I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I passed my DPhil viva (oral examination, for those of you not familiar with academic lingo) three and a bit weeks ago. But maybe it’s okay that it’s taken me ages to get round to it. Since I became a Proper Academic* (*there are provisos here) I’ve been in a real kick-my-shoes-off-and-do-nothing mood. It’s a very unfamiliar feeling. For four and a half years now, I’ve felt driven to be at that desk every day from 8am (sometimes earlier), and had to be physically dragged away from it – usually after 6pm – by family members, concerned I should eat, drink, mingle with normal human beings, remember what daylight looked like etc.
I’m exaggerating, but not much. A writer friend of mine (who after all, knows all about obsession) calls my study “my burrow” (it is, essentially, underground – and as I’ve probably mentioned before, I work in the dark). Several times during my PhD (I use these terms interchangeably because few people outside academia are familiar with ‘DPhil’) she tempted me out of my burrow with the offer of lunch at my favourite restaurant, only, she said, because she was worried I would otherwise start growing hair on my paws.
So what does it feel like to be Doctor Barber? Initially relief, which was kind of flat. Other than that, not very different, except that it’s been the cause of much humour in our household. Our teenage lodger now addresses me as Herr Docteur with deliciously foreign rolling ‘r’s. E-bay provided a nice white labcoat and stethoscope in which I could titillate my husband and entertain guests at the celebratory party last weekend. (I did actually own a labcoat years ago when I was a biology undergrad. I never realised they were sexy. I was so naive.)
One observation: I had never realised until becoming it that Doctor Barber actually sounds a little sinister. My father was also Dr Barber for many years before becoming Prof Barber, so to me it feels familiar and comfortable (it’s Dad!) and it never occurred to me until friends pointed it out that I now sounds like a Bond villain. Two cutting occupations in one. Scalpel or razor: you choose.
Of course, I am thrilled that my DPhil in English Literature had a happy conclusion. To fail after all that work and commitment would have been devastating. Since the majority of my submission (70,000 words) was the work of fiction that was recently bought up by Sceptre for 2012 publication, you might think I walked into that room rather confidently; but I know an author whose PhD creation was picked up by Bloomsbury before her viva and the external examiner, in a fit of professional jealousy perhaps, tore her work to shreds and withheld the award. She is a fairly successful writer, but not a doctor. So you never know.
There was even more uncertainty in my case, of course, because the academic portion of my submission (a not unsubstantial 50,000 words) addressed a subject so despised and derided by most right-thinking literate people that I gather there have been internet forum discussions about me referring to “Dr. Barber’s thesis (sic)”. Which I find quite heartening actually: as Oscar W said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I don’t suppose many new postdocs hear of strangers discussing their thesis online (“sic” or no “sic”) within a couple of weeks of passing. Or indeed, for most postdocs, at any point. I have been blessed, I suppose, in landing upon a research subject which tends to ignite people rather than making their eyes glaze over (with the understandable exception of my husband).
As it turned out, my examiners were both rigorous and extremely helpful. I passed with minor corrections and those corrections will serve to strengthen and tighten the argument of the thesis further, which is good to know, given that an electronic copy of said thesis is due to be lodged at The British Library, where all kinds of people disposed to violently disagree with me will be able read it. (Although, I would add, they are disposed to violently disagree with me without actually knowing what I’ve argued. There is an assumption that I am saying ‘Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare’. I can assure you I am not!) My next task, when I have overcome this extraordinary and unfamiliar celebration of lethargy – this short break from my driven essence – is to expand the thesis “(sic)” into an academic book/monograph “(sic)”.
In the meantime, bring on the Doctor Doctor jokes.