I am not quite sure where to start this post, this tale of mine I want to tell you about. Thinking about it still tightens my stomach and produces mixed feelings. Especially now that I have finally re-submitted my thesis.

Backing up: in May 2020 I was getting ready to submit my thesis the first time around. I had been spending the strict level 5 lockdown finalising it and was pretty proud of myself. Now that it had been proofread (in exchange for a fortune and a half), and my supervisor had given his okay, I uploaded the thesis and its trail of paperwork. With a feeling of great relief, I popped the bubbly. Then, the waiting game started. I kept busy with some online jobs and started applying for work in my field (see my last post).

Three months had come and gone. Like a fast-growing fungus, concern started growing, covering over the feeling of lightness that had first accompanied the upload of my thesis. Did something go wrong in the examination process? Was my work being torn apart? Was it, perhaps, much worse than I remembered it? Thus far, I had locked all disquieting questions into the back of my head – safe from any excruciating self-doubts (I assume most of us are familiar with those…).

Some more months passed. I had moved flats in the meantime and sent out more applications. Other than that, I remained in a waiting position. Come the 5th month, I was convinced something was not right. Enquiring about it at the university, I was informed that one examiner had asked for an extension. A touch of relaxation started shining through the, by now thicker, layer of worries. This meant the delay was not necessarily linked to my dissertation – or my skills as a researcher. Without any PhD coursework as commonly the case in South Africa, everything was hinging on the 244-page-document I had submitted. Whether it was good or even sufficient became an increasingly nauseating question, despite the confidence I had initially feigned and convinced myself to be solid.

In month 6, I got mail! Seeing the response from the university’s doctoral board in my inbox, my heart started beating wildly in my chest. The content was sobering: one examiner wanted me to re-submit. I was given three documents, one from each examiner with a length of 2-3 pages. These were full of comments on my work. After addressing them, I was meant to have my work examined again by the same person who had not been fully convinced by it the first time around.

It took me a conversation with all the support-people in my life to start digesting and another few days to dare open my original thesis.

Some of the examiners’ comments were immediately understandable to me and only required making relatively small changes. Others, I did not agree with. For instance, it was put to question whether I overdid it integrating my own experiences into the thesis. I added a section on the importance of ‘autoethnography’ (which is essentially just that, considering yourself part of the research process). Everything I changed was documented in excel sheet format: comment — response. Then there were those comments that made a lot of sense to me, but that were more difficult to approach. Among them was a criticism of how I had integrated literature into my qualitative findings, collected in 2 years of fieldwork. Looking at my thesis with a more distant view after all those months, I could very clearly see the examiner had a point. There were just too many references to too many things while the main theory was reduced to background noise!

After the first small edits, I came into a rhythm and stoically went through each of the three examiners’ suggestions with increasing motivation to improve my work. I stopped thinking about the weight of my disappointment. Indeed, with each point crossed off my list, I started feeling a little lighter again. At least I could do something now. I made a proper start by looking up and reading through a whole lot of literature that I thought could be useful in addressing the comments. With every change, I slowly gained a better idea of what an improved thesis will look like.

And then, last week, I pressed the ‘upload’ button once again. This time, I am not feeling light. I am also not riddled with worry. It simply feels like an unfinished story, but one that I think has been enriched in the revision process. Its concluding remarks shall remain unwritten for the time being.

One thought on “The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD

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