Writing Up: Coming Together

Here's the strange and unspoken thing about a PhD: you expect it to be this linear, drawn-out process, but it's not. It all happens at once. Sure, you spend all your time thinking about your project, and much of your time actually doing it, but it kind of coalesces all at once.

I went to a fantastic conference (symposium, really) last week which illustrated this perfectly. First off, I was invited: one of the organizers met me and thought I had enough interesting ideas in my head to be able to contribute something to a discussion of star academics in my field. All on its own, that was amazing, because I have spent my career hitherto bashfully attending conferences and trembling with the fear that whatever I had prepared to say was totally uninteresting to anyone else. But what was even more amazing was that I have evidently reached a sort of tipping point: whereas before, when I was in the thinking/planning/researching stages of this degree, I had only the most tenuous ideas to communicate, now I have hard facts. What is more, I have the confidence to be able to say, "well, my research conclusively demonstrates 'x'" whether in support of or in disagreement with commonly-accepted knowledge. And the other thing that happened was that instead of sitting in the room during the presentations and discussion thinking "everything I am interested in has been done before" or "I am so stupid compared to these geniuses" or "my work will never be relevant to this field", I was scribbling notes and engaging in really great debates with the others in the room because what they were saying suddenly mattered to my work, and what I was saying helped them with theirs. All of a sudden, I became their peer.

This is not to say that I have suddenly healed all my inner neuroses: no, I am still as riddled with anxiety as an old chair with woodworm or an old house with dry rot. But I have reached that clarifying moment where I am not overwhelmed with other academics' ideas, but instead can negotiate them with my own. I am just sad that this wonderful moment has happened at the same time as I enter the most stressful stretch toward completion. I cannot partake fully in discussions, because I have to sit down and write my darned thesis!

It's a mass of contradictions, this journey - you have to do things when you don't know how, and when you do know how, you can no longer do them. In writing up your research, you have to put ideas and outcomes into tidy separate boxes; epistemologically and ontologically dividing them for the sake of argument. But ironically, the PhD process itself isn't like that: it's a mass of little intellectual explosions that happen all at once, whether you are prepared for them or not. And hopefully, they all coalesce into a lovely fireworks display eventually.


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