On a Thursday morning, I walked.
It wasn’t a particularly long walk — the better part of an hour, with a couple of long breaks. But the landscape I travelled through was a deeply significant and challenging one. There were milestones on my short journey. I let the walk change according to the way I felt. If I was drawn down a certain path, I would follow it.
The landscape was the built environment of my alma mater, the university where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and the suburban complex surrounding it. Over 14 years I have probably spent more time on campus than I have anywhere else, except home. It was the place where I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and the place where my long nightmare of graduate research eventually reified, and took on a life of its own.
The university has always been lovely — lots of green spaces, and the buildings enjoy that mix of form and function that, a handful of baffling edifices aside, ‘just works’. As a whole, the university is ‘legible’ in the way that late-90s/early-00s urban planners intended for some cities. There are places to sit and think, sit and stare, stand and chat, etc. The students thrum and whistle around a stationary pedestrian, with peaks of traffic around the beginning and end of each hour. That raucous postmeridian rush at one o’clock as assorted teachers and students fly from one of the end of campus to the other to holler for their lunches and then go tearing back into lectures in sundry theatres is something to behold. Once, I was part of that rush, that mass migration from all points to one point and back again. But now, with satisfaction, I can be the stationary pedestrian, a stone in the riverbed.
My thesis nearly destroyed me. There are many stories out there of people who have been ruined or killed by their thesis or dissertation, typically because they allowed mental health issues to go untreated. The thesis, particularly the doctoral thesis, can take on an agency of its own in the life of the graduate researcher. For some lucky people, the thesis remains inert — a lump of thoughts, numbers and letters that, one day, after much prodding and tinkering, coheres into a mass of critical thinking and judgement and becomes the long-awaited screed that makes an original contribution to the body of human knowledge. For some, though — and I was one of these — the thesis goes into a strange state of independence from the researcher. I can’t touch chapter two, that will upset it.
I first realised that my thesis had its own life sometime around the middle of my third year. I was taking the PhD in art history. The first year, to be honest, had been spent finding my feet within the bounds of an over-ambitious project.
The second year had been spent developing the language skills I needed to do the research I proposed, as well as doing the research. It is entirely fair that some universities expect art history PhDs to do exams in German and French — by the start of my second year, I could (probably) have managed the German, but until I had spent months buried under French grammar and vocab I would have flunked the French paper. My university does not require language exams for the prospective art history PhD, although, in hindsight, they probably should. Of all the humanistic disciplines, art history is the most linguistically demanding and the most distributed. It was not uncommon to find an argument started in German, continued in Italian, and concluded in French. The language-hopping made my head hurt. I longed for a Matrix-style language skills upload, direct into my brain. Kopfschmerzen, mal de tête, mal di testa, sometimes all at the same time. In the midst of all this language learning the research started to get away from me a little — I’ll read that tomorrow, I used to think, pushing an article to one side, when I’m in a German mood, and so on.
By the beginning of my third year I had passed confirmation and was rocketing into what the university imagined would be my final year (although, in retrospect, I wasn’t yet halfway through). I had one publication under my belt, another in the offing, and half a dozen conference papers. I wondered what would happen once I finished — post-doc? lecturing? travel? — the possibilities stretched out before me. I hit a snag with the thesis — the structure didn’t work with the argument I was making. I needed to rewrite everything I had, and some parts needed to be extensively redone, even ditched and re-thought. My supervisor reassured me that this was normal — I’d done too much too early, the project had changed, I’d changed, so now, I needed to focus and rework and edit and finish.
Only I didn’t.
The thesis I had was a monumental ruin. I could salvage it, but it would take more than I had to give at that stage, so I put it to one side and focused on getting through the backlog of reading that (with my language skills improving) I now thought I could finish. A small programme of experiential fieldwork still needed to be done so that I could test the findings (such as they were), so I applied for and got a grant and went to Europe.
When I came back from my trip, full of hope and enthusiasm, everything seemed achievable. I started on another couple of small research projects which, I hoped, could be transmuted from base scribbles into golden journal articles. I had done far more work on the thesis proper during my trip than I had imagined — fixing problematic passages, filling gaps in the analysis and completing some tricky research (print journals not held in Australia; close investigation of ancient realia in its proper context). I say again: everything seemed achievable. I was running short on time in the course, so I applied (successfully) for an extension, and varied my enrolment to part-time. My scholarship, exhausted, was no longer there to absorb my living costs and so I stepped up with extra hours across three part-time jobs. For a few months, things ticked along, a mechanical balance achieved and precariously maintained through a level of artificial self-discipline that, I discovered suddenly, was unsustainable.
Exhaustion and boredom set in. The thesis was better than it had been six months previous, but it was not done. My side-projects were taking up time and energy that, in retrospect, I didn’t have the luxury of wasting. Work was far from onerous but was yet another time-sink. A friend submitted her thesis.
For me, things began to crack. I missed a deadline I set myself for the complete draft of my thesis. I had a bout of vertigo that lasted a week. My friend’s thesis passed with minor revisions, and she sailed off into the sunset. I had given a completion seminar that was well-attended and well-received, but I couldn’t convince myself that I was anywhere near completing.
My supervisors reassured me, urged me on. It’s fine, they said, just complete it. But that was easier said than done. I could no longer identify the issues with my writing — everything was an issue, everything a problem. I didn’t want to touch two of the chapters because I was sure I would injure them, kill them somehow. I applied for and got another extension. I massaged another two chapters together, broke them apart, put them together again, all for no good reason. I started to withdraw from university life, embarrassed that deadlines were sliding past, and mortified that the passing days were only accelerating. Another friend submitted his thesis, and asked me to be his discussant at a departmental seminar. I agreed, did it, had a great time. Academics assured me my own research would no doubt be fine and that they looked forward to reading it, but I had lost all sight and belief in my own work and despised the idea of returning to it. In the small hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I would tinker with footnotes and bibliography, puff up an appendix, reorder a sentence here and there. In the rapidly collapsing universe of my thesis, nothing was actually happening that looked like real work, and the sky was falling in.
My Thursday morning walk took me around the campus in a peculiarly directionless way. I wasn’t aiming to do or see anything particularly, but I needed to revisit the buildings where I had felt the greatest stress and distress, now that my mind was clearer and the great weight of the thesis had been lifted from my chest. I would take charge of this now, and re-inscribe my memory of the paths with new meaning. I would turn the defeat into victory.
I visited the main library, where I had spent hours trawling through massive volumes of inscriptions and architectural drawings. I strode through a building I had scurried thorough many times, hopelessly late for appointments with my supervisor. Early in the journey, a milestone — a person I had studied with, written alongside, but he had finished three years before I had and gone on to a postdoctoral position at another university, far from here. I don’t consider fate to be a reasonable explanation for life events, but it certainly seemed fateful that he should be here, on this day, at this time.
He was doing research for his next book. His postdoc was finishing soon, he said, and he had no real prospects of getting another postdoc or gaining a job in academia. He was flat, rushed, but pleased to see me.
And what about you?
I’m fine, I said. Done, finally.
You’ve finished? Really finished?
Yes, I said. Really finished.
I applied for another extension, but realised (after applying) that no more extensions would be available to me. Did I want to lapse my candidature?
Of course not. I wanted to get the thing finished and be done with it.
But finishing would take time, and there was no more time to take. I would have to lapse.
Lapsing felt like an enormous scandal. How I could have allowed myself to become so overcooked in the PhD process seemed to mystify my department, but my supervisor expressed full confidence in my ability to — eventually — complete. My supervisor sent me a lengthy and compelling email about my abilities and how important my thesis would ultimately prove to be, once it was finished.
Finish, finishing, finished, unfinished, unfinishable.
Could I actually finish the thing? Finish became a nonsense word, I had said it so many times, it slowly grew totally devoid of all meaning. Finish finish finish. Finish what? The thesis? You’re kidding, aren’t you? That thing — huh, what a mess. I’ll finish breakfast, I’ll finish the vacuuming, I’ll finish that DVD. Finish the thesis? What a joke.
I lapsed, an administrative move to buy me more time, but it felt like an admission of defeat. My supervisor moved on to another job, but expressed again that my completion remained undeniably within sight and that I would still be supervised by her at all times. My department encouraged me to attend seminars, conferences, stay in touch throughout the lapse period. But my embarrassment expanded into full-blown guilt, and it was crippling. I couldn’t even go to campus for months on end because I feared seeing faculty, friends from the department, even people who had taken only a casual interest in my research. I couldn’t say the word thesis. People would ask me about it, I would laugh and say Oh, just chugging along or something similar, but every question about my PhD was like a body blow. I may indeed have been chugging along, but I was long since derailed, my wheels spinning pointlessly in the air.
Months passed. I realised, with a shock, that it had been nearly a year since I had last looked at my thesis. An email came from the university.
Your lapse period will soon expire, and you are required to submit your thesis before the end of your lapse period.
I remember especially the final line of that email:
If you have recently submitted your thesis, please disregard this message.
I laughed. I felt sick.
I walked through one of the most memory-laden and beautiful parts of the campus, the zone immediately around my departmental home. It had once been the ugly corner of the campus, but so much energy and money had been poured into it that it was now quite lovely. Undergraduates laughed in the sunshine and drank reasonably-priced coffee on wooden benches. Two were earnestly discussing something, a large group seemed to be work-shopping some project. A half-remembered face over there, someone who was also doing her PhD, maybe? A student, engrossed in a book. Another student, engrossed in her smartphone.
I entered the ground floor of my departmental building, and felt — a surge of familiarity and warmth. It was akin to coming home, and all those hideous feelings of guilt and fear that had swarmed over me on my last visit were gone. The nearly back-breaking embarrassment of applying to lapse, the directions meetings with my thesis committee, the endless round of research seminars, all hit me at once, broke against me, dissolved. Immovable object, irresistible force. Hot, stinging wetness in my eyes. Tears? Was I crying? Not consciously, but tears had fallen from my eyes regardless. Not sadness, not happiness, but something like relief.
I walked outside again, into the sunshine.
I replied to the email and cc’d my thesis committee members.
Not much remains to be done, I said, in all honesty. And I will do it.
I don’t remember much else. At my supervisor’s insistence, I emailed a fellow student and asked her to proofread the thesis. She did so with remarkable speed and gave me a list of suggestions. I followed them to the letter.
One night I looked at my To Do list which outlined all the changes I had wanted to make to the thesis. It was an enormous shock to realise that they were all done.
I emailed my committee, uploaded the thesis which was now, unbelievably, tagged as Final.
They said submit.
I submitted my PhD thesis on 29 December 2016.
I left campus and walked up the street. I visited my favourite bookshop, and bought a volume of selected poems by Allen Ginsberg and a book of Roman poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini. At my favourite cafe, I ordered a coffee. The owner remembered me, asked where I’d been the last two years.
Finishing, I said, and told him an abridged version of the tale.
Ah, he said. Il dottore.
Just over 12 weeks after I submitted, I had an email from the department.
PhD Thesis — Examination outcome
We are pleased to inform you that your examination result is now available. The examiners of your thesis have recommended that you be awarded the degree without further examination or amendment.
I read the above, and re-read it. Again. Again. Again.
Now came the tears, real tears this time, relief, joy.
It was over.
It was finished.