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.


Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.