Pulling a Connor and Flying Away

I never blogged about finishing the PhD. I finished it. Three times. Once on Sunday night, when I finished. Once on Wednesday, when I had redrafted everything and checked my page numbers and written the table of contents. And once on Thursday night, in the middle of the night, after an excruciating day.

It’s not often that I’d describe my mood as “stabby”, but I was stabby on Thursday. I wanted to cut someone. I had gone to bed on Wednesday night, with a glorious feeling of finishedness. My PhD was written. After four years of actual pain. On Thursday morning, I got an email from my supervisor with feedback on the conclusion of my PhD, which it was fairly clear he hated. I didn’t know whether to panic or cry or whether to just give up. And my mother decided the family was going for lunch in town. Aaaargh! This was the last thing I needed. But it was my last day at home before I went to Italy, so we went for lunch. After that, I packed for Italy and then my sister drove me to Dublin. Once in Dublin, I still couldn’t start working, as I had to scan and email my contract for Vietnam, and then I was meeting two of my best friends who I hadn’t seen since before I went to Slovenia, and then staying with another. It was 11:30 pm when I actually started my final revisions. The stabby feeling subsided as I got the revisions on the conclusion done. At about 2:00 am, I was finished. Finished finished. Finished the PhD.

I couldn’t sleep. On Friday, I got up early, bleary-eyed and feeling grey. I went into town and printed the PhD. At lunchtime, I was ready to submit.

There can be few more underwhelming experiences than submitting a PhD. This is a document that has enslaved you for four years. This is killing a gladiator who has been trying to kill you for 48 months. It should be like winning the X Factor. There should be a wall of fire, Dermot O’Leary should hug me, I should have the next Christmas Number One. Instead, you take a number at the Academic Registry and wait to be called. A bored man gives you a form and takes your thesis. No conga line. No trumpeters. Not even a tambourine.

I spent the rest of the day pretending to be happy through a wall of exhaustion and anti-climax. There were moments throughout the day when I realised what a milestone this was. In the first three years of my PhD, I wrote only three chapters. The other five were all written since January. This was a real achievement, one that I thought might never happen. At times I rejoiced. But most of the day was tired. Four years of tired.

I handed in on the 19th September. 11 days before the deadline. Because I’d spent four years on it, many people thought I’d taken too long. However, my “early” submission, which surprised a number of people in the School of Education, including my supervisor, caused ripples. One of the administrative staff apparently refers to what I did as “pulling a Connor”. Finally, something has been named after me. I will forever live on as the person who submitted his PhD eleven days before his supervisor expected him to. I pulled a Connor. And left the country.

*****

On Saturday, I got up to go to Italy. I’m working in a small town in the north of Italy. My fellow tutor on the course is an old friend of mine, who I love, but I knew very little else about the people who I’d be meeting or the place I’d be going. Still, this was my escape from the PhD, my first month of freedom, and the prelude to my new life in Vietnam.

In the taxi on the way to the airport, I was able to be honest about my job. I hate telling taxi drivers I’m a student. This is the conversation I’ve been having with taxi drivers for the last four years:

Driver: What do you study?

Connor: Education

Driver (laughing, or sneering, or puzzled): Yeah, but what are you studying? What’s the name of your course?

Connor: I’m doing a PhD in Education

Driver (more puzzled, sometimes annoyed): Shur everyone studies education. What’s the department you’re in? What’s your subject?

Connor: Education. Educational studies. The School of Education.

Driver (rolls eyes, stops talking to me, presumes I’m making it up)

I never have to have that conversation again.

On the plane, I was sitting beside a Russian couple. I have no idea why a middle-aged pair of Russians would be flying from Dublin to Bergamo, but I didn’t question it, as they were highly entertaining to sit beside. One thing that ties the Slavic peoples¬†together is the attitude of the middle-aged women of the Slavic world to hair dye. “I’m fifty. Time to dye my bright red. Or copper. Or blue.” This particular woman’s hair was an alarmingly pleasing shade of bright gold. What was particularly amusing about the couple was that they had come prepared for the flight. They had a lunch bag, full of fruit and little bags of nuts, sandwiches and crackers and biscuits and chocolate. They also had a blanket each, for their knees. And a neck pillow each. For a two-hour daytime flight. They also had a book of sudokus, a book of wordsearches, a novel each, a little pile of magazines. They were not going to be bored. When they sat on the plane, they changed into slippers. They had plane shoes! They knew how to travel.

About an hour into the flight, as I was half awake, half asleep, an announcement came over the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to use the oxygen masks”. I woke up fully, and experienced a unique sadness. This was it? This was how it would end? This was what my life would be about? I was about to crash to my death somewhere over France on my way to start my new life. Sad. I didn’t feel angry or panicky, just sad. Poor Connor. Dead at 33.

The flight attendant continued her announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to use the oxygen masks for a passenger who is feeling ill. Please do not light any matches or lighters in the cabin. Thank you.” Oh. OK. This wasn’t the end. This was just a poorly phrased announcement.

We landed and I went to find my friend.

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