Dr. Donoghue: or how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the thesis

Ok, so ‘love’ is probably too strong a word, but I did learn to stop worrying. Just in time too…

I submitted my PhD thesis at Oxford Brookes back in September. I had my viva on Tuesday afternoon (20th Jan). Although it’s all I know (and so my opinion is obviously lacking from viewing this from other experiences), I think the fact I had three and a bit months between these two milestones was really good for me. Not because I had all that time to prepare; far from it. In fact, I didn’t look at my thesis properly again until one week before the viva.

As the avid reader of my blog will know, I started a new job in March, working on a research project full-time. March to September was therefore filled with extra work in the evenings and at weekends working on my thesis. I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to my working practices (I believe in protecting my leisure/non-work/family and friends time) so I had to work hard to do this. That being said, for a long period of time Saturday morning felt like another work day. Being honest though, at this point I had been a PhD student for four and a bit years, so having a full-time job was a positive development; I don’t think I could have brought myself to work on my thesis full time. In addition having a job meant firstly I had to manage my time rigorously, and secondly it gave me something productive to take my mind off the PhD.

September 30th became my submission deadline, for two reasons: Firstly, I didn’t want to take more than five years to finish. Even though for the past two I have been working alongside my PhD, I felt like I’d had enough time. Secondly – and this was the real driver – I didn’t want to pay any more bloody continuation fees. I can’t really give you too much in the way of reflections on the last bits of writing, except that the further through I got, the more I felt the thesis came together as a coherent whole. I could see how things were fitting together – probably the biggest confidence boost one can have. This period of writing was also when I truly understood what it meant to own one’s thesis. You can get a lot of support, advice, critique, suggestions etc. from your supervisors, but when you walk into the viva the responsibility for the thesis is entirely yours. If you are asked why you did/didn’t do something, you can’t say ‘because my supervisor told me to’! In other words, you would be a fool not to take on board the advice of people who know what they’re talking about more than you, but you have to be happy with what’s on the page. Otherwise how will you ever be able to defend it?

The submission day itself was an (inevitable, many would say) anti-climax. I submitted the day before my self-imposed deadline, just in case I needed a contingency day. The week before that had involved much procrastination: checking my bibliography thirteen thousand times, making sure footnote 32 said exactly what I wanted it to say. By this point, any more substantive changes would have led to more changes elsewhere. And that is not good for the soul. I got to the print department in the morning, ready to hand over my PDF, to find a large queue. I hadn’t realised it was also MA dissertation hand-in day. Though I have to say it was a great distraction. I felt better about myself when I saw the amount of people stressing and worrying over 15/20 thousand words (that probably sounds meaner than I intend it to!). On the other side of the coin, I like to think I helped at least one person in return. I received my three bound copies of my 300 page thesis, to the wide-eyed amazement of one Master’s student. By means of acknowledgement, I quipped ‘it’ll make a good doorstop’. I think that sums up my mood at the time! I took it to the research students’ administration team, signed my life away, and attempted to forget about it for as long as possible.

I was successful in this until I received an email from my internal examiner, giving me a viva date. A couple of weeks before the viva I start thinking properly about prep. This is mixed in with an intense period in my job, as the fieldwork stage is at full pace and I am travelling a lot. My allegiances are torn, and this is stressful. Fieldwork has to come first at this point, so I reduce viva preparation to general thoughts. Eventually the travelling dies down and I have a chance to meet my supervisors. I decline the opportunity for anything that resembles a mock viva. I know what I’m like; if there’s a question that stumps me, I will obsess over it. I’m self-critical to the extent that if I think I have performed poorly, my confidence will be seriously knocked. Instead I opt for a series of strategy meetings. This suits me perfectly.

These meetings (one with my two supervisors at Brookes, and another with my Director of Studies over lunch in London) help me understand the nature of the viva more than anything on the internet does. Yet I’m confused. What do you mean I can’t prepare for specific questions? What am I supposed to do to prepare? What do you mean ‘know your thesis?!’ Revising for a viva is not like anything I’ve done before. There are probably two comparative events, being a really intense conference Q and A, and a job interview. The former because, after all, you are presenting your work and responding to (overall friendly) critique and calls for clarification. The latter because you can only prepare so much – know the general points of discussion, think about how you will deal with general areas/questions, and be prepared to think on your feet.

I spend the week ‘revising’. Not reading my thesis cover to cover (I’m not a masochist), but reading the introduction and conclusion, engaging with the key areas, contentions and concepts, and reading the abstract multiple times (that is, after all, your thesis in a nutshell). I covered my thesis in those index post-it notes, just in case I had to find a key passage/page/amorphous and ill-defined idea quickly (purely decorative, in the end; I didn’t open my thesis once).B7py8d5CAAAzj60 I wrote pages of notes over the week, not necessarily to engage with my work, but to prove to myself that I knew it. All the way through my recurring feeling was that I simply wasn’t doing enough work. This is the biggest day of my academic life so far, and I’m mucking around with brightly coloured post-its and repetitive bullet points. I suppose I could have asked friends and my wife to ask me tough, soul searching questions about my work, but there was no way in hell I would have been able to answer them in the week.

For most of the week I was most relaxed when I wasn’t revising. When I was, my stomach felt like it was being wringed out. Every time I finished for the day I thought ‘I’m almost there. There’s just a little bit I want to do tomorrow’. This went on until Monday lunchtime – the day before my viva. On Sunday and Monday the stomach wringing went away (though I was certainly still nervous). I had condensed my notes into 6 (obviously essential) sides of A4. The most helpful of these was the sheet with the one sentence and one page summary of my thesis, and the sheet with some notes on my contribution to literature.

In general I think the advice you find on the internet about vivas can simultaneously help and hinder. But one piece of advice I got from all three of my supervisors and everywhere on the internet is the day before (or in my case, the afternoon/evening) the viva, don’t bother even looking at your thesis. If you don’t know it by now (and you do!), you never will. A lot of people recommended going to the cinema. That would have done nothing for my nervous energy, but lucky I train in karate and Monday night just happens to be training. My fellow karate-ka were only too kind and generous in their beating me up, which I genuinely thank them for (we agreed no visible bruises…). I slept well that night.

The day of the viva, I was eerily calm, until about an hour before, anyway. I go to uni in the morning to meet a friend for coffee, after which I set up camp in one of my supervisors’ offices, and proceed to stop him from working by engaging him in small talk for about an hour. I then decide I should probably try to eat. After a hearty handshake and a ‘see you on the other side’, I’m on my own. Deep breaths…

My examiners arrive. I’m eager to get started (read: get it over with). We sit down in a non-confrontational formation; in a circle(ish). My external tells me, with a smile, that he doesn’t believe in telling people the outcome at the beginning of the viva. However, they did enjoy reading it. The first bit of feedback? ‘There’s a lot going on!’ Yes. Yes, there is! The first question is one I knew was a possibility but didn’t prepare particularly much for: ‘so, how did you come about to doing this research?’ I ramble off some stuff about being interested in welfare and its cohesive effects, and in the development of Community Cohesion policy, before realising they probably want to hear something about the research problem. I’m pushed a bit more, but they seem relatively satisfied. The next question rears its head, and it’s the one I’ve been dreading: ‘what do you think your contribution is’? This is the only time I really look at my notes. I revert to primary school status, and read out the small passage I have written for this question using my finger to track the sentences. But again, they seem satisfied. Perhaps I can bumble my way through this after all? I relax a bit more.

What follows is about an hour of discussing my first chapter (why I did and didn’t look at certain things for context) and the finer points of using Gramsci for such a study, and to frame Critical Discourse Analysis. I don’t remember what I said to most of the questions, just the general gist. I do, however, remember at points thinking ‘that’s a tough question! How am I going to answer this one?’ But I do. I start considering if I should change my career to con artist. We have some pretty specific, but very interesting, discussions. This isn’t anything like the interrogation I was expecting. At one point it turns into a (dare I say) fun debate where we consider some metatheoretical issues.

After a bit of this the external remarks with surprise that we have been talking about these things for about an hour, which doesn’t leave much time for questions on the methodology, case selection etc,. so we might just have to skip that. In fact, we don’t really talk about my central chapter all that much (I’m told later that we could have done, but there wasn’t much to say anyway!). My internal picks up on one line in which I say a scholar I use follows something from Wittgenstein. I’m told I’m probably better off taking this citation out. I can do that.

An hour and a half sails by and I’m asked to leave the room. The external remarks that technically they can have up to half an hour to deliberate, but they doubt it’ll take that long. Either way, it’s the longest ten minutes of my life. I’m invited back in to be told I have passed, with minor corrections. I was gunning for this (but the pessimist in me was expecting majors), so I am over the moon, but mostly stunned that I had actually done it. My supervisors are called. They come over to the room with champagne. Everyone is happy and chatting, while I stand there mostly in silence. And to think I was going to use this time to network extraordinarily in an attempt to skyrocket my career. At this point I was lucky to even string a sentence together. I seem to remember spending most of the time staring at my shoes or looking around with an inane grin on my face. Just call me captain lobotomy.

Everything people who had been through the viva told me turned out to be true. You can enjoy it, all you can really do is ‘know’ your thesis (but prepare for the two most common questions on the summary of your thesis and your contribution), and it’ll be over before you know it. And anyone reading this who is expecting their viva won’t believe a single word I’ve written. I certainly didn’t believe anyone. Somehow I don’t hate my thesis anymore. I don’t quite love it, but I do quite like it. Maybe there’s some merit in it after all! Just call me Dr. Strangelove Donoghue (or don’t – it sounds weird to my ears, anyway).

The take away points

The questions I can remember well enough to document here:

  • ‘How did you come to choose this topic to research?’ (paraphrased)
  • ‘What is your original contribution?’
  • ‘This is a bit of a mean question, as it’s not in your thesis, but why didn’t you use Foucault, instead of using Gramsci?’ (I was lucky with this one; at the beginning of the PhD I had actually considered using Foucault, and put a lot of thought into it!)

General areas of discussion:

  • Why use hegemony
  • What does Gramsci bring to a (critical) discourse analysis?
  • Can you really use Howarth and Glynos’ conception of discursive logics with CDA? (I turned this into a consideration of critical realism vs poststructuralism, as well as using Van Dijk’s position that CDA is an approach not a method, and so can be combined with most things)
  • Debates on the intentionality, directionality and influence of discourse

General reflections

  • I should have been more forthright/courageous and clear about New Labour and the building of a hegemonic project; it would have shut down a lot of the discussion (but on the other hand, it was a great discussion – so swings and roundabouts).
  • Although I thought I rambled through, my examiners remarked that I had defended well. So while you’re waiting to hear your fate, don’t second-guess yourself. You have no idea what you really said anyway – or at least I didn’t.
  • For most of it I actually felt like an academic/intellectual, rather than a student/young pretender.
  • If my experience is anything to go by, having two theorists by training for examiners when you’re not a theorist yourself isn’t as bad as I thought it may have been – though if I wasn’t confident on my analytical framework this could have been a different story!

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