on not writing from the PhD

This is a guest post by Dr Mark Carrigan, Research Fellow at Centre for Social Ontology: socialontology.org, The University of Warwick and Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review: @thesocreview.

On March 26th 2014 I finally submitted my thesis for the PhD I had begun almost six years earlier. The event itself was somewhat anticlimactic after a false start the day before when ebullience at having finished gave way to irritation upon realising I’d misread the formatting guidelines and had to get my thesis reprinted. Thus I shuffled into University House the following day, somewhat hungover, with my now correctly printed thesis only to be told that I was in the wrong place and had to make my way across campus if I wanted the university to take receipt of this document which had dominated my life for the past six years. In retrospect this subdued comedy of errors seems rather appropriate because it helped detract from what might otherwise have been unreasonable expectations about how I would feel once it was over. I never really liked being a PhD student yet I never wanted to let go of my thesis. I felt about it rather like this panda feels about his green ball:


I’d got used to sitting with it. It’s simply what I was doing: sitting with my green ball. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable and at times it became downright tedious. But it was comfortable and familiar to an extent that made the impending reality of it being snatched away from me feel bizarrely traumatic. But in reality, it wasn’t snatched away, as much as the belittling objectivity of a final deadline from the university made it seem as if it would be. From the mildly chaotic handing in process through to a six month long wait for a viva and the weirdly familiar process of getting a library copy printed and going to hand this in, it simply rolled away from me in a manner I was only dimly aware of at the time. This thing that had provided such structure to my life since the age of 23 faded slowly into the distance until I one day discovered that I was Dr. Carrigan giving a lecture to a room full of masters students. That first lecture on the masters module I convened was the closest thing I’ve experienced to a culmination of the process and it wasn’t all that close. The graduation ceremony was another occasion on which to wear a suit that doesn’t fit me properly, coupled with an ever sillier hat perched upon my head than last time.

The point of this naval-gazing is to address a question Patter asked me after a conversation on Twitter: why I am so averse to going back to publish from my PhD? It’s been over a year since I handed it in and yet a begrudging cover-to-cover reading the day before my viva is the only point at which I’ve looked at in this time. This was the double sided misprint which my false start at handing in left me with, a document I scrawled upon before relegating to the corner of my book shelf. The slightly diminished status of the volume feels oddly appropriate and yet mildly upsetting. Oddly enough for someone who once agonised over whether instrumentalism would win out in deciding what to do with my PhD thesis (http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/12530) I now find myself struggling to motivate myself to do anything with it.

When I say ‘my PhD’ what do I actually mean? It occurs to me that it was both process and outcome. It’s something I did for six years, entirely subjugating every other aspect of my life to it, but it’s also the outcome of that process. This lends the document itself a tremendously ambiguous status which I think goes some way to explaining my reluctance to part with at the time of submission. I’ve never known quite how to feel about it, least of all when the university was telling me I had to finally hand it over or they’d kick me out.

My PhD has its material existence as sheets of paper, sequentially bound together according to a strict rubric, upon which its intellectual content is inscribed. But it also has a more spectral existence, something which postmodernists might describe as hauntalogical: its existence as a physical document brings to a close all which came before it and yet these angst-ridden years linger on through the physicality of those pages. As a marker of intellectual progress, it captures all the mistakes I made and grants an acidulous permanence to the missteps which I realise on a reflective level are an unavoidable part of the process. But it was also the horizon of that progress, as well as my life as a whole during that time in which so much happened to make me the person I am now, some fantastic, a little that was truly terrible and much that was simply tedious. In view of this, the materiality of the thesis seems almost pathetically mundane to me.

I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable with my PhD. It’s not that I think it’s a bad PhD… it’s an unusual piece of work but I’ve had enough people I respect understand what I was trying to do for me to feel confident that it has intellectual value. But the document itself feels so unendingly strange to me, even now over a year later when I find myself reflecting on it for the first time in weeks, I’d like nothing more than to leave it in the past as an awkward and confusing encounter I doubt I’ll ever be sure what to make of. In spite of this, I know my PhD will in reality follow me wherever I go, intensifying my avoidance in the knowledge that I can’t ever entirely avoid it. I might very well end up producing the handful of journal articles which could very easily be adapted from my thesis. I don’t really want to though and the evidence thus far suggests I probably won’t. Hopefully in writing this I’ve helped explain why this is the case and I’m curious to know if others share my antipathy towards something which the culture of the academy suggests we should be proud of.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Mark Carrigan, PhD, postdoc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to on not writing from the PhD

  1. Business Academic says:

    I can so relate to this. I still have my honours thesis on the shelf after 15 years. I opened it once, found a typo and promptly closed it. It’s a history so it won’t go off, but the experience was so traumatic I still cannot go there again just yet. PhD was different and I have published from it, but I can so empathise with those feelings. Get on with your life, and all power to you for finishing it.


  2. Valerie says:

    I completely agree with this too. I was approached to publish but just could not face the work involved in rehashing and refining. I loved the experience of doing it as a mature student after retirement but did not need to publish as a career move. I had published two chapters as articles while doing the research and found that such a time consuming, nit-picking process that the thought of doing a book’s worth put me off. Am sure editors/reviewers are more picky now they know each amendment does not have to be laboriously redone on a typewriter. Similarly with the viva. How were major/minor revisions attempted when the whole thesis was typewritten?
    I was surprised in retrospect that the PhD wasn’t the hardest “examination” I had ever done (‘A’ Levels in the sixties and driving test).


  3. Emily Nelson says:



  4. I’m curious about why you embarked on your PhD in the first place. I’m also curious about where ‘PhD student’ fitted into your sense of identity over those 6 years. I can’t help wondering whether handing the thesis took away the ‘student’ part of who you were, possibly for ever. If you started it at 23 and took 6 years to complete, is it possible you had been in formal education for about 25 years continuously?

    I’m sure there are many other ways to understand why you feel the way you do, and I could very well be completely off the mark. But if my suggestion holds any water, then your sense of ambivalence could be more about the life transition than anything to do with the thesis itself (although I can also see that after 6 years it would be the green ball. I suspect I’ll feel a bit the same way when my turn comes, as many or most of would, for our own diverse reasons. I have a certain affinity for pandas – as my username suggests – so maybe I’m already symbolically doomed!). Could it be that publishing from your thesis means working with the material in the absence of ‘studenthood’ and if the motivation was more about the process of the PhD than the research content, I can see that it would be very hard to generate enthusiasm to revisit it.


  5. Deb says:

    This piece really struck a nerve with me. One thing I’m really struggling with in thesis creation is reconciling product and process – the process has been so traumatic, and unfortunately intimately bound up with a number of unfortunate events in my personal life, that ‘writing-up’ feel like not so much gradually letting go of a green ball, but more like wrangling a lightening rod. I did my final seminar last week, and finally managed to tell the story in a way that included all the (pertinent) drama, by including acrobatics, spoken word, and audio-visual. Now to turn all that embodied energy into text – it feels a little bit like trying to stuff said lightening rod through a plastic funnel. Bits are melting. Thanks for sharing Mark – I’m going to keep that little panda on my desktop.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. M-H says:

    I can relate – or I could until last week. I finally handed in my emendations 2 years ago, graduated 18 months ago, and I’m now in my early 60s. I don’t need to publish to make a career. I’ve got two articles in draft, but neither of them is making me excited. I can’t imagine ever finishing either of them and sending them out. But last week I was asked to do a keynote on the subject of my thesis, so I started a document along the lines of “what I want to tell you about my PhD is…” and now I have heaps of text – probably too much for this keynote. Maybe I was just intellectually exhausted and needed to put it away for a while to come back to it and see fresh ideas in it. I’m even thinking about reopening my data files and going back to my articles. I wonder if I will?


  7. Biblioteca Carlos Albizu Miranda says:

    Reblogged this on Library Competencies.


  8. Krista K says:

    I’m right there…all coursework done for my masters degree, but I just cannot get this thesis written. I feel sure that I’ll have that same deadline of either write it or get kicked out! How to push myself forward? I think my green ball is under the bed collecting dust bunnies.


  9. Pingback: Link Round-Up: PhD Advice - How To Do A Literature Review

  10. Pingback: when is it too late to write from the PhD? | patter

  11. Pingback: not letting go of the text | patter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s