PhD: Submission and being kind in academia

“We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind”.

It’s been two weeks since I submitted my PhD and I’m fairly sure my body is still in shock. After a long three years of study, not waking up every morning and having to write, research and redraft my thesis is positively bizarre. When I woke up on the morning of submission I felt excited more than anything else- a bit like a child at Christmas. The promise of seeing my thesis bound properly and submitted on time was all a bit too much. After submission I travelled back to Darlington, made myself a cup of tea and instinctively loaded my thesis on my laptop in my study. It was only then that I realised I could do no more to it- it was out of my hands.

Submission Day

The final few months of my PhD were unusual to say the least. I had a full draft completed at least six months before the deadline, and my supervisors had looked over every chapter. The main problem was accepting that I had to stop. I probably could have redrafted my thesis forever. About a month before my submission deadline I accepted that the changes I made would be final. From then on I made any last minute additions and spent my time proofing and ensuring the submission was presented correctly. I was reassured by the fact that 85,000 words was not enough for me to say everything I wanted to on the subject of mystical theology. My supervisors once told me that the topics you leave out of your PhD form most of what you will research for the rest of your career. I hope that is true, as I’m still eager to develop the topic further.

One of the most challenging aspects of academia is undoubtedly engaging with other academics. Some send emails telling you to ‘back off’ from a shared research interest, others belittle your conference papers, while the especially mean ones doubt the legitimacy of your research. I’ve met my fair share of people who will scoff to your face when you suggest something they disagree with. I’ve also met those who consider your research to not be important or interesting, and are quite vocal in making that clear. The problem is that academia demands you silently accept these little episodes as part and parcel of the job. The main issue seems to be insecurity. At every level from PhD students upwards, there is always an element of competition in a job market that cannot accommodate the sheer volume of newly qualified researchers. It can leave you (intellectually) battered and bruised.

I’ve been told many times that academia requires you to develop a ‘thicker skin’, something I’m terrible at doing. Instead, I’ve found the greatest way to counteract this negativity is to actively seek out and surround myself with supportive fellow researchers. At many conferences, especially a recent one at Ushaw College, I’ve met PhD students and more established researchers who have a genuine interest in my research. It is these people I email, follow on Twitter, and share my research with. Their positivity, warmth and supportive comments all help counteract journal rejections and harsh emails. As I’m currently the only early modern PhD student at my institution, I’ve found that this helps combat feeling isolated. Many of the academics I’ve emailed out of the blue have also been more than happy to offer advice, even offering to read over journal articles before I submit them. Having the confidence to reach out to others is something I’ve learnt during my PhD- 90% of academics are more than happy to help. That is why I started this post with a quote from a fellow Twitter user Dr Anne Galloway- the real key to success in academia is to surround yourself with kind people and pass this kindness on to others. It is the only way to feel ‘human’ in an environment of rejection and competition.

As for the near future- I’m actually looking forward to my viva. I’m excited to see what my examiners think of my thesis, especially as (so far) my supervisors are the only academics to have read the entire thing. I’m eager to see how my examiners engage with it. I’m trying to keep busy until then; I’ve written a book review for British Catholic History, which I’m also planning to submit a journal article to in the near future. Teaching at Northumbria is proving to be very rewarding- my students are becoming confident in debating and expressing their opinions. It’s great to see them developing. Giving first year lectures on early modern religion to our new 120 strong cohort is also thrilling to say the least! Far from exhausting my interest, my PhD has given me a thirst for new challenges and new research. To quote Rainer Maria Rilke- ‘the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things’.