A Historian’s Reflections on writing up, editing, and finishing your PhD
I have not formally announced anything about finishing my thesis draft on social media. My family, whenever they call or message me, hesitantly ask, “So…how’s your thesis?” I grumble a non-committal response with a sigh. Many of my friends, who are also writing up, have written enthusiastic statuses about having a full draft done. I have not yet found the courage to do this. I keep wondering, is it worth making a fuss about? The writing process never feels as though it is over enough to tell the world: yes, it is done (because it certainly doesn’t feel as though it is done).
Editing has been the bane of my existence since late February/ early March, and it feels as though that time has dragged on. If my PhD thesis were a marathon, we’d be around mile 23 right now. The point where everything aches, but raw determination and spirit keeps you limping along.
I ran those first 23 miles rather quickly: my thesis is currently sitting at around 96,000 words (including footnotes, but not bibliography). It consists of eight chapters, and is around 270 pages. There. I’ve said it. It took less time to write than I thought something like this would take, and my Zotero library reports I have read somewhere around 500–600 scholarly works (it crashed trying to tell me). On top of that, I read about 200 Hitler Youth memoirs and life narratives.
Looking over my shoulder at the distance, it does not seem as though the marathon was very long at all. The amount of work did not seem unmanageable and being able to work on a project I really enjoyed helped. Being a part of HTTP, too, made all the work less fatiguing – until what I now call “The Editing Phase” began.
Yet, now we hit a slight detour on the route to the finish line. One of the many “Don’ts” of PhD research, I recently discovered, was not to do any more archive research as you are in the midst of writing up and considering submitting. Well, I did my archive trip without heeding this advice three weeks ago. The point about not doing any more research is reasonable: you might find more material to add to an already bloated thesis and you probably won’t have enough time to integrate it properly.
All of this is true and important to consider, but if I were to re-do that week, I would do the extra travel and archive research regardless. I had a great time in Hagen, and enjoyed the chance to tourist around in both Cologne and Wuppertal as well. More to the point, I found it immensely helpful to sift through new documents because they helped me realise what I had already done was representative. It also helped me focus on what I still needed to do for my thesis in terms of editing and writing a conclusion. However, do not do this if you realistically do not have the time for it!
Back on track, three miles to run. Sweat and tears pouring down my face (this is also quite literal, the heat wave last week here in the UK caused this!) – is the end in sight? Editing my thesis has been the most mentally exhausting aspect of the entire doctorate. I am the type of writer who works through multiple drafts. I often outline a chapter, write it, rearrange it once, then re-arrange it again later as my argument changes and my ideas evolve. Writing and editing is a part of an organic writing process and it is important to keep doing it. Right now it feels never-ending and my own aim at perfection is limiting at times.
My examiners have agreed to examine my thesis, I have submitted the paperwork needed for PhD submission. It’s happening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m running the last few miles with apprehension, hesitantly, but facing forward, not looking back.