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.