I've lurked on here for a while. Well, I say that. When I was preparing for my viva, I read all the 'revise and resubmit' and 'failed viva' horror stories. Jesus, they make you anxious before you take your viva!
Anyway, I didn't think that I could possibly fail my PhD. I've done tons of work. But in the end I ended up fighting for my pass. I got lucky. I did pass with minor corrections, but I've seen from my examiners' report that two of the three initially recommended revise and resubmit.
So, rather than share a horror story, I thought I could do something useful! I am going to blog a bit on here 'from the other side'. Because although I did loads of work (in a humanities subject), I sorta missed the point. And it was avoidable...
.... more to come....
Thanks very much lemonjuice!
More viva story: My viva was after Christmas. I think a lot of PhD students have it then because they submit their soft-bound theses in September. That is, at the last possible moment.
I had a terrible Summer. At the start I only had about 40k words (80k is standard in my subject) and I spent the whole Summer working very, very, very hard. I was literally working 14 hour days. I cancelled my social life. I just sat and typed.
I suppose an unpleasant viva looks inevitable in light of my being so rushed. But although I might have been able to do better if I'd not been working so hard at the last minute, the real reason my examiners didn't like my work wasn't related to my doing it in a hurry.
Maybe that's not quite true. Maybe some of the problem was the lack of time at the end. For example, I have a long list of typographical corrections, and there are 'repeat' citations in my bibliography.
Equally, if I'd finished earlier, I might have been able to show it to someone who would have spotted the more fundamental error.
.... more to come...
Thanks happyclappy and Peppa!
Through frantic work, I got my thesis up to 82k words. Summer was intense. Writing the thesis was my single purpose in life, and that level of focus takes its toll. I started going to bed at about six in the morning and waking up in the afternoon. I even started smoking.
By the 30th of September (my thesis submission date) I was exhausted, but proud of my work. It thought it was a really thorough piece. I had done a lot of research. And the topic was very original (or so I thought!). Apart from me, no one had looked at it since the 1960s.
In the three months between submission and my viva, I felt quite confident. I researched viva questions on the internet and went over them in my head. Then I started to get a creeping feeling that I might actually enjoy the viva. It would be a chance to show off a little. I would be taken out for drinks by the department. I'd finally be recognised as an academic!
However, sitting outside the examination room, I knew something was up. My internal examiner was on the phone looking stressed (I told myself she always looks stressed!). But worryingly, the Director of Postgraduate Research had also been called in. And she also looked stressed. Really, really, stressed.
... more to come...
Good luck by the way Peppa and happyclappy! It's such a stressful time!
Treeoflife: Hahah, fair enough!
I went into the examination room, and sort of got my confidence back. I was dressed pretty smart (nice suit, nice shirt, no tie) and things like that can help.
The first question I got was hardly a surprise: "what precisely is original about your thesis?".
Obviously I'd prepared for that one! I answered that I was the first person to look at my topic for a long time. I had dug up interesting information about. My topic is difficult and complex to understand.
But the examiners (I'm in post, so I had three) were like a dog with bone. Why was it original? Why was it original? Why was it original?
Then I started to panic!
...more to come...
Thanks Pianissimo and IncognitoJunior!
More viva story:
The examiners were very polite and fair. They had obviously read my thesis thoroughly and thought about it. This is true, even though they had clearly not made an extensive study of it. No one can expect that.
The nature of their questions made me panic though. Over and over again they asked me what my *thesis* was; what my view was.
I had written the thesis in what I thought was an objective manner. It is is on a very rare topic, and I imagined it as a sort of discovery.
That was not enough for examiners. They said that my work was well-researched, but descriptive. They said that it was not evaluative.
I objected and said that was unfair. I had 'made sense' of difficult and complex information. I had provided a new taxonomy.
But the examiners were having none of it. In their view, complexity and novelty were not substitutes for critical analysis. I had failed say what was good or bad about my 'discoveries'. I had no critical voice.
Essentially, they thought that the project was flawed.
... more to come...
I think I might write this up as a 'real' blog. Perhaps I will put it on Tumblr or something.
Anyway: final post. I've enjoyed writing it (catharsis!) and I hope it is useful. Some lessons:
1. The Meaning of Originality
Theses (in Humanities) must, must, must be critical. Another way of saying this is that they must be evaluative, or normative. You have to say 'X is better than Y'. No amount of thorough research, clear writing, or 'nicheness' can make up for that. When you read that a thesis needs to be original, it doesn't mean 'new'. It means evaluative.
2. Your Task in the Viva
If you have experience of teaching, it will help in the viva. It is a steady, slow and systematic examination of your work. In my viva, my examiners went through my thesis more or less page by page. They asked me detailed questions and assumed that I had a response to pretty much anything that they might ask.
So you need to be explain yourself clearly (this was particularly important in my viva because it was a marginal case) and you need a very thorough background knowledge in relation to what you have written. Even so, I imagine if the examiners aren't really concerned about you, then you can still pass with a very bad viva performance. Perhaps even silence.
3. Take Your Time With Submission
I was on a four year programme. I was funded through teaching. I also work in halls as a RA. I love teaching and RA-ing, but it slowed me down. I was so keen to get a job in my department that I submitted for the four year deadline even though I wasn't really ready. This caused me a lot of stress. I should have delayed and applied elsewhere. Life's too short.
4. Get Someone (Other Than Your Supervisor) To Check Your Work
All the stress (and the stressful time writing corrections) could have been avoided if I had got someone other than my supervisor to check my work. I'm pretty sure they would have instantly said, "erm, where is the critical comment?" Your thesis probably won't contain the same conceptual mistake, but there still might be something wrong with it. Get someone to check it in advance (most people are happy to do this). But in order to get someone to check it, you need time before submission. I'd advise trying to have a *good* draft completed three months before final submission. If there is something wrong with your work, that is plenty of time to sort it out.
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