Friday 6 April 2012

Becoming Dr Jordan: The PhD viva

It is just over six months since my PhD viva. Inspired by Dr Jackie Kirkham's account, I thought I would reflect on what is possibly one of the most surreal (and nerve-wracking) experiences I've ever had.

The PhD was a long slog. Years of work, months of uncertainty, self-doubt and perhaps a little procrastination thrown in for good measure. When I think back, the actual content and work associated with the PhD wasn't really the difficult part. I was fortunate to be studying a) something I was interested in b) something I knew a lot about. Why then was it so stressful? I think of the PhD process as more of an endurance test rather than anything else. For too long I worried about trying to sound "clever", I seemed to just be writing my own little story. Essentially that's what it was though, a story of my own research. It took me literally years to realise this.

At school and university I did well, not because I am particularly clever but because I worked hard and applied myself. I had an absolute blast as an undergraduate and although I wasn't overly academic, I knew that if I worked hard, revised for exams and handed in coursework then I'd be ok. And I was. However the PhD was a different game altogether. I can honestly say that throughout the whole process I never quite felt "clever enough" and constantly thought that my work was not up to scratch. I kept thinking that somehow I would get "found out", that they (the university) would realise that I wasn't fit for the task at hand. I suppose deep down I had faith in my department, they wouldn't have let me do a PhD if they didn't think I could. I would be very wealthy if I had a pound for each time I told myself that!

Fast forward to June 2011, the day finally arrived, a day that at times, I never thought I would get to: submission of the thesis! I was so completely and utterly sick of my PhD by the end of it that in those final few weeks I really had to force myself to keep focussed. However in the final days before submission, something really strange happened, I began to feel weirdly protective of my thesis and anxious about letting it go. I had worked on it for years, it was always on my mind (whether I liked it or not, hence my likening it to an endurance test!) Now here I was submitting it for judgement and was then left wondering what the hell I was going to do with my time!

After I submitted, I slept for 10-12 hours a night for two solid weeks, I didn't realise quite how emotionally drained I was.  I kept a bound copy for myself to revise with over the summer and a fortnight after I submitted, I decided to start reading it. When I spotted a typo on the second page I immediately slammed the thesis shut and vowed not to look at it until the end of August (viva was scheduled for September). In the weeks before the viva I started dreaming about it, I can honestly say that it was a horrible time, far worse than exam dread or that feeling of panic you get when an important deadline is looming. When it came to reading my thesis again, it was a slog, I was still sick of it. I also despaired at the grammatical errors, the typos and the silly mistakes. Every now and then though I would stumble across something and think "this is actually ok!". I also tried to keep in my mind that my supervisors would never have let me submit something that was going to fail for it would have reflected badly on them too.

In terms of preparation, I kept reading over the chapters and justifying in my head why I had written this or that. My supervisors gave me a mock viva which really helped focus my attention on the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis. My friend Eleanor gave me a very challenging run through as well. My mum came to stay with me for a few days before the viva and she tested me rigourously and made sure that I knew my thesis inside out. When it came to the final night I didn't feel that I could prepare any more so we went to the cinema and watched a trashy horror film (Colin Farrell's remake of Fright Night!) It was definitely the right thing to do and cleared my mind. That is until I tried to sleep. Could I sleep? Don't be silly. I hadn't realised how long nights can be when you're just lying there, attempting to doze, watching a bit of TV and reading before attempting to doze again.

The day of reckoning was finally here: 8th September 2011. I had an afternoon viva and whilst I was thankful for the time to do some last minute reading and prep, I was really just wanting to know my fate. I think the weirdest feeling was knowing how much time and effort I had invested into my thesis and then knowing that the outcome would be decided by two examiners in such a short space of time. Obviously they had read the dissertation beforehand but I also knew that a lot of the outcome also depended on my performance in the viva. On the way to the room I had gone from feeling physically sick to feeling strangely calm. It was a very odd sensation.

A lot of the viva was actually a bit of a blur looking back, it lasted 90 mins and seemed to finish in about 10. I do remember the external examiner, whilst he was friendly and tried to put me at my ease, started off with a robust line of questioning which left me thinking to myself "I thought they were meant to start by asking something relatively easy!" There was one point, about a third of the way through that I thought things weren't going too well at all and that I was waffling. Nods from the convener and internal examiner helped immensely though, they reassured me when I thought I was falling down. Having my main supervisor in the room (although I couldn't see him) really helped to keep me calm too. It was a challenging experience, as it should be, but one which was fair and actually helped me to see my thesis in a whole new light. My examiners essentially helped to strengthen my work and make connections between issues that I hadn't made or hadn't been explicit or detailed enough.

I was sent out of the room, had a glass of water in my supervisor's office before being called back down (I didn't get chocolate like Jackie did!) The examiners then said that they were awarding me the PhD subject to minor changes. I could not believe my ears. Then when they asked if I would be able to make the changes within a month I nearly jumped for joy. I genuinely thought it would be a three month job at best. Essentially I needed to add more detail to two chapters and sort out the typos. I could not believe it! The examiners also encouraged me to publish my work which I took great heart from. Others I have spoken to have said that they enjoyed their viva. I wouldn't go as far as that but it's probably the only time that someone will properly read the thesis from start to finish. A bit depressing but ultimately true.

Those who know me will know that I'm emotional (some would say that I cry at the drop of a hat) however when I went to my supervisor's office, he shook my hand and looked so chuffed, I really had to fight back the tears. I was so elated, not just for myself but also for everyone who had supported me throughout my time at university. I then made a few calls, updated my Facebook status (important things first!) and then went for champers with the department. For me though it wasn't just the end of my PhD, it was the end of my time at university. I studied in Glasgow for 10 years and became very attached to my department, I did my MA there, my MRes and then my PhD. It felt like the end of an era. In effect, it really was.

The following week I went for an interview for a job at Cardiff University, still trying to absorb the viva result, and ended up getting the job. I could not believe it. To say that I feel lucky would be an understatement. After all this time I still feel a bit like a fraud though, like somehow "they" (whoever "they" might be) are going to say that there has been a mistake. This imposter syndrome is slowly going away but hasn't completely left me. Maybe it never does? Aside from the research, I learned so much about myself doing the PhD and it's definitely something I would recommend to others. Now. If you asked me that a year ago I would have perhaps said something just a little bit different!

Oh and by the way - I can now bear to look at my thesis again! Hurrah!


  1. Thanks for the link, I related to a lot of that!

    I don't think the whole imposter syndrome thing ever really goes away, I manage it by reminding myself that everyone else probably feels the same way too. They're just better at hiding it. They will find me out though.

  2. As someone about to do start a PhD I appreciate knowing that that feeling of being a fraud, which i have on my MA, will be continuing and that everyone feels the same. :)