The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD

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.

Post-submission question marks

Question mark made of puzzle pieces | A big question mark ma… | Flickr

A few months ago, and upon submitting my PhD thesis in anthropology, I started hunting for jobs. More accurately, I took a breather before I actually sat down in front of my laptop again with that intention. Letting go of my thesis before taking that step had been an entire process in itself. It meant breaking up with an entire period of being engulfed in writing, living and breathing my subject.

Finding work is not an easy task in these times, as anyone might be able to imagine. Even without Corona – how does one figure out what to do after their postgraduate degree? What am I actually qualified to do and what is it that I want to do? I found myself staring at my screen that was, for the first time in months, not cluttered with open taps and documents, and watched the cursor hovering over an open Google page. It quickly became clear that it was crucial to finally grapple with these questions in order to figure out which platforms would be useful. One may think that I had had plenty of time to figure this out. I’m in my early 30s and have studied in my field for quite some time now. There is often the assumption that starting a postdoc is a decision to commit to academia – for better or worse, until… but does it have to be? – I asked myself. Especially at this juncture, I was harbouring ambiguous feelings about academia, its brand of competitiveness and politics of knowledge production. If ever the was a time to question the assumption of academia and I being an item, it was now. I also had to ponder whether I would be staying on in South Africa. I have been here for 10 years, but am still on a study visa, which makes it difficult to find work. And if I decided to go elsewhere, where would that be, and would my partner be able to find work there?

So what might I do outside of academia? This is by no means an obvious question to answer. Throughout my studies, I remember being repeatedly told that you can do ‘pretty much anything’ with an anthropology degree. This means that anthropologists could be desirable in all kinds of projects that involve a qualitative evaluation of human behaviour in a certain context. But what exactly are these and how do I find them? My previous work in research had sort of just ‘happened’ after replying to an email circulated at the department. Admittedly, I felt a little lost and left alone, especially given the lockdown situation and with campus and its career facilities not being physically accessible. And for an email, my questions seemed too broad and yet too discipline-specific to be directed that way.

After a lot of unfocused googling for keywords like ‘anthropology jobs’ and ‘researcher’, I gravitated towards looking at postdoc positions. At least they would answer the ‘where’ question for me. Also, I love doing extended fieldwork and enjoy analysing and writing. So it could not be that wrong of a choice, I mused. Besides, how sure is anyone ever about what they really want? There seem to be many and, at the same time, very few choices online. Or few that are a good fit and that may be an actual possibility with ongoing global immobilities. Currently, I am still in the process of combing the internet with this somewhat narrower approach but am much more enthusiastic about it. I will keep you in the loop about how it goes.