How it feels to slay the dragon: handing in my PhD thesis

By George Variyan

As I come to the end of my doctoral journey, having recently submitted my thesis, I have been asked a number of times by well-meaning friends and family about how it feels. I must confess that I have often wondered what it would feel like to finally ‘slay the dragon’ as my supervisor euphemistically put it. When I was finishing my Masters degree just a few years prior, it certainly felt a little like such a finality, much like the end of a relationship minus the tears and anguish. The conclusion of my Masters degree, for me at least, meant that the joy of writing, the creative thinking and the discussions that I had so valued had seemingly come to an end.

It is perhaps no surprise that it would only take a little prodding by one of my course coordinators that led me to abandon my sensible and permanent teaching position to pursue a doctorate. In retrospect, this reminds me of Steve Jobs salutary advice during a commencement speech at Stanford University, when he was reputed to have said, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. In Jobs’ reckoning, it was crucial to follow one’s heart and intuition if one desired to be truly successful. It was perhaps not so much pursuit of success that drove me, but an itch I couldn’t quite scratch. I am driven by the need to deeply understand my world and my place in it.

I was simply hungry to know more.

Almost four years have passed since that beginning. It has been a time to savour in many ways, not the least because of the manifold joys of intellectual pursuit just for the sake of it. It has been a luxury in this sense, but it has also been a time full of challenge and struggle. A time of personal growth and also a time of foolish abandon. Foolish because no sane person at the age of 43 with family-in-tow should ever reasonably contemplate fulltime study to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Even early on this foolishness was clear to me. I distinctly recall listening to a colleague who was also contemplating a PhD, but was pointedly pragmatic in wanting his work to be of ‘strategic’ value to his career. I am the type of person that likes to think they could eschew such pragmatisms. However, there is perhaps little profit in being otherwise, as conversations with seemingly vulnerable early-career and even more experienced academics have reminded me along the way. Even now, facing the job market again, perhaps I should have been more tactical at each and every turn, or at the very least more tactful.

I have perhaps been too provocative and even a little foolish.

When I first began this mischief of scholarly work, I stumbled across Lincoln and Denzin’s powerful argument that truly revolutionary work involved being brave enough to write ‘messy’ and ‘vulnerable’ texts that remained open to usurpation and openly conscious of its immanent contradictions. But as any well-seasoned academic would know, that’s simply not the point of the PhD. The discipline of the doctoral thesis necessarily effaces these slippages and ambivalences, which squeezes out the passionate voice of the neophyte idealist, insinuating instead the authorial voice of a freshly disciplined academic-in-waiting as sole conduit to the truths of our social reality. However, all is not so gloomy or final. It stands to reason that the disciplines of academic work cannot achieve full closure over all reckonings, or as Foucault suggests, a permanent provocation always remains.

Now that I have almost arrived at this so-called pinnacle of the academic journey (handing in my PhD thesis), it doesn’t feel much like an ending or even a pause. Nor does it feel like an achievement, where one simply needs to plant the flag atop the pile of rewrites, edits and the fragments of text that seemed to have swirled around in my head endlessly over these last years. Instead, the text that I wrote seems to have instead written me. I have not so much written a thesis, but become its product. In the end I did not so much write that messy and vulnerable text, but instead became myself what I intended for my work. I became that messy and vulnerable text. I can no longer leave behind this experience any more than I can leave behind my self. It is simply under my skin.

So where to now? And what have I learned, or what advice would I give? I have come to understand that one does not simply ‘pursue a doctorate’. I have learned that the task was not to slay some proverbial dragon or climb some lofty pinnacle. The task instead was to become; to become that messy and vulnerable thing I had hoped would carry my ideas. The task is to remain reflexively aware of one’s own contradictions and qualifiers, yet to also stay hopeful, hungry and foolishly curious about the world. This is a gift and a challenge in equal measures. Something I hope I can live up to in the years to come.


George Variyan is a doctoral student with Charles Sturt University working in the sociology of teaching, looking at teachers in elite private schools in Australia. George is also a Maths and Science teacher himself, and has worked in diverse school settings such as independent schools dealing with students at-risk, the elite private school sector as well as further afield in international schools. George currently lives in Perth with his young family, enjoying the warm climate and extended family nearby.


7 thoughts on “How it feels to slay the dragon: handing in my PhD thesis

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Hi George
    A great email. Funnily, when I look at my current doctoral students I so often feel that what takes 3-4 years, I could do in 1 semester, of course not counting the time for field work 🙁 That’s a terrible realisation on hindsight as I too struggled much less with ideas, more like with the core. And it is the core that continues to challenge me, I continue to look for interdisciplinary evidence and thinking to see what the core of my thinking means. And I think this is what keeps me hungry, plus the need to be creating and put things together to create models. To be perfectly honest and without judgment, this is what I look for in others: if I don’t see it, it is as if they spoke another language. And maybe that is how it is. 🙂
    ania lian

  2. George Variyan says:

    Gosh! 1 semester? I can’t quite fathom that from where I am currently, but maybe that will become clearer down the track. Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by and add your comment!

  3. John Fitzgerald Clery says:

    You may not feel like your Ph’d has come to an end- though all the same congratulations on this achievement .

  4. George Variyan says:

    Thanks for the kind words, fingers crossed!

  5. dvariyan says:

    Lot of thought has gone into your take on your thesis . Although long and arduous was the journey, the work you did for your thesis will not only give you self satisfaction but enable you to do your job better

  6. Kelli McGraw says:

    You were slaying a dragon, yes. A practice dragon. Because a PhD is an apprenticeship after all. You have been disciplined, for sure, and now you know how to use the tools and weapons of this army. We don’t let you join unless you learn that.

    Your next choices, hero, include: join the fight in the academy, wielding one of the weapons you learned how to use; join the fight, bringing your own new weapon, but be warned that if it’s one none of us know how to use then you’ll be out on your own with your ongoing training and repairs; find a different fight and apply your learning there.

    You also only learned to slay dragons with the weapons preferred by your master, apprentice. You might seek out a rebel mentor now, if that’s the path you crave.

    The academic fight isn’t the be all and end all. There are dragons everywhere. The PhD is actually your armour, not your weapon at all, I think. So what to do next? Go pick a bigger fight. (But check your gold stores first. If you run out of gold, you can’t fight anyone!)

  7. George Variyan says:

    Hi Kelli, thanks your comments – so true! Hope I find you on my side if we happen to meet on the battlefield.

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