A Lighthearted Reflection on Achieving a Doctorate – By The Active Author

13 get a degree

Six and a half years ago I sat in a cold, damp bungalow / come make-shift police station and clicked on the ‘apply’ button for a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth. As a new mum with a six month old baby, of course it occurred to me that I was talking on a huge challenge, but I decided to go for it anyway. At the same time I realised that I was going nowhere fast in the police service and needed to expand my professional development in other areas. For the first two years I completed taught modules whilst working full time as a Police Officer. What I expected to be the dullest aspect of the course, namely research methods, actually turned out to be one of the most enlightening learning experiences on the course and I can even go as far as to say it was interesting. On the first day of the module the lecturer asked everyone in the class to put up their hand if they thought they were a ‘positivist’. I stuck my hand up without hesitation because I thought that a ‘positivist’ was some type of overly optimistic, ‘glass always full’ type of person. ‘Yes I thought, I am very positive about most things’. Some time later during the lesson I realised I couldn’t be any further away from seeing the world through the eyes of a positivist; and as for ontology and epistemology – aren’t they some type of weird medical affliction? Just kidding! The first two years went by really quickly and whilst it was a challenge to increase my academic skills and jump from quoting everything in the third person, to being brave enough to use ‘I’ – somehow I got through those early years relatively unscathed. In hindsight it was clearly lulling me into a false sense of security; luring me towards my research and my thesis.

My research journey was by far one of the most challenging, yet one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My research was all about the relationships developed between police officers and offenders within Integrated Offender Management. I loved the topic and did not tire of it once. I had been a police officer working in IOM developing the very relationships that I was exploring which made it relevant, real and personally special. I remember sitting with a PhD student at a conference three years ago, who told me that she hated her research topic and felt miserable but couldn’t change her study because of her scholarship conditions. I reflected after this conversation that whilst it was a financial burdeon to self-fund my studies, this was worth it for the autonomy and control I had over my own academic interests.

Whilst I experienced a lot of enjoyment completing my doctorate, my research journey was not without personal trials. In the last four and half years of the course I suffered recurrent miscarrages, resigned from the police and experienced ill health. Any one of these life changing events could have thrown me off course, but what kept me going was inner resilliance, a supportive husband and bloody-mindedness. All in all I finished a year later than I had planned. My advise to any student in a similar circumstance would be to use all of the sources of support that you have around you, especially in your University. In addition, viewing your studies as a journey will also help you to manage your own expectations and reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself. Whilst at the time I felt that I was behind the rest of my cohort, now I have completed my course I really don’t care that I was a year later finishing – I still got there in the end.

Reflecting back on the early planning and pilot stage of my research, if I could do any thing different it would be to publish an academic article I wrote at the time. Due to a negative comment made by a lecturer who read my article, I lost my confidence to submit the article for peer review. As a result I now have a fully written and referenced journal article sat on my computer which is now four years out of date. Like so many early career academics I think we take the comments made by others to heart and worry that our work is not good enough. The reality is it probably is good enough, it’s just that we are fragile and need support not critism. Again, now that I have finished my studies I will indescriminately aim to publish my work and I fully intend to revisit this article.

So what about my viva? Well I will always look back at that with fond memories not only because I absolutely nailed it, but because the whole experience was so vivid! My approach was to prepare, prepare and guess what?…. prepare. I arranged mock presentations, a mock viva (which was harder than the real thing) and I learnt my research inside and out. The best advice I received was to remember that I was the expert in my own research and to defend my work…but not be defensive. Attitudinally I reflected that no one was ever going to be as interested in my work as they were that day, so I was determined to enjoy the experience and really go for it. Amusingly I will also remember my viva for other reasons. The night before I went to the cinema to take my mind of the exam the next day, only to discover that I had booked tickets for the wrong city….Plymouth not Portsmouth. I did wonder if they would find out about my stupidity and fail me before I had even turned up for my viva….but somehow I passed with minor amendments. I would also advise students to wear comfortable shoes on the day of their viva!

As for the feeling of passing your doctorate, it was just incredible! What I will remember most is walking out of my viva and onto the streets of Portsmouth and thinking ‘Blimey, I’m a Doctor…best go and get a sandwich for the train home then’. It was some weird sureal moment as I walked (limped in stupid shoes) down the road with a smile on my face like some sort of Cheshire cat. I resisted the urge to tell the women in Greggs that I had just become a Dr and chose to call my husband instead.

Three weeks ago today I submitted my final thesis with all of the amendments signed off and a copy placed in the library. Since then I have noticed little changes. Every now and then I suddenly find myself remembering that my qualification is complete. For something which has been so omnipresent in my life for 6 ½ years this is both comforting and disconcerting all at the same time. I have found myself a little bereft too, like mourning the death of a dear friend. I also notice how embarrassed I feel when I tell the optician, the bank and my credit card company that I have changed my title to Dr. My husband thinks it’s great of course, until the first bank statement arrived addressed to ‘Dr and Mr’ that is. He tells me that he will have to get a doctorate now and I just smile. And what of pride you might be thinking? Well yes of course I feel pride. I am every bit as proud of myself and my achievement as I thought I would be, but it would never have been possible without the support I received from my friends and family. I also believe that my cleaner, my dishwasher and my tumbledryer all deserve special mention – without these things there is no way I would have achieved my qualification.

So what now? Well I need to publish my work. So even though I think my doctoral journey is complete, it is still on going and will perhaps never be complete. I sort of hope that my journey doesn’t end here either because I’m not quite ready to move on just yet….except perhaps to book a place on a chocolate making course!

So if I was to give you a list of light hearted and serious advice these would be my top five pieces of advise for achieving a doctorate.

  1. Buy a book on basic grammar – but not after you’ve submitted your thesis!
  2. Keep your humour – you’ll need that when times get tough.
  3. Keep striving and plugging away at your research, suddenly it will come together….I promise.
  4. Find the joy in your subject and keep that alive.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Studying for a doctorate is a journey, with all of the ups and downs that you would expect.

All that is left for me to say to any doctoral students reading this is – good luck, keep going – soon you will be wondering whether or not you should tell the Greggs shop assistant you’ve just passed your doctorate.