Its over. The five-year rollercaoster ride has come to an end. No more endless stress. No more feeling that life is held on a delicate balance between barely managing and hurtling into a black hole of panic. No more. Its calm now. All peace and calm. Aaaaah! It feels ah-mazing.
As it goes, the calm arrived after chaos. There was the tsunami, the shattering earth-shake, the mad tornadoes. The final sprint to the finish line. The very last push that squeezed me dry out of all that I had to give.
I set myself a deadline to submit my thesis. My supes tentatively kept asking, you know, you could ask for another extension. NO was my response. NO. I had hung on long enough. Enough was enough. I wanted a life! I NEEDED a life! When was the last time I spent FIVE minutes away from something un-PhD without guilt eating away at my core? When was the last time I described myself something other than “student”? There was no other way to end the madness other than by just forcefully ending it. I decided I WOULD GRADUATE IN 2015! End of story.
It was nearing mid 2015. I calculated the time for supes to read my final draft. 2 months max for both of them to comment and for me revise and repeat the process a few times. From the date of submission my uni’s rule was to give 3 months for the examination process. Alright. That was 5 months in total. From the day that the examiners’ reports are received, they give 1 week to the hour to prepare for the viva. Assuming there would be some changes, it would take 2-3 weeks to submit the revisions. So all in all, 6 months was required from the date that I submitted till my viva was over and I could PRINT the thing. I mean the final beeeeutiful, leather-bound copy with the title and my name in gold letter on the cover copy. My uni also cut off the latest submission date a month from graduation. That meant that I had to submit the hard copy to the post-grad office by the last week of November. The final graduation for the year would be held in mid-December.
So there I was in May glued to my seat. I only got up to limp to the toilet and rarely to bed. I couldn’t straighten my back or legs from constantly sitting all day. I often dozed off in the lounge rather than go to bed. I didn’t have enough hours to sleep properly. When my eyes felt like it was full of sand, and the laptop screen started swimming in front of me, that was when I might limp to bed around 3am. All the caffeine that I was ingesting was helpful in preventing me from sleeping in. The minute my eyes opened, not later than 8am, I would head groggy faced and sour mouthed back to that chair. It would take too long to brush my teeth. That could wait till I graduated.
So from bed to kettle and coffee to chair and screen. I just knuckled down and kept going. By then I didn’t count time by months, weeks or days. I counted it by hours. How many hours did I have before the hard-copy hand-in date, that was what I lived by. I ate whenever I was hungry whatever I could. The sugary the food the better I could work especially if it was washed down with coffee. Lemon creams and Ferrero Roches were hotly in demand. And full-fat Coke. Who cares? I would lose the weight and regain my health AFTER I submitted the HARD COPY. AFTER GRADUATION!
May 15 was the date I handed in the three copies for examination. Ah! The relief! If there was a coconut palm that was constantly dropping coconuts on my head, that was the day that damn palm was felled. That was how I felt. I took a good shower. Yes, brushed my teeth too for an extra few more minute! And then bliss. Three months of bliss. Sleeping in, going for walks, nap, COOK without using coffee and biscuits and chocolates as the main ingredients. Whatever I did I made sure that I did NOT look or read at anything remotely sounding or looking academic.
Too soon the blissful days were gone and I got THE email informing my examiners’ reports had arrived. It was a mixed bag. There were three examiners – one was very positive with the feedback, one was s0-so, the other one had a personal vendetta against me. It was September 12th. My viva was scheduled for 22nd. My supes suggested that I should prepare my BEST argument for each of the comments from each examiner.
Back to the seat. Coffee, late nights till 3am or even later, lemon creams, no showers, brush teeth may be once every two days. I WAS GOING TO GRADUATE! Nothing else mattered. Believe me I was freaking out in side. If I stopped to think about the impending viva, I might have been crippled with anxiety. I didn’t stop to think. I keep focused on the examiners reports and wrote and rewrote, sent to supes for feedback, revised and re-read. A week flew by. It was time to take a shower, put on a decent outfit and head to the post-graduate centre to face the three examiners. I thought I was well prepared.I did not wish I had had more time. I did not feel I could have prepared more.
My viva was the most harrowing experience of my life. My supes were there (one had to leave halfway through to teach). They were extremely supportive. I was very lucky (so said my supes) to get one of the very experienced convenors. That means the convenor must play a role in at least making the candidate feel comfortable. That is to say the least. It was true for me. He was a very nice, very friendly sort of gentleman. Very noncommittally he tried to put me at ease. The presence of my supe and the nice convenor could have been the reason I did not collapse in the middle of it.
I believe every viva will be different. If I am to say anything to a candidate whose viva is ahead, I would say, know your thesis inside out. Every single argument that you have drawn in your thesis, every single claim that you have made, each and every key reference, in particular any models or frameworks that you have used, know them better than the back of your hand. Have counter arguments and responses ready. Better if you have more than one response for each. Look at your findings from the perspectives of different disciplines. From my experience, the examiners may be experts in a particular field, but their core discipline which may be different does influence their opinion and thinking. It would be very helpful to search up the examiners’ backgrounds, know their key areas of research. It would be great if you can read a couple of their recent and well-cited research. In case they throw you a tricky question, if you can loop that with some of their research or findings, you could feel you got a bit of a trump card.
Be prepared for unexpected questions based broadly on your case, your field of study or related topics. The more you have read, the wider your general knowledge the better off you would be. And beware of that one examiner who comes to settle a blood feud with you. It may be an area that you have researched, a topic of study, a particular case study which is what is making him see V-for-Vendetta from your thesis. It isn’t personal. It isn’t you. But in that room where his/her questions and your responses mean life or death, it does tend to feel quite personal. The secret weapon for me was to be the chill-out queen. Steer the responses back to the thesis, back to YOUR key findings, back to the research objectives. The aim is to show that whatever is irking the “V” is removed from the reason that you are there – your thesis objectives.
They say the examiners WANT you to pass. My ASS they do. If they do, they sure are excellent in hiding that intention. My responses were listened to, more questioned were asked, clarifications were requested. Thats it. When I was breathless and my mouth is dry as paper from talking, clarifying and then further clarifying, they either just ask more questions or say “no more questions”! I didn’t get any indication whether I had answered the questions they asked or not. And question they do. They pick my thesis apart thread by thread, sentence by sentence. Do not go thinking that you would only be questioned on the areas that were highlighted in the examiners’ report. That plus more. I suppose the examiners are there to examine you. That is what it is all about. So they question you, each one of them until they run dry or you do, which ever happens first. And they assess you based on the breadth and depth of your responses, and the CONFIDENCE with which you gave these answers. That is very important – your confidence. I felt that the examiners were checking whether I actually knew stuff or did I come with something that was prepared. So they change their angle of questioning, their way of asking stuff and sometimes start from a long way off and then zero in into the real question. Keep your mind open for that.
My viva lasted nearly 3 hours. It was an arduous experience. Take the maximum energy, best outlook, a ton of confidence and positivity with you. You will use it all up. If you had a good reserve of it all, hopefully you wouldn’t run short. By the time I walked out of that room, I was knackered. I told my supe, “I don’t think I could have gone on any further”. He told me I put up a good fight. The kindly convenor when he came to fetch us after THAT 15 minutes said the same thing to me. Well, who else was there to fight for me? Five years worth of stress, sleepless nights, tears and sweat was on line in there. Fight I did, indeed. Not with nonsensical rubbish. Oh well, you can’t exactly talk bullcrap with experts in your area of research now, can you?
THAT 15 minutes when I and my super were told to wait outside while the rest of them decided my fate, for me wasn’t too bad. Maybe because there wasn’t anything else bad left for me to experience. So we just chatted and “gossiped”. Whenever there was a lull in our chat, I made a concerted effort to not dwell on that closed door a couple of feet away and the people in there, and what was going on in there. Instead, I told myself, well, what else could they have to say, because I gave it my all.
Soon enough the nice convenor came along and invited us back in. I had barely sat in my chair and was just taking in the room checking every one else was still there, that I noticed the convenor beside my chair with his hands held out to me. He was saying “let me be the first to congratulate you”. That was it. It didn’t matter to me from that point on. How much changes, what are the conditions, nothing mattered. Instinctively I applauded myself and gave a little clap which funnily enough prompted every body else to follow. Lol! Have you heard of anybody older than two clapping for themselves?
As it turned out, I had significant changes to make. Thats what they said. But it didn’t matter to me. Because they had decided to award me the degree. They cannot change their minds. The convenor said as much with all the examiners still there. It made me feel smug. Yea, you can’t change your mind, you nasties 😉
I was given 3 moths to make the changes. THREE MONTHS! I needed to hand in the hard copy by 22 November. I barely had two months! That meant I had to make the revisions, send it back to the three examiners who were from three different continents. The university wasn’t going to pressure them to sign off my thesis. Nor would the examiners see it as a priority to see me graduate before the end of the year. I did what I could control which was working on the revisions. I worked as if my ass was on fire. In two weeks flat my revisions were ready and approved by my supes. Uni informed me they usually gave the examiners 6 weeks to send their feedback. SIX WEEKS! Noooo! I need it back in two!
I wrote a nice love letter to attach to my revisions, did my utmost best to answer their questions, even those they only commented on but did not require a revision, I did elaborate on and explained the changes that had been made, and if I didn’t, I went like, please, as you can see, this is not as you have suggested, but it is like this, therefore, it is best if it was left as it was. In other words, I WAS RIGHT AND YOU WERE WRONG! There.
When I managed to send it to the post-grad office, I had two weeks till the cut-off date for submission. After sending it through I started researching my graduation outfit. I had a board on Pinterest of graduation outfits, graduation cakes, graduation party… Emma Watson’s outfit turned out to be a well searched one, naturally. Any one else as well-known who had graduated in recent history?
A week later, a WEEK, not TWO, I got an email from post-grad office. ALL THREE OF YOUR EXAMINERS HAVE SIGNED YOUR THESIS. PLEASE PREPARE FOR GRADUATION! “In view of the amount of the work the candidate had put in”, even the ‘V’ had signed off. Hah!
I wish you good luck with your viva. I hope you cruise through it, that there isn’t a ‘V’ in your examiners team. I also hope it doesn’t last three hours and that you don’t have to face it in the un-godly hour of 5.30pm to accommodate examiners from different time zones. Here a list of Helpful resources that I found useful. I hope you can stay away from the bingeing and over caffeinating so that you don’t need to work on recovering from the after effects like I am currently.
Look, I am not your average student. I have had more, much more than my fair share of life’s crap handed to me. With it all if I, a single mom of three did it, so can you 🙂
How’s your PhD Picnic going? How was your viva experience? Would love to hear.