It hasn't been fun, to say the least. In fact, very little of the past four years can be described as 'fun'. I wish I could be more positive about the whole experience; but the truth is, it has been largely dreadful, mostly disappointing, and it's left me with more regrets than anything else. It has been almost as much of a struggle as when I was working as a lawyer; and since I consider my 1.5 years or so in private practice some of the worst of my life, that's saying a lot. What did I struggle with specifically? A lack of passion. This was what plagued me in practice, and it's been a constant source of angst and dissatisfaction throughout the PhD process.
I suppose one could say it's a blessing that the thesis turned out all right, according to those who have read it, despite the struggles and the lack of enjoyment. If I wanted to adopt a self-aggrandising perspective, I would say that it speaks to my abilities that I was able to finish this to a decent-ish standard despite all the negativity that plagued me along the way. That is: I could make a decent career out of this academic thing if I wanted to. That is: the potential is there, more or less; it's a matter of wanting it, or not wanting it.
When John praised the thesis, said that it was original etc, and that I should be proud, it left me with a significant sense of melancholy that I'm not as proud as I probably should be, and neither am I as proud as someone else in my shoes might, or would, be. It boils down to the same problem: I can't take pride, or derive satisfaction, from something that isn't the product of the best version of myself. And so I'm resigned to downplaying the thesis, not because I'm being humble, but because I genuinely think that it's just all right. It's okay. It's decent, but it's not amazing; and even if, by some miracle, the examiners tell me that it's amazing, I probably would still regard this sentiment with scepticism and even some slight distaste.
I wonder, though, how much of this is the problem that I have identified, and how much of it is simply me: my perennial dissatisfaction with everything that I do, my inability to stand back from myself and my negative disposition and judge my work on its merits, my seeming inability to give myself credit where it may be due. And yet, as I type this, I can't help but think: is credit really due, though? Why is it due, and to what? The truth is, I didn't put in as much work as I perhaps ought to have put in. The reason it took me nearly four years to finish and submit is precisely that: the lack of hours, the lack of discipline, the lack of focus. Did I not start writing a novel-length fanfiction around the time I was hoping to submit? Yes, I did. Did this novel-length fanfiction not divert time and energy from my PhD? Hell yes, it did. So I finished the PhD, I feel, through sheer willpower, refusal to admit defeat, fear of failure; by the skin of my teeth, essentially. Had I had John's focus, or Raffael's dedication, I would have submitted this way earlier (and not be faced with my current visa issues, but that's a boring story that I don't want to get into).
Now that it's finished, and I'm no longr obligated to keep at something that hasn't brought me much satisfaction, I am truly at a crossroads. Do I keep pursuing this path because it makes sense, it's expected of me, and I can kind of do it? Or do I get off this road entirely and try a new one - the one that I have always wanted to put my feet on, but was always too afraid because the path is strewn with the failure of other people, littered with the fragments of their broken dreams? Perhaps more importantly, are they really mutually exclusive? I am inclined to think so. If writing the Daredevil fanfic was any reliable indicator at all, once I start a writing project, I can think of nothng else. Does this not suggest that I need a day job that's engaging, but which won't compete with my headspace in such a demanding manner?
话又说回来 (too lazy to think of the English version of this), if there were one positive thing to take away from this PhD, it is that it's finally woken me up to a fact that I have been overlooking, or suppressing, or ignoring: I know the core of my authentic self. I just need to have the courage to live it.
Of course, the PhD isn't over yet. I still have to undergo the ordeal known as the viva, and regarding that, I am excited and scared shitless at the same time. The external examiner that I really wanted agreed to examine my thesis - and because I respect his work, I am stoked. At the same time, he's going to be tough - and so I'm scared shitless. The good news is, my internal examiner was also my first year examiner, and she's been very positive about the thesis ever since my revised project was approved. She's also very nice, so there's that.
My requesting the external examiner was also partly strategic. He's a well-known professor in the UK, so if he likes the thesis and thinks I'm not a complete idiot, he may be a helpful person to have in my corner if I want to pursue this.
And to be honest, there's a part of me that can't quite bear to drop this entirely. I met Raffie for coffee today and we discussed his post-doc project, which sounds interesting; and we also discussed my very vague idea for a post-doc research project, which got me a bit excited about academia again.
Still, the uncertainty that I felt when I was trying to articulate the idea - that was the same uncertainty that I have felt throughout the past four years. This lack of confidence in the coherence or worth of the idea - I don't know what its cause, whether it's tied up with what I've said earlier about not living the best version of myself. Whatever it is, it is fucking crippling. It causes me to start questioning, even in the moment I'm explaining something, whether I know what I'm talking about at all, if it makes sense, if it's even a good idea. I think this feeling has been a complete bane of my existence at Cambridge, and it's made me come across as unsure and just kind of dumb, really, at discussions and seminars and whatever. I'm afraid that this would trip me up at the viva, so I'm going to have to work on it.
But anyway. Quite strangely, I felt more excited about post-submission last week than when I'm actually post-submission. I felt so excited when I pictured my life after submitting, in fact, that I had to tell myself to calm down in case something went wrong and the process had to be dragged out even more. It's a bit like having match points when playing a tennis match: you don't want to get ahead of yourself and start imagining the victory because it's at least possible that you're going to blow those match points...exactly like Roger Federer did at the Wimbledon final, 8-7, 40-15 - this actually still hurts so much that I didn't feel anything when I found out he lost to Dimitrov at the US Open.
Anyway. The point is, I had to contain my excitement then. But now, I'm not that excited. For as long as the PhD wasn't done, I had an excuse to put off looking for jobs and figuring out the next step; I even had an excuse to not get back into my flow of writing every day, which I stopped because of the PhD. Now that it's done, I have no excuse anymore - and it's scary. Even writing: as much as I love it, it's scary.
That said, I can't wait to start writing my novel. Finishing it and getting it published - that would be a dream come true.