My thesis shoes

Regular readers will know that my PhD Dreams have been an important part of my life for a few years now. And excitedly, my PhD Dreams will come true this week when I walk across the stage at Usher Hall to accept my degree from Edinburgh Napier University. Of course, an important walk like that deserves a very special pair of shoes. In fact, an important walk like that deserves a pair of one-of-a-kind thesis shoes!

And that is just what I will be wearing: A pair of thesis shoes made by my own hand! (Well, decorated by my hand; the shoes were made by Marks and Spencer*.)

It was important to me that the shoes looked good, but also that they told a story. And that means that there was a great deal of thinking that took place before I began the project. After I had a general idea, I began cutting drafts of the thesis and separating the bits into different piles, depending on where they would be placed on the shoes.

What is the meaning behind the design?

A good thesis is supported, in part, by good supervisors. It is their feedback, suggestions, and encouragement that helps to ensure the thesis holds up to scrutiny. And so, it made sense to add their feedback, suggestions, and encouragement to the heels of my thesis shoes. These heels, like my supervisors, are quite strong and stable (sorry for that!) and help to hold me up whilst walking. They are also very comfortable walking in over a distance as they’re not too high or wobbly. (You can draw further, positive analogies from that, too.)

The foundational layer on the main shoes is covered with drafts from the main body or foundational chapters of my thesis (the literature review, methods, and findings chapters). This layer provided the initial coverage on the shoes to ensure that all of the leather was adequately covered. Much like the thesis, without this foundation, the shoes might not have been completely covered and the shoes would have looked a bit haphazard. I chose to lay the foundation with the text running vertical so that the top layer would be more obvious. The different direction of the text makes the final layer clearer and more obvious.

The top layer of the shoes comprises keywords and themes from the thesis. Many of these bits of text come from the chapter and section headers of the documents. These are the “catchy” bits of text that summarise or highlight the main points of the thesis and, combined, act as keywords that capture the essence of the research. It is these words and phrases that I would use to explain my thesis in simple terms – hopefully in a way that would make someone want to know more!

Once the outside of the shoes was completed, I included a bit of tartan ribbon on the inside of the shoes to secure the inner edges and to give them a finished, polished look. The ribbon was used to wrap guest towels that my landlord had purchased for the cottage a couple of years prior. As I had considered finding a pair of red tartan heels for graduation, this Scottish-centric addition made me that much happier.

The transformation was even more meaningful because I had purchased the shoes for my first PhD presentation and I wore them throughout my studies – including to my viva – before they “broke”.

Learn more about my PhD and academic life at

Why thesis shoes?

The inspiration came after a long process that started with deciding what to wear with my graduation robe; I wanted to wear a simple, classic black dress, paired with some fun shoes, maybe something bright red or with a funky pattern. My initial search for such shoes suggested that I would be hard-pressed to find something that met all my criteria (price, comfort, heel-height).

Soon, I began to realise that finding the right dress might be a challenge, too. In a moment of frustration, whilst editing a hard-copy draft of some of my thesis, I thought to myself (jokingly) that I could just make a dress out of my thesis. That then reminded me of a tweet that I saw about a woman whose mum had her thesis printed onto a scarf which made me wonder about having fabric printed to make a thesis dress. But that would be silly, and probably very expensive!

At some point, I was thinking about all these things whilst standing in front of my dresser where there is a framed photo of me and my late husband. The photo is displayed in a frame that I made for Paul in the first year of our relationship. The frame was decorated with loads of little photos of our adventures together, all decoupaged together. I started to think about those broken shoes in my wardrobe, and the idea of thesis shoes was born!

Of course, I cannot take all of the credit for this idea. Others have done similar projects before me, and I am sure that many of them did a better job at it than me. The (possibly) unique aspect of my shoes is simply that I used drafts from my PhD thesis as the medium.

I am not going to get into the steps that I took to complete this project because there are so many great tutorials out there already. A simple web search for “decoupage shoes” should provide everything you ever wanted to know about decoupaging shoes – including the inspiration for themes or materials that you can use to re-image a pair of your own shoes!

After wearing my thesis shoes for graduation, I plan to use them as my “presentation shoes”. I will wear them anytime I am presenting my research as well as at job interviews and other events where my PhD status is relevant. I don’t know how long they will last, but I will enjoy them as long as I can.

I realise it’s a bit of a geeky thing, but I am a geeky person. And now that my shoes are done, I am ready to take those final steps towards my PhD Dreams. Stay tuned for graduation photos later this week!

* And even then, they’ll have underpaid someone in a foreign land to make them in conditions that would be illegal in the UK. This is part of the reason that I avoid fast fashion whenever I can, generally by re-vamping charity shop clothes and making everything I own last as long as possible.

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