It’s in. It’s done. It’s in it’s done it’s gone it’s through it’s over.
Yesterday I collected four heavy, new, black, buckram-bound copies of my PhD in contemporary Irish literature from the University of Edinburgh printing office on Infirmary Street. Have a look, if you like:
One of them is for me to keep, two to give away. The fourth, to hand in. So I signed an ‘access to thesis’ form, and I signed the declaration of own work page of the fourth copy, and I took it to the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and I handed it in. And I went home and turned on my computer and I submitted a .pdf file and a .docx file of the same document to the online portal, and I submitted another copy of the ‘access to thesis’ form too. And then when that was done, it was all done. And I felt…
I felt like I had completed a minor if somewhat taxing administrative task, and I wondered what to do next.
It’s a long, strange victory lap, finishing a PhD. There’s the initial submission, which is a huge rush. A while later — later than it should have been — came the viva. There were drinks to celebrate after both, with Róisín and my PhD friends and colleagues, and after the viva with my supervisor and examination team too. Then came the submission of my minor corrections, which I took a while to get around to doing because by this point being unemployed was weighing much more heavily on my mind. Then the acceptance of my corrections, almost immediately. Then I took another while to get around to preparing the document for hard-cover submission, and going into the printers, and then they emailed me to say the hardcover copies were ready to collect, and then I got it done and now it’s done. Until graduation in June, and then it will be done and gone and over all over again.
My scholarship, like nearly all PhD scholarships in the UK, was for three years. I submitted my PhD on schedule, just under three years before I began it. It’s worth noting that this is exceptionally fast. To the best of my knowledge I was the first among my cohort of English Literature PhDs (15 or so scholars) to submit. Certainly among the first. Some of my colleagues have submitted since or will be submitting in the coming months, and plenty of people are planning to take a fourth year or more to finish up. I was aided in my own promptness by being a very fast reader and a pretty quick writer, and more than anything by having been awarded (via the reserve list) a Wolfson Foundation Scholarship, an unusually generous award which provided financial peace of mind for those three whole years, and even the prospect to put away a little extra. Most aren’t so lucky.
But even with the privilege of this scholarship, and with the speed and application with which I worked, there was no allowance for a six-month-and-counting victory lap. My viva was supposed to be within three months of submission — in the event, it was just over four months later. I’m told that the college office didn’t send a form as promptly as they might have. These little administrative hiccups have big consequences when you’re three years and one, two, three, four months into a scholarship that was supposed to last three years.
I’ve been startled by the difficulty of finding work since submission — I’ve been applying for the odd thing since September, and job-hunting in earnest since December. Since the New Year, when I started recording my job applications, I have applied for seventeen jobs, not counting post-doc applications. None of these have been moonshots; most of them have drawn directly on a concrete skill-set which I developed as a Digital Resources Officer at the University of London before my PhD. None of them have been half-arsed applications: they take time and effort and leave me exhausted and irritable. Most of them have represented a step down from that previous Digital Resources job; but I guess relevant experience three years ago, with a PhD in contemporary Irish literature in the interim, doesn’t impress the people hiring for digital resources jobs in Scottish Higher Education. My only ongoing source of income — a few hours each week of teaching undergraduate students — has been hit hard by successive rounds of UCU strikes. The strikes are necessary and worthy. I voted for them and I am participating in them and I dearly hope they result in some concrete improvements to this mismanaged industry. They have nonetheless hit me hard financially and emotionally. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had a successful interview, and picked up some work with the University of Edinburgh’s Information Services Group to work on a SharePoint issue. This job pays slightly less than £10/hr, for fifteen hours a week, and will end after three months. I have some other interviews for part-time, temporary, low-paid work of a similar nature which I’m either waiting to hear back from or haven’t yet done.
This could all be a very small moment in time. I hope so. One or more of the post-doc or full-time desk job applications which I have out there could get back to me even as I type*. The SharePoint job and any other temporary IT work I can pick up might start making my Digital Resources CV look active again and pique a bit more interest. The financial stress of the last couple of months, and the sheer quantity of myself that I have poured into what I remain convinced are pretty good job applications, could melt away like that. I might remember the first two, no three, months of 2020 as just one of those short-term blips that happen after you achieve a qualification, when I gazed with undue pessimism at a diminishing bank balance and moped around needlessly instead of writing, thinking, walking, cycling, the way I could have done. I hope so.
But even if that happens, what is clear to me is that the long victory lap of the PhD, as currently conceived, is unfit for purpose. The obvious solution is to make all PhD scholarships four years; scholars would still be encouraged to submit after three, but a buffer for viva delays, for corrections minor or major, for not really getting anywhere with job applications until after graduation, would be built-in to that fourth year of funding. And for the love of all that is sublime or profane, stop offering PhD positions at all which do not have funding attached. It’s a full-time job and just because some people have either the inherited resources or the sheer fucking stamina and resourcefulness to do it alongside a patchwork of part-time work and worry (whilst paying for the privilege!) does not make the provision of unfunded ‘places’ either humane or sustainable. I was offered unfunded places at both Oxford and Cambridge to do my own PhD. I am grateful to the experience of two years of doing my Masters unfunded to tell me that I did not have the stamina and resourcefulness to take that course myself (of course, with a windfall of inherited resources I could have, and that is just one of the ways that hereditary power still reproduces itself through the Higher Education system).
But if we assume that four-year funding is a utopian vision, and if we concomitantly assume that utopian visions will not be provided, the only advice that I can offer to anyone undertaking or thinking of undertaking a PhD is to begin some permanent part-time work during your final funded year. Avoid zero-hours if you can, and don’t depend on teaching, it can be taken away all too easily and these strikes don’t smell to me like they will be the last of their kind. Line up some shelf-stacking, coffee-pouring or pint-pulling (you could look for work in a public library, as I did through my Masters — although if you assume that this will mean a sedate life of recommending books then you’re in for a rude awakening) for enough hours per week that you won’t be in shock when the three years end and you’re still running, still running, still running through finish lines for quite some time to come.
* I stopped to check my emails just here. Not yet! But I did have an email from Aer Lingus encouraging me to book a flight to California. Do you think they accept payment in hard-bound theses?