It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on here and I thought it was time for an update.

Well, the big news is that my Ph.D thesis has been declared ‘defensible’ (Dutch: verdedigbaar) by the five-member committee. This means that my doctorate is effectively over. My thesis has been approved. A public defence will follow, but that’s more of a ritual or ceremony than a viva voce. Barring an extremely embarrassing showing in the defence — a performance so poor that my authorship of the thesis is in doubt, say — I have all but finished my Ph.D. The next step is to arrange a date for the defence, which will take place at least partly online. There is no graduation.

I officially started my doctorate on June 1st 2018 and submitted my thesis on the 22nd of September 2020. I began writing a draft introduction in April 2018, so that’s not quite as fast as it seems, but I’m willing to accept that this is pretty bloody quick.

Live footage of the writing of my thesis.

I was told it would take six weeks or so after submission to hear the result, and was thus expecting to find out in late November/early December, but there was an unexpected three-month delay — the committee wasn’t approved until the 21st of December, for reasons mysterious — and so I only heard last Thursday (4th March 2021) and received the readers’ reports on Friday. This means that I was waiting to hear back about my thesis for more than five months while in lockdown in a small open-plan flat during the coldest months of the year (including the biggest, nastiest snowstorm in the Netherlands in a couple of decades), far away from family and close friends (none of whom I’ve seen in well over a year at this point), and with reduced income from my English-teaching job due to covid. This was extremely unpleasant and very bad for my brain. It could have been worse, though, I suppose.

What doing a doctorate is like. (I took this picture in the unbelievably good Museum Schnütgen [inv. no. A 213] in Cologne last year — it’s a limewood depiction of St Vitus. Swabia, 15th century.)

Anyway, it’s taken about two years and nine months to get to this point. I didn’t have any funding so speed was of the essence. I wish I’d been able to slow down, read more, get to know people at the university and more widely in the discipline — all of the typical grad school stuff. But I came to the Netherlands to get a doctorate. That was why I moved. I moved to Leiden from Oxford in 2016, shortly after the Brexit vote and right after my wedding, and did an MA, hoping that if I did well enough I’d get funding for a Ph.D. I did extremely well but it didn’t count for much. I’m not one to give up (and visa issues meant we couldn’t go back to the UK or anything like that) so I ploughed on regardless with an unfunded doctorate.

I don’t think that was wise, in hindsight: These have been the worst years of my life, bar none, and without my wife by my side I’d have given up and run to the hills a long time ago. I regret having done the doctorate and wouldn’t do it again. But at least the end’s in sight now.

You’re wondering: Is the thesis any good? Well, there were a couple of quite critical comments — and I’d like to look at some of them on this blog because I disagree strongly with some of their foundations — but even the most negative reports called it ‘impressive’, ‘meticulous’, ‘excellent’, etc. A couple said it was the best thesis they’d reviewed, and that the standard of the research was far beyond that of a typical doctoral thesis — partly because of the unpublished sources I used in my commentary, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog. The centrepiece of the thesis was an edition and translation of an Old Sundanese text, and one reviewer had a couple of helpful but nonetheless critical comments on the translation. (This was my favourite report.) The decision to pass it was unanimous.

I would not have been able to write this thesis without the assistance of folks on Twitter and readers of this blog. It would not have been possible. Support came in a range of forms and all of it was utterly indispensable. I tried to mention as many of you as I could in the acknowledgements, but I’d deactivated my Twitter account by the time I finished writing up so I had to rely on memory to put the list together. I’ll be sure to add some names when I get around to incorporating comments into the final version of the text. If you’ve sent me a supportive email and I can still find it, then I promise I’ll get around to replying to you some time before doomsday.

I can be proud that I have produced an entertaining and informative thesis — a book, really, that’s what it is. I feel exhausted, though, to tell you the truth. (I realise I’m far from alone in this.) We’re still in lockdown and there’s bad medical news across the North Sea. With the exception of a few tweets and emails, this is the first thing I’ve written in two months. I’ve barely been able to read anything either, not for want of time but because my mind doesn’t seem to want to focus on anything. The idea of applying for anything makes me feel ill. So I’m just waiting for things to open up, for the weather to improve, for surgeries to go well, and for all of this to be done and dusted so I can go off and do something else. I don’t know what yet — not exactly, anyway — but I’d like to write and live in a beautiful place and not be bothered much. That’s the dream.

Thanks for reading the blog over the past three years or so. It really has meant a lot. I don’t think I’m done updating it, and like I said I’d like to go through some (anonymised) comments from the readers’ reports on here. Some of them would make good teaching moments. So I hope I’ll find the time and energy soon.

Alex West — Leiden, 2021.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.

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