What next…?

| Dr Lizzie Marshall

As it turns out, there is life after the PhD. When it ends there’s a mixture of relief and disbelief, although for me it leaned heavily in favour of the latter. I’m sure that wasn’t helped by the fact that I did my viva from my sofa because, just as my luck would have it, we had gone into lockdown only a few weeks previously. I was living in the countryside a little way down the road from St Andrews, having finally dragged myself out of halls (although not unwillingly, after so many years!). The internet connection was terrible; the sofa was the nearest possible spot to the router. The call still disconnected twice. On the upside, I had a cup of tea and slippers on my out-of-sight feet. Two or three hours later, when the call had – deliberately, this time – ended, I went through to the bedroom where my poor boyfriend was camped out on his laptop, trying to work with what little bandwidth there was left available to him. I just remember saying ‘minor corrections’. I could only be factual. It didn’t feel real.

Throughout my PhD, minor corrections had seemed to my perfectionist brain like the absolute worst outcome. I wanted flawlessness. I would take typos, if I had to. I can’t begin to express how wrong I was. Corrections aren’t always about addressing something that’s wrong, especially in the arts and humanities. They’re about improving your research and the way in which you express it, accepting that every reader will see something different in your work and trying to accommodate for a wide range of perspectives – something which is very difficult when you spend so long immersed in your own thoughts, words, and style.

I’ve recently gone through the same process again while revising my thesis for publication as a monograph, right down to the two reviewers and the short time span for making changes. Of course, editing for publication is very different in some ways. With a thesis, you might be improving your work but ultimately, you’re making corrections mostly so that you can get your PhD. It’s the final hurdle to get over before you can don your gown and call yourself ‘Dr’ (incidentally, I still haven’t had the chance to graduate in person and wear my silver-hooded smurf-blue St Andrews doctoral gown. Thanks, COVID). You just have to make your examiners – and yourself – happy.

St Andrews on my last visit, stunning as always

But a book is different. A book is out there, where anyone can read it, criticise it, and pick it apart. Every word, every sentence, and every error are available for scrutiny. Yes, you have reviews before it makes it anywhere near print to minimise the possibility of that happening. But there is still every possibility that someone will absolutely hate your work. Especially when, like me, you’re offering potentially controversial interpretations of two of the most complex, frequently discussed cornerstones of Old English poetry (Wulf and Eadwacer and Beowulf, for those who want to know). I try not to think about it too much, or I know that I’ll be crippled by anxiety.

Luckily, I have something to distract me – I’m also working on a commissioned book project about the history of wolves in Britain and Ireland. It’s intended for a commercial audience and so is less academic in tone than my other book, but is still contingent upon rigorous research. I’ve been working on this project for just over a year now, but it’s still strange to be writing more about facts than offering my own analyses and opinions, and in such a different style than my academic work.

‘Red-penning’ one of my final thesis drafts pre-submission

Just at this is a new experience, it’s been all change since I finished the PhD. Since my viva on that sofa in the countryside of Fife, I’ve moved house twice and am now living in England (an oddity in itself after so many years in Scotland). I’ve lived alone and then with a partner, both for the first time. I spent my first Christmas away from home. I started a new life, with which came new people, new friendships, and new belongings (I swear my hands are permanently damaged from all of the flat-pack furniture I’ve put together) and, most importantly, a new sense of self and a newfound confidence in my abilities as a researcher and a writer. I’ve finished the PhD journey, closing that chapter with equal parts relief, trepidation about the future and, eventually, joy. I’m different in so many ways, yet somehow life is also not too dissimilar from before. I’m still that crazy wolf girl, researching and writing about the topic I love, sitting at my desk until my back aches, just like before. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lizzie was the SGSAH blogger in 2019. She finished her PhD on the representation of wolves in Old English literature at the University of St Andrews in 2020. She is currently working on two books for publication and working as a freelance editor and content writer. She also runs a website, wordsonwolves.co.uk, where she posts her own and guest contributors’ pieces about wolves in literature and culture. For updates about Lizzie’s work, you can follow her on Twitter @wordsandwolves.

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