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What I learned from failing my PhD

Intellectual life shouldn’t be a combat sport

Artillery Row

Next month marks an important anniversary for me. It will be twenty years since the day I failed my PhD viva. I promised myself I’d laugh about it one day. Two decades on, it still doesn’t seem all that funny.

To be fair, it had its moments. Following several minutes, hours, years of utter grimness, during which I was (according to the examiners’ report) “monosyllabic” (no memory of what the syllables were), I plucked up enough courage to ask a question.

“I know I’ve failed,” I said, “so please can I go now?”

Obviously, I was hoping for some version of “no, you’ve not failed, we’re just really grilling you”. Instead, somewhat devastatingly, the answer was “yes”.

I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible. It’s not that I deserved to pass. The thesis I had submitted was not good enough and, on some level, I knew this. I’d kind of hoped to scrape a pass — maybe one of those “with major corrections” passes, where they would tell me exactly what corrections to make — then slink out of academia. It was not an environment in which I’d excelled, but one in which I’d felt more worthless by the day.

How could I possibly know enough, be clever enough?

I hadn’t done enough reading, to tell the truth. As soon as I was told I had funding to spend three years researching the life and works of E.T.A Hoffmann, I panicked. I’d wanted to do it, right up until I was told I could, then I was thrown. Surely this meant I’d have to read absolutely everything about the whole of German literature and culture? Or maybe everything about literature and culture full stop? How could I possibly know enough? How could I be clever enough? Even if I could read everything, what if I did so and couldn’t come up with a single original idea?

I know these are not uncommon thoughts for PhD students, but I took them to extremes. Convinced that I’d failed before I began, I spent a good part of the three years either time-wasting — playing PlayStation 2 games or arguing with strangers online about US foreign policy — or slowly, painstakingly copying out quotations that didn’t need copying out, then shifting them from one folder to another. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about E.T.A. Hoffmann.

All this led, inevitably, to my terrible viva, and the mortification of telling everyone that I’d spent the past three years doing — well, what? Nothing of any value. Though people tried to suggest that it had been a gross injustice (those examiners didn’t appreciate my genius!) I persuaded myself that everyone was secretly thinking it just showed what a fool I’d been to think I could get a doctorate from Cambridge. What an arrogant loser!

For years I hated myself for it. I couldn’t drop it, either. It wasn’t just guilt about the money, or the death of my hamster (of shame, I felt) two days after the viva. I knew that if I didn’t ever pass, the humiliation would torment me forever, not least whenever I encountered stupid people who had PhDs. Sometimes, I comforted myself by googling “child prodigies who failed as adults” and reassured myself that these people were even worse than me. I had no funding left, so I got an office job and went back over my thesis at evenings and weekends. It took me several years, but finally — having read the things I needed to read, which was not “literally everything ever written” — I passed, with a message from the same examiners that they would spare me the viva this time. The examiner who’d most disliked the original attempt even helped me to get my work published.

On one level, this is just a story — one of many, I’ll admit — of my being an idiot and taking the long way round to achieve anything. Increasingly, though, I can’t help thinking about it in relation to the relative confidence I now feel in approaching different ideas and stating what I do and don’t believe. For years I felt so small and intimidated. If I read something I disagreed with, or which didn’t seem to make sense, I instantly assumed I’d misunderstood and closed the book (usually to have an online argument about the War on Terror, selecting adversaries to whom I’d feel morally, if not intellectually, superior). These days I wonder whether, in the hands of certain people, intellectual intimidation isn’t partly the point, or at least whether certain ideas are presented in such a way as to demand not engagement, but mindless embrace or flight.

I realised I didn’t miss competing to be a clever person

It’s not that I consider myself some tragic loss to German studies, or that I hold anyone else responsible for my staying up until 5am playing Pac Man World 2 rather than analysing the carnivalesque in Hoffmann’s later works. Still, it turned out I was capable of producing an original doctoral thesis for publication — just in the midst of having children whilst working full-time in a non-academic job, not whilst I was in an academic environment. When I had a great expanse of time in which to think, I thought only about how useless I was at thinking.

You could argue this was just a me thing. When I met my partner, he was a fellow student, a much more successful one than me. He passed his PhD and lectured at Cambridge and St Andrews. Even so, he often felt the same panic I did. He waited for me to resubmit my thesis so we could graduate together. The night before, we travelled to Cambridge and marvelled at how gorgeous the town was. How privileged we’d been! Why had we been so foolish, wasting so much time obsessing over whether we were good enough? Why hadn’t we embraced it all, lost ourselves in the world of the mind? The next day, we had lunch at my college, only then recalling what it had really felt like.

The same anxiety came rushing back, the desperation to impress, the fear of being exposed as an impostor. So much had been about status. It wasn’t that people were not producing things of worth, but I’d forgotten the pressure, the constant sense that there were rules that you didn’t know but that everyone else did. I realised I didn’t miss competing to be a clever person.

It’s why, I think, I so resent it when people try to intimidate others out of debating particular topics. It is quite easy to be intimidated out of valuing your own thought. I sometimes worry that if I hadn’t completed my doctorate, I’d still be frightened of texts that seemed incoherent but that must, I’d tell myself, mean something special and complex. It’s not that knowing a lot about E.T.A. Hoffmann gives me insight into everything. It’s more that people can’t scare me with “biologist here!“ or “philosopher here!“-type tactics (usually when they’re saying something that would be no more insightful than my saying “linguist here! Sorry, but I’m the authority on what all the words mean!“).

Of course, I’d like to know I could feel the same even if I’d never graduated. The ideal, pure lesson I’d want to get from this is that the idea of cleverness is completely different from the joy of thinking. Obsessing over the former cut me off from the latter.

Much as I regret the time that led up to it, I no longer regret failing my PhD. I wrote something that wasn’t very good because I was so scared of trying to do better. I didn’t attempt to understand things in case I understood them wrongly. I felt constantly torn between shame at my own lack of brilliance and furious resentment at the brilliant people. Where is the space in all of that to work out what you truly believe?

If I had passed the first time, it would have been for writing something about which I didn’t care, something I didn’t really mean. Other than sparing me several years of total embarrassment, what would have been the point of that?

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