should fill each student with a real sense of achievement. The walk from the printers to the submission office is like a walk down the red carpet; and upon reaching the graduate school counter to deliver your precious cargo to the administration staff, each student should be satisfied that all the hard work is over.
And yet, what if that satisfaction never comes? What if the act of submitting the PhD results in another, much more destructive emotion? With everyone passing on their congratulations—from fellow students to family members—how can you admit that submission day is not as happy an occasion as one might think? What if you find that you are grieving for your PhD?
There can be no doubt that undertaking such a degree qualification is an achievement; not only is it the culmination of a massive piece of research, but it is also the pinnacle of three years of constant obsession: thinking endlessly about reading, researching, writing, editing, and then reading some more. Three years of sleepless nights, missed dinners and perhaps even reclusion; three years of getting excited about tiny details of your work; three years of longing, hopeful that it will all result in success.
It is undeniably an achievement.
Yet in many ways, a PhD is like a fast-growing child and the PhD student its parent. The first year is tough, but with every little idea, every little indication of progress, your heart flutters with excitement at what is to come. This might be followed by a surge in research: the PhD seems to grow non-stop, each chapter bursting out of its carefully-set word limits, denying any attempt to keep it contained (and more easily editable later!). Finally, by the end of the process, as writing and editing become a never ending task, the PhD turns into a perpetual teenager—just move out! you seem to scream at it; it’s time to get your own life! But what parent doesn’t still feel a sense of sadness seeing that moody teenager leave the nest? While to some, it might appear silly to compare a PhD to a living, breathing child, this inanimate object is a huge part of the student’s life, a genuine labour of work, a birthing of ideas—and then, suddenly, it disappears.
It was that, a sense of bereavement, that I felt the day I submitted my PhD. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t relieved: I was just sad. And in the months that followed, awaiting my viva, this sadness at times has putrefied into a horrible anxiety. Part of it is worry about the viva itself, about whether the work is good enough—and this confusion has in turn spurred the many anxiety attacks I have experienced as I am forced to ask myself ‘is this imposter syndrome, is this justified, or is this because the PhD will soon be completely over?’ What makes these feelings even worse is hearing the repeated mantra from colleagues that I must feel happy. I must feel relieved. All of these assumptions were placed upon me; no one asked how I felt for it to be over. No one asked how I was coping.
So at first, I fell into the trap of lying to everyone around me, saying yes, I was happy it was all over; meanwhile, in private, I was descending into floods of tears, thinking there was something wrong with me for not being what everyone thought I might be, for not feeing what everyone thought I should feel. It was only recently that I finally decided to speak openly to my colleagues about the grief I had experienced; and to my surprise, most have admitted to having felt something similar. This, in turn, has led me to wonder just how many PhD students, during the viva interim, are suffering with a sense of mourning, a certain “PhD grief”, but feel unable to speak openly about it because it is not the socially-presumed norm. Furthermore, due to this apparent taboo, it can make it very difficult to find the right support network to help one work through the grief, relieve the anxieties of the impending viva, and, more importantly, to look to that crucial next stage of leaving the comfort of institutional study.
Across all of this pondering and emotional upheaval, the most important thing I have learned through this time is that opening up and speaking about my issues has helped. Everyone, whether they are working through a PhD or not, has been very empathetic and they have helped me to realise that it is not unusual or silly to feel this way. Reaching out and being honest about my experience has also helped me to feel connected, as if breaking my silence has allowed others to open up about their anxieties and concerns, as well, creating a space for sharing our issues about life and work in a safe environment. As a result, I would urge any student struggling with the issues that I have described here to open up so that, collectively, we can perhaps break this cycle of expected normalcy, developing a platform where all feelings and emotions can be shared, regardless of whether they are happy or sad.
Finally: I have accepted—and embraced—the fact that I have enjoyed my PhD, that I have mothered it and taken it into myself and that as a result, saying goodbye to it is an achievement that is still painful: and more importantly, I have learned that this is not something to hide, or to be embarrassed about. The PhD was a huge part of my life, and if I had the opportunity to do it all again, I would accept that chance in a heartbeat. I would take the bad parts with the good parts and revel in every minute. It has given me so many opportunities and made me realise my potential across a variety of contexts, in a plethora of new ways. Whether I remain in academia or not, earning a first PhD is an experience I will never be able to repeat, perhaps, but it is one that I will always cherish.
And mourning it a little doesn’t change that fact one bit.