My Viva – Ten Years Ago Today

OUMy viva was on 20 July 2006, in a massive heatwave. Railways were buckling, roads were melting – it was much like today. I like heat. As far as I could tell, my examiners didn’t. My main examiner mopped his bald and sweaty head while I made a joke about being the one in the hot seat. It was his colleague’s first viva as an examiner and I think she was more nervous than I was.

I was nervous, though. Nervous enough not to want to drive myself the 100 miles from my home to the Open University campus in Milton Keynes, even though it was a route I knew well, because I wasn’t confident that I could keep my mind on the road. My lovely partner kindly drove me there and tolerated my disjointed gibbering along the way. Although I am comfortable in hot weather, I was also glad of the air conditioning in our car, which meant I arrived looking cool rather than a bedraggled dripping mess.

I arrived two hours early, as planned. I had a half-hour chat with my supervisors and was then delivered into the care of a kind member of the department who was assigned to look after me until the appointed hour of 2 pm. She was astonished when I demanded lunch. ‘People can’t usually eat before their viva,’ she said. ‘I’m not likely to perform well if my blood sugar is low, am I?’ I replied, quite logically I thought, and proceeded to demolish a baked potato with tuna mayo (fish! brain food!) and salad. Then we sat on the grass under a tree and chatted until it was viva time.

My examiners greeted me warmly and my main examiner told me straight away that I would be awarded a PhD, but that they wanted to discuss my thesis and some possible amendments. I didn’t know that could happen and from my point of view it was a great opener. I’d had several mock vivas and was well prepared for most of the questions, but one threw me. ‘What surprised you in your data?’ he asked. I did soundless goldfish mouth. He leaned over and tapped my copy of my thesis. ‘Pages 225 and 231,’ he said kindly, and gave me time to review what I’d written before discussing it in more detail.

Both examiners really engaged with my thesis, which was a great experience for me. They made some helpful suggestions about things I could add. After a few of these, I could see they were getting a bit over-enthusiastic, and (although I didn’t mention this at the time) I didn’t want to do more extra work than was absolutely necessary. So I gently pointed out that I was up to the maximum word count already, and while I could see the point of all their suggestions, I would also need some guidance from them about what I could take out to make space for the extra work they were recommending. They were surprised by this and checked with my supervisors, who were sitting behind me and confirmed what I had said. We discussed some options for removing text but I hadn’t waffled or included extraneous material so they rejected all of those and backpedalled on the number of amendments they wanted me to make.

My examiners each asked some of the questions, and after every question the examiner who had asked it checked with the other examiner about whether there was anything they wanted to add. Each time the other examiner said a hot and weary ‘no, that’s fine’. I truly don’t think I’d have got off so lightly if the weather had been cooler.

After just 45 minutes we were done. I had to do the statutory wait in the corridor, but only for about 10 minutes, and then it was back in for congratulations, hand-shakes, and off to the department for champagne in plastic cups. Then my partner drove me home while I rang and texted everyone. Two of my friends had kindly made a party for me while I was out; they’d questioned the wisdom of this, given that the result was not a foregone conclusion, but I felt fairly confident, and reasoned that if my confidence was misplaced I’d need distraction, sympathy, and a chance to drown my sorrows, so a party would work either way. As things turned out, it was a celebration, and for the first and only time in my life I drank champagne all evening as people kept turning up with bottles of the stuff and insisting it was for me.

Then two days later I went to Canada for a three-week holiday. Guess what I’m doing the day after tomorrow, for the first time in ten years? Yep, holiday on the horizon! So this blog will be quiet for a while. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my viva experience – and the viva experiences of others – I recommend Nathan Ryder’s Viva Survivors podcasts. I hope you all have a wonderful few weeks, and I’ll see you, refreshed and rejuvenated, in mid-August.

Getting Creative With Your Thesis Or Dissertation

draft thesis picMost doctoral theses and dissertations are produced as a block of printed paper, with the final version bound into a book. Those studying arts subjects may present a shorter written work that forms the theoretical framework for one or more artworks presented alongside the written work as part of the thesis or dissertation. These artworks could be, for example, a collection of poems, a piece of prose fiction, a short play or screenplay, a performance piece such as a dramatic monologue or interpretive dance, an art exhibition or installation, a musical arrangement or composition, or experimental work crossing artistic boundaries.

In recent years some doctoral students in non-arts disciplines have begun to take a creative approach to their theses or dissertations. For example, Anne Harris from Australia, an education researcher, was awarded her doctorate in 2010. She presented seven video films as part of her thesis on the educational experiences of Sudanese refugee women in Australia. Each film accompanies and complements one chapter of her written thesis.

Nick Sousanis, another education researcher, studied the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning at Columbia University in New York. He was awarded his doctorate in 2014, and chose to present his doctoral dissertation as a 132-page graphic novel called Unflattening, which was published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. Benjamin Dix, a British visual ethnographer, also used the graphic novel format for presenting his thesis on complex human rights testimonies. He was awarded his PhD in 2016 and has received Arts Council funding to convert his thesis into a graphic novel.

From Canada, Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect, wrote a doctoral dissertation called Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge with almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English language conventions. He received his doctorate in 2015.

Even some hard scientists are taking a creative approach to writing their dissertations or theses. For example, Piper Harron, a doctoral mathematician at Princeton University in the US, was awarded her PhD in 2016. She named her dissertation The Liberated Mathematician, and included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’ – and a whole lot of jokes.

(I didn’t know all this till I asked on social media. From Facebook, thanks to Research Companion members Rebecca Ashley for information about the work of Benjamin Dix, and Melissa Terras for pointing me to Piper Harron’s dissertation. From Twitter, thanks to @librarykris for reminding me about Nick Soudanis, @ndarney for highlighting Patrick Stewart’s work, and @meganjmcpherson for directing me to the work of Anne Harris. Which just goes to show that social media is awesome.)

If you’re going to take some kind of creative approach to the presentation of your thesis or dissertation, it’s best to plan ahead if possible. However, some doctoral students may not realise until late in the process that they both want to, and can, do something a little different from the norm. If this applies to you, depending on what the difference is that you have in mind, it may still be possible. Producing a whole graphic novel at a late stage might be too big an ask – though if you are a talented artist and writer, maybe not. However, options such as weaving data excerpts in with your writing, or using a particular kind of format or structure for your dissertation or thesis, could be implemented in the last months of doctoral study.

Also, if you want to be just a little bit creative, it may be possible to take an experimental approach to a single chapter or section of your thesis or dissertation. I did this with my thesis: I wrote a chapter, on reflexivity, as a fictional story. That was an interesting challenge for me, and my examiners appreciated the change of pace. Alternatively, you could use a metaphor to draw your argument together. For example, Australian education researcher Deborah Netolicky, who was awarded her PhD in 2016, used themes and characters Alice in Wonderland as an extended metaphor to help structure her thesis. Or, again, you could do this in a smaller way, in a single chapter or section.

I would have liked to use a fictional style for my whole thesis, but my supervisors deemed it too risky. This was over 10 years ago, before I could ask social media – and even if I had been able to ask, I doubt many examples would have been available. Maybe not any. So I have drawn together the examples in this blog post in case any doctoral student feels creative but needs some evidence of precedent to comfort a nervous supervisor. If you know of other relevant examples, please share details in the comments.