Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Important information about your viva

Here is your cut-out-and-keep guide to surviving the viva. Read it two months before your viva date.

o   When people tell you ‘enjoy the viva’, you may think they’re completely bonkers, or that (if they are academics and have had their own viva at some point) they’re out-of-touch with the real world and have forgotten what a viva is. In fact, you can trust them. They are telling the truth. As it turns out, the viva can be a very nice experience – especially if you follow some of the advice below.

o   ‘Most people pass. The few who do not pass are the ones who submitted against their supervisor’s recommendation’; ‘[The examiners] have made up their mind before the viva; they have written their report and have already decided whether you pass or fail. The good thing about this is, in the viva you can only do yourself good; you cannot do yourself harm.’ Was not too sure about that last bit, but I decided to go with it anyway. They have already decided, so you cannot do yourself any harm; you can only do yourself good.

o   ‘Read and reread your thesis’: this is advice I received on how to prepare for the viva. This is good advice; however, I would recommend taking the tomato approach when you are doing this (work for 25 minutes; break for 5 minutes; repeat. Each one of these is a ‘tomato’. Once you have done four tomatoes, have a longer break. Google ‘the Pomodoro technique’ if you have no idea what I mean by ‘tomato’). I recommend taking four tomatoes to read your thesis on any given day, and then stopping; the trouble is that if you try to work too hard on remembering everything you wrote in the PhD, you may start going a bit crazy and fixating on all its flaws.

o   By all means prepare an answer to the question ‘How did you come up with this research topic?’ – and versions of it such as ‘What is the originality of your research?’. Have a little chapter summary of each chapter, so that you remember what bit of research is where. Don’t, however, try and second-guess every question your examiners might ask you; you’ll only exhaust yourself. If you find that you are starting to go crazy, and freak out about your ‘inadequate’ thesis, stop reading it, and go for a walk.

o   You may find yourself worrying that your thesis just isn’t good enough, that you shouldn’t have bothered handing it in, that it’s full of holes which your examiners will spot and rip apart in two minutes. You have, after all, spent many months picking it all apart with your supervisor, who has on many occasions said things like ‘I don’t understand the point of this’ or ‘this is too descriptive’. The reason, therefore, that you now think your argument is terrible is because you’ve lost confidence in it, not because it actually is terrible. You know where the bodies are buried, and you know the circumstances under which each sentence was written. You think the examiners will be able to spot the sentence/ paragraph/ chapter that was just plonked in at the last minute in desperation, but they won’t. (This is advice given to me by a friend and PhD guru, and he was right.)

o   When friends and family text you to say ‘good luck! I know you’ll be fine!’, resist the urge to reply ‘oh what do YOU know!’ or ‘I can’t do this, I will fail’; say ‘thank you!’ and text a smiley face. You will be glad later that you did nothing dramatic and managed not to freak them out unnecessarily.

o   The night before: you will have a terrible night’s sleep the night before the viva. (Any PhD students out there who had a very good night’s sleep the night before?... Please write to us.) You will toss and turn and feel the knot tightening in your stomach. (I hate this; your body is preparing its fight-or-flight response, and getting ready to send you in to battle with maximum alertness, but does it really have to make you quite this alert at 11:30pm, when what you really want is to sleep?...) Long wakeful periods will be punctuated by crazy dreams of confusing train stations, of clocks that tell the wrong time, of strange people turning up in your bed and evicting you, forcing you to try and get to sleep on the floor… It will be a horrible night. Eat lightly beforehand, go for a walk if possible, have a bath, sniff lavender, do whatever you can do to make yourself feel relaxed and drowsy; otherwise, just go with it. Adrenaline will carry you through the day, and you will sleep much better the following night.

o   On the day: take your time over a nice, light breakfast. (Greek yoghurt and muesli is good; bananas have been proven to calm performers down before a show.) Wear smart clothes. On the way to the viva, smile at everything and everyone on public transport; it will lift your mood. Immediately before the viva, the best way to prepare, I was told, is to go for a walk and think of something else. Wander the streets, or go to the neighbouring park if there is one, and look at things. Notice the different types of dogs people have. Pay attention to the intricate pattern on the leaves of that evergreen tree you never noticed before. Walk around. If you’re feeling stressed, try the ‘Focusing Exercise’ from the Procrastination Bible; recite it to yourself as you walk. It helps.

o   Enjoy it. Smile at your examiners. Try and be spontaneous. You know stuff. In the viva, the stuff you know will just organically come out. Listen to the question, think using the stuff you know. Answer relevantly. (Remember: when you are preparing, rereading your thesis, trying to imagine every possible answer to every question, and trying to force perfect answers to come out, may make you dry up; if you clutch at it, it won’t come.) Relax and go with it, be spontaneous. Listen out to additional cleverness from the examiners; they may come out with some very useful stuff. Write it down. The aim is to turn the viva into a productive discussion.

o   Going out for lunch afterwards with your examiners and your supervisor is allowed, it turns out. Just a thought.

o   Afterwards, enjoy the happy daze that comes from having just done the viva, the feeling of walking the familiar streets with nowhere to be and nowhere to go, just you and your success and your happiness and joy. Drink it all in.

I passed, by the way.


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Viva Voce

Several of my academic friends/ gurus/ mentors have said to me, in recent weeks,

‘Enjoy the viva!’

The thing is, they’re not being sarcastic. They’re genuinely being serious.

Is it possible, on any level, to ‘enjoy the viva’?...

Maybe… maybe it is, if you enjoyed your PhD?... Or if you find that you have a lot still left to say, but didn’t get to say it all, and you relish the opportunity to talk about it?... Or you are just very knowledgeable and you enjoy spouting forth… well, all the knowledge?...

I don’t get it.

I’m not looking forward to the viva, because every time I imagine what the viva might be like, I imagine being questioned; I imagine people pointing out inconsistencies and mistakes, as such people are wont to do; I imagine all my least favourite moments from all the progress reviews ever (smiling academic, leans back and says placidly ‘I was not convinced by your argument’), all rolled into one long session. I imagine having to speak with conviction and enthusiasm on the topic of this thesis, which, twelve months ago, I could only see myself abandoning. (this is the one problem with having decided that, no matter how imperfect, you WILL submit your PhD: you now have to answer for what you have submitted. All those things you couldn’t quite get right, and just inserted in there while hoping for the best, someone will look at and might notice. ‘On page 54 footnote 3, you say X… But then, on page 189, you suggest Y… What do you mean by this?’…)

I really, really do not like to feel criticized, and I do not like to be made to feel stupid, and for that reason I am not looking forward to the viva. Maybe the problem is me, and my stupid personal demons.

Spoke to a friend today on the phone (someone I had not talked to for a while), and when the subject of my viva came up (‘So what are you doing this weekend?...’), I mentioned that I’m finding the concept of the viva ‘scary’. My friend had a very kind insight: she suggested that maybe vivas will ALWAYS be scary, to everyone, whether you are loving your PhD or not, whether or not you live and breathe academia. ‘So try to go in there and take everything as it comes, and remember, everyone else who is doing a viva is finding it just as scary as you are. You are all together, you’re all in the same basket.’

I know that the reality of the bad thing happening is never quite as bad as when you imagined the bad thing happening. Maybe it will be OK. There is no viva so terrible that it will defeat me. Maybe, if I don’t get a PhD, if I fail and the viva is a disaster, maybe I won’t mind. Maybe I’ll rewrite the PhD thesis as a non-scholarly but interesting work, a gimmicky thing that can be marketed at the general public. The kind of work that actually sells. Maybe I’ll turn it into a short film. Maybe I’ll condense it into a short but exciting article for The Guardian. Or perchance an illustrated blog for geeks.

Not much time left before this viva now; no time now for some of the contingency plans that I had been contemplating putting into action (rereading entire body of works upon which I comment, typing out a fake ‘complete’ bibliography to wave in the examiners’ faces if they happen to comment upon the woeful shortness of my own; no time, either, to familiarize myself with some of the countless obscure schools of thought that I somehow never got around to comprehending, but which have always seemed very very important). Ah, well. I shall just have to make do with what I’ve got, and stick to what’s in the thesis. I am rereading the thesis bit by bit, and making notes on what each chapter says, and trying to remember at least one thing that's good about each one. I am also hoping that what the Graduate School Guru said in his talk was true: that they've already made up their mind before the viva, so you can't do yourself any harm; you can only do yourself good. If they didn't like something, the viva won't make it go away. They'll let you know what corrections to make.

In other news: went to a Uni library yesterday afternoon, to sit and read my thesis for a few half-hour sessions, and while I couldn’t really be bothered to focus, something potentially exciting did happen: on my way towards my chosen desk by the window, I spotted, clearly visible on the laptop screen of some boy, who sat with his back to me as I walked past, and who stared at this screen and scrolled down slowly – I spotted what looked like a page from my own blog; the same, unmistakeable template, these very same colourful little books, the reddish tones, the yellow background - and the writing: little familiar-looking bullet-pointed paragraphs, of the sort that I tend to favour.

But I couldn’t see if it really was my writing or not, because the boy was apparently comfortable with reading it in very very small type; I couldn’t hover over his shoulder long enough to make out the words, and therefore I can’t really know if it really and truly was my own blog (there must be hundreds of student blogs which use the same template, Cloud Nine) but my heart did leap, I can tell you. And it made me smile to think, if it is my own blog I saw there, then maybe YOU were reading my words just as I walked by and glanced over your shoulder… How cool is THAT?...


Thursday, 2 January 2014

Home alone

right now, i wish i had someone to complain to. 

no-one is home. 

i love being home alone, love the space to wander round and daydream and play. i always have. tis the perfect environment for dreaming and writing, but also for feeling gloomy. i wish i could call someone and talk to them, but there's no point, as all i want to say is 'i have a viva coming up and i don't want to do it…. i did really badly on some parts of this phd… i don't want to… waaah.' i've already had this conversation with the Lover, and he calmed me down and said nice things, but i want more. i want to email everyone in the world who might be able to help, anyone who ever did a viva, and ask their advice. (there is no point; I know what needs doing; I just want to moan about it.) i want twenty people to calm me down and cheer me up, each one in turn. i want to write to everyone who is or ever was a friend, and complain loudly about this. not just the viva, but everything. what is there to look forward to, beyond the viva?… am i ever going to get the job that i want?…. how am i?… i haven't managed it so far, so i don't see why all of a sudden i should. i'm feeling very pessimistic at the moment. 

someone told me that 'if you've managed to finish your PhD, that means you can do anything now'. this someone meant: if you've managed to cope with such a massive, stressful thing, then there is nothing you can't cope with doing. well, that i-can-do-anything feeling had better kick in sometime soon. that's all i can say. 

sigh. this time last year, i was very sad. this time this year, i am much less so. but i do wish this bloody thing were over, and I didn't have to worry about it anymore. 

(pass or fail; either pass or fail is fine. but please, please, examiners; please, God; not major corrections. please.)

Chapter 3...

Rereading my PhD. I keep expecting that I will find something very wrong with it, like a sanitary towel stuck to the back cover, or a page from my journal, or novel, or shopping list, accidentally imported in where it should instead say ‘Chapter 4 part 2’, or one of those notes-to-self that we write in bold letters, accidentally left behind in a footnote, which reads something like ‘WOT???... THIS IS SHIT. CHECK ON WIKIPEDIA.’

So far, not too many sanitary towels or notes-to-self (although some random commas where there should be full stops at the ends of paragraphs, and some auto-correct bullshit that I swear was put in there by evil gnomes, because I DID tidy all those things up and I have no idea how they can still be in there; and there’s a random forward slash in one place which shouldn’t be there).
So far, so good. Until I got up to Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 was sort of where it all went a bit wrong. Chapter 3 suffered somewhat from my realization that I was missing quite a few words, and needed to beef up the word count. Chapter 3 was also the one which I had submitted for my last progress review, and it therefore benefitted from some drastic last-minute revisions, more so than the other chapters.

Suffice to say that some atrocities were committed in Chapter 3, very late in the day, for reasons of must-beef-up-the-word-count and this-is-clearly-wrong-and-needs-changing, and I am now seeing the devastation. (don’t get me wrong, I saw it before, but at the time I just waited for all the blood to slowly drain back into my face, took a deep breath, and put it all in anyway.)

It does not help that I obviously did not have a lot of time to reread and correct all the typos in Chapter 3. A classic one, in one of its closing paragraphs, reads: ‘… and this is an idea which I shall discuss next in Chapter 3.’ (THIS IS CHAPTER 3, you idiot. Try ‘Chapter 4’!!...)

I am not excited about the possibility of discussing all this with my examiners, but hey, it doesn’t matter. I am taking comfort from the words of those people smarter than myself, those who have written books and blogs that say ‘no matter what happens, I will find a way to carry on. If I fail my PhD, I will not let this be the end of my world.’

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all PhD students out there!

(I would have liked to have been able to write 'Merry Christmas, ho ho ho!' - but I was too busy stuffing my face with roast turkey and pigs in blankets to get online.)

For the first time in a few years, I have just had a 'Christmas holiday'. That is to say, I have spent several days over the festive period in which I did not do anything useful at all. I did not torment myself with to-do lists or jobhunting or anything that makes good sense. I did not attempt to spoil my Christmas by using it to reread my PhD ahead of the viva. (well, I almost did, on the night of the 28th, read a bit of the PhD over a half-pint of beer in the pub where I used to 'write' my PhD; but in the end I just ended up spending a happy half-hour daydreaming, after which I called my lover to come and join me.) Mostly, I spent a happy week or so sitting, talking, eating, and going to the gym. Occasionally, I read a good book.

In short, I have just had completely guilt-free time off work. I urge all of you to do the same. It's fabulous.

So. The viva. In preparation for the upcoming viva, I have

--- printed myself a copy of the PhD (a less expensive, less beautiful copy than the ones the examiners will have in their hands, but a copy of my own nonetheless, which I am told it is very important to have)

--- started to read through the PhD (at some point, several weeks ago), with the aim to read a chapter a day; so far I have stalled at Chapter 1, but I will do this, I will.

--- booked a holiday - a week in the sun, post-viva, and it is all booked now and I am going no matter what happens. I am packing my skimpiest dresses and dreaming of bare feet on the sand. I can't wait.

So much for viva preparation. Now, in case you are interested, my New Year's resolutions include:

--- to take more holidays and to do nothing more often

--- to go away on exotic trips more often

--- (...I think that's it, actually.)

Happy New year, everyone! ...