In my old department, there was a workstation that was mine. When I wasn’t there for some time, my friends put a small Dalek called Russell on the top of it, so that he could guard our space. On the door of the research office, there was for years a piece of paper with the words ‘PhD Room’ and a QR code on it. When you scanned the QR code, the image that popped up was me, sitting at that desk. I was entangled in that department like a captain to a starship, chair and all. It felt like that was all that there was in the world.
The expectation, I suppose, is that when you finish a PhD, you’ll leave and move on with your life and career. But ties like that bind, and leaving is never so clean. You miss the people, and they miss you, and if you live in the same area, you’re going to get re-entangled from time to time – often through choice, of course. This can be good, for the post-PhD world is sometimes a scary place to be. No-one holds your hand out here. I’m actually amazingly grateful to my old School – they haven’t deserted me to post-thesis ennui, but neither have they taken advantage, or pushed too hard for me to come back. But they have invited me to do things – my supervisor has asked me to make a short film for the stairwell (it’s that kind of department), and the students themselves have invited me back to speak at Research Week, an annual convocation in which the members of the PhD community, campus based and distance learning, come together to discuss their work and experience. I’ll be talking, with another colleague, about the process of the viva and preparation for it. We’ll be talking about our experiences, before, during and after the exam, finding out what their fears are, and attempting to confront them, if we can. I hope it will help them. Perhaps I hope it will pull them out of the bubble.
It’s made me realise that, all of a sudden, I’m not a member of that community in the same way any more. Instead, I’ve become an elder, someone older in experience and apparently wiser because of it, who is welcomed back, treated well, and listened too. For someone of twenty eight, that’s a strange position to be in.
It’s almost as though there’s a perception that, when you pass your viva, you’ve crossed some kind of boundary that precipitates a fundamental change. ‘Doctor’ confers a kind of mythic status. At least, that’s how it appeared to me. Those who had stepped over that line were idols in my eyes and I imagined that they must have felt very very different, even if it was only lighter and more relieved. Beyond the viva, the person I would be seemed legendary and immaterial. Somebody with the magic knowledge, certifiably intelligent.
I’ve discovered, however, that actually, I don’t feel that different. I don’t think of myself as a doctor, or as anyone with any wisdom to impart. I do feel older, particularly when people look at me with those eyes that I used to make, ask, like I used to, how it felt to pass and feels now, what it’s like to hold a thesis in my hand. I can’t answer them: I don’t feel much different in ability, knowledge or wisdom. I just know that I’ve irrevocably crossed some kind of line, and that that somewhat Arcadian PhD existence is no longer mine: other people still live there, but to them I am history, of a kind, that comes back to visit and advise the next generation.
I wonder if someone’s taken my chair?
* The title of this post originally belonged to an episode of the original series of Star Trek that aired November 8th, 1968.