A good few months ago, one of my PhD colleagues gave me this; the tiny book of viva prep. I laughed and said I couldn’t conceive of needing it any time soon. Now, with less than 10 weeks until my viva, it feels like I might have to open its tiny pages and start preparing for the most important exam of my life.
As might be obvious, so far I’ve very much taken the ostrich approach to thinking about the viva. The thought of submitting the thesis was beyond me until I handed in my first full draft to my supervisors in September 2017 – only at that point did completing it actually feel possible. So I think it’s fair to say that I have always had some level of denial about ever having to do a viva!
The weeks before I actually handed in the thesis, and the viva became an imminent reality are something of a blur to me now. I set the date some time ago, because I had booked a holiday in the days afterwards for my partner’s 30th, and knew I’d need a break and a change of scene. Looking back on this period, the things that stand out most to me are my short temper, physical exhaustion and interestingly, an almost complete lack of motivation – the last thing I expected at this stage.
In terms of getting support from others to help me submit the darn thing, I couldn’t have asked for more. My partner looked after me, cooking and sorting out the house even more than usual, I had messages of support from friends and family, and my supervisors were fantastic, turning around feedback on my draft chapters in a matter of days which gave me valuable proof-reading time. But I was really struggling to make myself do those final few changes, to re-read for spelling and grammar errors, and to get to the end of my checklist of things to do before submitting.
I think a lot of this was mental exhaustion; I could barely take in the meaning of my own words any more. I stared at the screen for so long that I gave myself eyestrain, scrolled through the thesis so often that I aggravated the RSI that I’d developed earlier in the PhD, and genuinely lost the ability to evaluate the quality of my work. Having talked to friends and peers, and reading blogs and guidance literature about submitting a thesis, this is pretty normal.
But I think that a considerable part of this poorly-timed lethargy was to do with actually not wanting to finish. It seems so odd to admit that and see it in black and white, especially considering that all I talked about for the last year was being able to get the thesis done. That’s always the goal, the endpoint you hope to reach when you start a PhD. Yet I had slowly begun to realise the huge sense of loss I would feel without it in my life. It’s been my motivation, my passion, my reason to get out of bed every morning for three and a half years, and to suddenly be deprived of that felt like an extremely daunting prospect. The last few months have brought a significant amount of personal upheaval, and finishing the thesis has strangely enough been the thing that has kept me going, the thing which has given me a sense of purpose. The day before I handed in, I wrote this in my research diary: “I feel like I want to cry and it’s all so weird and unreal and I am so tired and I can’t wait for it to be over but I feel very scared about the prospect of finishing”.
So, much as I am hugely relieved to have the weight of submitting off my mind, and proud of what I’ve achieved, I can’t help but feel sad that it’s over. On the whole, I really loved doing my PhD. The autonomy, the flexibility of working when I wanted, the ability to take up a range of opportunities during my studies, is something I really appreciated, and something I am unlikely to experience to the same degree in my career again.
Back in October 2016, at the start of what I naively referred to as my ‘final year’ (!) I wrote a post where I discussed how Phillips and Pugh (2015) describe moving through the doctorate as ‘the progressive reduction of uncertainty’. I questioned it then, and reflecting on this now, I’m even more sceptical! Do I know more now than I did then? Yes, obviously. Do I have a sense of what my research has contributed to the field? Yes, definitely. But am I no longer uncertain? Absolutely not.
If anything, writing the thesis has taught me the value of uncertainty, and how to make progress even when things are unclear. It has given me tenacity, and helped me to cope with not knowing all the answers. I’ve learned to decide on a course of action, and to justify my approach and findings – despite all the other possible ways of doing the research, and writing it up.
Now, forcing myself to take my head out of the sand and engage in preparation for the viva, I hope that these skills are enough to help me overcome one of the most uncertain events I am likely to encounter in my career, and to cope with whatever it brings.