We shall not cease from exploration

It’s almost nine years ago that I had my PhD Viva, bits of it I remember like it was yesterday, lots of it I couldn’t recall if my life depended on it. In fact, if I’m really honest I think I could say the same about my PhD itself. I was reading a news story recently about a special school in Oxfordshire and I couldn’t recall why the name rang a bell, until I realised it had been one of the schools I visited as part of my PhD research. It was one of the schools I spent a week in, conducting observations and making fieldnotes, to complement the mass of interview data, questionnaire survey data, census data and additional fieldnotes and documents collected for document analysis. Despite that, it was lurking in the distant realms of my mind; at the time if you’d have suggested I’d forget the names of the schools I’d studied I’d have laughed it off, as a truly ridiculous suggestion, these schools had featured so heavily in my life for four years, I’d spent more time looking at and thinking about them than I had anything else in life.

Yet as I sit here now I couldn’t even tell you the names of all the schools I studied. I guess hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, and to some extent given my time again I’m not sure I’d change anything, but I do think I could have taken a lot of pressure off myself if there had been a few more people to let me know it would be alright; to reassure me that these details while hugely important to me, and my sense of integrity that I presented them well and accurately, were actually not really the point; that most people don’t bother with the detail; and that in fact no-one except myself, my supervisors, external and internal examiner would even read the damn thing (I always thought my Mum had, but I’ve never actually asked her outright and I don’t want to know the truth now to be honest)!

So why am I rambling on about this now? Well in my twitter stream today alone there have been tweets about people trying to finish their PhD, or approaching their viva and I know at least one person who is working hard to make the minor corrections required after their viva. I’m not suggesting for a moment that those people need to hear my thoughts, or will pay any heed to them (if indeed they even see them). However, I am recalling my own experience, and how solitary it felt at times, and how good it would have been to know that the weight I felt I was carrying wasn’t unique to me. No-one in my immediate family had been to university before I went, consequently no-one I knew had a degree, never mind a second degree. In one way this was fantastic because it meant a distinct absence of pressure, I had no-one to live up to, in another way it meant I had no-one (other than the few fellow students I’d once shared offices with) to compare notes with and only my own expectations to live up to.

One thing struck me about the day of my viva, a comment from the person responsible for postgrads. She was one of the lecturers in my department (who I’d not seen in years and who didn’t really know me at all), what I remember is her breezily calling down a corridor ‘You’ve got your viva today haven’t you? Make sure you enjoy it’. The woman was quite clearly insane, something I’d long suspected as she was a sociologist who appeared to pride herself on her dress sense as much as her research (I’m just being honest, I was young and had a thing about sociology because my friends who had studied it had ‘seen’ exam papers as undergrads….yes they actually got their papers weeks in advance to prepare for; probably quite inspired thinking when I look at it now but at the time it just led to an all consuming begrudgery of anything to do with sociology!). This was an exam, did she not realise that my research millstone far from just hanging around my neck was now starting to choke me, and she was telling me to enjoy an exam. I can’t tell you how ridiculous her words sounded to me.

As I look back now I absolutely understand what she was saying, it just severely lacked context. I’m sure what she was actually meaning was take the opportunity, make sure you get the most out of it, this is the one chance you’ll have to talk to people about your research when they really care. This is probably (let’s be honest) the only opportunity you’ll have to talk to people who have actually read your PhD….and I really wouldn’t expect anyone else to ever read it, it’s three inches thick and full of good stuff hidden in my horrific self-taught academic prose, prose that was encouraged. I was always told I wrote well and yet when I open it now I’m horrified at some of it, but I digress that’s a conversation for another time.

If you are on the final slog of your PhD or Masters, if you are preparing for a viva, if you are wondering why you are still studying for something you started years ago, have faith, listen to those around you (even sociologists) and shout if you need someone to rant at or share your concerns with. I wish anyone who is hoping to finish an academic thesis in 2012, all the luck, support, Diet Coke, inspirational quotes, cake, music, enthusiasm, statistics advice, distractions, religion, pancakes, places to stay, breakfasts, karaoke, toasted cheese sarnies, and above all else caffeine* that they need to get them there. Good luck with it.

January 2014: As a result of some of the thoughts in this blog post, and some of the discussion that followed it, VivaCards are now available to purchase to help with PhD viva prep. Head over to the site here to learn more.

**These may not actually help at all, but they are all things that people have acknowledged in their acknowledgements pages over on the Acknowledgers Blog. I’m always looking for contributions so please share yours once they’re done and remember that writing your acknowledgements is the absolute best bit, ever.

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