What a rollercoaster!
This time last week I was in a hotel room in Bristol (booked in advance by my thoughtful partner) frantically going over my thesis and the notes I had prepared for my viva, which was scheduled for 10am the following morning. I had told only a few people that my viva was the next day because I was completely terrified about all the possible outcomes.
With a growing sense of resignation, I realised that I had done all I could do: the thing had been written and submitted, my external examiners had read it and submitted their reports in advance to my independent chair, I had prepared notes and practice answers to questions that I thought they might ask me, and I’d picked out an outfit to wear that I would feel both comfortable and smart in (very important). Soon it would be crunch time, and I had genuinely never been as scared of anything in my entire life. I had a bath in the giant hotel bathtub and tried not to throw up with nerves.
The PhD is a long, strange, protracted process. My friends and family outside of academia were wonderfully excited and congratulatory when I submitted my thesis in April, and then were confused when I told them that this wasn’t the end. ‘What? You’re not a Doctor yet?!’ Nope. I still had to pass a viva (a viva voce – an oral exam or defense of the thesis to examiners: in my case this involved two external examiners and an independent chair because I am a member of faculty staff at the university where my thesis has been submitted). Their frustrated feelings of delayed gratification mirrored my own. After nearly four and a half years of working on my thesis, and after giving up a decent career in editing to do so, I felt sick at the prospect that the next day would decide my academic fate. When would this whole thing be over? What would I do if I failed? Would I ever be able to call myself Dr Bex???
My partner (who already has a PhD) had many words of wisdom and comfort on the subject, as did many of my academic friends and mentors. I am grateful to them all. They reassured me that my PhD supervisors would not have allowed me to submit if they didn’t think my work was good enough. They also pointed out that, as I had already been offered and accepted a permanent job in my department, the pressure was off somewhat with the PhD – even if I did have corrections to make, the timing wouldn’t affect the onward trajectory of my career. They also pointed out that I’d presented my research at plenty of conferences and hadn’t been laughed out the door, so my research must be okay.
But for every compelling point they made as to why I shouldn’t be so scared about the viva, my terror-addled brain could find at least ten counter-arguments. I convinced myself that I could be great at talking a good talk, for instance in conference papers, and that my written research might actually rubbish (imposter syndrome – it’s a thing!). I was scared that since the last time I read it my thesis had somehow magically morphed into a steaming pile of excrement, or that I had accidentally included the wrong versions of chapters in my final printed document (even though I had already checked and double-checked that this was not the case). I felt certain that my examiners were reading it and wondering why on earth they had wasted their time travelling all the way to Bristol to discuss this nonsense, and were going to be very embarrassed for me when they had to fail me the next day. My brain, heart, and body ran the gamut of emotions in the run-up to my viva – from terror to anxiety to hope to shame. I barely slept a wink the night before.
I tell you this because this is NOT me. Usually I am a roll-up-my-sleeves and attack-the-problem sort of gal. I’m normally fairly fearless, optimistic, and willing to give most things my best shot. I am NOT usually neurotic or negative in this way. Partly, I think the fear came from knowing of people who have had terrible viva experiences for one reason or another, and who have sadly not emerged from the viva process with the result they had hoped for. But it was more than this. It really struck me that academia does very strange things to even the (generally) fearless of heart. I’d like to explore this a bit further in another blog post sometime, but for now suffice it to say that I was a bit of an inconsolable wreck before my viva. I couldn’t even face the thought of having a practise viva. My most repeated phrase, uttered at random moments in the few weeks before it took place: ‘I’m so scared.’
Anyway, as you can tell from the title of this post: I passed! HOORAY!
And what’s more: I actually really enjoyed the whole thing! My prep paid off: I had answers ready for many of the questions that were asked, plus an unexpectedly useful side effect of the many academic job interviews I’ve had over the past few months was that I felt quite comfortable answering questions off the cuff. My examiners and independent chair were kind, encouraging, knowledgeable – all the things that I really, really hoped they would be, and so much more! It felt like a useful, rewarding, affirming conversation with three highly-respected authorities in my field about the work I’d spent the last four years or so on. They had read my work, and they had enjoyed it! I honestly couldn’t think of anything more validating. I left the viva on a real high.
All being well I’ve got some corrections to make, and six months to make them in (but I can submit them anytime within those six months), then these must be accepted by my examiners before it’s all official and I can go around calling myself Dr Bex (again, the protracted nature of the PhD process!). But these corrections were things that we all agreed on, and I now appreciate that one fantastic thing about the viva process (when it works properly) is that it is constructive, and will make for the strongest possible thesis in the end.
It has also given me new confidence in my research – I wish I had believed more in myself beforehand! But on the plus side I now really feel like I’ve earned this feeling, and earned being here. It’s been a long, hard slog to get to this point. My thesis was self-funded, and I’ve worked in demanding academic jobs to earn money throughout my studies, and there were times I was so busy with work that I forgot what my thesis looked like. There were times when I wasn’t sure that I would ever finish it, let alone submit, have a viva, and pass. During my PhD studies I’ve gone through serious heartache, the death of a parent, buying a house… and through all of these things my thesis has been a strangely consistent companion – albeit one that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be finished with! It’s fair to say that I’m more than a little bit proud of myself for reaching this point.
Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has been on this journey with me. Thanks to my supervisors (the dream team!), my gracious and kind examiners, my lovely independent chair. Thanks to my friends and family. And thanks to my partner, Richard, for the carrot and the stick.
The journey continues. Watch this space for Dr Bex!