Eye on the summit: My PhD experience

In September 2008, I embarked upon a journey that culminated with the award of my Geography PhD in 2013. Much like climbing a mountain, it was a journey fraught with peril, numerous blind alleys, moments of sheer terror and the occasional achievement. Finally however, the journey ended with a successful summit attempt and a PhD flag-planting ceremony, where the sensation of total elation and relief was overwhelming.

In the early days, Base Camp was Professor John Sweeney’s office in Rhetoric House. I had just ascended a minor peak (BA Double Honours), and was ready for the next adventure. I was thinking about joining a more challenging expedition (to scale the heights of the MSc), but John reckoned that I was ready to don my oxygen mask and go for the Big Daddy, the PhD. And so it was that I bade a teary farewell to my family (figuratively, for the most part anyway), and took the first step of my one thousand mile journey.

The early days were quite easy in many ways. I shared an office with four other like-minded souls, and we chatted and read and chatted and typed and ate our sandwiches, drank coffee and chatted some more. These were the halcyon days, when the award of a PhD was a certainty, albeit somewhere in the distance, and the notion of not completing it in time or before the money ran out was laughable. We japed about how slowly our research was going, how hard it was to get good data, and about how difficult it was to write academically. But we didn’t worry, because we, on our individual expeditions into our unique unknowns, were on a journey where success was a given, and nothing could stop us.

I was still in this euphoric state of nirvana when the first Progress Report form dropped into my in-box. Suddenly, as if caught in a Spielberg zoom, my world telescoped into a rather startling new perspective. As I filled out my second great work of fiction (my research thus far being my first), I realised with horror how far I had to go. During this first year, I had assumed that I had made it at least half way up my mountain. But, looking back down the mountain through a lens of half-eaten sandwiches and cups of coffee, my left foot was still planted firmly in Base Camp.

Suffice it to say, I decided to move a bit more smartly after that. I set my oxygen to maximum, girded my loins and strode purposely forward. Still, by the time the second and third Progress Reports had been copy and pasted completed, I was still short of the summit by some distance. At this stage however, I was determined. With the continued support of my family and colleagues in Geography, and guidance from my sherpa, John Sweeney, I plodded onwards and upwards with eyes only for the summit. At last, I reached the final camp, ready for the summit push: my research was done, so now all I had to do was write it up. Write … it … up …

Through the next six and a half months (from 15 April 2012, to 16:40 on 31 October 2012, to be precise), I saw little of my family. Apparently we went on holiday to France for two weeks. There was something called the European Cup, which a country called Spain won. The Higgs Boson particle was found (I didn’t even know it was lost). My son turned 10, and there may have been cake; I’ll have to check the photos. My Dad’s first anniversary was on 28 May. And my daughter started primary school. While I was conscious of all this happening of course, always in the background, 24/7, was the constant white noise of thought that processed chapters, sub-heads, arguments, data and a million other things into a ceaseless stream of sub-conscious chatter that made my head burst. Reality was an out-of-body experience, something that I’d heard about but couldn’t remember where from, while the PhD write-up was the all-consuming here-and-now.

But then, the summit. And what an incredible feeling. To stand there, looking down at the fantastic view, was simply amazing. All the years of pain, angst and uncertainty were washed away by a tide of sheer joy that is just unbelievable. Instantly, you turn into a Cheshire cat, grinning unstoppably at anything and everything. It had been such hard work. Not only from an academic point of view, but also from a family point of view. Towards the end, my family’s life had revolved around my write-up, with many weekends when Dad was staying at home while everyone else went off. That said, your family can’t help you in any other way, other than by leaving you alone. Much as mountaineers cannot call upon remote souls to help with their journey, so it was with the PhD, and that is the part of the process that I found hardest to deal with.

But you know what? I’m glad I did it.

David Smyth

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Good luck with your future and hope you have no more mega mountains to climb.

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  2. Great piece Dave, it give those of us who are just packing our climbing gear hope of reaching the summit.
    well done!
    Simon

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  3. neasahogan · · Reply

    I read this (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/how-not-to-write-a-phd-thesis/410208.article) over the weekend and thought of all our PhD candidates. Delighted you won’t have to worry about any of these problems! Neasa

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