What it feels like to submit a PhD thesis

The following entry is posted with the permission of the author Belinda Hilton. You can read the original post on her blog: https://belindawrites.wordpress.com/what-it-feels-like-to-submit-a-phd-thesis/

Surprise, its not all high fives and fist bumps!

In early July I submitted my thesis ‘Scraping by – Self-care writing for nonsuicidal self-injury’ for examination. The two hundred and twenty-one page document was the culmination of approximately three years, ten months and two weeks’ worth of work (i.e. just short of the four year maximum submission mark) but also it was a reflection on my experiences of self-injury, the first incident of which occurred in 1997 (eighteen years ago). To put it simply it felt like a significant life milestone.

It was a day involving lots of feels. I’d had a restless night and woke early feeling incredibly anxious, eventually deciding that I just needed to get up and get the thing in. I skipped breakfast and a morning coffee and instead opted to worry about such necessities after submission (do not recommend), this meant that I felt hungry, foggy and rather lightheaded as I rushed around. I felt wired and drove with a sense of urgency aware that I was being reckless. This resulted in a speeding fine in the mail weeks later (again DO NOT RECOMMEND). My thesis felt like a form of contraband – I just wanted it out of my hands and quickly!

The table of content from my creative writing thesis
The table of content from my creative writing thesis

I arrived at my first port of call ready to act out the string of steps that I thought were necessary only to discover that my steps where out of sequence. Universities, like any large institution, regularly update their administrative processes and additionally, like other institutions, these changes don’t always filter down to everyone. The first hint of tears came when I found out that such a change had taken place. Cue more frantic racing around.

Eventually I had everything I needed, I was in the right place, talking to the right person and the thesis was leaving my hands. The administrator receiving my thesis said ‘it’s time to celebrate’ (or something similar), I replied with ‘I think I’ll just go cry in my car’. The very kind administrator then comforted me and gave me a red rose from the vase on her desk. I still cried in my car, in part at the kindness of the gesture.

Taken while weeping in my car post-submission
Taken while weeping in my car post-submission

In the lead up to submission I’d said again and again that I would throw some kind of submission celebration get-together with my friends. I’d relocated to a new city in the final months leading up to submission and had been working long isolated hours meaning social interaction had been limited. However after I handed my thesis over I didn’t feel like celebrating and I didn’t feel social.

I marked the achievement by eating churros with chocolate dipping sauce alone in a cafe. I posted about the submission on my social media and sent three texts – one to my father, one to my boyfriend and one to a PhD colleague and friend who doesn’t use social media. That friend later rang me and we chatted about how it felt to submit.

‘Weird,’ I told her, ‘it feels weird.’

It took several weeks to feel any sense of ‘go me’ about submission. Mostly I just felt a strange relief and emptiness. Submission feels like weaning off something or someone or a bit of both. In the days after I simply did nothing – watched daytime television and ate junk food. I panicked about finding work and how I’d pay my bills – the submission marking the end of my scholarship. This eased when I picked up some sessional teaching. For almost four years I’d been working towards submission, I hadn’t spent much time considering ‘what next?’

The ‘what next’ question remains. My casual teaching means I have a distraction from the act of waiting for my thesis examination feedback. In a matter of weeks/months I’ll have some form of revisions to do before I lodge my thesis. I’m hoping that after lodgement and graduation I’ll feel more like celebrating. For now however, I’m floating.

My friends and colleagues still working towards submission asked me recently ‘what do you do with your time?’ One thing that I’ve been relishing is reading simply for pleasure. I’ve spent entire days curled up on my bed or on the couch with a novel in hand. This is such a joy. This also feels right as a creative writing academic and a practitioner yet also beautifully indulgent. I’ve slowly been catching up with friends who had respectfully given me support from arms length before submission. Again, this is a lovely and welcome way to spend my time. However I’m still feeling a post-submission come-down.

I’m going to refer to my post-submission feels as Submission Sadness. Submitting the thesis meant letting go of the project, for now at least. It meant coming to terms with ‘done is better than perfect’. Submission Sadness means facing the uncertainty of my future as an academic. It means redefining what it is that I do and what I research and how I go about this as a free agent (free from funding, free from the support of an institution etc) for a while. It’s the experience of being one of the friends who supports their PhD colleagues from arms length as they prepare for submission (understanding that although my schedule has freed up, theirs hasn’t). Submission Sadness also marks an awareness that post-submission many of my PhD friends will move away, interstate or overseas meaning my immediate academic community will change. Other Submission Sadness symptoms include the continued presence of Imposter Syndrome and the fear that I’ll never be able to write another novel or journal article. There is the question of ‘will this pay off?’ and ‘will I get an academic job?’ and ‘what sacrifices will I have to make to get an academic job?’

Call it revegetation, call it a come down, call it Submission Sadness
Call it revegetation, call it a come down, call it Submission Sadness

Submission Sadness is a bittersweet experience of reaching a goal and grieving. Submission Sadness is relief tinged with anxiety. But please, don’t get me wrong. Submission Sadness is not an unpleasant experience however it is something PhD candidates should prepare for. Undertaking a PhD is an intense experience intellectually and emotionally, those emotions do not simply lift once submission has been achieved.