13 April 2013

Dr Jen?

The last time I blogged, back in April 2012, I had a week to go until my viva for my PhD. Perhaps now I should tell you the ending...? It's probably going to be a long one, so be warned, but I feel it needs to be done. Also, you can never really know what a viva is like until you do your own (in my department, no-one ever sat in on another student's viva) and all of them are different. So, perhaps my experience might help someone waiting or preparing for theirs.

Just briefly, for those that don't know, a viva is a vocal examination (viva voce) in which you defend your thesis. And your thesis is the written document detailing the work you carried out over the 3-4 years of the PhD. They tend to be pretty hefty things, too; mine was 258 pages in the end. Although, some are considerably longer than that! Viva's themselves can vary dramatically between department, examiner, subject, etc. Three hours was perhaps considered the norm in my department. But I have heard of viva's starting in the morning, breaking for lunch and then continuing again afterwards.

OK, so it was the day of my viva; Wednesday 4 July, 2012.

The viva was in the afternoon. I had told no-one. I was convinced I was going to fail and would need some time to come to terms with it and then formulate the right words to tell my friends and family. This was my plan and it had worked pretty well. I'd told some people I was "busy" that day and, when I wouldn't say with what, I could tell they were beginning to wonder. My supervisor had managed to blurt it out to my brother a few days before! But, he didn't know I was keeping it a secret and, bless my brother, he never said anything to me so I assume he guessed I wanted it to remain a secret and probably could do without the hassle of being asked about it.

I'd had a hard time deciding what to wear; what on earth does one wear to the grilling of their life? I settled on something fairly light and comfortable up-top (no-one needed to know if I was sweating like a pig) but a smart skirt, tights and heels on the bottom (going for respectability). In order to keep my secret, I would need to go into the office fairly close to the viva otherwise people would definitely twig. So, I got the bus there, wearing some more comfortable shoes and with a copy of my thesis under my arm. All was OK. As OK as it can be when you are absolutely bricking it.

The time came for me to change my shoes. The best place to do this was in my lab as I probably wouldn't bump into anyone. Wrong. Someone decided they wanted to have a chinwag. I was polite but when I don't want to talk, I'm pretty good at bringing the conversation to a close. 

Back to the shoes. Today of all days I decided I would tie the shoes a little tighter. I Did the first one; yeah that's good, maybe a little tight. Let's try the second. Oh yes, a little too tight, it's a bit of a struggle to... PING! And out snaps the crossover bar from the inside of the shoe! Oh. My God. What on earth do I do now?! Can I wear them without that bit? I'm going to have to break the other shoe as well. The only other shoes I have are these old brown boots. And they definitely aren't appropriate with this outfit. < 3 seconds of panic > F**k it. They can't fail me because of the shoes I'm wearing...? But I'm not going to lie, for a millisecond, the scenario of me having to apologetically show them my broken shoes actually ran through my head. Until I slapped it out and tried to pull myself together. They're just shoes, Jen. And the panic really wasn't about the shoes - I'm not some vain fashionista - it was more that I was already in panic mode and the day had now begun to deviate from the plan... what else was going to go wrong?!

Some parts of the day are a blur and how the viva began is definitely one of those moments. I remember being outside the room and then being inside the room; not really the conversation in-between  At my institution, the viva consists of the student (obviously), an internal examiner i.e. from the same institution, who hasn't worked with the student, and an external examiner i.e. from another institution. The examiners were both male and I had known who they were going to be since it had been organised and they had been invited.

The viva began by the external examiner briefly outlining the format the viva was going to take. It was in a very informal style; we were sat around a small round table. I began by giving a brief outline of what my work was about, why I had chosen to investigate it, how I'd gone about it and the main findings. That whizzed by very quickly and I felt like I spoke a million miles an hour. They asked me to fully describe the technique; optical trapping or 'laser tweezers'. In interviews, I am pretty good at faking confidence and I contemplated whether I could do that here? Best not to, but if there is something particular that makes you feel more confident, then do it (unless that is standing on your head or getting naked). For me, I thought the best way to explain would be schematically and promptly jumped up to draw the concept on the whiteboard. That part, I recall, went very well. I had to remind myself they weren't asking questions to try and catch me out, it was to test whether I know your stuff (which I did!) and also, sometimes because they actually wanted to know the answer! For example, the internal examiner wasn't completely versed with the optical intricacies of the technique. Being able to successfully explain it to him buoyed me up quite a bit.

They continued to leaf through my thesis and ask questions: about theory, experiment and results. There were still moments when I couldn't answer and these moments can really stick in your mind but there will be so many moments when you do manage answer the question without needing to think much, or after some contemplation. Try to remember those, too! They gave me plenty of time to think without any time limit or pressure. And even when I said I don't know, they asked if I was sure. I answered some questions via this route.

Then, the external examiner remarked that we should move on as a fair bit of time had passed. It was at this point that I looked at my watch - I had told myself before the viva to make sure I didn't clockwatch but actually, when I was in there, I really wasn't thinking about the time and it felt as though maybe 15-20 minutes had passed - nearly an hour an a half had gone by, I couldn't believe it!

The remainder of this part of the viva was spent going through the thesis by sections which the examiners had earmarked for general comments or points they wanted clarification. Perhaps the wording of some theory, explanation of analysis, or details about content given in the introduction. 

Before, I knew it, I was being asked to step out so that they could deliberate. By this time, I'd been in there 2 and a half hours. I came out to find my brother, other group members and my supervisor waiting. They looked at me expectantly as I emerged. "Nothing yet, they are discussing.", I explained. I sat down and almost got comfortable as they started to ask me how it had gone. I had assumed they would be in there for some time but within a few minutes, the external examiner popped his head out and asked me to come back in.

Finally, they told me I had passed with minor corrections and offered me their congratulations! :D I was then walked through the corrections they wanted me to make, along with some suggestions that weren't compulsory if I didn't have time but would make the thesis more complete. 

When I emerged, I discovered my supervisor had bought me a bottle of champagne and, after my unofficial female supervisor (who is amazeballs!) arrived, there was a toast. That felt damn good. I was still struggling to believe it was all over and was wondering when they would shout 'Only joking! You've failed!' But it never came. The examiners complemented me on my conductance during the viva, including how impressed they were with my enthusiasm and willingness at wanting to talk to my work. I think that came from me not wanting to come across too defensive, despite it being a 'defence'. Also, this would be probably the only time someone would read my thesis in its entirety and want to discuss it in such detail; I was advised to make the most of it.

I rang my parents and youngest brother to tell them the news. Because they weren't expecting a call with big news, they were a bit like er... what do you want? And when I asked for my dad without any details, I was told he was busy and would call me back. I could've cried. But I waited patiently and then asked my mom to put me on loudspeaker. I announced my news (you should imagine me puffing out my chest like a very proud, triumphant bird) and everybody gushed with congratulations and then my dad cried! :D Awwww! That was awesome! My father is not an outwardly emotional person so when it happens, it's BIG.

Then I called my sister, who was ecstatic, too and said she'd "had a feeling". Not unusual for her. ; )

As is tradition, the pub followed but sadly, because I had kept it a secret, no-one was really prepared for a Wednesday afternoon pub trip and by the time it was all done and dusted, a lot of people had already left for the day. But it was probably for the best; I would've been bought many drinks and been rather hungover the next day if there'd been lots of people.

And then, of course, I tweeted:

I made the corrections in about 3 weeks, had to get it signed off and then finally, got it all printed and bound ready to submit at the end of July. Here is the lovely lady herself. It felt almost like giving birth actually. Well, I never have so I wouldn't know but I imagine. Although, you don't tend to put newborn babies on a library shelf for all eternity. But still, the analogy is in there somewhere. I could tell you that she is freely available online but it's very boring (it does have pretty pictures, though) and I don't want to incite all sorts of questions now, do I? ; )

Oh and because my family are amazeballs and crazy, the whole thing was interspersed with lovely touches. First (top left), my sister ordering a bouquet made out of cupcakes crafted by my favourite Manchester cupcakery; Hey Little Cupcake immediately after I passed the viva and, some time later (top right) my dad ordering me a congratulations banner for my first visit home after submitting the final copies and getting a letter from my faculty confirming me having passed. As my brother drove me round the corner, out came the words "What the f**k! What the hell is that?! Did you know about this?!" To which he replied no. I was embarrassed for all of about 2 minutes until I saw how pleased my dad was with himself that I couldn't help but love it! :D And so, photos ensued.

Then came graduation in December 2012 with a pretty awesome certificate and a day of me looking like a Cadbury's creme egg. It was fun, honest!

So, all in all, a very eventful day (not to mention a very eventful 4+ years!). I'm still undecided about whether I would do it all again if I knew then what I know now and what I went through. But I have learnt so much; not just about the topic but about myself, others and life. Sounds cliché but it's true. Also, being called Dr Jen isn't too shabby. ; )

What next? Well, then it was time to get a job, of course!

Phew! Glad that's done.

1 comment:

  1. Dr Jen would certainly sound better than the normal Jen. It has some kind of respectable sense into it. Well, it would certainly be the fruit of your hardship and effort completing the thesis writing. Anyway, what happened to your thesis anyway? I do hope everything went well.