It’s been an extra hard year for me this year. On top of dealing with lockdowns and a pandemic along with the rest of the world, I’ve also really struggled with my PhD for the first time since starting this research.
After four completely joyful years of loving my work and research, I suddenly found myself in every PhD researcher’s greatest nightmare – sitting in my viva and being told that my thesis was “deeply flawed”. Every part of the research that I held dear and that both my supervisors had found strong and valuable was thrown out or pointed out as somehow wrong and/or inadequate.
I found myself confronted with a new and sudden ‘truth’ that I simply wasn’t good enough.
The last year has revolved around finding peace with the revisions that I’ve had to do to ‘be’ enough. In truth, the work itself – reading, writing/rewriting, editing and even changing the entire trajectory and focus of my thesis – hasn’t been that difficult. Y’know, you just kinda do more of the same of what you’ve been doing – read, write, rewrite, repeat.
The hardest, toughest, chewiest part has been coming to terms with the fact that what I thought (along with my supervisors and everyone who has ever come across my work, including one of the examiners) was original, creative, substantial research was ultimately not understood, read or valued in the same way. That what I believed to be not only good enough but good… well, just wasn’t, at least not to the two people judging it.
Now, while I’ve worked my butt off writing these revisions, every hour of writing and editing has still been laced with this underlying worry that despite all that I have done and am doing, it may still not be good enough. I could, after all these many months of reworking this piece of work, face the very real eventuality that the examiners may still not deem it worthy of passing.
This is not to jinx myself or to manifest a horrid scenario; it’s to be realistic and remember that no matter how hard I work on these corrections, there is still no guarantee that I’ll get the outcome I want.
So, a big, mammoth part of this process has been digging deep down into remembering why I’m doing this PhD in the first place; what the PhD itself really means for me.
Flashback, 6 years ago when I first started thinking about doing and applying for a PhD. What was it that I had wanted to do? And why?
I remember now, that as family and friends made sometimes-snarky, sometimes-admiring comments about how I will become ‘Doctor Khoo’, the title and the three letters had never been a big motivating factor. In fact, it always embarrassed me a little. I almost resented the suggestion that I was doing this research just for the fancy title and supposed prestige.
I was driven to research bodies, beauty ideals and body image because it was coming out of a lifelong personal struggle with these same issues; because I had just left a job in a fashion magazine where I despaired at the continuing pressures around bodily ideals; because every single incredible woman I spoke to, no matter her accomplishments, would divulge her secret bodily shame and insecurities to me at one point or other.
I’ve always loved learning and knowledge (thanks to the influences of some excellent teachers from long-ago school days); I love finding things out, being curious and discovering new things and ideas; I love 3am conversations trying to figure out why the world is the way it is, and adore meeting people who will join and add to those conversations.
So, 6 years on, I’m remembering that I started this PhD because I wanted to:
- delve deeply into a subject that was personal and important to me
- learn new, different ways of doing research and discovering knowledge
- learn, study and research under academics whose work and ways of thinking I deeply respected and loved (including my supervisors Dr. Ann Kaloski-Naylor and Prof, Vicki Robinson, and the former director of the CWS, Stevi Jackson)
- meet and work with other researchers, who have the same drive and love of research, and a deep interest in issues as they continue to affect women around the world today (all my amazing CWS colleagues and friends)
As I sit down to another day and another week of working through these corrections, I have to remind myself of why I’m here and what I’m doing all this for.
In the few moments of clarity I have – thankfully, more and more these days – I remember that while I haven’t got the actual PhD in hand (yet), I have, in effect, achieved everything I set out to do:
- I’ve thoroughly loved researching this subject, speaking and working with my participants
- I’ve had the rare privilege of working with supervisors who have always encouraged me to develop new ways of thinking, researching and (co)creating knowledge, and who have repeatedly told me how much they value and appreciate my work
- I’ve met loads of amazing PhD researchers through the years who are as much brilliant, insightful, clever researchers as they are loving, funny, empathetic humans and friends.
And I think: this is good enough for me.
Even if I never get the qualification, even if they throw out all my work, even if the examiners decide my work does not pass, I refuse to let these two people determine what is actually good enough or not. I get to decide that for myself.
I fully acknowledge that this is an extremely privileged place to be speaking from. If I don’t get the PhD, I know that it will mean that 5-6 years invested into a PhD (of finances, mental and emotional resource, time, work) will have resulted in no PhD – and I do understand that this is not a luxury that everyone can or will be okay with.
But I also acknowledge and remember that have done loads before this, without a PhD; I have achieved plenty during the PhD, and I will be able to do a lot again (although this is a whole other discussion about careers, transferable skills, personal development blah blah – for another day).
And actually, I won’t be leaving with nothing. With or without the qualification and the title, I will still have done and accomplished everything I had initially set out to do. And that is good enough for me.
I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re just thinking about doing a PhD, or you’re in the throes of filling out those huge application forms, really stop for a moment and think about why exactly you’re wanting to do this.
Write it out, journal, mind-map, draw pictures, have long conversations with loved ones – do whatever you need to, to articulate those reasons. Dig out those reasons deep down in your heart and gut and bones, and hold them like treasure – they are what will keep you going through all those tough and chewy moments, including and especially (though I hope it never happens to you), the very worst of PhD nightmares where you find yourself sitting in a room and having your work mocked and shredded.
Find your reasons and remember always that they are your reasons; nobody can tell you that’s wrong or not enough.
Beyond fancy titles and qualifications, status and academic prestige, what is and will be good enough for you?