Tag Archives: Research

The Ph.D. Fairy Tale


Ah, Ph.D. fairy tale land.

(Photo credit: Josh Giovo under Creative Commons.)

I’m beginning to come to terms with the post-viva and major corrections trauma. I can finally look at the first few pages of the report and not feel completely weighted down by the examiners’ comments. I know I have to go through the cry-hate/curse-accept-do cycle several times again until I resubmit next year, but at least I’m not running away from it.

I ranted about my disillusion with academia and how sick and tired I was of my thesis to a friend. She kindly listened then said,

“You don’t want to your thesis to stay the way it is. Once it’s printed and bound, it will stay in the library forever and ever.”

“Forever and ever?” I laughed and was amused at how she stressed these words. She forgot to add that now theses are digitalized, so your thesis also stays in “the cloud” forever and ever.

“Yes! You passed! You didn’t fail. I know people who’ve failed, but you passed. Think of the corrections as a gift. It’s a chance to revise your thesis and make it the way you want it to be. Once it’s in the library you can’t change it.”

This conversation made me think about the rosy image I once had of academia, and hence the title of this post. A long, long time ago, I thought that after getting a Ph.D. I’d be able to use the degree to find a job and have an academic career. I would publish important work, live comfortably, and surely live happily ever after.

But midway through the Ph.D. I realized the fairy tale picture I painted for myself was deeply misguided by expectations of what academia was supposed to be. I thought of it as a place where I could escape the mundaneness of the office-cubicle. I really enjoyed going to conferences, presenting my work, and networking with academic whose names are printed on the must-read books in my field. These activities made me feel important, as if I was doing something meaningful in contrast to adding up numbers on an excel-sheet, or making promotional powerpoint slides about a company product I wouldn’t buy.

I forgot that all the conference and networking opportunities became possible because of the tuition I was paying and my affiliation to my university. Without the research student status, I wouldn’t have time or funding to go to these conferences.

Without my research student status, I wouldn’t I have access to journal articles either. Research material is accessible only to a group of people. Once you lose affiliation to a university, you can no longer read the full-text of a journal article unless you pay for the subscription yourself. Restricted access to these research materials means that research is not free (but rather expensive), and this contradicts the concept of public good that academia advertises itself to stand for. Doing a Ph.D. is like buying a very expensive ticket for entry to an elite club.

Now I know academia is bureaucracy itself. Another friend described it accurately, “Every time I speak to an academic I feel I’m speaking around their ego balloon. I try to get it out of the way but it keeps bouncing back.”

Accepting the Ph.D. for what it is, as being part of a capitalist-consumption system is strangely helping me maintain a healthier attitude towards my corrections. Once you see academia as a bureaucratic system as any other, you can read the rules of the game much more clearly. Since there’s no fairy tale land waiting for me after the Ph.D., I’m concentrating on what I have to and can do now, rather than fantasizing about a better life after the Ph.D..

Why I Decided to do a Ph.D.

I had a meeting with one of my supervisors last week.  She asked me to read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of my thesis, and mark the places where I can insert the passages that the examiners want me to make according to the first page of the viva report.  I can start rewriting straight away, but she encouraged me not to, and suggested that after marking the places where new passages need to be inserted will I know what to delete.

I think this was a good suggestion, because I planned an overhaul for the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion, and this would probably have made the rewriting process more overwhelming than it needs to be. She said I wrote a good thesis, so while it is important to do EXACTLY what the examiners have asked me to do, I also need to show faith in my work and not overdo the corrections.

I appreciated this meeting as it helped me put the correction process into perspective.  Although I’m still hurt and feeling antagonistic towards the examiners and the viva report, I am more ready to move forwards than I was a couple of weeks back.  If I do exactly what the examiners have asked me to do, there is no reason I wouldn’t get the Ph.D.

But what if my corrections aren’t good enough?  My examiners said I articulated my argument very well in the viva. Shouldn’t this prove that I know the issues and debates in my field, and that I am capable of doing research?  If they’ve already heard what my thesis is about, will my corrections really satisfy them the second time?  The unknown factor of having my six years of work lie in the hands of two academics who didn’t pass me the first time worries me.  I’m one of those people who tend to lose appetite when they’re anxious, so I have to remind myself to eat enough, especially since I need the energy for aerial.

But apart from the viva report and having to pay full-time tuition, the hardest thing to combat is the feeling of being abandoned and worthlessness. There is a lot of valuable and accessible information out there about how to lead a Ph.D. life or how to write a thesis, but very little on how to pick yourself up from major corrections. It is understandable though. Nobody likes to remember failure, consequently not much has been written about what to do if you fall into the unfortunate category of major corrections.

Unfortunate category of major corrections...

Fallen to the darkness of major corrections…

The lack of information makes me feel I have done something wrong and shameful.  I was confident that I was making a critical intervention in my field, and that my work is original.  I believed in what I wrote.  However, now it seems that presentation and writing technicalities are more important than the argument itself.  Even though it’s quite late in the process, I’m wondering why I decided to do a Ph.D. at all.

I guess I’m asking myself this question over and over again to convince myself that I need to stick with the correction process.  Before the Ph.D., I had three years of working experience as a marketing assistant at a technological company, and later as an assistant editor in a publishing company.  I could do my job well, but felt I wasn’t putting in enough effort.  I hated the monotonous schedule of being stuck in an office nine-to-six Monday to Friday.  I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting in an office for the next five years.

This is when I began to contemplate at the possibility of doing a Ph.D.  An academic job would be hard, but at least I wouldn’t be stuck indoors every day of the week.  The winter and summer holidays also provide working flexibility envied by other office jobs.  I did my master’s degree on American and English literature, and after graduating I had vowed to never, ever go into academia again.  Yet I overruled my own decision, and here I am.

So my reasons for doing a Ph.D. were quite practical.  I was always interested in visual culture and identity issues, so I made the transition from literature to film.  Having a three year break from academia, I needed time to adjust to being a student again.  At the beginning everything I read made sense.  I panicked that others had already written what I wanted to say, and that there would be no originality in my research.  I remember it was in one of our first year meetings when one of my supervisors said that I need to look at my cultural context metacritically, and I wondered what she meant by “metacritical.”

It wasn’t until my third year that I began to grasp my own argument, and be able to hear my critical voice amongst others.  My thesis criticizes discourses of nationalism and analyzes how identity is projected in historical films.  I thought my research was really filling a gap seldom discussed in my field, and should also be communicated to the public.  This is when I felt I was ready to teach.

I think my reasons for doing a Ph.D. have come from being highly practical, to highly idealistic, to cynical, and now I’m trying to find the balance between these approaches.  I don’t have the answer to whether doing a Ph.D. is worth it yet, especially considering the bleak prospect of the current academic job market.  I think this blogpost from Right Scholarship has put it sadly but incredibly well, “… perhaps [university] shouldn’t have been touted for so long as the key to happiness, prosperity and the betterment of society.”  Is it too late to look back?

I made a choice several years ago, so I need to finish what I’ve started.

Viva Report

Today I finally received my viva report.  I’ve waited five weeks in agony. Even though my examiners gave me immediate feedback on what they’d like me to revise after the viva, my limbs still went weak when I read through the formal school letter and browsed the 11-pages report.  With their indifferent politeness and cold formality, school letters are never pleasant to read.  Then there’s the viva report that I dreaded all summer.  To be fair it was very prescriptive, containing details on what was insufficient in my methodology, research questions, and poor presentation.  But understanding and accepting are different things.  I understand I received major corrections because there are weaknesses in my research methods, but find it hard to accept that, even with a strong viva performance, I was not able to tilt the examiners’ decision towards minor rather than major corrections.

Coming to terms with the flaws and having invested so much (time, money, energy) in the thesis, I’ve decided to do the corrections and re-submit within a year’s time.  I don’t like to leave things unfinished, and even if it’s for the sake of finishing the thesis, rather than about trying to get a job in academia, I should still aim at eventually getting the Ph.D.

Ironically, this very unfortunate event in the eyes of a Ph.D. student has given me more time to do aerial training.  I came across aerial–the general term for aerial circus apparatuses such as trapeze, rope, and silks–during the fourth year of my Ph.D.. Before that point, I always thought that in order to do aerial, one needed to have a background in gymnastics.  But while having a gymnastics background is IMMENSELY useful and makes a HUGE difference, it is still possible to do aerial without a gymnastics background.  Putting in the time and effort to train is important.  It took me one term (eight weeks) before I could invert in the air, and even then I still had to push the rope with my foot in an awkward-clumsy un-graceful fashion.  When I watch my videos from my first year, I’m still amazed at how much I’ve improved, but I crave for more strength.  What was initially an alternative way to keep fit has become an obsession.

Initially it was a friend’s idea that we should book an aerial class together.  In the end, it was me who signed on and fell in love with the rope (a.k.a. corde lisse).  I also train on static trapeze and silks, but mostly on the rope.  I’m working on my meathooks at the moment.  The probability of me ever becoming as good as this amazing aerialist is less than 0%, yet I still train with aspirations of becoming stronger:

So despite the major setback I’ve had by receiving major corrections, I thought I could start noting down my progress both on the thesis and the aerial training side to encourage myself to keep focus.  Hopefully by next year’s submission time, I would have produced a good, strong thesis, and gained arms, abs of steel.