The birth of an elephant may be straightforward by comparison!

Mother and child are both doing well

Mother and child are both doing well

The gestation period for elephants is approximately 22 months, the incubation of a PhD takes considerably longer. I am not conversant with the actual birth process and delivery of elephant calves, but I do know that there are often complications associated with the final production of a thesis! This may possibly seem like a slightly bizarre start to this particular article, I therefore owe you an explanation.

In recent years I have been very fortunate in working with and supervising a number of excellent research students. They are all hard working committed individuals, passionate about their research, eager to explore ideas and a joy to have as students and colleagues. Over a period of between three and five years, depending on whether they are full time or part time students, they beaver away with great diligence, reading and criticising the literature, designing research instruments, collecting and analysing data and writing various papers and then that final Behemoth of a document the research thesis. For most of them this is by far the largest piece of writing upon which they have embarked, and for some it will remain as the most considerable tome they ever produce.

You would imagine that as they approach the end of this arduous process that the final handing in of their thesis and the last preparation for examination by viva voce would come as a blessed relief. However, over the years I have noted that the final months leading up to the delivery of this significant document is a source of angst and prevarication for so many PhD students. Over the past few weeks I have once again been subjected to those anxieties and apprehensions that may more readily be associated with a mother to be. The conversation usually goes something like this.

Supervisor: “I’ve read the final (probably tenth!) draft of your thesis, all you need to do now is get it bound and hand it in. Well done.”

Supervisor: (a week later) “Where’s the thesis? Have you had it printed yet?”

PhD student: “I just wanted to add a few more paragraphs in chapter three, it’ll be done by the end of the week”.

Supervisor: (yet another week later) “I don’t seem to have a copy of the thesis yet.”

PhD student: (somewhat sheepishly) I reread chapter 4 and felt that it needed a little reorganisation.”

The student has now been in labour for several weeks and it looks like we are heading for a forceps delivery!

There is, of course, a serious point amidst all of this banter. The PhD has always been seen as a rite of passage, an apprenticeship model whereby the student presents their credentials as a bona fide researcher. Understandably therefore they want to deliver the perfect specimen of a thesis, one where the examiners will struggle to find any minor blemish and which will sail through the viva voce examination totally unhindered.

Seeking for perfection in any aspect of learning is something to be applauded. A dogged unwillingness to part with a piece of work that has formed a significant part of your life, is therefore to be expected. I have far less worry about those learners who have periods of self-doubt than I do with those who are filled with confidence and appear quite blasé about the whole procedure. Self doubt has always seemed to me to be an important part of learning.

As teachers we need to learn how to manage all kinds of students; the confident and the apprehensive, the anxious and those who are possessed of a sometimes less than convincing bravado. It is our responsibility to nurture our students towards an outcome that is satisfactory to both the learner and the teacher.

So it is that I await  the delivery of two theses. As I don the robes of a PhD midwife I am full of anticipation for the conversations that may await me. Whilst I am confident that the period of gestation is now at an end and that a healthy delivery is imminent, we all know too well that predicting delivery dates is far from an exact science.

11 thoughts on “The birth of an elephant may be straightforward by comparison!

  1. Dear Richard,
    This blog reminded me of the last few weeks before I had my thesis bound. I remember even when I eventually handed it in to you, I still felt I needed to re-write many parts of it… Your blog well depicts our emotional feelings towards our theses. Today , when I read this blog, I could not hold my tears. I know that the submission of the thesis does not mean the end of my research life, but the start of it. Nor does it mean the end of my learning from you as my supervisor. You will always be my supervisor, the best ever. I am speaking for myself and I know I am also speaking for those who ever had the opportunity to have you as their supervisor. THANK YOU, Richard, with all my heart! Best wishes to those who will soon have their theses bound! I hope Ph.D will not mean Permanent head Damage to you :).

    • Hi Mary,
      How lovely to hear from you. Not only did you complete an excellent PhD, but you also saw it published as a book that has made a significant contribution to the inclusion literature not only in China, but much further afield. It was my good fortune to have you as a student and now to follow your excellent work as a researcher.

  2. Hi Richard, I wholeheartedly concur with the emotions and feelings that Mary has so eloquently described, and also written about having you a supervisor.
    I also haven’t the faintest idea who these students could be! 🙂 On a serious note though, the feelings of self-doubt that you mention, I think in part also arise out of the student’s fear of disappointing all those around them, particularly their supervisor who has worked so hard and done so much to guide them. This is not to say there is a lack of confidence in their supervisor’s guidance and support, but more about the student’s own belief in themselves. One of my colleagues told me about ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ the other day. However, even knowing that others also have similar insecurities, does not do much for the overarching sense of dread because of thoughts that your supervisor somehow miraculously, despite four years of working together, didn’t pick up on the fact that you are a fraud and will soon be found out! I wonder if there have been studies carried out in this regard about students at this specific stage of their PhDs? Does it end after the viva? Once I’m out of the woods, I’d be keen to explore this. For now – I’m trying to limit my tangential google searches to viva-related matters!

  3. Hello Richard I think your analogy to giving birth is very apposite. When I was prevaricating over my own thesis, with my husband wondering when I was going to rejoin him in life, I kept saying that I just had a few more things to polish off. As he knows me well, he and I agreed a date that I would hand it in. In exasperation to my polishing, he told me that if you polish anything too much you rub it away.

    • An interesting analogy Dr Capewell. Your polishing clearly had the desired effect and did not remove the sheen from your thesis!

  4. Wonder who those two with the extra long gestation period could be!! As the others who commented earlier have mentioned, despite having you, the most positive influence a PhD student (anyone for that matter) could wish for, as well as the desire to produce a perfect thesis which only a few people (like Dr. Feng Yan) are able to produce, the feeble self confidence combined with the dread of the impending encounter with the examiners could be the driving force behind such delaying tactics. I am sure despite all that has been going on, by this week those two would have submitted!!!

  5. I must add my own heartfelt thanks to the comments and richly deserved accolades from Mary and everyone. I was priveleged to have such great supervision, and the support of fellow students, in a mutually supportive atmosphere for which Richard deserves enormous credit.

    • Hi Phil,
      Such learning is a partnership – hopefully of equals. It is sometimes difficult for students to recognise how much they are teaching their teachers.

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