So, I'm nearly a month on from my Viva and I've just submitted my corrections so thought it was a good time to write this. It's lengthy and I plan to cover everything from start to finish, but I'll use headings to help:
I applied for a studentship in an area vaguely related to my field of study that I felt I could shoe-horn my interest into. I contacted the lead supervisor and was able to attend a talk they were doing on another piece of research they'd had published, this gave me the confidence to then apply. I read everything they had published in recent years, then attended the interview (with a brief examination) and successfully was awarded the studentship.
The first day (weeks....)
I had no idea what i was doing. At least with my masters I had a set of objectives and a time table, with this I was given my laptop and that was that. I had been out of education for a while and returned following a 6 year career, with two children in tow. I felt like I was just wandering around aimlessly for weeks. I kept searching stuff, reading stuff but I still had no idea how to begin or what was expected of me. I had the handbook, which tbh was a really boring read and did little to enlighten me. I looked forward to my first supervision because I thought they'd tell me what to do. I now laugh at the fact I once looked forward to a supervision where by the second year I was having panic attacks before them. In this first supervision I was basically told to keep on reading and did I have any ideas yet, I think I just stared blankly at them and nodded. Eventually it was like something clicked in my head, I had done all this reading and was writing notes about what I knew and saw a massive gap in the literature that I wanted to answer. The only problem was it was beyond the scope of the actual PhD I had applied for, but I managed to persuade the supervisory team of my position and they supported it. I then went to a conference for students on the same studentship as me, hearing that so many of them had already begun on their PhD with set frameworks of what they were going to do outlined for them by their supervisors made me nervous, however I now see that my supervisors approaches were the making of me as a researcher.
The first year:
I didn't do the classic systematic review to begin with, my area was so novel nothing existed so I started with my first study. My first year sailed by and when it came to my first year mini-viva I sailed through, I was very far ahead of where I should have been, I had a paper I was writing up for publication and a good plan. My supervisors were happy with my progress and I admit to thinking at one point 'this is so easy, I thought a PhD would be tough'.
Second year horror:
Second year came, a culmination of things occurred. I went through a very traumatic experience, I ended up a single parent, I was severely traumatised, I had to become a part time carer for a terminally ill relative. I had no money, I had to go without food for a few days so I could feed my children because doing a PhD is making yourself 'deliberately jobless' and 'unavailable for work' despite getting a studentship according to HMRC, who decided that my children and I were entitled to no help what so ever. So I had to work 16hrs a week on top of a full time PhD and being a single parent to make ends meet. I was offered the opportunity to take leave from my studies but that meant losing my stipend which, as you can imagine, was not feasible with two additional mouths to feed. So I carried on with my studies. I had decided to include a systematic review, so I began working on it (luckily I had also contributed to another study which I will come to later). I was getting on great with this review until some smart ar*e published the exact same review, but expanded on it and it was annoyingly perfect. So that got scrapped, but I remained upbeat and began designing a protocol for my next study. I eventually got ethical approval, but then could not recruit - after 4 months of work I recruited one person who kept cancelling their interview. So by the end of year 2 I had no progress whats so ever. I hastily put together a plan with another study idea and went back to the work I had contributed too, and thankfully there was a lot of data I could use, so I drew up a protocol for a secondary analysis. My second year review went awful, my examiner is a really lovely person but couldn't pass me (I got a referral for a few months) as on paper I had not achieved anything, on top of that my mental health was horrendous, my supervisors were having to mark me down as not progressing and I hit the lowest point of my life....but...
...I'm a chronic over achiever and I decided to take a few weeks off from my studies unofficially. I got mental health support, I worked on my own health and I came back at it. I worked with the data I had and made some novel discoveries, I then progressed with my third study, it wasn't easy at all. I was waking up at 6am to get in a couple hours work before taking the kids to school, I was then working whilst they did homework after school, then when they went to bed I started working again until about 1am, and this continued for months. Finally, 6 months into my 3rd year, my supervisor was able to tick 'meets expectations', I was catching up! I successfully applied for for a small amount of funding to give me an additional 4 months at the end of my stipend. By the end of year 3 I had all the data for my third study and was ready to analyse it, I had the other 2 studies done and dusted and a good proportion of my background written.
I had to find work, so before my finding ran out I dedicated every spare second I had to my thesis, which my children nick named 'mummy's big boring sad book'. I dismissed their feedback, including my daughters suggestions the thesis would look much better if I added unicorn pictures. I got a research associate job and managed to balance writing up the thesis during lockdown because I couldn't go anywhere in the evenings. The agreement meant I moved in with my new partner temporarily and she did most of the housework (bonus). I was getting ready to have my final draft checked when my supervisor had to suddenly go on leave due to a personal situation. no one else had time to read my thesis (and to be fair, i think they were sick of it by this point) so I had to make the decision to submit it without checks. This was terrifying given my journey and the fact that I am dyslexic and had no money for proof reading.
I then had to wait for the viva date, I was very conscious of how hard my examiners were working at this time - being in lockdown with children and having to change to online teaching, butt he wait was absolute torture. I tried to study everything I could about the Viva, only to then hit a point when I did get my date through, that I couldn't bare to look at my thesis nor practice for my viva, so I did no prep apart from read it through once a few days before. My viva was remote, so I had to conduct it via teams. The day before my viva, my children go in to isolation due to COVID at their school, but thankfully are at their other parents house. I set up my 'viva station' only to realise that the Wi-Fi booster isn't working and had to suddenly relocate to my sons bedroom. My son is a pre-teen, so I had to quickly clear the pants he had left lying around and remove all Dr Who paraphernalia. I still haven't managed to sake off the smell of lynx mixed with 'sweaty teenager'! That morning I had surprisingly slept well, I had gone for a long walk and hike the day before with my partner, I had attempted to do yoga but instead drank wine so the combination of things helped. When I dialed in to the Viva my examiners were smiling and relaxed and I felt myself immediately relax. They re-introduced themselves and told me to relax, they confirmed my partner could be there for the outcome and we had a little joke about COVID and working from home with kids, a few pets appeared in view of the camera so it was informal, but still well structured. They told me at the beginning it was an excellent thesis and that they would be making notes just so they could give me my amendments straight away. I knew this meant I had likely passed but didn't want to get my hopes up. They didn't ask many of the standard questions except for my reasoning for doing this PhD. I was very honest and open - this lead to further corrections though as they wanted me to include my own background in life a bit further.
The questions were fair, and only once did I go off on a tangent. It felt more like a discussion than and examination and I honestly enjoyed it. Anyone who knows me will know I was absolutely dreading the viva, to the point I considered cancelling it because my anxiety was so high I went 4 days without eating! Originally they predicted it would take 1.5hrs, however it took 2 hrs, they did offer a comfort break at the 1.5hr mark but I asked to continue. They then asked me to go and make myself a drink and come back in 15 minutes. I did this and my partner came with me, we had a little chit chat whilst we waited for the external to come back to the viva. Then they told me I had passed with minor amendments, my partner cried, one of the examiners became emotional, I just sat there looking like an idiot waiting to wake up from this weird dream. It all got a bit blurry from there as all I wanted to do was call my dad. I'm the first in my family to do A Levels, let alone get a doctorate and it took my dad a while to see the benefit of University, I had deliberately not told any of my family or friends, apart from my partner and eldest child, so I didn't have to deal with their anxiety.
So, when they arrived, I felt a bit overwhelmed. For minor amendments there were loads, however once I started I realised there actually wasn't that much. It was difficult at times because you are used to your supervisors feedback so getting feedback from elsewhere can be difficult to interpret - plus some of the feedback was stuff I'd been asked to remove by supervisors (so please if you have to remove things, keep copies just in case!). I've worked through them and sent them to the internal, but there's a few other bits I need to do (however with dyslexia, it's really difficult to amend grammar and typo's when you have tracked changes).
So this has been cathartic for me, and I hope someone reading this might get something useful from it :)
Em89, thank you so much for posting all of this. I've just posted a thread (my first, pending approval) about how my first month is feeling exactly as you described - a lost, isolating mess. I'm not glad you went through that of course, but relieved to hear that it is, at least to someone else, normal. I have felt so bad I've just wanted to cry, and this makes me feel less alone.
On a completely separate and more relevant note, congratulations on your incredible journey and story. You've been through so much and been so determined and strong to continue and kick your PhD in its butt. I'm genuinely really impressed and happy for you. Well done on making it through so much difficulty to a strong end - and hopefully a strong start to your post-PhD career. :)
Hi elEm I got my viva tomorrow and I just want to tell you your post has helped me ALOT. I thought I was being strange for not being able to get myself to prepare or atleast check my thesis today. I am planning on taking a long walk with my partner. Thanks :)
I am very sorry about the delay. I am so glad your shared your story and you managed to persevere through so much. It is so good to hear about happy endings against everything, it gives me hope at least. Congratulations Dr Em89 on passing!
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