After a 23-week wait, I finally passed my PhD two weeks ago.
I told one of my besties I expected the afterglow to last a grand total of three days.
In true blue wishcrys fashion, this turned out to be true. My partner and I never even made it to the mini-celebration dinner we had planned before I lost the euphoria and was hungry to get back to work to do all the things.
This is me trying to make sense of this limbo.
I find it tricky to find closure or celebrate accomplishments in academia. While some of these are systemic issues, others are specific to the higher education structure in Australia, my institution, or my own idiosyncrasies, all intertwined:
1) At my institution, we don’t have coursework or exams at PhD level, so there isn’t a formal assessment or validation of your knowledge, skills, or expertise… until your thesis examination at the very end. Your reading list or “curriculum” is subjectively contingent upon your school’s resources, your supervisors’ style, and your own initiative.
And with the particularity of every anthropological fieldwork, you’re mostly left to device your own project. I never knew if I was reading enough or doing the right thing. Some days, I was secretly envious of the coursework structures undertaken by my postgrad friends from elsewhere outside Australia.
But I soon learnt that in academia you will never read enough or do all the right things. Everything is just a draft. And the more you know, the less you know. The only way forward is to keep going and to take pitstops to evaluate your direction.
The more you read, the more you train your brain to discern quality writing and established arguments from populist rhetoric. The more you write, the more you understand your own writing voice and thought processes. The more you do, the more you distinguish the subtleties of your approaches from others.
It’s also great to take a break from the busy regularly to keep up with what your peers are reading, writing, and doing. Surely there’s a whole bunch of us just trying to feel our way in the dark, exploring new terrain or trying to hone our skills. After all, we’re building a collective culture of knowledge and practice together.
2) On a personal level, I never got formal feedback on my thesis chapters until my 4th year. Coupled with no coursework, it was very frustrating to be forking out AUD30k a year just for library access, a desk space, weekly departmental seminars, and monthly meetings. I wasn’t getting the support I needed (and was paying for) for a PhD in my home institution. Academia is very competitive, but people are also kind. So I ventured out to find my safe spaces to learn and grow. Most of the validation, affirmation, or correction I received was haphazardly accumulated from Q&A or feedback from conference presentations, or reviewers’ comments from peer reviewed work.
The drawback of these events is that often the audience comprises people from various academic backgrounds who only know your work from a 20-minute talk. And for an early-stage PhD candidate, this was overwhelming at times. I spent a lot of time taking feedback and direction from every where that it really all led me to no where in particular.
Early on, I hadn’t yet realised that every expert spoke from the locus of their own expertise, preferences, or interests. It wasn’t that they gave bad advice, it was that the advice was so disciplinarily and topically varied that I often felt like a pseudo-anthropologist/sociologist/communications scholar/media scholar, a half-baked everything.
But I learnt that while it was useful to assemble feedback and advice from others, only I could do the work of assigning relevance to the input and stimuli, and develop my own expertise.
Towards the later stage of my PhD, I started receiving interview requests as an “expert” and was mentoring earlier stage postgrads as a “senior”. But even then – and despite spending over four years studying a very specific phenomenon inside out – I sometimes still second guessed myself, waiting to be exposed as an imposter.
Every time I receive a compliment on my work, I respond with quirky but stupid things like “I am only pretending to know things”. But my informants and research deserve more respect. I have to take ownership of my research field and expertise, and own it.
3) You would think that after four years of intense conferencing I’d have firmly locked down my elevator pitch, but I still struggle to translate what it is I do to folks outside of academia.
Since I submitted my thesis, the top three questions from non-academic folks have been “Are you finally done studying?”, “What are you going to work as now?”, and “When are you starting work?” To be honest, these questions are incredibly difficult to answer without bringing in the realities of precarity and job scarcity in academia. And since I’ve decided to pursue academia wholeheartedly, I try not to dwell in such negativity in casual conversation. But when I do explain the structure of academic employment, most folks just think I’m nuts for spending all this time and money on something with little to no prospects.
I want to be an academic and although getting there isn’t an easy ride, I am confident I will manage. It’s just that the translation work to others can be laborious and weary. One person even (jokingly?) asked if I was done “wasting my parents’ money with my hobby” and “finally getting a real job”. I should know better, but I let these pseudo-congratulations get to me more than they should, lose the bigger picture, and truncate my joy.
I do want to commemorate this big finish with something other than a Facebook status or a blogpost. I also want to celebrate the fact that I finished this thing mostly as a full-fee paying International student, who started with just AUD1,000 in my bank account, worked seven casual jobs while publishing and being active in academia, did kickass overseas fieldwork, made rent and the bills without debt, wrote through a lot of grief and loss in the family, and submitted in four years to the day of my enrolment.
Somedays, I read that paragraph and think, “hey, good job wishcrys”. Other days, I read this paragraph and think, “meh, first world problems”.
I was super underwhelmed when I submitted. The anthropologist in me should have recognised the value of rites of passages. Maybe this is why I am struggling for some semblance of closure now. It really is important to celebrate the little things, especially in academia where every accomplishment is just another CV entry, and the pursuit of job security is an abyss.
So what now?
For the first half of this year, I have to rely on casual work. But with state-wide funding cuts to higher education, such work is intermittent and ad hoc at best. So I look outside of academia.
I toggle between the unpaid academic work I do to advance my career, and the completely-unrelated minimum wage work I do to make rent while I try to advance my career. Often, my time and resources are stretched between the two. While on the former, I feel guilty about not making rent. While on the latter, I feel guilty for missing deadlines. I am stuck in an unproductive guilt cycle, and become emotionally fragile from this liminality.
In times like this, it is difficult to celebrate the little things. But I keep my faith and recall how past challenges have been overcome.
I tell myself that as with all rites of passages, this too shall pass.