Today was the day of my PhD viva!
For the last five years, I’ve been undertaking a part-time doctorate. Though there was a rush at the end because of confusion over whether I could have a writing-up year, I submitted at the end of October. And today was my viva, the examination in which two experts assess the thesis and decide whether it was good enough to earn me my doctorate.
It was an absolutely exhausting experience, actually. And while it certainly could have gone a lot worse, it absolutely could have gone better as well. This thesis will be in my life for a good few months yet.
Looking appropriately petrified just before my viva, on possibly my final visit to Royal Holloway.
I got up a little earlier than I’m used to and got to Royal Holloway in plenty of time. As it turned out, it was an open day today, so the place was quite lively. I found my way to the Moore Building – the first time I’d ever been in there! – and after a few minutes recognized my examiners walking past. I’d looked up what they look like on the Internet, though both were taller than expected. My external examiner, who we’ll call Dr. C., is an expert on my subject, while Dr. M., the internal examiner, is a historian.
My supervisor soon appeared and we went into our little room and set the recording device going.
For the first hour, perhaps ninety minutes, I thought things were going very well. I could field the questions they put to me, and it was all really quite enjoyable. Things switched a little after that when we talked about shortcomings. The historian thought that my overview was a bit too weak – I hadn’t discussed some names he considered key, and he wanted me to add some of their arguments, which I thought wouldn’t be a difficult task. But Dr. C. was also disappointed that I hadn’t been delving into archives he had used to write his biography last year.
Now, by this stage I already felt like my result was edging away from what I wanted it to be. There are six possible outcomes for the viva at Royal Holloway: an outright pass with no corrections, which is extremely rare; a pass with minor corrections to be done over three months; a pass with major corrections to be done over nine months; a request to make major revisions and resubmit in 12-18 months; the decision that the PhD is not satisfactory and only an MPhil will be awarded; and an outright fail with no chance of resubmission, which is at least as rare as an immediate pass.
From this, it may be obvious at once that only the fringe outcomes are dramatic. There’s the possibility of the absolute elation of an instant pass and the debilitating despair of outright failing, but both are extremely unlikely. So whatever happens, passing a viva is going to be anticlimactic. There’s going to be months of work no matter what.
Well, the discussions went on like that, until I was asked to go outside while the examiners debated between themselves. This went on for a very long time, and then they got my supervisor in for an even longer chat. I was pacing up and down outside the room for almost half an hour. Then finally they called me in again, and told me their decision.
I can’t call myself a doctor yet. And since Dr. C. wants me to go and do more research in the archives, I don’t even fit into how the 9-month revisions are decided. So it’s a bad outcome for me, really. In practical terms, there’s not a huge difference between the 9-month revision and the 12-month revision, but I would have much, much preferred 9 months. For one, it’s deemed a pass. For another, I don’t have to pay the admin fees that I have to when revising and resubmitting. But that was what they decided, in the end. A revise and resubmit outcome. Which many consider a fail.
The picture gallery was finally open, so I had a visit despite my disappointment. Looking rather posh!
It’s not failing, really. Before submission, I always intended to take another year to finish, until some issues with funding came up. And with this, I’ll have a detailed examiner’s report to tell me exactly what to do within that year. On the other hand, they’ve decided I don’t need a second viva, just to send in the completed version with the additional materials informing the argument. And if I tick all their boxes, I should
be certain to get my doctorate.
But...I don’t have it yet. It’s pretty unlikely I’ll have it this year. This is not the outcome I had hoped for.
On the train on the way home, I read a lot of accounts online of other people who have been in my shoes. Almost all of whom – or possibly all of whom, as there were no anecdotes suggesting otherwise - resubmitted to receive their doctorate. There were a lot of people who felt the same negative things I did: sick of their thesis and feeling like just dropping it, that the examiners really could have just given them major corrections, that there are just more important things in life now than academia even if it’s taken a whole lot of work.
Ultimately, I’m just back where I was before I got the idea to rush my submission. I’m going to pay a fraction of what I would have done otherwise for another year. I was always going to have to do revisions. As I don’t need another viva this is no big deal regarding plans to go to Japan, though I’ll need to try and get to the archives Dr. C. expects me to go to within the next month – and visit the library for history books. It’s just that...well, I could have been celebrating a pass right now, and I’m not. And I don’t know how exciting I’ll find the prospect in a year.
The Princes in the Tower by Millais - probably the most famous picture in the gallery
On the plus side, there was well-timed good news waiting for me at home. A silly extras job might be lined up for next week, but much better than that, my agent was in touch in good spirits – she’s had a very positive message from one of the editors we submitted to, who is taking my book to his publishing house’s acquisitions meeting. Plus another editor has sent a note to say she’s halfway through and loving it so far. So that’s hugely encouraging! Having a call on Friday to discuss ‘strategy’ – I’m not sure, but we might use this interest to hopefully drum up interest from our first choices. Yay!