PhDone – The Viva

Well, June 13th, what can I say, I have never experienced stress like it. Which is saying a lot because as my husband put it the day after: “You worry unnecessarily about everything”. However, I think that this time, I was justified.

I had spent the two weeks prior either attempting to read my thesis, or gathering questions that I could force myself to answer in the hopes that it would somehow open my mind in preparation for a good grilling.

I scoured the internet for blog posts about vivas and how to survive them, what to do to prepare and what to expect. The most I got from my supervisor was “Don’t prepare too much, just make sure you know your thesis inside and out”. Which at the time, I thought was completely useless advice. But he was correct, any general questions I had managed to find online did not come up and what helped me most was knowing my work and therefore being able to defend it (or knowing when to concede defeat).

People recommend doing something to take your mind off it, which is such an easy thing to say when you’re the person giving the advice and not about to go into the most stressful meeting of your life. That morning I attempted to distract myself with exercise, take my mind off things and hopefully go into my viva feeling refreshed, with happy hormones and feeling confident. It worked for the duration of my workout, but then my nerves prevented me from eating anything after and about 30 minutes before I was supposed to go in thought I might collapse because I had no sugar left in my body.

I arrived at my supervisor’s office, I could barely speak I was so nervous. Luckily this was the first time I had seen him since his episode of Springwatch aired, so after a bit we managed to distract me sufficiently by laughing at how stupid he looked on the tele. Twenty minutes later I had to go up to face my destiny.

Vivas in general are supposed to last between 1 and 4 hours, it is quite common for scientific vivas to last 2-4 hours. Mine was 3 hours 50 minutes, but it genuinely did not feel that long. The only inkling I had that my perception of time was skewed, was when I asked to go to the toilet at what I thought was 20 minutes in, checked my watch, and AN HOUR AND A HALF HAD PASSED.

There were lots of questions about my work that I found it easy to answer, reasons for decisions I had made and elaborating on methods to make it clearer what I had done. But what I really struggled with, were questions further afield from my research. I felt like I had said the phrase “I honestly don’t know” about 30 times, so by the time they sent me out to make a decision I felt I had done terribly. I rang my supervisor and convinced him that I had failed miserably; I felt battered and beaten and that they had successfully managed to pull out all of the flaws within my thesis, plus some extra ones that I hadn’t even considered.

I was called back in, and after what followed the longest corridor and widest table I finally sat down to my verdict. Long pause. I got awarded a pass with corrections. AMAZING. I still cannot believe it.

I have spent most of my PhD with imposter syndrome. From what I have read from other students (mostly on twitter, #phdchat and #phdlife are useful handles to check up on every so often), this is a perfectly normal feeling to have. It basically runs along the lines of thinking you’ve gotten to where you are purely by chance, or somehow hoodwinking some poor supervisor into thinking that you’re the perfect match for their PhD.

When they told me I had passed I felt a sense of pride in my achievements, that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel before. That perhaps I am intelligent, I have worked hard, I do deserve it and I can do this. My viva was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and for that I am grateful, it really shook me from how I felt about it before I went in – it was so important to me, during and after that I just can’t believe I made it through to the other side.

Wow this is a long post. Thank you if you made it this far and without any photos, I didn’t take any that day because I was so preoccupied and then busy celebrating with my amazing team. So here is a picture of a grumpy dipper chick as a reward.

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