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?...



  1. Good luck for your viva

    Really enjoy reading your blog!!

    From a disgruntled and "nearly" there PhD student

    1. Hey! Thanks for your comment. It helped!!...