Next Tuesday, 31st March 2015, it will be five years exactly since I passed my PhD viva. It’s quite a big anniversary, worth celebrating, and I thought I’d look back on how things have gone since then.
It was my second go at a PhD, this time studying history, part-time. In the 1990s I was a full-time science PhD student, but had to leave that after a progressive neurological illness started at age 22, and my funding council wouldn’t support a switch to part-time study. I’ve blogged before about how much of a challenge it was to try for a PhD again after walking away from the first one. There were advantages though: the first go gave me skills and experiences which helped make me a more efficient PhD student the second time around. But I still never really thought I’d complete it, if I thought about it at all. But I crossed fingers and did my best!
My viva was arranged for the end of March, just five weeks or so after my thesis had been submitted. Unfortunately I developed shingles in the run-up to the viva: an agonising recurrence of the chickenpox virus, a consequence of the high-dose chemotherapy and steroid drugs suppressing my immune system so much. It certainly made preparing for the viva a challenge. But maybe it helped me not get too anxious about things.
On the Wednesday of my viva Scotland was blanketed with heavy snow. Luckily both my examiners got to Dundee: the external coming from Edinburgh, the internal digging out his car in south Fife! I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but I got about four hours sleep that morning, before my husband took me in to the university, and helped me get to the venue – I had to use my manual wheelchair that day, and a suitably accessible venue had been arranged. The examiners had also agreed to restrict my viva to an hour because of my disease which means that I get very brain tired very quickly if things go much over that.
I was told that I’d passed with minor corrections as soon as the viva started, which removed the tension a lot. I remember the next hour as a relaxed friendly chat about my research. Both examiners had lots of questions, and even the third academic present, a Dundee lecturer who was acting as chair or convener of the viva, had questions too, which was nice. It was really enjoyable to be able to chat to people who had engaged with my research so closely. I also took the chance to ask their advice about good publishing strategies. After an hour the chair wheeled me out of the room, to rejoin my waiting husband, and we went off to celebrate.
I’m unable to work in academia because of my severely disabling progressing neurological disease, so have ploughed a different path as an academic. It may be worth reflecting here briefly on what it means if going for a PhD, whether or not pursuing a conventional academic path. Firstly and most straightforwardly passing a PhD is validation of your PhD research and thesis, and the many years spent working on it. It is also a mark of your acceptance into the academic community as a fully fledged academic, capable of formulating and completing large research projects. Extremely important, I think, is the huge confidence boost passing a PhD can give you. There’s very much a feeling of “I can do that!” And for me personally it also saw the achievement of a long-term goal, and helping to put to bed the hurt of having to leave a science PhD after my illness struck at just 22.
I asked for an honorary research fellowship from my department shortly after finishing the PhD, after realising that because of university libraries increasingly switching to staff/student-only electronic subscriptions to academic journals rather than print, which aren’t available to other library members including graduate members like me, I would struggle to access the journals I needed to keep up with current research and thinking. This would be a problem as I aimed to publish my own research in academic journals. Fortunately the fellowship was granted, and has been renewed each year since. This helps me enormously, but Dundee University’s history division also gets some credit whenever I have another academic publication with my affiliation noted. I also take an active part in Dundee’s history research seminars, when I’m strong enough to come in.
Publishing academic journal papers has been an important activity for me since my viva. Soon after the viva I met with my PhD supervisor Charles McKean. He was keen for me to aim at very ambitious journals, which was scary, and hasn’t been completely successful, though I think it was worth trying for. But I’ve had a fair number of journal papers accepted post viva, some of which have gone into print since, others are shortly to go into print. I’m also developing four more papers at the moment, and am increasingly moving into new research, some following on from my PhD topic directly, others more marginally connected. As a historian it’s normal to be sole author of your academic papers. This is very different from science, where papers typically have multiple authors, often a very long list of names. So I have all the responsibility of doing my own research, and the writing, submitting to editors, dealing with peer review (ouch!) and any rejection or revise and resubmit offer, and proofreading prior to final publication. One of my post viva publications, in Scottish Historical Review, had to be proofread in Ninewells hospital during a high dose chemotherapy infusion. The editor had hoped to get the proofs to me days sooner, but as it turned out it was a case of my dealing with them on the day in hospital, single handed, literally, with the other hand hooked up to the toxic chemotherapy infusion, or not be able to do the proofs in time, given how sick and tired I would be post chemo. Not a great memory! But I did it, and I’m particularly proud of that paper, that comes from my PhD research. I really enjoy the academic publishing process, and it seems to be something that I’m good at.
I’ve also been giving conference papers since passing my PhD. On the downside I usually have to pay the costs of attending and travelling myself. And since I usually need to use my wheelchair there, and need help, my husband has to come too. But we usually pick events that give us a chance to visit somewhere we want to go to for a little break. I have to rest a lot after travelling, and can usually only attend part of any multi day conferences, but my husband has a good time exploring the relevant cities while I sleep, with camera in hand. Attending conferences isn’t easy for me, but it keeps me part of the academic community, and I enjoy the challenge of giving papers. I’ve attended four conferences in the last five years, and spoke at three of those. I was invited to give a talk at a conference for archivists, fortunately held here in Dundee. I was speaking as a disabled user of archives, sharing my experiences with them re access, getting support from archivists etc. Then I presented a paper about my taught MPhil dissertation research into Melrose regality court. This was presented at the Economic & Social History Society of Scotland annual conference in Inverness. Inverness is lovely and Leakey’s Bookshop is a must see! I attended, but didn’t speak at, the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2012 conference in Dublin. It was fantastic to see the city because my great granny was born there. And then in 2014 I went to the annual SHARP conference again, this time in Antwerp – which I have long wanted to go to (oh but the cobbles!) – and gave a paper on TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines. Talk about moving out of my comfort zone as an 18th / early 19th century book/reading historian! But it was fun, and just the sort of thing my PhD gave me the confidence to tackle, and the talk attracted a huge audience – nearly 70 (most panels there were getting 20 or so people), with some having to stand or sit on the floor – who seemed to enjoy it. I will also be giving another talk in a couple of months at a book history conference in St Andrews.
I don’t know how long I can keep doing these journal papers and conference talks. My disease is progressive, even though it’s playing a bit more nicely at the moment, after the summer 2012 high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital. I have significant dementia-like problems with memory and concentration. I also have to sleep for vast amounts of time, up to 18 hours every day in worst patches. Ironically given that my PhD researched historic reading habits I have enormous difficulty reading now due to the brain damage – thank goodness for my Kindle! And I have to do academic work in scattered short bursts, often a few minutes and no more than an hour at a time. But I do plan to keep going for as long as I can. I may not be employed in a paid academic post, but as I’ve said I’m ploughing my own path, and enjoying it.
Meanwhile next Tuesday is a time for celebrating again. I think I’ll get me a half bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne – my favourite – and some cake. Yum!