The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD: Part 2

This is an extension of my April blog contribution ‘The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD’. Even though I found the research and write-up of my PhD thesis enjoyable and its challenges eventually vitalising, the experience was overshadowed by the arduous months of waiting for my results. Thus, my degree  turned into something of a time-distorting rabbit hole, much like the one I liken Tinder encounters to in my thesis.

One year after my initial PhD submission, following re-submitting my substantially revised thesis in March this year, I finally received my results yesterday!

I had to force myself to slowly, word-by-word, re-read the soberly formulated outcome – just to be sure I got it right:

‘Dear Leah Junck, The Doctoral Degrees Board (DDB) has agreed that you should be awarded the PhD degree subject to addressing the required trivial/typographical (including all changes, criticisms and suggestions indicated by all three examiners) to the satisfaction of the supervisor and the DDB.’

Letting the words sink in made way for a relief that is hard to describe. An initial burst of energy released itself through my body. It clashed with accumulated tensions that have been grimly but calmly nestled into my bones over the past year. This newfound vigour made me jump up and down my living room, throwing my arms into the air as though testing their aliveness. I felt a grimace control over my face and, gratefully, let it distort its concentrated frown. I had prepared myself for bad news and, in my mind, already drawn up a ‘gracious loser speech’. All of this could now stop taking up mind-space! Opening a beer, I sat on the balcony, and let a sense of calm wash over me again, mixing with the occasional tingle of excitement as I let the long-awaited news sink in.

Unfortunately, this calm was soon compromised by an email containing the announced ‘trivial/typographical’ changes to be done. The remaining examiner, whom I thought I had eventually convinced of my academic merit, still had quite a bit to say beyond trivialness and typography. As I mentioned in my previous post, most comments from my three examiners were very insightful and made my thesis all the richer. Yet, some of these new ones felt personal, questioning my disciplinary integrity and commitment given my drawing on a variety of disciplines.

The process of substantially re-working my thesis was structured by a ‘Template for Corrections to a PhD Thesis’, which had been sent to me along with my initial examination result. In the four months that I spent on revisions, the two columns grew into a detailed 14-page document. It outlined the comments of the examiners and my responses to each of them, including how and where in the thesis they had been addressed. Now, I have the same document in front of me again and am starting the process of explaining myself in this format once more. This is fair enough – it is a PhD after all, and that’s only worth something if people can trust in the thoroughness of the examination procedure.

However, I cannot help but wonder what things would have been like had I submitted in a different system. At many other universities, a thesis defense forms part of working towards a doctorate. When I realised this was not going to be the case for me at UCT, I was glad. The idea of it seemed stressful and I would have feared for my exam anxieties to pop up again at a rather inconvenient time. Now, I look at it differently. A thesis defense could have been an opportunity to explain myself in a way that I might not be able to when limited to a form. Beyond that, I imagine actually seeing your examiners to be a different experience entirely. Without the veil of (one-sided) anonymity, there is bound to be an actual conversation, an exchange – even if this happened in times of a pandemic through a computer screen. Had this been my experience, I might have walked away from this life episode with a feeling of finalisation. As it is, I will fill out my new response form as diligently as I possibly can and send it off – knowing it will be without a response from my remaining examiner.

Then I will wait a little more – for finally being able to graduate in December 2021, 1,5 years after what I thought was ‘the’ thesis hand-in and end of this story. Perhaps, the event will give things an air of finality. Or maybe, like my PhD itself, processing its completion will simply take time rather than a final act.

Finding the asset behind a stammer

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My past blog posts have covered the topics of the lengthy wait for my PhD outcome, having to undergo the process of revising and resubmitting my thesis, and the challenges in looking for work after submission. I want to use this month’s blog talk about the experience of undertaking my first academic job interview in my mother tongue, German. This happened after 10 years of only speaking German once a week on the phone with family or during their visits. I have barely any experience using the academic jargon of Anthropology in German.

Admittedly, I already had some jitters days before my interview for a postdoctoral position at a University in Germany. I suppose that comes with the nature of job interviews. Performing well when knowing I have a limited time frame to showcase my skills and knowledge has never been my strong suit – which is why exam season was always a time of suffering for me. I got better with these kinds of situations over the years. Now, I feel at home enough in my field, Social Anthropology, and my areas of expertise (among them digitalisation, identity and migration as well as sexuality and gender) to be quite comfortable speaking at conferences and having critical discussions with both experts and those new to the topic.

It is a confidence is something that was slowly and painstakingly cultivated over time and mostly during the last 10 years of my life. Central to it were supportive key figures like my first supervisor, Dr Divine Fuh. These pivotal years I spent in Cape Town – working, studying, exploring and loving, being encouraged and discouraged. Along the way, as I often felt, my German mother-tongue became second character. Even when casually catching up with family and friends in German, I find myself lacking eloquence and stumbling over my words. The phrase ‘what is it called…’ is well-used in those conversations. Well, so far so natural. It is an unsurprising side-effect of moving to a place where one has to adapt to a different language. Mobile, linguistic implants of this sort are an expanding global occurrence. For the most part, wrestling for the right word is simply something that makes me feel a little frustrated in certain moments, especially when I am trying to explain my work and share what I have been engulfed in all this time. After the interview (which I will return to in a moment), I started thinking about this as more than an occasional verbal hiccup.

Enthusiasm turned heebie-jeebies the closer the interview date came and the more I prepared for it. My dad, who has experience in interviewing people, asked me some well-intentioned so-called ‘soft skill questions’, which he finds to be the most important. This was when I started getting tense: if I stumble over my German words trying to answer these questions, how badly would I come across when translating academic concepts in my head? After all, I had done pretty much all of my university studies in English. ‘I just have to get into the groove of things’, I told myself and started writing down the answers to all the questions that I could think of in German and then read through my mini-essays over and over again. Chatting via WhatsApp with a friend of mine who is very familiar with my academic work and journey a day before the interview, she sought to motivate me and said all the right things. It’s normal, she assured, to have gone through many shifts and changes after such a long time, and for these to include my language. Yes, I responded with a half-convincing laugh, it really is an asset hidden behind a stammer. Yet, language in its broadest form can be an immensely powerful resource. It can be potent; it can tremble with desire. As Roland Barthes puts it ‘language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.’

When the big morning arrived and I had set myself up in front of my laptop with a coffee and smoothie (my stomach did not welcome solid food in my excitement). I was ready for a brief report and introduction. The online meeting finally started, and I briefly tried to check out the little squares on the screen with each person’s face in them, all of whom I had previously googled. There was not much time for this as my interviewers rushed to introduce themselves in one sentence each and, seamlessly, asked me to move on to the presentation of my planned project. I was completely thrown off. I was, of course, more than prepared to go through my five-minute pitch, but that seemed to have limited relevance, given that I had already provided a written version of it in my application. Most of my more soft-skill oriented notes that I had hung onto the days before the interview and that were meant to help smooth over the introductory stress were of no use. As scholars interested in human conditions, I was certain that my interviewers would lead the conversation perhaps not by asking about my well-being, but at least about the situation in South Africa during this extraordinary COVID-19 lockdown times. I have found small talk (cynical though as I had initially been towards it upon moving to SA) to have a comforting effect and to add casual feel to otherwise somewhat solemn academic settings.

Trying to read into the little faces in the little Zoom windows, I felt as though my well-practiced presentation itself had no room to offer an impression of myself as a scholar and person. My answers felt superficial and overpowered by a sense of being removed from my element to an extent that I had not anticipated. Words wobbled out of my mouth without real intent. Listening to myself, I felt acutely aware that most of them lacked traction. About 20 minutes into the 1-hour-interview, I was disillusioned and had internally resigned. I responded knowing that I could not bring across what I had set out to and was wishing away the digital disconnect of the computer screens between myself and the people evaluating me. It seemed as though direct access physical ‘access’ to my interviewers might still let my expressions and body language speak for myself with some veracity. My skin would, perhaps, be better able to communicate my desires.

Woman touching virtual screen futuristic social media cove… | Flickr

When it was all said and done and the window on my laptop screen had been closed, I just wanted to cry out my frustration. After going for a walk and calming down (and a phone call with the person who knows me best without me having to use any words, my mother), I told myself that it was a worthwhile experience anyway. Not just because telling oneself that every experience has some kind of worth is comforting, and also not merely because I believe it prepared me better for interviews that might still come, but mostly because it was an opportunity to think about what I want, where I want to be and what that may mean. Not least of all it is an inspiration to think about what the last 10 years in South Africa have meant for me.