Die, PhD, Die: How I Survived My Doctoral Thesis

MWW_3402-2The day had arrived. I had submitted my PhD at the end of November. The viva was set for March, longer than the three months waiting time stipulated by the University. I did not mind too much, the waiting game was perhaps the least painful of what was an arduous journey familiar by fellow PhD survivors.

I had expected to submit around the end of 2015, although I did not have a hard and fast date. Mid way through drafting some damn chapter (I forget which), I received an email from the department saying I was expected to submit the following day. I was taken aback of course, as all I had was a very rough draft. So rough in fact, I could have used it to pumice the callouses on my weary fingers. After contacting the department, who insisted on talking on the phone, presumably so they could issue various threats like I may not be allowed to submit at all, I got a doctor’s note and made a complaint to the University. The department denied having made any threats when queried. Anyway, I was given two months extension.

Yet despite this setback and delay, prompted by opaque bureaucracy and politics, I submitted on the deadline. And I really do mean on the deadline.I imagined myself slam dunking that PhD in a big hoop, to rapturous applause, during the final second of a Championship game. Yet to extend the analogy, I clung to that hoop and wouldn’t let go. At this risk of confusing everyone, a moment ago the PhD was the ball, but now it’s the hoop. THIS IS MY STORY OK. Having only had it bound one hour earlier, I felt I hadn’t had sufficient time to caress it in my arms; nurturing that knowledge as it had nurtured me over the past four years.

Whatever. There was no rapturous applause, but a surprisingly sympathetic guy at the desk, (let’s call him Neil to prevent any reprisals), who said ‘wow well done, that must have been tough’. Neil was my new favourite person. Had it been a movie I would have leant over the desk, grabbed his cheeks, and kissed him on the forehead.  But it wasn’t, and I didn’t want to be charged with sexual misconduct, not least with my new favourite person, and certainly not on my victory day.

Waltzing out the Palatine Centre door (the place where you submit ((it’s next to the place that does good food but where you can’t get a seat for love nor money)), I flicked through the extra copy I had bound for myself. It had cost extra money, and despite numerous PDFs containing various iterations of my PhD, I had, in my delirious state, wanted my own bound company. I threw a glance back, half expecting Neil to be smiling and thinking, ‘way to go kid, you did it’, but I think he had gone to the toilet.

It was then, that something unforgettable happened. I stopped dead in my tracks, and everyone’s else tracks for that matter. Standing on South Road, PhD in hand, obstructing the main student thoroughfare, I was now like one of those irritating pairs of people who make no effort to break formation when encountering other people, often forcing grannies heavily laden with shopping to veer into oncoming traffic. I had become someone I hated. Yet the reason for me stopping was simple. I had found a typo. A typo barely three pages in. It was over, I had failed!

After convalescing for a few days, things did not seem as bad as they did that fateful day on South Road. The typos, which had now vastly increased in number, could be explained. I sought solace by obsessively trawling through forums, googling ‘typos in phd thesis’. The responses ranged from ‘no one will give a shit’, to ‘typos will result not simply in a fail, but also eternal damnation and probably cancer’. Classic internet. I don’t recommend this practise, although it’s inevitable in the waiting time before the Viva. My wait time was also relatively protracted (Maybe I could phone the university and demand that the viva be tomorrow).

Nah, that would be petty.

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Sometimes I envied the humble seagull…

After the initial post-submission anxiety, the middle two months were fairly relaxed. Sure the Viva was looming over me like an angry dentist, but it was remote enough for me to go on about my business. I started refocusing about ten days before, re-reading my PhD, making notes, writing a list of all the typos to take in with me (This had been advised in the forums). I decided to break with tradition and wear long trousers instead of cargo shorts to the Viva, and made sure they were in a presentable state.

It was then that the next calamity struck. I woke up on the morning of the Viva, and realised I couldn’t speak. Yes, the sore throat I had felt coming on yesterday had developed into laryngitis. I gargled salt water for about an hour. Still, it had no effect, all I could muster were barely audible, raspy whispers, or thunderous and bassy commands.

And so it was, with a heavy heart, and a throbbing (eww) larynx,  that I stood waiting in my department.  I felt like a condemned man, yet instead of contemplating mortality, or more importantly, preparing for the exam, all I could think of was of the irony that on the day of what translates from latin as ‘oral exam’, I had loss my oratory capacities. A finger beckoned me to my judgement.

I entered the room, to find a small desk, a bottle of water, three glasses, several bookshelves, and two examiners. “Hello Marc”, they both said in unison. “GOOD MORNING”, I boomed. With the examiners taken aback by what they perhaps perceived as over-confidence, I clarified quickly , ‘sorry I’ve lost my voice’. Still startled, the examiners said they were sorry to hear that. I whipped out my packet of lozenges and asked if it was ok to suck them. The examiners were more than happy with that.

Then came the first question. “Why did you choose this topic?”. I took a deep breath and proceeded. My voice developed a workable equilibrium. To be clear though, I still sounded ridiculous. Gone were any ideas that I’d be swanning round the office, casually peering through the Venetian blinds at objects of interest while gallantly telling the examiners in an inexplicably Southern US (think Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code)  accent about my academic trials and tribulations. No, I struggled through with my voice, but I knew my topic. I was ready for the questions and they were extremely fair, and the examiners extremely professional and courteous. The criticisms were fair too, and although I didn’t always entirely agree, I didn’t labour or aggressively counter trivial issues. It is certainly true what you tend to read, you relax into it after a while. I would say it is enjoyable, although for me my voice made it uncomfortable. However, 20 minutes in, and given the questions, I had a strong feeling I knew what the result would be.

One and a half hours later the questioning stopped, and they asked me to leave the room. It was judgement time. After milling around the lobby for some time, pretending to read noticeboards and giving awkward head nods to people I vaguely recognized, one of my examiners returned and invited me to go back to the room. Upon entering the room the other examiner stood up, and they both faced me. ‘We are pleased to recommend that you be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy subject to minor corrections’.

‘Yay!’ I squeeked.

After some friendly exchanges, one of the examiners gave me a piece of paper he’d torn off the corner of his notebook. On it were about 5 page numbers where he had spotted typos. In my hand I still clutched the list of the hundreds I had spotted. Probably best I don’t show it to them…

“FAREWELL”, I demanded. We then parted ways. I expected this. I didn’t expect, as many do, to go to the pub for a drink with my examiners, or for us all to be snorting lines of cocaine off the department’s urinals yelling ‘Foucault’s a wanker!’.

I mean don’t get me wrong, sometimes I think Foucault is a wanker, but I think the same of myself. Anyway, wankers aside, I had made it. In many ways, the Viva was actually one of the most enjoyable moments of the PhD. More importantly, it was time for a cup of tea.

Epilogue

My viva occurred after four and a half years of studying. It had been an arduous time. I lost two grandparents, was banned from returning the country of my upbringing for political reasons, and was periodically looking after my mother who suffers from mental health issues and alcohol addiction. Perhaps as a result of those things, and the general pressures that seem to affect PhD students, I too got depression. I never really mentioned it to the university, although did in passing to my supervisor. I went to university counselling, took meds, and kept on plugging away. After second year, I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I couldn’t accept this result. Fortunately for me I have my friends, family and countless others to thank. As for others who may feel isolated from their department, it was that support network and solidarity that helped me. It was also pitching in, getting more involved in college life that gave me a constructive sense of purpose beyond just the narrow spectrum of the PhD. Teaching also really helped.

Yet my overarching message is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Certainly do not be afraid to take on other responsibilities. It can often be a good thing, even if we worry it will detract from the thesis. Make the most of college life too, because that’s most likely what you will remember, not the PhD itself. Indeed, the somewhat anticlimactic nature of the PhD was summed up by the terse note I received from the University, which simply read: “The following candidate has satisfied the examiners, subject to conferment at Congregation. Please note that the University regulations state that a candidate must be free of debt before the degree can be conferred”.

Apart from noting that I had satisfied the examiners, my 100,000 words were rewarded with a two sentence exchange, one of which was essentially a demand for money. Aloof, distant, and grasping, I felt the document summed up the direction of Education in Britain perfectly. Maybe they could get Neil to give it a rewrite?

An addendum in light of recent events at Ustinov College

As this piece highlights, Ustinov felt like an oasis amidst this difficult time. Indeed, the social space provided at Howlands, the events organized by the GCR, the friendly staff, the exercise facilities, the allotment, the cafe and bar, all created an atmosphere that removed a sense of isolation and bleakness that can be prevalent in postgraduate research life. Shortly before my end of tenure as GCR President, I attended a QAA meeting convened to assess the quality of postgraduate provision. The meeting was generally ordinary, except right towards the end, when one of us ventured the truism that the future of postgraduate study would be plagued by mental health issues exacerbated by a lack of funding, increased expectations, and less recreational time. The comment prompted an outpouring of similar sentiments, all clearly pent up behind a wall of shame or embarrassment. Given this, it boggles the mind that the University are considering evicting postgrads to an entirely unsuitable environment. The fact their current space would be occupied by students leaving Queen’s College campuses goes to show that the welfare of undergraduates is paramount. Indeed, the fact local residents apparently don’t want to live near too many undergraduates also highlights that the university are willing to penalise postgraduates for their maturity – all because Durham University didn’t have an adequate plan in place before closing QC campus.