Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Done with PhD…and still miles away from Paradise (Fazeela Ibrahim)

Photo collage provided by Fazeela Ibrahim

Could it be three and a half years already?

It still seems like yesterday that I left ‘Paradise’ to embark on my doctoral journey back in 2015. If you're curious to know more about my leaving Paradise, my story begins here.

Approximately three years, two months and a week later, I submitted my thesis for examination in early June 2018 (i.e. just before the three year, three-month minimum submission mark). It was a two hundred and seventeen-page document. To put it simply, for me, it was a proud moment and significant achievement but also a reflection of hard work, exhaustion, self-doubt and tenacity.

It was a shocking moment when my thesis amendments were approved by my supervisors.

My initial reaction was, “I am not ready! There is still a lot more improvement to be made.” But mostly it was because I really wasn’t ready to let go of my prized possession yet, for several reasons (most of which were not directly related to my thesis). What I felt at that time was a quiet moment of joy followed by the dread of what was coming next.


My thesis focussed on the experiences of international doctoral students during and after their doctoral journey.

I explored it extensively in my research and narrated individual unique stories of other doctoral candidates like me. As it turns out, similar to my participants’ stories, finishing my own PhD (especially as an international doctoral student on an Australian Government Scholarship) ended with some messy identity-entangled outcomes and feelings. In this post, I try to give a sense of what that looked and felt like for me.

Pre-submission jitters


The high point for any doctoral doctoral candidate would be the moment when they finally submit their thesis. Like any normal person on their doctoral journey, I had my fair share of restless nights and rising anxiety but it was the feeling of numbness that stuck with me to the day of submission. I thought I should be feeling proud and elated that I was going to submit my thesis way earlier than my submission date. My supervisors consistently stressed this point, saying that it will look positive on my portfolio for future endeavours.

Nevertheless, as an international student, all I could think about was that my scholarship will be terminated the instant I submit my thesis (even though I had have six months left on my scholarship). At one end, I was been congratulated on completing my thesis way ahead of time; on the other, I was in a catatonic state contemplating the predicament of not having my scholarship stipend to rely on. It was a constant battle and a big dilemma to finally decide to submit my thesis regardless of the consequences.

And I did it with a BANG! surrounded by friends and with celebratory drinks! After all, I had earned it, and I did feel proud about my accomplishment.

Eight-weeks of suspense


For the past three years, I had been working towards submission and I hadn’t spent much time considering ‘what next?’.

I was quite familiar with the advice given to doctoral candidates on their submission. This mainly revolved around not obsessing about the examination and to just take a break and go out and enjoy life – the life I had put on hold for my PhD! Otherwise, if I am still on a roll and pumped with adrenaline, this is the time when I could work on my articles for publication. Well, I ended up doing neither.

To be honest, I could not afford to sit back, relax, catch my breath and bask in the wonderful feeling one should get after completing a momentous milestone like submitting a PhD thesis! The most crucial thing for me was employment with a steady income in order to remain in Australia now that I'd no longer get my scholarship living allowances, at least until my graduation.

For me, it was an instant jolt from student to joining the workforce. This was a blessing in disguise since it distracted me from just waiting around for my thesis examination to take place. In a matter of eight weeks (it felt as if it came out of nowhere), I got my results: only minor revisions!

Post-submission


I hoped that after the final lodgement of the revised thesis and finally getting my completion letter, I’d feel more like celebrating. Then I realised I had been celebrating and was once again jolted back to reality. Just two weeks after I received my completion letter, I got an email from La Trobe International congratulating me on successfully completing my degree. This was followed by the message that I had completed my course earlier than the end date on the Confirmation of Enrolment, so my enrolment at La Trobe was now ended. Typically, this would be great news for any student. However, as an international student, I was now expected to make arrangement to depart Australia or apply for a new visa within 28 days of receiving this email. I went into panic mode for a split second before I realised that I was safe at least until the end of 2019, according to my visa conditions. But I do wonder what it would be like for those who had no choice but to leave immediately!

So far, it feels both exhilarating and weird at the time hearing my friends and colleagues refer to me as ‘Dr’. In addition, they constantly want to know what I am doing now that I am no longer “busy” with my thesis. Once I moved into working full-time, one thing I am relishing during my free time is reading simply for pleasure. There is no better joy than to curl up on the couch or even my bed and the spent the entire day with a novel in hand and a hot teapot brewing by my side. I am also enjoying my free time engaging in activities I enjoy the most like trying out new cuisines, exploring new places, and catching up with my friends.

Putting all that aside, post-submission also means facing the uncertainty of my future. In my thesis, I explored how my participants negotiated their future, specifically in deciding whether to remain in the host country or return home. Through the course of my candidature, I had given a lot of thought about what my plans would be after graduation. However, life after PhD is different and it was important to be mentally prepared to face this difference. The most difficult aspect of this change was to start working in a foreign country and an unfamiliar place. I have to readjust constantly to the new surroundings and situations that occur and present myself to the hiring committees by making my overseas qualifications and experiences count here in Australia.

Often, what is expected from a PhD graduate is to get into academia and continue further research. But life does not always go according to what you have planned or expected.

What I have learnt so far is that opportunities are essential to achieving my goals, though it can be quite daunting. My future is unpredictable for the time being. What is my post-PhD path? Will I have a complete career change? And, most importantly, where will I end up: Australia, the Maldives, or someplace new? Only time would tell.

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Dr Fazeela Ibrahim recently completed her PhD in School of Education, La Trobe University. Born in the Maldives, she has been an educator, researcher and an educational planner. Prior to moving to Melbourne, Fazeela was a senior lecturer in a private college in the Maldives. 

During her candidacy, she worked as a research assistant as well as a Peer Learning Advisor (PLA). She is also the President of School of Education Research Society (SOERS), a society led by Education's graduate researchers that provides them with a platform for networking, peer assistance, methodological discussion and enhancement of skills and knowledge in the discipline. 

In her free time, Fazeela enjoys travelling, cooking, and exploring the history and culture of different countries. She tweets at @ffaxee.

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