Phd update: 13 months on since restarting

And just like that, it’s December. I’m writing this with my last hour of my third writing retreat of the academic year 2014/2015. I wanted to use this time to give a quick update & reflection on my PhD progress, as I started 2014 with the good intention of doing monthly updates, which subsequently ended up being kept offline instead. Regardless, I’ve managed to keep to the writing schedule that I set myself when I was appealing to restart, despite working full time in a fairly intense role as a project co-ordinator. So far, I’m on track to complete my entire first draft of my thesis by the schedule that my supervisors and I had set out as part of the re-start agreement.
I’ve now bypassed my one year anniversary of attending retreats – and the difference between where I was this time last year and where I am now is night and day. I’ve been to 6 in a 13 month period, the very first one being the first time I opened my PhD document since suspending back in October 2012, and subsequently feeling sick, upset, angsty and angry about what happened, yet the retreats forces me to keep looking at it and in turn writing myself out of the emotion that I attached to the document. If I’m being honest to myself, I had been quite a tough, mental excavation process, working out when to admit fault but also letting go of the rest.
Nevertheless, something clicked at the retreat last month, when I realised I was beginning to move on from feeling like a failed PhD student who had dropped out and was on the ropes, but instead a person that was capable to finishing it. I don’t know what was the reason for the shift in mindset, but I think the combination of the supportive peer-led environment, and the consistency of the space and place in which we work and socialise, it is easier to keep a tab on how you are feeling about your work and how much progress/confidence you are gaining as a writer. Finally, I was able to talk about my work without having to explain the messy context behind it, why I felt I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD and why I had had a break. It’s just something that I am doing now. And it is moving forward at a pace that I’m happy with (and, importantly meeting targets). I remember in the early discussions of returning, when my new supervisor offered to support me, I said that all I wanted was to get to this stage, the stage where I wasn’t having to contextualise my work with a massive diatribe of mis-justice and general distain for the academic system.
Thankfully, I can now say that this has passed. I can describe what my PhD is about without any of that.
I’m about to submit two redrafted parts of my thesis “Part 1: Purpose/Context/Literature Review” and “Part 2:Research Design/Methodology” based on all the documents, readings, writings and notes that I had available between 2009-2012 -the timespan of my full-time PhD prior to suspending. I will take joy in using a pun here, but essentially these redrafts represent a certain chapter in my life and now I can move onto the next sections, Part 3: Data Collection/ Discussion/Analysis – all of which is fresh new words and getting to grips with analysing ethnography data. They’ll probably need another million redrafts before they are ready to submit, I don’t doubt this for a second, but it feels so rewarding to have turned around what was essentially 3 years of jumbled lostness and arranged them into sections and chapters, without much additional reading or data collection at this stage.
I also have a ‘PhD shopping list’ for the work that I need to do between now and the end of January, things I need to do in the library, things that I need to do with my data, things I need to spend writing and things I need to discuss with my supervisor. I know that I will be able to pick up these tasks and systematically work my way through them, when in contrast I felt l was stabbing around in the dark, spending many a day in the library, feeling like I wasn’t writing when I was reading, wasn’t reading when writing, and not even sure I was I was there and if I was doing the right thing in the first place.
So yeah, December is always a pretty reflective time of the year anyway, and to be able to look back through what I’ve managed to achieve has meant that I’m now starting to see myself at a stage where I will begin thinking about my external supervisor, the viva and all the other things that start to come up on the horizon when coming to the end of a PhD. I don’t want to say that I never say myself at this stage, but, there has been times in the last few years where I felt like it would have been easier to just throw it in the bin and start again.
The best way of describing it now would to say that I now own my own PhD, its not this abstract scary document that I don’t want to show people because I’m not entirely sure what it is, but at the same, I’m about ready to let it go. I’ve been a PhD student for so long (Jan 2009, Leicester Uni moving in October 2009 to UWS) and so many things have changed in my life during this period of registration. I’ve lived in 15 different houses, I’ve lost count of how many jobs I’ve had to supplement my stipend, I’ve lived in opposite sides of the country and the people have came in and out my life, some staying & getting closer, some never seeing again. It’s just bizarre to think that actually, I might come to the end of being attached to this thing that has been consistent in my life when other things have been changing so rapidly and I’ve (only recently) have had any real stability.
Anyway, the purpose of this post really is so I can stick a flag in the sand – I hope by this time next year, I am writing about the end or being very near to it. Certainly, this will be the last time I will be writing about what came before, I’ve got to the end of all the materials that I had collected previously, those difficult conversations and reflecting on moments and memories that the writing brought up can now be concluded, there is no more I can work through at this stage. It’s only new words and new ideas from here on in. And this must be what doing a PhD should really feel like. Finally.