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A letter to my dissertation, after our breakup

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A letter to my dissertation, after our breakup

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me. I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and the connections I made, and I realized I had to find my way to you and to the qualification you would earn me, as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially, getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast, I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance, and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months: I just focused on work and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and “Making Progress.” But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again but on a new topic, with a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together, and I needed to get us back on track.

I realized that what I was finally starting to feel were the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally… and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow, I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to a sense of self and scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travelers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement “I’m working on my PhD.” I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. “We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year, rather.” It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that, it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails, reorganize my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students, and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important, scholarly, and smart, and now I feel duller, less colorful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you, I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in a question mark space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr., which still feels alien, and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know. I will get there, of course… in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.

Dr. Sherran Clarence (@PhDgirlSA) is an Honorary Research Associate at Rhodes University; and Managing Editor of Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, and Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory. This story was published on February 25, 2014, on Dr. Clarence's blog, 'How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)' (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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Published on: May 30, 2019

Managing Editor, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory
See more from Sherran Clarence


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