Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Viva

On the viva form (the one you fill in when you're 6 months or so away from submitting the PhD thesis), there are various boxes to tick. One of them says, for example, ‘do you object to your supervisor being present at the viva?’ Tick yes or no. There are boxes to tick to attest to the fact that your PhD is your own work, and that it is of the right length, and so on. But there should also be a box that says ‘Do you really want to have a viva?’ Tick yes or no. I would personally have ticked ‘NO’. Alas, there was no such option.

I don’t want a viva. I don’t want to have to talk to academics (grown-ups) about my project. For one thing, I have spent the last two months busily forgetting everything relevant, from what the interest and aims of my study actually might be, to the very academic language that one would use to talk about these things. There are all these words, you know, special subject-specific words that one must use, like ‘methodology’, ‘theoretical approach’, ‘blah blah blah’ (I don’t think we need a third; plus I can’t remember any more). I was never particularly good with those words and now I definitely can’t use them anymore; I could use a grown-up, a coach, so to speak, one who is well-versed in such things, to come and have a chat with me and tell me some words that I can use to answer viva-related questions.

I don’t want my viva. But there you go.

For those of you who are also facing this thing, here are some hints and tips for surviving the viva – courtesy of an erudite and friendly grown-up at my Graduate School. (please forgive the scraggliness of these notes.)


- you can prepare for it - read your dissertation; be familiar with your argument, its shape, how each chapter serves shape of the argument, how each section of chapter serves each chapter which serves argument. the discussion will be about that: structure, conceptual shape of the argument, in its detail.

- other people's books - you don't need to know more than what you knew when writing the dissertation. you might need to know a bit about the approach of the thinkers you used. you might give an indication of why it was appropriate to go there. why you went for certain writers, why it helped you, why it was important to you. remember why you went there, what it allowed you to do.


'Having done the thesis, where do you think you are with it?' what do you think you have achieved with it? what do you think your arguments are? (why you wrote it, what it offers.)

'How do you think you are going to develop it?' - but this is a viva on what you HAVE done; you can't be penalised for any thoughts on what you might do next.

'What are the strengths and weaknesses?' - you have the absolute right to concentrate on the strengths - yours and supervisor's. you have every right to be confident.

you can say 'i can see now that a certain aspect of (X history, etc), and I'd add that in.'

Take questions with a pinch of salt, but they don't like it if you INGORE the question. if a question half interests you, half-answer it and move on.

don't be too close to the material; if they ask a general question, don't get too embroiled in the detail. don't give the impression that 'I'm the only person who knows about (these texts), and I'll tell you the plot of…'. interaction, overall argument - key.

they have read your thesis; but you needn't assume they understood it. Think of examiners as very well disposed, knowledgeable, civilised and cultured. they've read your thesis and the books you have read, but they probably don't fully understand it. they've understood a lot of things - but you can guide them through the key stages in your argument in response to questions.

by and large, examiners have already got a view of your thesis when they come in. so you can't do yourself any harm - you can only do yourself good. the thesis matters more than the viva. if they have problems with the thesis, the viva won't make that go away - they'll ask you to do stuff later.

TAKE COPY OF THESIS IN WITH YOU. have exactly the same object with you that they've got - bound, as well. easier.

bring any notes that you want.

(lists of page no.s , things you want to talk about - but you can also say 'i discuss that point in chapter 5, not so much in chapter 4.)

worst nightmares:

'not knowing the answer' - it's somewhere in your dissertation.

'i don't understand the question'; - 'i don't know what that means/ i haven't thought of that'. NOT irredeemable. if someone asks a question you don't understand, ask them to ask it again. 'I don't understand the question cos i never thought about that' - come out and say this. 'the deconstructive thinking of Paul de Man does NOT figure in my thinking of the thesis.' then go on to other writers that you do use.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cloud Nine has got a job.

Yes. Yes I do.

Not a real job, mind. Not a ‘I think this might be it; I think I’ve found my reason for being in this world’ sort of job. More like a part-time job, one which helps pay the bills and which I am happy to do temporarily but which occasionally makes me think ‘if I don’t want to I don’t really HAVE to come back here ever again, right?...’. A job that is the exact opposite of the PhD – which, as you might know, often involved sitting alone with a cup of tea, clad in a dressing gown, reading a book quietly, not having to talk to anyone, and lost in my own thoughts. Reverse this situation exactly (go on: have fun, take a guess) and you might begin to figure out what sort of work I am now doing.

Having a job is great, because it means you get to be a grown-up. Doing a PhD did not make me feel like I was a grown-up (well, mostly just that last, unpaid year didn’t feel like that. You could maybe compare it to doing an unpaid internship, only it would have been a very useless one, with no company and no boss and mostly just no… point.) Getting up in the morning and putting on a smart jacket, then walking out into the car and driving off into the early morning world of working people and cappuccinos, makes me feel like a grown-up. And it’s great to get paid some money at the end of it.

But having a job, and becoming a grown-up, comes with its own drawbacks. (You know. You all know. You’ve all been there…) The FORMS you have to fill in. The sheer number of forms you get sent, just so you can get work/ get paid, can be ridiculous. The number of missed calls on my phone, as people start to chase me for unsigned contracts/ yet another piece of ID they need to see/ the telephone number of one of my references. And then, of course, there is the work itself: tiring, sometimes exhausting work. I now am no longer surprised that proper grown-ups (unlike procrastinating PhD students) sometimes don’t feel like cleaning under the oven, or doing the washing-up when they come home from a day at work (personally speaking, the sink has never been so full of dishes). I no longer wonder why people don't want to spend their free time scrubbing the shower, or cleaning the floor. (when I was doing my PhD, never had a dirty floor or a pile of ironing looked more attractive. Well, we can safely say that those days are over...)

I remember reading somewhere, or perhaps a Guru once said to me - …'It’s a trade-off; but ultimately it’s a beneficial one, because whoever makes the trade-off gets to be a grown up.'

Thursday, 24 October 2013


...what can i do with my life?

I have had a think about things, and it seems that my skills and interests include:

writing stories.
making (very short) films.
teaching people how to do things (but only things i like, eg. how to draw a picture, how to clean the floor, how to make a pair of earrings out of plastic beads; or teaching very small kids how to draw elephants and cats; nothing like 'how to teach the passé composé', or 'how to pass your exams'; none of that. God preserve me from anything involving shouting/ crowd control).
drawing and painting.
cleaning floors (although my future career as a cleaner is now in some danger because of hurt wrist).
googling pictures of celebs and admiring (and emulating) their outfits.
talking to people and cheering them up.
singing (although current persistent cough prohibitive to this career option in the short term).
telling people what THEY should be doing with their lives (for example giving expert advice on relationships; writing blogs about 'How to do a PhD', etc…)
… oh yes; and I can cook.


(hmmm, i sense an idea forming. maybe I should: draw pictures of attractive celebs, and sell them on eBay; volunteer with Samaritans, or similar, in my spare time; … anything else?… I don't know…)

Suggestions on a postcard.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

When you finish a PhD....

Finishing a PhD is great, because you don’t have to DO IT anymore. On the other hand, there are reasons why it’s not so great. If you don’t have a job lined up to go into, and you’re not too sure as to what sort of job you actually want, finishing a PhD is a bit like being dropped off on a strange shore by a big ship, and then watching in horror as the big ship turns around and disappears, leaving you standing there alone (I paraphrase Barbara Sher. Read her book, ‘I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was’, if you’re feeling a bit like the big ship just took you all that way out to sea and then just turned right round and left you stranded).

‘The loss of a familiar way of life is one of the most difficult losses a person can experience’, writes Sher. For me, this rings very true. For three years of my life, I am a paid PhD student. I know my job: my job is to go to the library, read the relevant books, make notes in pencil on a bit of paper, and think; my job is to sit down at my laptop and write down some of the things I’ve learned, and think some more; my job is to discuss these things with my supervisor and set about turning these things into an idea, a first draft, a research question. I know where the cheap coffee machine is; I have a favourite locker in the library basement; I know how to get the books I want; the librarians and security guards smile at me; I know what I’m doing, I’m a professional; in a way, I’m in my element. And all the while, in the back of my mind, I know how the next electricity bill is going to be paid, and I know I can afford the rent – this month, and the next month, and the next, for three years.

There were good times to the PhD, especially prior to the creation of this blog. (I think I single-handedly ruined the good times by being too hard on myself; by letting myself ‘feel bad’ that I don’t earn much money, that I’m not good enough at my job; blab la bla; that this, or that. I ruined the good times when I let the voices of all the critical people I have ever known get under my skin and inside my head.) And even when times were not so good, there were, of course, good moments; that moment when you go into a library and you can smell the familiar scent of old books; the beauty of words, put together on a page; the coffee break in a quiet corner of your favourite coffee shop; the joy of getting something right; there were lots of odd moments of almost-happiness, in the big picture of stress and misery and beating-myself-up. There were good reasons why I did a PhD, and I didn’t quite manage to talk myself out of, or entirely annihilate, all of them. And perhaps the best bit, as with any job, was the sense that you have work to do and you know who you are. You get to say ‘I’m doing a PhD’ when people ask you at parties what you do for work. They might ask you what it’s about. You tell them. They sound very interested indeed. You are a person with an identity and a role in society. They’re all thinking, you’ve done very well for yourself.

I finished my PhD and I took two weeks off (partly to celebrate, partly to have time to clean my flat, and partly because I was ill, and every time I went out to celebrate I’d feel worse; then as soon as I felt better, there would be another occasion to celebrate and I would get ill again; on and on it went, in a vicious circle.)

Then I woke up one morning at the end of the two weeks and sat down to look for jobs (properly. I had sort of made looking-for-jobs movements in the two weeks of holiday, but nothing ‘real’). By four p.m. that day, I was feeling pretty depressed. (what is it about jobhunting that makes you feel like this?... I think I know what I did wrong: I got a bit click-happy and I clicked on far too many things, despite my goals for the day being 1) get info on suitable temp agency and 2) prepare CV to send to temp agency. Somehow, I ended up with loads of open tabs, spanning a ridiculous range of professions, including those I wanted/ hankered after only secretly/ had dreamt of when I was 16/ didn’t actually dare to do but was still looking at anyway/ didn’t want but felt I should apply for/ were recommended to me by a psychometric test I’d done, on the ‘Prospects’ careers website (some interesting recommendations, but I don’t think I want to retrain yet again, after all those PhD years, to start a career as an educational psychologist. They’re right, though, it does sound kind of up my street.)

So I’m not a PhD student anymore, I have decided that research is not my thing, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. There is a teaching post, somewhere in the universe, that a friend has mentioned to me, urging me to apply. Dear Irma Kurtz:* if I am terrible at research but an enthusiastic teacher (and I am, I am a pretty good teacher, and my students have even made a point of telling me so), should I bother applying for an academic job in my field, given that – let’s face it – the research is what they really care about, and it’s what they are going to ask about in the interview, and I am going to have to dig out that PhD and show it to people (noooooo…) and muster up a degree of enthusiasm about it. I really don’t want to. Dear Irma Kurtz, is there a future for me in academia, or should I just pack up the books and go off to live a simpler, happier life in some other walk of life?... The thought that there is a job out there that I should want, that I should try for, that I did my PhD for, but that I am not sure I want anymore, or would even be good at doing, is depressing me.

The other thing about jobhunting is that you realise, soon enough, that outside of the academe you are trained for nothing. You have no office experience. You do not have three years’ experience in stage management and you have not previously worked in post-production, and therefore the jobs that sound appealing are closed to you, and the ones you don’t particularly want but feel you could do (receptionist, office temp) will probably go to someone who has done them before.

And to top it all off, a voice in your head is going ‘gap on CV… gap on CV… big gap on CV…’ Because the way you’ve always done it before is to have something lined up immediately after the earlier thing ended. If a Masters course is ending on the 30th September, then I bloody well have some little lecturing job or other lined up for the first of October. I do not do the ‘gaps on CV’ thing, because the prospect is just too terrifying. Well, this time I have done it. I have a two-week (and a day)-long gap on my CV. I did this deliberately, because for once in my life I would like to sit down, think about what I like, and then look at what’s available, instead of just going for some ‘safe’ job straight away which then stops me from going after something I want. It’s kind of cool, this new way of doing it, but absolutely terrifying. Come back, big ship! Come back!...

I miss wandering around, being me, but having the security, in my head, of knowing: this is what I do, this is how much I will get paid every month, and this is the work I have to put in to be able to achieve this. I now wander round with no idea of where I will end up working next; ideas of what I’d like to do, yes, but no idea of how to get there, and how to make it a reality.

Then again, what am I saying?... Would I actually want to go back to where I was, and have a PhD to do?... No way. It was awful. I would not want to go back, and I would not do it all again. But I do miss having a steady job and something to do. I miss those three years of being paid to do a PhD, and especially the early years, before I talked myself out of liking it. I shall always remember them fondly.

I can tell you how it ends, this jobhunting malarkey: it always ends in the same way, with getting a job. Until then, I’ll try to have some good times on this shore. The day-and-a-half spent freaking out over the gap-on-CV was necessary, I think; feelings are real and they have to be processed somehow. Now: breathe, and start again.

* Irma Kurtz: agony aunt for Cosmo. She is wonderfully bossy and gives no-nonsense advice, and one day I WILL write to her.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


Four years. My thesis took four years to write. Four years of my life.

I’d like to say that this was a waste of time, that this is four years of my life I’ll never get back, that I could be way ahead in my ‘career’, that I’m now four years behind my peers. I’m not going to be an academic, and I am not looking to use this professional qualification, so, by that calculation, this four years of my life has been wasted.

But I can’t quite say it, because this four years of my life still exists; it has been recorded in my thesis. Flipping through it in the last days of writing up, periods of my PhD life jumped out at me from the pages. Somewhere in Chapter 2, there are remnants of that piece I wrote in my first year, when I was still hopeful, when I wasn’t scared, when I had confidence in my learning, and when the only blogs I would have been interested in writing would have involved reviews of the best cake-eateries in London, or some not-very-philosophical musings on the essence of my happiness. I come across certain parts of the thesis and I remember vividly how it felt, to be walking the London streets, sun coming out after the rain, looking in the shop windows, wandering around in a happy daze, feeling bloody marvellous. I was living the dream; I had somewhere to go and something to live for, but in between my home and the library I had the mental space to roam, to look around me and take things in; I had a beautiful city to explore, and I lived it and owned it and every inch of it was mine to enjoy. And I loved it.

Somewhere in Chapter 5, there are remnants of a conference paper I wrote in my third year, one that I was particularly proud of, because it contained so much cool, clever shit. People listened to that conference paper and came up to me afterwards and told me how interesting it was. ‘That woman went off with your handout. I’m sure she’s going to use all your quotes in her research’, a friend told me. This was cool, too.

And scattered throughout the thesis, there are memories of the bad times. The November of this last academic year, for example, when I sat on the sofa, with laptop and papers and books scattered around me, lights on, working, working, plugging away at Chapter 4. Occasionally, I’d look up at the beautiful view outside the big window (I did have a rather beautiful view this year). Occasionally, I’d find it so pretty that I’d stop for a minute and take a picture with my phone. I might put it up on Facebook, or email it to a friend. I came across one of those pictures on Facebook earlier this summer and it made my blood run cold: that wintry view from the window reminded me of how depressed I was at that time. Never again, I told myself. Or December of the year before that, hopelessly stuck and crying. I never want to feel like that again, ever.

So I reread a tiny bit of the thesis and I am transported back to where I was, and what I was doing, when I wrote it, and how I felt, and what was going on in my life at the time, and what the weather was like. Not so soulless after all, then, these sentences which ostensibly say nothing and reveal nothing at all about me, but which contain four years of my life, the good bits as well as the bad. The next time I look at the boring, impenetrable thesis of someone I don’t know (which won’t be any time soon, as I’m probably looking at a lifetime of part-time receptionist jobs from now on) I will wonder what bits of their life and their emotional self that person poured into those words.

The best bit of the thesis are definitely the acknowledgments. In a gratuitous, silly sort of way, I couldn’t help rereading them several times (after polishing them happily in odd moments, in the evenings, or on trains.) The acknowledgments are the bit of the PhD which sums up all the reasons it was worth it: the people who were there, who cheered you along, and who will be very happy to see their name in these pages. They might try to read on for a bit; they probably won’t get past the Introduction, but this is OK. They will get bored, because they don’t know what they’re reading for. You signposted the thesis for your examiners, not for your friends. There isn’t a footnote on page 20 that says ‘I wrote this the day you and I went to that amazing comedy club in Primrose Hill. Remember that?’ Or, ‘I wrote this when I was sad and that’s the day when you took me out for a walk and cheered me up.’

I’m just going to reread the Acknowledgments one more time, and then I’m off to do something useful (or else back to bed…).

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The End

I finished my thesis.

It was about three a.m. After two weeks of sleeping badly and working stupid hours, and an epic all-nighter spent in The Zone, I finished my thesis. Turning my thesis into a PDF was the most satisfying, most exciting thing I had ever done in my entire life. (actually, no; turning it into a PDF again at 6:30 in the morning, after I had checked the first PDF, found many mistakes in it, gone back and corrected them, and scrapped the first one, was the most satisfying thing in the world.)

I sent it off to the binders, who had promised that, if I got it to them by nine a.m., they would bind and deliver it for me that same day. I prayed that they would receive the file and that there would be no mess-up. (to be honest, though, I didn’t really care. If there was a mess-up, I would deal with it.)

So I sent it off and I went to wake the Boy (at 7:21) and tell him the good news, trying not to scream with happiness.

I went straight outside, got on my bike, and went swimming. (The sky was light! The trees had leaves!) Teenagers were walking to school in little groups. I stepped into the warm swimming pool and told my swimming friend I had just finished my PhD. The happiness of swimming, PhD-free, unencumbered by thoughts of what time I must leave and which chapter I must get back to, was incredible. I went home and made myself breakfast, and ate it at a table laden with flowers (which came on Saturday as a surprise from a lovely friend…) I went to the gym and did a yoga class. I sat on a sun lounger. I spent the day on an emotional rollercoaster, vacilating between euphoria and mild despair: pure pleasure at having finished, interspersed with thoughts of what I have done, and what I have failed to do; the woefully short bibliography, which may (or may not) shock the examiners; the books I never read and just shoved in a footnote, which may or may not be glaringly obvious; the potential evidence of the last-minute patch-up job, which I may have a hard time explaining. The terrible, half-baked conclusion. One minute I was happy, the next I was sad; one minute I was telling a man at the gym proudly that I finished my PhD, the next I was nearly bursting into tears in my Pilates class. I didn’t want to go home. I had spent far too much time at home in the last few weeks as it was.

I thought about how I really should clear up the spare room. I went in there in the morning before swimming, saw it in the 8 a.m. morning light, and had a weird feeling; it looked like someone used to live in there and died in there; I was reminded of once going to help clear the flat of a (very close) deceased family member. The poignant, humane little heaps of papers, here and there, indicating a work in progress; someone had collected them, arranged them there, put them there deliberately, for a reason, someone had a plan for them; that someone was striving for something, was going somewhere with this; that person had a plan. All these carefully hoarded things would now be swept into a box and thrown away by uncomprehending, uncaring hands. Someone (or something) died in that room. ‘It still smells like him’, I remember an auntie saying. Something died in that spare room (my PhD? My PhD-writing self?) There is a half-eaten Mr Kipling tart (with a glacé cherry on top), which I started but didn’t have time to finish. Some rice on a plate (my unfinished dinner; it made a good midnight snack). Notes and books everywhere. I wish I had thought of booking some industrial cleaners to come in and blitz the whole flat. The last thing I feel like doing is cleaning, and the Boy, I think, is already feeling a bit put-upon, after the last few weeks.

‘Can I have my girlfriend back, please?’ he said to me the other day. ’I am basically LIVING with a PhD.’

I know. I’m sorry. But I’m back now, and I’m not going ANYWHERE.

Some things I have done since finishing my PhD, which were amazing:

-       cooked dinner for myself and Lover while drinking a glass of red wine, followed by Champagne and a box of chocolates
-       went out with a friend for tea and cheesecake, and then went out with friends for DRINKS
-       SLEPT (and with the sleep of innocence and youth, the sleep of the happily unemployed; NOT the sleep of the last-week-of-PhD student, punctuated by wakeful periods spent fretting about footnotes; no; the fairytale sleep of a Sleeping Beauty, who will wake up in a hundred years and be very very happy)
-       went to say goodbye to the therapist, and had a lovely last conversation, during which she said nice things, and asked me to email her and tell her how the viva goes
-       received many texts, messages, and flowers (awww!)…
-       stopped in the street to talk to a Red Cross charity fundraiser, and gave The Red Cross £5 a month (because I was there, I had time, I was happy, and I really wanted to)
-       emailed the PDF of my thesis to nice people who like me (my Mum; a friend who encouraged me a lot in the last weeks; my supervisor)
-       stocked up on Night Nurse and Vix and some vitamins (to combat the post-PhD flu)
-       asked the Lover how you switch on our TV (I really didn’t know)

And you can guess where I am right now, and what I am doing.

...Have a nice day, everybody!....