The End of a Second PhD

I finished my second PhD on January 11th. This further degree, in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, proved to be a stark contrast to my first, which was in Creative Writing. I recall the exact moment of completion: I was sitting at my desk in front of my computer. Earlier, I walked for 2 miles in the winter chill: I dropped off my car for repairs. My exhaustion wasn’t just physical: I had passed a tough 3-hour viva exam on December 7th. Like many who go through this process, I was given some thesis corrections to do. I completed them during the Christmas break and sent them back to the examiner with a changelog. 

I knew it was possible that there would be more corrections to do: this is how it was with my first PhD.  That time, I completed the final round of editing as I sat with my laptop at a Starbucks near London’s Embankment Tube station. It was busy with the chatter of people ordering flat whites and hazelnut lattes; it was close to Christmas so the familiar variants of Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride played in the background.

However, my attention focused on the somewhat dim screen of my old Samsung machine. I hoped fervently that the end was in sight. At last, I remember an email to the administrator: the examiner stated he was happy for my doctorate to proceed. After this, I drank my coffee, and then made my way to where I was staying in town. There was a pool there: there were very few people around, so I felt free to strip down to my bathing trunks and float in the lukewarm water, staring at the ceiling for at least an hour.

This time, I wanted to avoid several rounds of corrections, so I tried to be thorough and systematic. Still, it was somewhat surprising when the message from the internal examiner arrived: it said “Congratulations”. He informed the doctoral college office. I went onto the “pass list” and the university library published my thesis online. I was officially awarded my second doctorate on January 24th.

A lot of people have congratulated me. I am happy about finishing.  My feelings, however, are generally subdued. My studies have been part of my life for so long it’s difficult to grasp that it is all over. Two days ago, I logged into the student self-service portal and found a message stating I had left the university.  I froze for a moment.  I stared at the screen. There was a link on the page which indicated what one could do if this record was erroneous.  However, it’s not an error.  I completed my studies.  I have left.  The university has kindly granted me another year of access to my academic email but soon enough, I won’t even have that. The university cancelled my Microsoft 365 subscription. My student ID has expired and I won’t get another. I finished.

I tried to stay; I found an MBA course and applied, only to discover that it wasn’t going to run again until 2025. Thus, no matter what, I am leaving. The campus, which I have seen in every season, when both the trees were bare and full of leaf, and when the sun shone and the rain fell, is no longer my happy place. I keep telling myself, “it’s over”. I look at my confirmation of award letter daily: I finished, I did it, it’s done. 

There will be one last hurrah; it will be a glorious day in July when I graduate. I will put on doctoral robes and receive my certificate, which I will scan and save. 

Also, my new qualification comes with privileges: I applied to become a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.  I recently received a letter approving my application. If I so desired, I could load my business card full of acronyms. I am merely glad that I am officially a “professional engineer”.

After my last PhD, I went to Paris and wandered around in the warm sunshine for a weekend, pausing only to visit a gallery featuring Monet’s works. I recall looking at his large canvases featuring lily pads sitting amidst cool pools of water, my breath catching as I looked at the detail of his brush strokes. This time, I hope to go to Vienna and listen to Mozart and Bruckner in the evening.  During the day, I hope wander its streets under blue skies.  I will drink coffee, maybe have a slice of Sachertorte and read a book by Stefan Zweig.

And then what? This question repeatedly buzzes around in my brain. An MBA program at another university accepted me; I could also do an MSc related to Energy and Climate Change. Presently, I am waiting to find out if I have been accepted to a program related to Artificial Intelligence and Ethics.  I will continue my quest for knowledge.

Will there be an end? I think about what I gained by doing my first PhD: my imagination and emotions ran free. I not only wrote my thesis, I wrote an additional novel and a great deal of correspondence. Furthermore, I added many posts to this blog. 

My second PhD compelled me to think in a more logical, structured, and scientific way.  I have become more organised, more precise, more technical. In a way, I feel stronger.  I recall going into my first viva: my shirt collar was open, it was afternoon, the sky was dark and I clutched a copy of the Quran and said “Bismillah” 21 times before going in.  I had a Tom Baker Doctor Who scarf which I wore for luck.  This second time, I ironed my shirt; in addition to my Doctor Who scarf, I wore a cardigan and bow tie (another Doctor Who reference, “Bow ties are cool”), I wore highly polished boots in the same style as the 11th Doctor. 

I was ready to have my brain bent about confidence intervals.  The examiners asked other, harder questions. At one point, an examiner asked if I wanted to take a break: I said “No”. After I finished, I thought I hadn’t succeeded. But, I made it through.  The examiners told me I “did a good job”. Afterwards, I drove home in the rain and the dark and promptly collapsed once I got through the front door.  

In the end all such efforts have a hard limit: I know a fair amount about two specific subjects.  I can’t take it with me. After I leave this life, my only references will live in obscure corners of the internet.  But at least I did what I could to be as knowledgeable as I could be, as intelligent as I could be, as thoughtful as I could be.  Perhaps, in the end, that is enough. 

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