Sometimes (increasingly) I think that our opinion and valuation of our own research and writing, and that of just a few academics/colleagues/peers/friends whom we respect is all that really matters and all we really need.
Academia can be horribly competitive – both explicitly in the form of people who very openly brag about their accomplishments/put yours down down; and silently, in the way that we find ourselves becoming increasingly beholden to ‘what the academy thinks’ at the expense of our own mental wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem.
We lose track of why we’re doing this research in the first place which, for many researchers (or at least most that I know) is, at its heart, about finding some way – no matter how small – of improving the world around us: contributing new knowledge, finding other better ways of being and interacting in the world, proposing new thought and perspectives of understanding our lived experiences.
Then an examiner, or a reviewer #2, or Joe Arsehole who thinks he knows everything comes along and says, ‘Well, I don’t agree with what you’ve said‘ or ‘I don’t think this is good enough‘.
In one fell swoop, we are destroyed; suddenly, everything we believed to be important and good means nothing or is wrong, worthless, utter total crap.
In that moment, everything that we have valued and held dear hinges on the self-satisfied opinion or just that one person. And worse, we believe them. We hand over everything we held to be true and concede to Joe Arsehole’s singular opinion that he doesn’t agree.
This past year has been an awful struggle for me as I work on corrections for my PhD that I not only strongly disagree with, but which I strongly feel have diminished the scope and potential impact of my research and silenced the richest, most important things I was trying to say.
It’s been many months of digging deep, reflecting upon what I myself value about my work and recalling/remembering the many expressions of appreciation and praise of my work by fellow (senior) academics (including both my supervisors). This hasn’t only been about ‘doing the corrections’. It’s been about rediscovering and understanding the value of research and of what I have written, and learning to divorce how I feel about it all from how just two people (the examiners) have assessed it.
Please don’t get me wrong – this isn’t to say that I’m defying the examiners comments entirely and not working on the corrections. I have very definitely worked through them. I’m not one to be sloppy, and I’ve done them as well as I would have done any other piece of work. In fact, I’ve work damn bloody hard – this is the hardest I’ve worked in all the five years of the PhD.
Now, after these many months, I think I’ve finally, finally reached a place in my head now that is really okay with whatever the final outcome will be – even if that means that the examiners still not deem my final work adequate or worthy of a PhD.
It will mean that these five years have come to ‘nothing’ because I wouldn’t have gotten the qualification I set out to get (not to mention the huge financial ‘loss’). But I know – really know – the value of my work now. There are many other people, both within the academic community and beyond, who recognise and understand what I am trying to say – and have told me explicitly that they do; who value my work; and who see the very same things in it that I love and believe in.
I believe – perhaps foolishly, perhaps naively and idealistically – that that’s enough.
Sure, I won’t have the letters after my name, but the people who recognise the value of my work will recognise it whether or not I have those letters.
I’ve had to remind myself repeatedly, sometimes several times in a single session of editing, why I wanted to do this research in the first place and what I had hoped to do with it when I got to the other end.
I’m almost at the other end now, and regardless of what the examiners think or how they have assessed/will eventually decide the fate of my thesis, I realise that I’ve done what I set out to do – learn new, better, deeper ways of doing (feminist) research, work more closely with other academics whose work I admire, investigate an issue that’s been important and close to me my whole life, and find new ways of thinking, talking about and relating to our bodies (which has been the focus of my research).
And maybe the examiners still won’t agree and still won’t accept my corrections. At which point, I’ll say:
I’m not trying to be a bitch here, or to be deliberately antagonistic to the examiners. I’m just saying that their opinion is their opinion, which they have a right to. But then it’s also well within my rights not to agree with it or to let it alter the way I think of and value my own research.
I’ve decided, very firmly, right down to my fingers and toes, that I won’t let the opinion of just two people determine the value, potential and future impact of my research;
that I won’t let the opinion of two people outweigh the opinion of countless others who have literally, physically stood up and applauded my work;
that I won’t let the opinion of two people override my own opinion of my own work.
If I don’t get the PhD, I will still have the immense amount of experience, knowledge and connections that I have gained over these few years; I still have the support and appreciation of the academics and writers whom I have deep respect and love for; and I still have the same deep wish to bring a little more relief and healing to the way women feel about their bodies.
So yeah, I may or may not get the PhD. But I still value everything I have done for and within it and I believe all of it is valuable. If if two people within the academy won’t see the same value that I do in it, I will find someone somewhere else who will.
I believe my research is good.
No – I believe it’s fucking excellent actually. I believe it’s insightful, thoughtful, reflective, considered, rich, relatable, creative and original.
That is all, and that is good enough for me.