Submitting a Doctorate: How I did (and didn’t) do it

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Last week, in a rather prosaic exchange, I asked the nice man at reprographics at the university to print three copies of this – one for my supervisor and one for the examiners – and pass them onto the Education Department. The next I’ll hear anything concrete will be with a date for my viva – weeks, possibly months, ahead. Whilst there’s a way to go before I can change my debit card to ‘Dr. Kell’ and demand my children call me Dr. Mummy (let’s face it – the only reason I really did it!), it is a pretty significant milestone.

Whilst there are some who cast sidelong glances and shuffle off when they see me in the playground (because, let’s face it, it IS a bit weird), most people have been absolutely fantastic. Not just complimentary and interested, but also, there are hundreds and hundreds (some of whom I hope will see this) who were the actual voices without which the thing wouldn’t have existed. And, every now and again, someone very kind side-swipes me with the question, ‘how do you do it?’

Now, my Doctorate is all having children and balancing them with being a teacher/leader/human. So this question always makes me feel a bit as if somehow has just asked me how I became parent to two feisty, sparky, happy, scruffy eight- and six-year-old girls

i.e. not really answerable;

i.e. it just sort of happened;

i.e. I DON’T KNOW!

i.e it depends which day you ask me;

i.e. I suppose it was a bit like this:



What I can do is dispense with a few myths. I did NOT do it by:

Writing long into the night. I love my sleep. I worship sleep. The prospect of anything less than 7.5 hours per night (or around 10 at weekends) makes me go a bit panicky. I will forever be making up for the hell that was two years with a sleepless firstborn.

Working to a tight schedule. I’m an appalling procrastinator. From cleaning that bit around the taps to grabbing an afternoon nap, because bed was just, kind of, THERE calling me…

Being militarily organised. I’m just not. Never have been. I’ve tried a BIT harder than usual, but thank goodness for technology and cool apps like Zotero. We have a VERY large bag of unmatched socks.

Turning my body into a temple. Erm. No.

So, how then? Or more importantly WHY?! I suppose there was an element of ‘something to prove’. There’s that late-night dinner party question: if you overheard two of your closest friends talking about you, what’s the thing they might say which would be most hurtful?’ (we know how to have fun around here!). But I suppose there is a bit of a fear of being useless or not contributing much and this tweet doesn’t bear much psychoanalysis….


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I really, REALLY loved the research. The topic was EXACTLY right for me – I was writing my life, really. Therapy through academia, or something. Interpretevism and mixed-methods research and the qual/quan debate hurt my head, but I loved the feeling of learning something that was genuinely new to me. ‘Choose something you live, breathe and eat for breakfast’ was the best advice every from my first supervisor.

Support. The centrality of this is in the conclusion of my research and the reason my research could actually happen. Other people’s help – emotional and moral, and hours and hours of child-nurturing and buckets of flexibility. There isn’t really a ‘thank you’ that’s big enough.

IT’S IMPORTANT. The response to the research topic went way beyond anything I could possibly have imagined, with, for example 1604 actual written responses to my questionnaire. I still love typing that, because it still seems crazily wonderful. I have had contact with so many people who have generously shared their honest, optimistic, painful stories. It has been a genuine privilege to be a mouthpiece for them. Yes. It’s important.

But I suppose, like many blogs, this is also a bit of a confessional. The ‘how do you do it?’ question makes me feel uncomfortable because it pales into insignificance beside the achievements of – and the challenges faced by – so many others I know. But also, here it is:


It necessitated weeks and months of mental, emotional and frequently physical absence from those who love me. Where there isn’t the right language for ‘thank you’ just now, there also isn’t quite the language for ‘sorry I haven’t been in touch for weeks/months, sorry I missed your 40th birthday, sorry I’ve been “too busy” to visit since you were ill…’

The kids have done ok, I think.  If I’d believed they were suffering, I would have dropped it immediately. But there are others who, debatably, deserved more of me than they got. And important relationships which were allowed to drift.

Confession no. 2: Imposter syndrome never goes away. I keep expecting a goblin to jump out from behind a tree, cackling hysterically. You, a Doctorate? Hah. Or the viva to expose me for the fraud I am.


Other doctorate conclusions: self-doubt is not your friend, sometimes we need to put ourselves first, and it’s really important to take ownership of our choices. So both the ‘confessions’ above, ultimately, are prices I chose to pay.

Ultimately, this: would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Apart from my daughters, it’s my proudest achievement. This, from my acknowledgements:

and finally


9 thoughts on “Submitting a Doctorate: How I did (and didn’t) do it

  1. Big up! I’ve contemplated it and I know that I’m passionate about the subject I would choose, but having done the Master’s a couple of years ago, I’m reluctant to dive into deadlines again, so I admire anyone in a similar position, who actually goes through with it.

  2. This BLOG and no doubt the thesis, which is love to read, requires a calm, measured. Well done Emma. I’ve only met you (via Twitter) recently but warned to your wonderfully, fresh, humble…. Openness. It clearly took a great deal of effort, calculated losses but two things strike me (and maybe these are touched by my own experience many years ago). First, you loved the focus and were motivated by it. Secondly, your daughters. They may have missed some of your time but you have shown them something far more important. A dedicated mother, professional, mother who cared so much for something she beloved in. That is something for them to have learnt. Watch them grow! So, well done… Well done!

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  4. Emma…fantastic, well done my friend…what’s next? The sequel? Doctorate II? I am sure you could fill the gaps with ‘between the classroom and the front door’ a study of the playground mamma mafia…..then the book, mini tv series and film! Come on, it’s not like you hAve anything else going on now 😆

  5. We’ve been on this journey together and I can testify to how tough a part-time doctorate is even without a young family and pressured job! I have SUCH admiration for you, and am thrilled you’re at this stage. Looking forward to being viva sisters!

    Like you, I don’t regret it and would recommend it – a bit like headship, I think. I wouldn’t want to underplay the challenges but it is SO well worth it. A privilege to have the opportunity to do both, I am convinced.

    Good luck for the next stage of the adventure!

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