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Your examiners DON’T know best

I’m aware that I’m going to ruffle feathers and piss off a load of academics for saying this but…

your examiners DON’T always know best

“How arrogant do you have to be!”
“Are you saying you know better than your examiners?”

Yeah. Yeah I am.

And here’s why:

{rude pause here for this disclaimer: I’m speaking main from my own experiences, doing a PhD in the social sciences (with previous degrees in humanities and arts). I can’t purport to speak on behalf of / about the PhD experience in STEM disciplines. Don’t come at me!}

First, a little research story:

A substantial – and very important – part of my research on women’s responses and resistances to beauty ideals revolved around finding alternative ways of thinking, talking and being in our bodies.

I introduced a yoga element into my work, focusing on the yogic qualities of presence and interconnectedness, to propose a new/alternative model of responding to our body’s needs and wider beauty/body ideals.

Elements of this have been discussed widely in the yoga community, and my participants were starting to touch on these ideas in their interviews. Therapists and healers working on body-centred issues have discussed these issues for decades – even centuries (in the case of yogis).

Academics have been starting to write seriously and deeply about yoga and the body (whose work I included and discussed at length in my own thesis). There are literally millions of people practising yoga across the world today, and using it in diverse ways to improve their relationship with their bodies (there are problematic, difficult, harmful elements within the yoga world as well, of course, which I did discuss… but this is a whole separate thing).

Despite all this, though, the examiners didn’t like the yoga elements in the thesis at all.

It basically came down to this: “You didn’t discuss it within the right framework. If you want to talk about yoga, then you need to contextualise it with/against other alternative beauty and body-centred practices like weightlifting and tattooing.”

One of the examiners even said to me, mockingly, “It sounds like you just decided, ‘I like yoga and I do it so I’m going to include it here'”.

I didn’t agree with this assessment at all and I resented that I had been told that I could only include my ideas if they were used in a very particular, if narrow and constricted, way.

They also told me that instead of focusing on the yoga element, what I should have done was to explore issues of class in more depth – I had participants from a particular cosmopolitan, global class, and they thought that this was the most exciting, original component of my research (as if there aren’t already 894,473 sociological studies on beauty/body and class…).

So I removed the whole yoga-inspired chapter and re-focused the thesis on very ordinary theoretical discussions on beauty and class…

I resubmitted what I believe to be an exceedingly mediocre, unoriginal, flat thesis.

I was heartbroken that the research I had set out to do was now so watered down, and the very thing that had made creative, exciting and meaningful was entirely removed.

Despite this, though, the revised (exceedingly mediocre, unoriginal, flat) thesis was passed, and the final comments said that I’d “done an outstanding job”; that it was now “a very strong thesis”, “impressive” and “one that we would recommend as a model to our own students.”

I was appalled that this very staid, unadventurous version was what was considered ‘impressive’ and ‘strong’. What did that say about the kinds of research that was being supported and furthered in academia?

Now that I’ve finished my PhD and left the research world, I am continuing to come across life and embodiment coaches who are addressing many aspects of the same yoga-inspired approaches to the body that I had discussed in my original thesis.

These ideas are well-received, they’re changing lives and inspiring new, thoughtful ways of thinking and being in the body. They are alive and resonating with women everywhere – and I’m realising more and more that I was right all along.

So here’s the moral of the whole damn thing:

Examiners will have a particular opinion about how (your) research should be, usually located within very specific academic conventions.

When they’re examining your work and deciding how/whether to pass it, they’re assessing it against these conventions and criteria.

But it doesn’t mean that that opinion about the value of your work and your ideas is the only opinion. It’s certainly not the best, or most accurate one.

In the end, I wrote the corrections just to suit those conventions, to tick the boxes that I needed to get the PhD.

But it was a hard, sad year. I felt constantly like I was selling out on my beliefs and ‘denying’ all the rich, exciting ideas I had held as so important and true.

Then: Midway through the corrections – when I was feeling my most despondent about my research – a friend asked for a copy of my original thesis to send to her sister. A few days later, this same friend forwarded these messages from her sister:

Ah, my tender heart. I bawled my eyes out when I read this. This helped me finally let go of the tight angry pressure I’d been holding for months.

I felt relief: THIS is why I set out to do the research that I did in the first place.

I had envisioned a thesis that would provide an alternative way of relating to our bodies. Audaciously, I hoped that it might initiate some sort of healing, and offer some kind of empathy and relief to the very women I had interviewed, and the literal millions like them who were struggling with their body image every single day.

And here it was – these messages affirmed that my research could still serve and matter to the lives of women in the way I had intended it to. It was needed, it held value and most of all, it wasn’t ‘wrong’.

These messages from a ‘real life’ woman in the world who had read my work affirmed to me that the examiners’ assessments were not the ones I needed to hold dear. They were one assessment, arrived at in a very particular way that – let’s face it – was completely divorced from the realities and lives that I was *actually* trying to address.

And this is key – so much research in the social sciences (and humanities and arts) addresses social, cultural, political issues that are alive, that literally address the everyday lives of real people out there in the world. But the way that research needs to be conducted and written about is located within theories, frameworks, languages and discourses that are so far removed from the realities of the very people we are trying to help.

When you’re writing your thesis, you’re writing in a kind of language, within a chosen framework, with certain theories in order to tick off certain boxes in a very particular academic criteria (which your supervisors will be able to advise you on).

This doesn’t mean that your ideas, or even the way you want to do your research, are less correct or less valuable. They’re just maybe not quite the right fit for that criteria, and those (often limited, conservative) conventions.

Since PhDs are the highest level of qualification that most of us will attain, we come to believe that what the academy has to say about our work is the final say, and the ‘best’ assessment of the value of our work.

This is simply not true.

It is ONE opinion, assessed against a set of (research) criteria which has all of its own (limited) conventions and rules.

It is also the opinion of other human beings who are definitely prone to being fickle, contrary, biased motherfuckers, each with their own idea of how research should be done ‘right’. This is all part of what makes research messy, wobbly and unpredictable.

But it also means that, ultimately, WE get to have a say in how we value, think about and approach our own work and the issue(s) that we’ve spent a good number of years investigating, that we probably carry so much care and love and deepdown-feelings for.

The validity, value and reach of your research doesn’t end in the viva, or after the corrections, or even in the graduation ceremony. It extends as far and for as long as you want it to.

So I’ll say it again: Your examiners DON’T always know best.

And their assessment isn’t ‘the best’. It’s just an assessment.

YOUR assessment – of how it’s important, of how it can initiate change in the world, of how it’s just flipping good, thoughtful, creative work – is another equally valid one.

And it deserves to be valued, loved and held dear by you as much as anyone else in academia – or beyond.

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