'Read More' for Louise's story...
My Viva marked the end of an almost ten-year immersion in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. During those ten years, my angst-ridden career hopes veered from journalism to academia to publishing, with more than a few bouts of crying in between in which I wondered if it made more sense to go work in a call centre. But I don’t like my phone voice, so here we are, a bumpy ride and one PhD later.
I submitted my thesis in October 2013 and had been warned that, due to the approaching Christmas break, it would probably be the following February before I sat my Viva. Imagine my surprise (and mild horror) when, just a fortnight later, I was told my examiners would be able to stage the big event sooner than expected, on December 16. Though I appreciated the chance to wrap things up before the year ended, I was by this point working full-time as an editor for an independent publishing company, and was therefore somewhat daunted by my limited research and preparation time.
So far, so stressful. It is only with hindsight that I realise this limit on my ability to lose myself in Viva prep was a benefit. Because if I have one piece of advice for the tremulous PhD candidate, it would be the following: do not risk your mental and physical health by killing yourself with Viva preparation. Unless you possess the gift of foresight, you cannot possibly prepare for every variant or path your examiners might take during your Viva. The questions I anticipated were never posed, but I was taken by surprise by some that were.
Though it’s important to remember that every Viva experience varies, from my own experience and from the discussions I’ve had with fellow Viva survivors, I would suggest the following as a solid form of preparation:
(1) Take a break after submission. Even if just for a fortnight, that time away from the thesis allows you to recuperate mentally, and will ensure that when you do return to your work, you are looking at it with a fresh eye.
(2) Re-read your primary texts. Don’t, as I did, exhaust yourself trying to memorise the nuances of every secondary article you cited. You’re not there to be quizzed on other academics’ opinions.
(3) Go through your thesis with a fine-tooth comb. I found it helpful to mark up, page by page, any sentences I thought were particularly significant, as well as those an examiner might find problematic or would want to probe me on.
(4) Take the time to articulate exactly how you think your thesis makes a contribution to knowledge and be prepared to say as much during the Viva.
(5) DO NOT GOOGLE VIVA HORROR STORIES THE NIGHT BEFORE.
I did all of the above things. Yes, even #5. I didn’t sleep a wink as a result, and spent the day of my Viva (the exam itself starting at 5pm) a mess of near-hysteria. I could have undone all of that otherwise sensible prep with just 40mins of hedonistic self-destruction. Don’t do it, folks.
The Viva itself lasted 1hr 10mins, and then I had a very anxious wait of 40mins while my examiners and chairperson discussed corrections, schedules etc. I had walked out of the initial exam feeling elated. It was done – indeed, it had flown by – and I felt I had done well. My examiners were genuinely interested in my research and posed thoughtful questions that forced me to evaluate my approach. Yes, there were a few hairy moments. At one point I realised I was repeating myself, paused for a moment of tense inner dialogue on the topic of my abject failure as an academic, before telling my examiners I simply couldn’t answer their question at that time. Nerves: they’re killers.
I was mortified when my external examiner pointed out (not unkindly) that in a footnote I had referred to the edict of a King who had died some fifteen years before said edict was passed. Oops. But, overall, it was a decent Viva. I sweated and I tripped over myself a few times, but I seemed to satisfy my examiners that I wasn’t a fraud. Sitting in an empty atrium and manically analysing what had just taken place starts to trouble the nerves, though. Once that initial adrenalin passes, that sense of elation pretty much hits the hard pavement of consternation. But, after that tense 40min wait, I was ushered back in by my chair, who gave me a much appreciated hug and whispered, ‘Don’t worry – you’ve done so well.’ Reader, I passed.
The real challenge, at least for me, came after the Viva. As PhD students, we spend four years (often more) with our sense of purpose and self-worth hinged entirely on one document. Where will it take me? Will my performance secure me that post-doc/job/fellowship? Was it worth my sweat, blood and tears?
Despite some gnawing reservations, I submitted a few job applications for academic jobs. When the rejections arrived, I wasn’t devastated, as I’d expected. I was relieved. I realised that when I left that Viva examination, I had mentally closed the door on further research. I was happy with what I’d achieved, but I didn’t feel any real compulsion to pursuer an academic career. I battled for a while with feelings of guilt – I had, after all, been a fully-funded candidate – and with the sense that I would somehow be underselling myself if I pursued a career outside of academia. There’s no short, blog-shaped answer to how I overcame these feelings (indeed, every now and again, I’ll have a wobble and worry I’ve failed). It was a difficult time, and I nearly tortured myself with notions that I had disappointed my parents/supervisor/colleagues. But I’m now working full-time, undertaking exciting and challenging editorial jobs and making sure, by hook or by crook, that I advance in the publishing industry as much as I can. My PhD hasn’t opened any magical doors or smashed any glass ceilings, and that was a frustrating fact to accept. But it did wonders for my confidence (as an undergraduate, the notion of presenting papers abroad, in front of a room full of my peers and experts in the field, would have prompted hysterical laughter), my ability to work under intense pressure and my approach to life’s challenges. To any PhD candidate out there convinced your life hangs on the knife-edge of your Viva: there will come a day when it seems almost laughable that you devoted so much thought to it. Really.
Trust me when I say there will come a day when the Viva is no longer the bogeyman of your academic career. Good luck!
Louise completed her PhD, entitled 'Rhetorics of Martial Virtue: Mapping Scottish Heroic Literature c. 1600-1680', in 2014. She is currently a freelance editor and subtitler, based in Glasgow. She can be found on Twitter @iLouminator and at www.hutchesoneditorial.co.uk.