When I first handed in my doctoral thesis, I was very confident about passing the viva voce exam. As had been suggested by some supportive piece of literature I picked up during my studies, before deciding to hand in I had asked my supervisor outright, ‘Will it pass?’ and he had said yes. I trusted his judgement. I felt sure it was a strong piece of work.
Then the weeks went by. Then the months. Although university guidelines suggest a viva date is set within eight weeks of hand-in, there are no hard and fast rules. A lot depends on the external examiner’s availability. By the time six months had gone by, I was a lot less confident. So were the people who enquired after the result, when I answered I hadn’t yet been given a date for my viva. Like a pregnancy, the longer it goes on, the more nervous people get on your behalf. And the more horror stories they tell you. I started to get properly nervous.
I told myself I still had every reason to be confident. The novel that made up just over half of my thesis had secured a very good book deal in the interim, and a large part of the critical component had also been published as articles in the journals Rethinking History and Critical Survey, and an academic book about Christopher Marlowe. On the other hand, I knew a novelist who, even with a book deal from Bloomsbury in her pocket, was asked to make bizarre and unreasonable “corrections” that she couldn’t bring herself to make. And my subject matter, the Shakespeare authorship question, couldn’t be more contentious or unpopular in academia. As if intent on ramping up my own anxiety, I googled ‘fail PhD viva’. I really don’t recommend it.
Finally I got a date, nine and and half months after hand-in; I had four weeks to prepare. I went to a ‘Viva preparation’ session run by the university and asked questions. I met with my supervisor a week before, and asked more. Here is what I gleaned.
- Very rarely will the outcome of a doctorate depend on your ‘performance’ at viva. The examiners have already decided whether it is strong enough to pass or likely to fail.
- Failure is rare, and pretty much unheard of if you have a good supervisor. A supervisor worth their salt would not encourage you to submit something that was likely to fail, as it would damage their reputation.
- One of the primary purposes of the viva voce exam is to make sure that you are the author of the submitted material. The examiners will test that you know your subject thoroughly in order to verify that.
- You know your subject thoroughly! You probably know a great deal more about it than your examiners do. You don’t need to ‘revise’ something that has presumably gripped you obsessively for a number of years.
- Hopefully you discussed suitable examiners with your supervisor before they were appointed, and have chosen as well as you could. You have not chosen drooling Rottweillers. Remind yourself of this.
- Preparation 1: familiarise yourself with your examiners’ work – it need not be excessive – I spent a day on each. Notice where your approaches/opinions coincide and where they differ.
- Preparation 2: read your thesis from cover to cover, pencil in hand, and note any errors, typos, things you now feel are unclear, things you would rather say differently. My pregnancy-sized delay actually made this part easier: it helps to get a bit of distance from your work.
- Preparation 3: imagine what the examiners are most likely to ask you and how you would answer them. I spent the majority of my preparation time on this bit. And of course nothing I imagined came up.
- Preparation 4: visualise the viva running smoothly, and a successful outcome. Visualise (and hear) yourself being congratulated with the word ‘Doctor’ in front of your name. Spend as much time on this as you need to feel calm and relaxed about it, and repeat as often as necessary!
- The viva is an excellent chance to discuss your work in depth with two experienced academics. Enjoy it!
More advice: be kind to yourself the night before, get enough sleep (play something soothing on headphones if necessary; meditation tracks worked for me). Get there early enough to sit quietly by yourself with a suitable beverage and concentrate on knowing that within two hours, it will be over, and statistically, it will probably be a pass.
I had an interesting experience when I was having my pre-viva coffee. I had my mp3 player on ‘shuffle’ and just as I sat down for coffee, one of the 3000-or-so tracks that *never* plays – a track I strongly associate with my mother – started up. Mum died nine years ago and passed up her own doctoral chances to get married to my father; I knew she would have been gunning for me. A few tears spiked, but I headed towards the allotted room feeling the spirit of my mother right there with me.
An hour later I was out, having passed with minor corrections. The examiners immediately expressed their admiration for the novel-in-verse… which we wouldn’t be discussing – although at the end I found myself having to defend calling it a novel, which surprised me. Discussion was reserved for their reservations about the critical commentary; both of which I found to be valid and agreed to incorporate in the form of corrections.
In the case of the issue raised by the external examiner, I had already come to the same conclusions myself (on re-reading). What the internal examiner brought was a very valuable different perspective; I had made generalisations about literary biography which are only really valid to those working with subjects from the sixteenth and seventeenth century – a period in which my supervisor is equally absorbed – so neither of us had noticed that my arguments could not be applied to literary biographers as a whole. It was a significant oversight; one I’m very glad to have the opportunity to correct before my thesis is filed at Sussex and The British Library.
In short, the viva offered a valuable chance to gain extra perspectives on my work and refine it further, and receive some very enjoyable praise in the process. If you are reading this as a doctoral candidate, I hope you find your own experience similarly enlightening.
See also: My Viva Experience
This is the fourthin a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex. The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.
In this recording, Chris Stokes (DPhil in English) talked to Profolio 2007 participants.
I am a PhD (I haven’t had my viva yet) in English, and I’ve just completed my thesis which was “Coleridge and the Sublime: Language, Subjectivity, Aesthetics”, which I won’t talk about too much in specific terms but, for those of you who do do English, it was centred on readings of poetry, and it was informed by literary theory primarily. And to give you a vague idea, hopefully intelligibly, this is the first half of my abstract that goes at the beginning of the thesis:
“Working from sublimity’s contested place in recent thought, critiqued by some as an outmoded desire for transcendence, and yet invoked by others as an experience of finitude, this thesis traces types of sublimity in Coleridge’s poetry. It contends that he was always drawn to strong, transcendent modes of the sublime, modes associated with the romantic ideology. The sublime in its transcendent form offered passage to a higher point or ground that would reconcile and organise all the conflicting difficult energies of a given field. However Coleridge faced with peculiar intensity the failure of the romantic ideology, as his faith in the capacities of poetry and humanity alike began to wane. New forms of sublimity, based more on its negative moment, its experience of limit, finitude and weakness, arose in the space where the desires of the old were relinquished.”
So, that probably makes no sense!
I handed in at the end of February, after three and a half years. Briefly, how I came to be here: I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Oxford, which was a fairly traditional place, and I became interested in a certain strand of doing the subject, which caused me to move to University College London, where I did my Masters. Unlike most Masters, where you narrow down your focus in preparation for your thesis, mine actually broadened out, which gave me some difficulties when it came to first organising my thesis and proposing what I was going to write about. Which leads on to the progress of my thesis, which you may be interested in: how it functioned as an arc from the first year to the third year.
Initially it was going to be a much broader thesis, it was actually going to be about documents of romanticism, various writers writing about what they conceive literature to be in the romantic period. And after a term working on Keats, I decided I felt this was too broad, and although my supervisor was happy with it, I personally felt that I was willing to make a change and enough time had elapsed that it wouldn’t be a problem: it would be a term’s work here or there, it would be ok. So all that got ditched, and we then chose Coleridge to work on. And like all theses, in my experience, it altered considerably. So if you look at the chapters that represent my earliest work, which is the first year, I would say about a quarter of those chapters ended up in any recognisable shape in the final draft. Obviously that goes up as you go towards later chapters, but a lot of what you write in the first year will disappear – but that’s a good thing because it disappears because you’re advancing, progressing, your knowledge. So that shouldn’t be a worry at all.
I’d say in the whole course of the three years there were two points that were changes, pivots, around which the project…pivoted (ironically enough). One was a chapter I wrote, and it was primarily on philosophy, it was primarily on Kant, and my supervisor went ‘What’s the title for this?’ and I went ‘Oh, I don’t really have one’. And he was like ‘I think that’s symptomatic of something’. And I realised at that point that that chapter enabled me to work out a certain piece of thinking, which was fine, but I realised at that point that I really wanted to write on poetry, I wanted to write literary stuff, and this philosophy stuff was very much a kind of diversion. And that led to a kind of turn in the road, if you like. That was in the second year, if I remember correctly.
In the third year – this was kind of interesting – I did a totally separate piece of research, totally unrelated to my thesis, but when I was doing the research for that (it was for a conference), this structure jumped out at me and it became the structure out of which every single chapter became organised. I thought “Yes, this is how I can organise my material”. And that’s more or less what I was describing in the abstract.
By the end of the third year, that was the point where I had a more or less final draft. Obviously some chapters had been reworked, some chapters had been junked, some chapters were new, but by the end of the third year, the beginning of the fourth year, I was looking to revise the chapters in preparation for the final draft. So that was done by about Christmas. I’d made some quite heavy changes to my initial, earliest work. And then I took about two to three months to write up, get all the final drafts back from the supervisor. What was surprising was, a) how much it came together, in a sense; I mean you oscillate between thinking “Oh, this is crap” and “Oh actually this all fits together rather nicely”; and just how much I wanted to put in new stuff, which is a desire you’ve got to work with, because you can’t do too much new stuff. But I was kind of surprised how much new writing I did do at that stage. The other thing was reference checking and proof reading took a lot longer than I thought. So if you’re thinking about planning, be really careful with your references and stuff, it’s amazing how many mistakes I picked up at that stage.
So it took me three and a half years, which I think is about normal. My everyday research was reading about 100-150 pages a day, maybe, that’s optimistic, but nominally that’s what it was.
But obviously the research experience – and [this is] one of the reasons it took three and a half years rather than under three years – was…leavened with other activities. So I’m going to talk about these things you can do. Three things: teaching, conferences, and writing articles.
Teaching took a lot of my time. I’ve been teaching non-stop, more or less, since the second year, here and at the University of Brighton. It’s fun, it’s good, it’s really satisfying for a number of reasons. It’s actually nice to be in a position where you feel you’ve got knowledge, whereas in the postgraduate, doctoral position you usually feel that you’re just getting more and more stupid, as you don’t feel you’ve got enough knowledge! But this is one position where you can actually feel alright about yourself. It’s also a relief from the monotony of being at the same topic for three years. It’s nice to have a break, and to look at other topics, or in my field, other texts. And it can lead to insights into your own research, particularly if you are looking at – say in my case I was privileged enough to teach one of the third year undergraduate courses on 1740-1830, which is my period. Of course I got to spend time – paid – researching texts around that period, and of course you begin to build up a nicer, more textured picture of your research area, and sometimes you go “Yes, that’s something that came up” – a student might have said it, a critic might have said it, you might have even made it up on the spur of the moment in one of the seminars – you think “actually that’s quite a nice little point, and that reminds me of something in Coleridge”. And therefore you can get impetuses into your research from teaching.
The only problem is time, it does take a lot of time, particularly when you start you’ll find your research goes out the window, depending on how conscientious you are. Particularly the first course you teach, you’ll find it very hard to get more than 25% or a third of your normal research load done. But obviously if you’re looking to go into an academic career it’s absolutely a necessity anyway.
Conferences are definitely worth doing; I’m sure you’ve talked about them already. It’s great to formulate ideas, to work out bits of your thesis, to meet new people – I’m not a big fan of networking, I can’t say I’ve had any brilliant job offers through conferences – but it’s nice to meet people, get out and about. One thing to be aware of: there are different types of conferences, and they can all be fun, but they will give you different things in terms of yield, if you like. Something like the HUMS – Humanities – postgraduate conference here, great fun, great to see what everyone’s doing, probably not that useful for your thesis, but well worth doing. A general conference that’s got a very general topic, again will be very interesting, you’ll get to meet people in a broad sense, particularly if it’s one of those international conferences, but the chances are the questions you field will be not from positions of expertise. The flip-side to that is the conferences that are very tightly focused around say an author or a particular topic, and therefore you know that everyone will be on the same page as you, and therefore your questions will be that little bit more rigorous, and the papers will be very very closely related. So it’s worth trying to do a range of different conferences, to see what you get out of each one.
The third one was writing articles. I’ve written a few that will be published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s worth trying to do, because…particularly if you’re going into academia, that is an absolute necessity, and the lead times on publications are huge. You submit an article, they’ll get it back to you in three months, you may get rejected, and you’ll have to apply again to a different journal or revise it. The revision process may take some time and they’ll give you revisions [to carry out]. So basically it can take two years, [one of] mine’s going to come out in 2009, and I wrote it in 2007. So it can take an awful long time. There are postgraduate journals, which [are] particularly [useful] at the beginning of your thesis – obviously their standards are slightly lower, it doesn’t mean your writing’s less good, but you just have less knowledge. You can have a crack at one of those, that’s a nice place to get a publication on your cv without necessarily going to the top journal in your field, where even great academics will get regularly rejected, faculty here will get regularly rejected from journals, so it’s just part and parcel of article life.
To conclude: problems, lessons, and so forth, from this exciting journey that I went on! I found motivation was a kind of problem. Never with the subject itself – I never fell out of love with literature, I’m perhaps lucky that English literature is a subject that people generally go into because they’re passionate about (I’m sure that’s true of other subjects as well). But going on again and again at the same thing, it can get difficult motivation-wise, and I had a kind of slump in the second half of the thesis. Certainly my desire to go into academia waned as I met more and more academics (!), and then I was lucky enough (this isn’t going to happen to all of you unfortunately) to get an all-expenses-paid conference to Singapore, with flights and hotel, which kind of reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the whole discipline, and was actually great in terms of people. I’d had an article rejection just before, and I was motivationally at a low ebb, and then I came to this conference, and people said nice things about my paper, and then I came back, and I got a journal acceptance from somewhere else, and it began to look up again. Writing-up stress would be another big problem. I think it’s impossible to avoid. It’s probably a long way off for you guys but nearly everyone I know has broken up with someone during writing-up, including myself. It’s hard to avoid. You’ve just got to plan well, and don’t grind yourself into the ground, don’t lock yourself away. It will be over, and if you finish a month later than planned it’s not the end of the world.
Three pieces of advice. One: supervision. It’s really important to keep up your relationship with your supervisor, not just seeing them regularly, but making sure you’re on the same page, making sure you feel confident in them and vice versa. If you want some praise, if you’re feeling low, then you can go and ask for some. This is alright, because supervisors, depending on their styles, can be quite relentlessly negative. You want to know that what you’re doing is on the right lines. You should feel confidence in your supervisor. Your supervisor should, I hope, ask you to write regularly, particularly if you’re in a humanities subject it’s really important. Because then you’re building the foundation for later revisions, and you’re keeping the whole process going, whereas just endless research would be extremely dull.
Second: keep up your interest. Part of the reason for this slump was that I just got disenchanted, because when I did literature at undergraduate and MA level I was reading a lot of stuff I found really exciting, what we call primary texts, so novels, poetry, and important works of philosophy. It was great, it was all new knowledge, and I was chomping at the bit. I was reading say 80%, 70% that, and 30% critics and commentators and guides and so forth. And I felt by my second year or third year that the ratio had reversed, and suddenly I was reading endless reams of commentary, kind of parasitic commentary and commentary and commentary. I’d almost lost the contact with what had made me do the subject in the first place. So I made a kind of contract with myself to lay aside some time to read primary texts, that weren’t necessarily related to my project, but I said “I’m going to read some theory, I’m going to read some Deleuze, or I’m going to read a novel, because I want to”. It will feed back, and you’ll find, particularly with this theorist thing (which might not make sense unless you’re studying literature, but literary theory tends to be something out there, very self contained) – but I was reading stuff, and it would find its way into the thesis in the strangest ways, and create some of the most interesting (or what I hope is interesting – I’ll have to ask the examiners) bits of the thesis.
And finally, self-doubt. When myself and Karen – who’s another PhD – did a similar thing last year, the one thing we agreed on more than anything is: everyone, even those people you see slogging away at 7am, and just seem to be brilliant, they all don’t think they’re good enough at some point, probably most of the time if you’re normal. So self-doubt is absolutely normal, everyone feels it. If you don’t think you’re good enough to be doing it that’s absolutely normal, and it will not be a problem.
This is the third in a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex. The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.
In this recording, Alo Ehimiaghe (DPhil in Development Studies) talked to Profolio 2008 participants.
So my name is Alo, and I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences as a doctoral student, and how academic communities have played a part in my professional development. And, I find it hard when I use the word professional development, I’d never really thought about it until I started attending Profolio, and, true to its name, they’ve actually helped me make sense of my professional development and how my DPhil experience has really helped me become who I am as a professional today. So before I go on to really talking about my research management and the academic community networks, I’ll just tell you briefly about my research. I’m looking at perceptions of poverty and coping strategies of the poor, and I’m doing a comparative analysis of this between rural and urban areas, and like most people I have a lot of objectives for my research, but the central aim is to understand how poor people cope with poverty, and how their livelihoods and their social networks create a platform for their coping strategies.
So, I’ve divided my presentation into three areas: the first is the research management; the second is opportunities and constraints that I’ve had to face and come up with; and the final thing is the skills I’ve developed, and what I have planned for the next phase of my life.
So, on research management, the one critical thing – and I’m sure this is the same for many professions – is managing your time. One thing I found is that when you start your PhD, you think you have three years to do your PhD, you have forever to do your PhD, but it goes a lot faster than you think, and before you know it you find yourself in the final year thinking ‘Where has all that time gone to?’, so you have to really manage your time very well. And one of the things my supervisor (I hope I’m not speaking too fast…? Ok) made me do was to come up with a period plan, of when I wanted to have reached certain landmarks during the course of my research. And I know most departments have as a requirement for your research outline that you have a period plan at the end. But the thing is that most people do this on paper, and they don’t really imbibe their period plan in their head, and they’re not really conscious of it, but it’s important that you’re actually conscious of it. And you can manage your time on several levels: you can do it daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. Personally, weekly and monthly targets have worked best for me, and at the moment I have only a few months left to finish my PhD, so I’m having to really work on a very active target-led basis, because I have a very short time left.
Now the other thing about managing your research is managing the resources you have, apart from time which is probably the most valuable resource. You have your articles you have to read, you have your colleagues you interact with, you have your supervisor. And one thing about the articles, for example: in my first year, my research is covering three broad areas – I’m looking at poverty, livelihood and safety nets. But what I did was, I spent too much time on reading up about poverty and livelihood, and I didn’t really read much about safety nets. So now in my final year, I’ve had to go back and do more literature reviews to solidify my conceptual framework. But thankfully, a new article came out last year that has made modifications to the framework I plan on using, so it’s worked out in my favour, but I wouldn’t advise you to try that. It’s easy to just read so much on one particular area, and you don’t actually read as much as you can, and you’re just focusing on something, so it’s best to read as much as you can, and not just be too biased in your reading.
Another useful resource is the internet. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet, but my advice is not to get distracted with all the information out there. Try and get your ideas and your research topic really refined and focused before you go out looking for so much information, because it can actually confuse you more than even help you sometimes, so my advice is to stay focused and not get distracted.
And on your colleagues, I was saying to Catherine that I actually have this inner circle-thing I have in my head. You have your immediate environment whilst you’re doing your research, and the first and probably the most comfortable interactions you’ll have are with your colleagues; and not just your peers, but those who are higher than you are. One of the mistakes I made, one of the things I didn’t do that I should have done, was to have a mentor who was ahead of me and someone I could pick their brains on things, on challenges I’ve had to face and that they probably faced and have overcome. So it’s good to make friends with your colleagues at all levels from your peers to those who are higher than you, and share your experiences with them share your research tools with them, share conferences you’re planning to attend, or seminars you haven’t attended, or things that are happening within your research. For example, one of my colleagues told me about an online community called the Development Studies (??) community, and ever since I joined the community it’s actually been one of the most useful resources I’ve had within my focus. It’s kept me updated with how thinking patterns in my research are evolving, so it’s actually been a very useful that I wouldn’t have found out if I wasn’t speaking to my colleagues. And it was – we just had a normal office chat, it wasn’t any heavy contextual (?) chat, it was just a normal conversation, and he said ‘Oh, have you heard about this community?’ So it’s actually really useful to interact with your colleagues, both the ones on the same level, and the ones higher than you. The good thing with your colleagues on the same level is that they’re evolving just as much as you’re evolving, so they’re facing similar challenges, everyone is (???) to the whole research process, and no one is quite there yet, everyone is still changing. So it’s a comfortable area for you to interact with them.
And then you have your supervisors. Personally, I’ve been blessed with a very good supervisor, she’s very understanding, and I’m probably one of the very few people that only have one supervisor. Most people I know have two supervisors, it’s actually a requirement that you have two supervisors. Some people cope well with having two supervisors, others don’t cope just as well, but again my advice is to be open to their suggestions because they’ve been in research longer than we have been. They’re more aware of what’s out there and how – what is expected and what (???). And they’re thinking of the examiners as well, and they have their reputations to think about as well. So be open to their suggestions, but at the same time, stay focused on what you want to research on, and don’t let them make you deviate so much, but be open to them changing your pattern changing your pattern or just sharing their own advice to you, don’t just block them completely.
On seminars, my advice is to go for as many seminars as you can, especially in your first year. What the relevant seminars, and the seemingly irrelevant seminars, go for them, and one thing they do is, they help you identify yourself as part of an academic community. You start to see familiar faces every now and then, and you know each other’s, you know, researches within this field. So go for them as much as you can, especially in your first year, because that’s when you have probably the most time you’ll ever have during the course of your PhD. By the time you get to your final year, your research topic has been defined, you’re more precise on what you’re researching, and you have more experience, so you can be more selective about the seminars you go to. But I would encourage you to make it a very welcome part of your schedule, so go for as many seminars as you can. It opens up your – it expands your horizons and it helps stimulate your thinking as well. I just came from a research gateway that SoCul organises and Professor Richard Black was saying to us that a lot of his ideas actually came from attending seminars and thinking about things, and it’s never actually been from his head, like organically, it’s actually been come from interactions with people on the corridors, over lunch, in places you probably would never even think about. So welcome these interactions as much as you can, they really help make a difference in your research development. And another thing that seminars and career talks and things like Profolio do for you is, they help expand your breadth and deepen your depth as an academic person, so you’re more exposed to what is expected of you, how research is evolving, how thinking patterns are evolving in your research and if you’re on the right path that ??. It really helps keep you in check almost, it’s a very, very useful resource to have as a PhD student. And the other thing is, the PhD process is as isolating as can be, but you don’t have to isolate yourself. There are opportunities out there for you to make use of. Sussex is a really wonderful place for resources. They have even – if you want to know how to use Excel, for example, or Powerpoint, whatever it is you need to know, you don’t have to isolate yourself from these opportunities that are out there, they’re out there and you just need to find them and use them and go for seminars and talks like this.
Interrupt if you have any questions or anything you want to say.
Another thing: I’ve talked mainly about the local opportunities. There are also a lot of opportunities nationally as well, and the internet is probably the most useful resource for that. Join communities, even other universities, if there’s a research institute join their mailing list, so you get weekly emails or however often they send emails, just to keep you aware of what ?? are happening, the things that are happening outside your institutions, so you’re not just limiting yourself to Sussex, but other institutions that are doing leading research in your field, so you’re not just staying within the local setting, you’re opening up yourself, and comparing yourself – not necessarily comparing like seeing if you’re better than other people but just knowing what’s happening out there, not just limiting yourself really.
Then, there’s also – there are many books you can read, for example I’m reading a book called How to Author a PhD by Patrick Donleavy, and it’s a really useful resource on how to structure your PhD, how to organise your thoughts, how to disseminate your findings. It really helps you bring out your PhD a lot better than you probably would have if you’re not reading books like that, or using resources that help you organise your PhD. So I advise reading books – self-help books if you like – to help you really do a good PhD.
And if you have opportunities to teach, it’s a really good opportunity to teach, because it helps you go back to the basics of your field, and how you disseminate your thoughts and your experience or your findings, your knowledge about certain issues, to younger minds, if you like. And it’s a good opportunity to practice communication skills or interpersonal skills, especially when you have a wide variety of students. One of my classes, I have a very cynical student, and I always have to bring him back in line. He has a way of making the class deviate from the topic we are talking about. I always have to find a way of bringing him back. It’s a really good opportunity for you to manage people. On the skills I’ve developed, I think the one thing you get from doing a PhD is you become a really good project manager. And the thing with the PhD is you become your own internal authority, so you’re the one setting your targets, you’re the one planning your time, planning how your research will shape you, you’re like the CO of your own research. You have to move from a student to a CO, so you become a manager of your own project. So it really helps develop your project management skills, and it helps you use resources effectively. You also learn how to coordinate things, because you’re having to do different chapters, you’re working on one chapter today, and the next thing you’re working on another chapter. You have to make everything be in sync with one another, so it helps enhance your coordination skills.
For me I’ve had to learn IT skills. One of the packages I’m using is an econometric software called STATA, and it’s a useful resource. For example in the World Bank there’s a unit where they use STATA extensively for the research they do, so I’ve had to learn – I used it on my Masters degree but (??) as advanced as I’ve had to use it now. So having to learn how to use that package was very useful for me. So there are many skills you develop: IT skills, interpersonal skills, and most of the skills you develop actually come from the opportunities you open yourself up to. If you don’t teach, or you don’t go for seminars, or you don’t come for things like this, it’s really hard to make sense of any skills you’re developing, so it’s actually – things like this help you make sense of it, or make it more concrete or develop it better, make you understand the skills you’re developing and how you’re evolving as a researcher.
Finally, there are some questions they sent me that I shall answer as a way of – to inform this presentation. One of the questions was: have I had to overcome any difficulty over the course of my research. The main difficulty I’ve had to overcome is in my motivation and my drive in the PhD process, especially after having dealt with a family tragedy and coming back to the PhD process. I had a break, intermission, so (??). I had a really understanding supervisor – supportive friends and family, so now I’m back on track. That’s the main challenge I’ve had to face, dealing with my motivation and my drive. The other challenge was fine-tuning my data to meet academic standards, because my supervisor’s an economist, they’re very thorough in their standards, so I’ve had to really meet very thorough academic standards, and not just do things off the top of my head. I’ve had to prove that I’m doing some serious academic work and sometimes it’s a bit too much, but I just want to discuss what’s in my head, I don’t have to meet what some researcher has done before. So having to fine-tune my data to really thorough academic standards has been one of the challenges I’ve had to face. But thankfully I’ve done a lot of reading, and the more you read actually the better it is for you, and one way you know you’ve read enough is when you start seeing the same thing over and over again, you know you’ve read enough on that issue so you can move on to the next thing. And you have to think as well, like, always think, share your ideas with people, brings so many people, because it’s one thing to think about it in your head, it’s another thing to actually interact with people and tell them what you’re thinking about and see what they think about it as well. It’s good to have a bit of a mini-community or someone else you can brainstorm your ideas with. So with a lot of thinking and interaction with people, it helps you overcome certain challenges that you might be dealing with.
Another question they ask is, tips I’ve learnt along the way. And one thing I would say is always have the bigger picture in mind. Another thing is, if you can, get a mentor, get someone you can brainstorm with, don’t be so isolated, like I said already it’s a very isolated process. Try to interact with at least one person, or be part of a community. And, finally, welcome challenges and opportunities. The PhD is not like it’s a problem-solving – it’s a process, you’re evolving, you’re getting better, you’re confidence is increasing. It’s not some impossible task, it’s something that can be done. And if you’ve been allowed to start it, if you’ve been counted worthy to start a PhD then I’m sure you can see it to the final end; to be open to the challenges, the opportunities, embrace as much as you can whilst you’re doing the PhD.
Things I knew now that I wish I knew in my first year: I started with a very ambitious research plan, I was over-ambitious, and I had to narrow it down. I spent a long time re-thinking, ok, do I want to look at this or look at that. Because I started so ambitious I had to spend some time narrowing down, but the narrower you can get your research the better for you, because it gives you more time to focus and to really expand on that particular thing you’re focusing on. So, if I had know that it would have been better. And the other thing is, I wish I had taken my PhD as seriously as I’m taking it now – I was so relaxed, it seemed really easy in my first year. The Masters was a lot harder than the first year PhD, so I was really relaxed. I wish I was a lot more serious than that in my first year than I was then. Now I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student. On the one hand there are a lot of expectations for you to do a really good job and a thorough academic job because you’re basically joining an academic club at the end of the PhD, so they want to be sure you’ve gone through the initiation rites and you’ve actually become, you know you’re worthy to be called an academic, so there are expectations from you. But on the other hand, they’re not expecting a Nobel prize winner, they just want you to show you’ve gone through the rigours of research and you can carry out independent research on your own. I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student now than I was at the beginning, so it’s helped shape how I’ve done my research and how I’ve gone through the process. And you can think of the PhD as one way for you to take off your career from.
It’s a beautiful experience I have to say. At the end of (??) I’m still smiling because it’s a – I don’t know, it’s been a good experience. I enjoy the flexibility of the PhD (?) – it’s really a flexible process. You can work at your own pace. If you’re not a 9-5 person, for example, or you don’t like people telling you what to do, a PhD’s one thing you can do by yourself, and no one interrupts your processes so much, so it gives you that flexibility.
I hope I’ve not spoken too much!
It’s not so beautiful sometimes, but the end justifies the means.
I’m in my final year, I have ‘till September, so about five-six months to go now.
Oh yeah, every day I’m writing.
It’s intense, because I’m having to think every day. I’m always editing and editing throughout. I’m reading as I’m writing as well, so it’s not bad.
I’ve had to do some parts of my literature review at the end, but I advise you do as much as you can in the first year, because it helps you design a better fieldwork process, like your questionnaires, or however you want to collect you data. Because it’ll be worse if you collect your data and you find you didn’t collect data on certain things you really want to answer, so the more literature review you can do at the beginning, the better your fieldwork, the better your data collection, and the better analysis you can produce out of the fieldwork process. For example, now I’ve done my safety-net literature review so many questions I wish I asked in my questionnaire I included but I didn’t include because I didn’t do as much thorough literature review at the start.
I get a lot of emails about job opportunities but I just never respond to them because I can’t combine working and doing my PhD at the same time, but I realise that at the end of my PhD, I don’t want to come out looking like I’ve just done one thing and I haven’t really had a diversified portfolio if you like. So I saw a job opportunity for a researcher, on a project about African migrants, and migration is something I’m interested in as well, so I applied for the job. Basically what I need to do is to recruit a sample of Ghanians and interview them and speak to them about their life histories and how, if their lives as migrants in the UK now has changed; if they had stayed on in Ghana for example, and how, what it’s like living in the UK as a Ghanian, for example, as an African, because it’s supposed to inform African migrants but they’re using Ghanians as an example. And so my fieldwork experience has helped me with this job, conducting interviews and dealing with people being impatient and asking them questions they really don’t want to answer, and things like that.
They say about 18 hours a week, but it’s still really flexible. Right now I’m probably just doing 10-12 hours a week. And the research, the writing up. It hasn’t been exactly easy, but I think I’m trying.
The Sussex Centre for Migration.
It means I’m sleeping a lot less now. I love my sleep, but now I’ve had to cut down. Also Margaret Thatcher only slept for three hours, so I’ve had to cut down my sleep now. I’ve had to give up my sleep, that’s the one thing I’ve had to really cut down on now. I used to sleep a lot before, but now it’s probably six hours. Otherwise I have only, I don’t know, 16 hours a day or even less to work with.
This is the second in a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex. The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.
In this recording, Kathleen Fincham (DPhil in Eduation) talked to Profolio 2007 participants.
It’s nice to meet you, my name is Kathleen, and I’m in my second year. I’m doing a DPhil in the Department of International Education in the Sussex Institute. My research is focusing on how Palestinian refugees can try to negotiate and contest their identities in the context of refugee camps in South Lebanon. So it’s maybe quite an interesting, different topic, maybe not for the anthropologists who are doing something similar. I finished my field work, I think, just before Christmas, then I had a bit of a holiday at home in Canada. Then I came back here, and was busy transcribing my interviews, analysing my data, and now I’m in the process of writing up.
Catherine asked me to speak a bit about how I came to be here, to be doing the PhD. You can probably tell I’m a mature student, a bit older than most of you are. I actually did not do a PhD for career reasons – well in a way I did and in a way I didn’t. I decided to do a PhD actually when I was young – it had always been a personal goal of mine, I’d always wanted to achieve it, and I’ve always loved school, I’ve loved studying, I’ve always just loved learning, essentially. But I had an established career, so I wasn’t taking the PhD in order to build a career, I already had one. I had quite a good one, and I quit that to come here, and I really don’t regret it all because I think I’d reached a stage professionally where I was really not fulfilled any more. I felt that there was nothing more to really do or achieve where I was. Yet I felt that there was this glass ceiling, that I couldn’t do any more with a Masters degree. For example, if you want to be a consultant or teach in university or something like that, it’s very difficult to do with only a Masters degree. Or if you are able to do that, for example if you teach in university you usually get the classes that nobody wants, or you get the hours nobody wants. If you are a consultant you get paid considerably less, that sort of thing. So to give myself options and choices and to fulfill a goal, a dream that I had always had, that’s why I decided to embark on a PhD.
I particularly came to Sussex because of its reputation in international development and related fields. What I enjoy about what I do: well this is only probably the only time in my life I’ve been able to do what I want, to study what I want, to read what I want, to write what I want, to have the luxury of being selfish, I guess you would say. What I love about doing the PhD is the creativity, because there isn’t really a set pattern for doing one. Of course you have to follow certain academic conventions, you can’t just say “I don’t feel like referencing so I’m not going to do that”, you have to do certain things. But how you carry it out is pretty much up to you, so there’s a lot of flexibility and choice. I also like the flexibility of schedule. For the first time in my life since I was young, I’m able to plan my day as I want. I’m not a morning person, I hate mornings, and always when I was working I was forced to go out into the cold when it was still dark, and I just hated that. And now if I feel like sleeping in I can, because I’m master of my own schedule. If I feel like working at 2 o’clock in the morning, I can. If I feel like watching a movie, or eating while I work, I can do all those things.
I also really appreciate working with people, the personal interaction, having colleagues, because when you work in the business environment – I’m sure some of you have this experience – usually businesses or NGOs or schools or universities are hierarchically constructed. So always there’s somebody above you and somebody below you. But here it’s very democratic, and it’s nice to have colleagues who you’re on the same level with and you can talk about things with, so I really appreciate that. Then of course, in some fields you get to do international fieldwork, which is really exciting: travel, meeting new people, learning new things. That’s really a special part of doing your PhD. I don’t know how many of you do international fieldwork, but perhaps experiments in the lab make up for that in some way.
So those are the things I enjoy, but there have been definite challenges doing a PhD as well. In my first year, I think I had different challenges than I do now. When I first started, I was used to making good money, to having a certain amount of prestige and status. I don’t have any of that any more now, I have no money at all, and I’m a student, I have no status whatsoever. So that’s a bit difficult to deal with, if you’re used to that sort of thing, to having a career of sorts. Also when I first started I had a lot of guilt, about quitting my job, about spending all this money for something that I didn’t know would bring any return necessarily. I’m married, my husband has to be working to pay for my PhD, so I sometimes feel guilty about that. Spending the time, you know I sometimes think I should be doing something else, I should be supporting my family, I should be developing my career, I should be doing something else instead of focusing on myself. So sometimes I’ve had to deal with those feelings, and sometimes honestly I still have those feelings now.
In the second year I think the challenges have been quite different. For one thing I did my fieldwork, and the fieldwork is both exciting but it’s also very challenging. So, for example, I’m sure you all know, especially those of you who have done fieldwork or have worked internationally, you have to deal with culture shock and loneliness and frustration and things not going according to plan, and just essentially the proposal that you spent a whole year writing is totally irrelevant to the context you find yourself in. You can’t get access to the people you thought you would, people are not interested in what you’re doing, they don’t want to help you. In the case of Lebanon, political assassinations, bombs going off, all kinds of interesting times when you’re on your fieldwork. So that’s very challenging in itself. I think when you come back from fieldwork it feels very disconnected. Because many of my classmates are still on fieldwork. So you come back here and everyone that you knew is no longer here, so you don’t know anybody any more. The only person that you really have any continuity with is your adviser, and then you only see them maybe once a month. So that’s quite difficult.
And then you move, because you have relocate. I think I’ve moved like five times in the last two years. I’ve lived in Lewes, I’ve lived on campus, I’ve lived two places in London, I’ve lived in Lebanon, so you feel very disconnected. You come back, everyone you knew is gone, or people are coming and going at different times, and people live in different places, so it’s very hard to deal with that. I think also probably the biggest thing in the second year is the loneliness that people talk about – they always say doing a PhD is lonely. Last year I really didn’t know what they were talking about because I was really enjoying myself: I had classes, I had classmates, I had seminars, I had lectures, I had conferences. I had a whole bunch of things to do, and I was very socially and engaged with campus life. I joined the choir, I took belly-dancing, I too pilates, I was just all over the place doing everything there was to do. But in your second year, really all of that pretty much is gone, unless you construct it for yourself. Because you don’t have classes any more, you don’t have classmates any more, you don’t have a routine any more, you don’t have deadlines, you don’t have a schedule, you don’t have anything really. It’s quite challenging from that perspective.
The skills that I’ve had to learn, especially this year, are how to be independent. Because as I said, in the second year in particular, nobody really tells you what to do, you don’t have deadlines, you don’t have a schedule, you just have to produce this document at the end of four years, that’s pretty much it. So you’re on your own as to what you do with your time and how you organise yourself. So learning time management skills has been extremely important as well. Tips I’ve learned along the way: I would definitely say to take ownership of your learning. Because nobody does anything for you, you need to do it for yourself. So I found it really helpful to make a schedule for myself, to set goals for myself, to set timelines, to set deadlines, and to make myself accountable to my adviser. Because otherwise you can just not do anything: “Oh that’s interesting, maybe I’ll go to that film”, or “Oh I can do this tomorrow, I’ll go and do this”. So if you treat it like a job where you have a specific time you start work, you work all day, you finish at five or whatever time you choose. It’s really helpful to have that structure.
Another thing would be to manage your adviser. I actually have a very good relationship with my adviser but I know many people who don’t. Your adviser is really the most important person that you’ll deal with here, because as I said, in the second year you no longer have the support system that you do now – your classmates are who knows where, they’re not here. So your adviser and your relationship with your adviser are extremely important. It’s really helpful if you speak friendly with them and set expectations for them. I know some people feel they can’t really do that; I feel shy asking my adviser to do things for me, or to treat me in a certain way, but really when you think about it, you’re paying your adviser to do this. You are hiring your adviser for their guidance and their support. I don’t think you should be obnoxious and you know “do what I say”, or anything like that, but it’s really important that you do have that communication. So I’ve worked out with my adviser that I need deadlines, I’ve asked her to give me deadlines, we’ve worked on them together. I’ve set specific times that I need to see her, the length of time that I need to see her, the support that I need from her, what I would like her to help me with, advising me on certain things like networking or helping me to meet people, things like that.
Another thing that I think is really helpful, especially in the second year, is to keep attending lectures and seminars, even though you don’t have to. Because that way you really keep in the university community, you still have classmates of sorts, and you keep learning from other people. It’s really important. Actually I met her – I was auditing an anthropology course, I’m not in anthropology – I also audited a gender studies course, and I’m going to audit an international relations course. Because it’s really helpful also to get other disciplinary perspectives on your work, it really helps to inform what you read and what you write, if you see it from many different perspectives. This is both within Sussex and outside. I’m very promiscuous in this way, I attend seminars wherever they are. I’m currently living in London: I attend seminars at Sussex, I attend seminars at LSE, where I met her, I attend seminars at IOE, at SOAS, wherever they may be held.
Along those lines, to network is extremely important, and I see Catherine’s working with you on that. I found that to be extremely important. What I’ve done is I’ve actually gone on websites both at Sussex University and other universities, and I’ve looked for scholars that are working in my area, I’ve just sent them an email: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m working in this field. I’d really like to meet with you and talk with you”. And I’ve never had anybody turn me down. I’ve had great meetings with these people, and it’s been extremely helpful, particularly in relation to fieldwork. For example, there’s one professor, at the University of Westminster in London, who had done work with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She really got me hooked up well in the field. I went to a conference at Oxford on International Law and the Palestinians, and the person who gave that conference, the same thing: she was very well connected, she really helped me a lot with my fieldwork. It’s helpful to join research networks as well, so that you have other colleagues and students to share with, to get feedback on your work.
So I guess those are my tips that I’ve learnt along the way in the last couple of years. Right now my goal is just to try to produce, theoretically speaking, a chapter every month or two months, and now I’m starting to enter the world of making presentations at conferences and publishing.
Sophie Bisset (doctoral researcher in History) assesses the question of what comes after the doctorate,
At the recent “preparing for your final year” seminar, group discussion quickly turned to the issue of whether to stay in academia once we finish our PhDs. This is the same question that I have been agonising over myself in the past few months and so I decided to write this blog to share (and help clarify) my own response to this issue. In truth, we all know that there is good reason to feel anxious about the “what next?” question: we will finish our PhDs at a time when there are increasingly more applicants for increasingly fewer academic positions, as well as massive changes on the horizon for Higher Education as a result of new government proposals. But if the future looks daunting then one thing is for sure, it is worth asking what’s right for me in all this?
Well, when faced with this question, I did what all good PhD students do and I downed my research sticks in order to spend a few hours searching the web for interesting and useful sites. To my mind, the best and the most terrifying is An Academic Career: Have You Got What It Takes?. The website as a whole has loads of valuable information on the reality of pursuing an academic career but this particular section encourages you to be honest with yourself about the demands of academic life. When I read it, it was quite a shock to see so many of my own fears put up there in black and white and answered with such candour. The personal experiences videos that sit alongside these candid truths soften the edges of this reality check by making the hurdles seem manageable. In addition to this site, there are also a number of good university run PhD careers blogs: Manchester, Queen Mary’s and Salford, as well as a collection of audio recordings of people sharing their own experiences on the realities of the “what next?” question on Beyond the PhD.
Having had a good think about the question of what’s right for me, I wanted to know how many of my predecessors had successfully pursued academic careers within my own discipline of history, rather than relying solely on word of mouth gossip. Luckily for me, Vitae conducted some research into what PhD students from the years 2003-2007 did after they finished their theses (What do Researchers Do?). In history, 27% entered a UK Higher Education lecturing role. This seemed quite low to me, but Vitae reassures me that this is in fact higher than the average across all disciplines taken together (14%). A further 14% of History post-PhDers found employment in the more general sounding category of research staff in UK Higher Education (below the all disciple average of 23%). So using these stats as a rule of thumb, less than half of us (historians or otherwise) are likely to take up some kind of research role within Higher Education. The good news is that even if you don’t stay in academia, you are less likely to end up unemployed than first-degree and master’s degree graduates (only 3.1% across all disciplines compared to 5.6% and 3.7% respectively).
The trouble with the stats is that they don’t tell us how many wanted to stay in academia, rather than just how many did stay in academia. Nonetheless, it makes having a non-academic Plan B seem like a jolly good idea! According to Vitae, the most popular alternative to an academic career among History post-Phders is teaching. This is something that I personally find quite appealing, but generally speaking the trouble with making a Plan B is that it is such a personal thing that web surfing quickly becomes a bit of a search for a needle in a haystack. Despite seeming all-powerful, Google cannot write an algorithm to help me discover what I should do with my life! So at this point in my little journey into the “what next?” question I abandoned new technology and headed off for a good old-fashioned one to one session with Catherine Reynolds at the Careers and Employability Centre. Catherine and her colleague Jane Riley specialise in helping lost and lonely researchers get some perspective on the “what next?” question. In the hour or so that I spent talking to Catherine, a whole mixture of my various career ideas, fears and hopes tumbled out but by the end of our session I felt like I had some new avenues to explore. Just talking about what I wanted to do with someone who knew a lot about the practicalities of the real world, a.k.a. the process of getting a job, helped me refine my thinking and a few days after our sessions I realised that my own feeling about the question of whether or not to stay in academia had shifted considerably.
Setting aside my own decision about whether academia was the place where I wanted to end up or not, one surprising thing that came out of my own experience of giving some time to thinking about the “what next?” question just as I am beginning to write up my thesis is how it changed my feelings about the thesis itself. Lurking in the back of my mind had always been the belief that the thesis – as much as I loved it for itself – was essentially a means to an end and that end was an academic career. But thinking about whether I would want an academic career, or would realistically succeed in pursuing it, I came to see my thesis as having an intrinsic value of its own. Even if I don’t end up in academia and even if the only people who read my thesis aside from me and my supervisor are my two examiners, I am beginning my write-up knowing that the process of doing a thesis has taught me a whole host of valuable things about myself, about history and about life that will inform and shape my professional career wherever I end up.