PhD: Surviving the Viva and Some Reflections

An academic once warned me that doing a PhD was a ‘dark night of the soul’. I laughed at the time at what seemed like a bit of a melodramatic statement, but they were absolutely right. After seven years of continuous study (BA, MRes and PhD), I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to finally finish. In the three years I’ve studied for my PhD I’ve grappled with anxiety, depression and exhaustion- all to produce 85,000 words. Like most PhD students, I struggled in my first year to pin down exactly what my PhD thesis was about- I read widely and without a real sense of purpose in the hopes of narrowing down my research topic. Like most I suffered from an acute sense of ‘imposter syndrome‘. It was only in my second year, when I began to structure my ideas in preparation for my progression interview to advance into third year and an important paper at a conference at Goldsmiths, that my ideas began to really take on structure and form.

Me (far left) at Goldsmiths (on my 24th birthday no less!)

At that conference I met some lovely people- including Sarah Green and Jonathan Downing. It was there that I also met my future external examiner, Ariel Hessayon.  I would say that it was after that conference in June 2014 (almost exactly half way through my PhD) that things started to snowball for me. Chapters were written in quick succession, drafts were submitted to supervisors with less corrections being returned, and slowly the structure of my PhD began to form itself. Having my first journal article accepted in March 2015 after two years of rejected submissions propelled me towards the finish line.

I’ve talked about the final few months of my PhD on a previous blog post, and elsewhere I’ve discussed my first journal article. The final challenge to be faced was the viva. Although I submitted within the expected three year period, I had to wait just over two months for my viva on December 17th. That left me plenty of time to prepare and thankfully meant that my teaching workload would be finished a few weeks beforehand.

Preparing for the viva is a stressful time. Luckily there are plenty of free resources out there, including Nathan Ryder’s podcasts which interview ‘Viva Survivors‘ and Emma Cole’s YouTube ‘vlogs‘ on the final few months of completing a PhD. There are also useful lists of common questions, while the University of Nottingham has a number of videos addressing common questions about the viva process. All these gave me a good idea of what to expect and how to make sure I was ready.  I began preparing by re-reading my thesis towards the end of November, having not looked at it once since submitting it. Approaching it with a fresh pair of eyes after a rest was vital. Not only did it mean I picked up on the odd error in grammar, but it also let me re-read the thesis as if it was someone else’s. I made notes on the main argument, outlined the contents of the individual chapters, and tried to pick out any areas that might be weaker than others. I also made a list of ‘killer questions’ that I would not know how to answer if I was asked. I then made sure that I knew the answers to them before the viva!

My thesis on the day of the exam

As you can see, my thesis was well annotated! Post-it notes signalled important arguments in my thesis that I might want to quickly refer to, while the coloured post-its meant I could quickly flick to chapters when asked. I also had a whole range of notes (including my chapter summaries) tucked away at the back. As it turned out, there was very little flicking back and forth during the viva itself, and I found that I remembered much more than I thought I would about my own work, the important quotations, and the existing historiography. Three years of studying something really ingrains it into your brain!

My viva started at 10am and lasted two hours. I was told at the start that both my examiners were generally happy with the thesis, but wanted to ask me several questions that would push me to explore my conclusions further. The first few questions were ones I had prepared for in advance. These were questions almost everyone gets asked- justification of the topic, terminology, chronology and methodology. They are meant to put you at ease and get you talking. It also helps calm any initial nerves. After this the questions got considerably harder. What surprised me most is that both my examiners actually had very little to criticise in terms of the actual thesis itself. I had imagined them going through it page by page and tearing it to pieces. What actually happened was more of a conversation than an exam. I was asked how my work related to different concepts: alchemy, patriarchy, chastity, monasticism and anti-scholasticism, among others. At one point I was challenged with a new way of framing my research and asked to re-evaluate my findings using that new framework (i.e. would my conclusions be any different if using the argument for ‘multiple Reformations’ rather than a ‘long Reformation’). It was two hours of me reacting to different approaches to my research that I had not thought of before, and coming up with some preliminary conclusions on the spot. I was reassured by the fact that my examiners thought my research was sound, and wanted to see how far they could push me. As weird as it sounds, I actually enjoyed it. After two hours I was exhausted, but proud of myself. Seven years of hard work had lead to that moment, and I had done my best.

At the end I was asked to leave the room, go for a coffee, and come back in around 20 minutes. As it turns out, I waited about 45 minutes before I was called back in. It was all smiles and handshakes as I was told straight away that I had passed with minor corrections (only some typos to correct). My examination feedback form states ‘Good job. Engaging defense. Very reflective’ so I must have impressed!

As I stepped back out into the fresh air as Dr Liam Peter Temple, I knew the seven years had been worth it. Although the PhD had plagued me with periods of excruciating self doubt, sleepless nights, anxiety and stress, I would do it again given the choice. Because despite all that, it had also been a period of personal growth, professional development and intellectual exploration. The person I am now is unrecognisable compared with who I was at the start of the process. That is why being awarded a PhD is so much more than being able to put ‘Dr’ on your bank card- it represents hardship, struggle, resilience, perseverance, inquisitiveness, enthusiasm and ultimately- success. I’ve visited some amazing places that I otherwise would never have gone to- the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, the British Library, Dr William’s Library, Ampleforth Abbey and Ushaw College, among others. Every step of the process has pushed me mentally and intellectually, and I’m excited to continue to push myself further as I continue in academia.