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I had a brutal PhD viva & 2 years of corrections

Here is what I learned from a grinding, traumatising and occasionally comic journey towards getting a PhD. [In the UK, a viva is verbal defence of your thesis; unlike other countries, it is not a…

I had a brutal PhD viva & 2 years of corrections – here is what I learned about vivas, PhDs, and myself. Jimmy Tidey Follow Sep 15 · 15 min read

Here is what I learned from a grinding, traumatising and occasionally comic journey towards getting a PhD.

[In the UK, a viva is verbal defence of your thesis; unlike other countries, it is not a formality, there are lots of ways it can go wrong.]

For me, getting a PhD was a deflating struggle across an arbitrary finish line; a relief rather than a cause for celebration.

Writing the thesis took four years of challenging but satisfying work. The subsequent corrections, however, were exceptionally unpleasant — I woke up every day knowing that my sense of self-worth, not to mention years of work, hung in the balance. My weekends were spent at my laptop, sometimes physically struggling to type through anxiety, responding to feedback written by two examiners with whom I could not communicate, who are accountable to no one, and whose feedback nobody was able to confidently interpret. Even though I’d moved on to a full-time job, undertaking the corrections dominated my life more totally than any other part of the PhD process.

Before I’d submitted my thesis, I wish I’d read a frank account of a PhD viva that didn’t go to plan. Such accounts seem to be relatively uncommon, perhaps because drawing the curtain back and showing the grim details of how you got permission to put ‘Dr.’ before your name ruins the mystique — especially if you are an academic with admiring students.

I hope that if you are doing a PhD, or considering one, my experience can provide a useful perspective on what the end game is like — perhaps even a warning. Of course, there is also an aspect of catharsis in relating this story.

I don’t want to scare anyone unnecessarily, two years of corrections is an unusual outcome. On the other hand, while I might not be typical, I’m also not that atypical. At the Royal College of Art, in 2018 and 2019, around 25% of students got major corrections. Whether or not they were as long-winded as mine, they will have been a nightmare for the recipient.

If I could convey one thought about doctoral research, it would be this: there is a colossal disparity between how you think about your PhD and how the university thinks of it. For you, the thesis will become a profoundly personal endeavour, embodying your most careful reflections on a subject that you are devoted to. The heroic effort involved will make your emotional bond with the thesis even deeper. By contrast, from the perspective of a university, the thesis is a disposable dummy run, a formal training exercise, a prelude to any actual research.

No matter how hard you try to remember that a PhD thesis is a bureaucratic formalism, it’s hard not to become personally invested. A classic refrain — one that I tried to keep in mind at all times to ward off loss of perspective — is that no one will read your thesis except your supervisors and examiners. None the less, everything about the writing process fosters the delusion that you are creating something that will be treated, at least by that tiny audience, with a modicum of respect.

In my viva, the personal investment that had driven me forward for so long train-wrecked into a wall of indifference. I am an extreme case, but I expect other PhD veterans will recognise some echos in their own experience.

In case you aren’t familiar with the details, I’ll briefly describe the process of doing a PhD. I did my PhD at the RCA, in design research, focusing on software design. Approaches vary by institution, but the RCA system will give a flavour. First, you’ll need to write a thesis — in the UK, that might take between three and five years. Then, two’ external examiners’ from other universities, selected for their expertise in your area of research, read your thesis and interview you about it.

This interview is called a ‘viva’, or a ‘defence’. A chairperson oversees your viva. Your PhD supervisor — the university professor who is in charge of you throughout the PhD — may also attend, but cannot speak. At the RCA, your supervisor sits behind you so you cannot make eye contact; however, they are allowed to make notes to help you interpret the feedback. At the end of the viva, the examiners will decide between four options: pass with no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections or failure. Minor corrections are those that the examiners anticipate can be completed in three months, and the candidate can be nearly certain of passing. Most candidates can expect some minor corrections, as small as nit-picks about grammar, occasionally more extensive re-writes. Major corrections are those anticipated to take longer than three months, and a significant possibility of failure remains.

I got major corrections. When I submitted my response to the corrections, I got a further round of corrections, taking two years to complete in total. I believe experiences similar to mine could occur in many disciplines, but, in case you are curious, I built a social media analytics tool intended for use by local government, called ‘LocalNets’. LocalNets filtered and visualised Twitter data to give insights into local civic issues — crime, planning, policing, etc. My thesis reflected on design principles for social media analytics tools, drawing on my experience with LocalNets.

The viva

Just before we stepped into the room where the viva took place, my supervisor reassured me that the examiners would not have turned up to the viva unless they saw at least some merit in my work. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing — supervisors have to approve your thesis before you can submit. Why would they have approved my submission if such significant doubts remained? At the time, I chalked it up to nerves on the supervisors’ part; looking back it was the first hint of the risk that I had been allowed to take.

In the run-up to the viva I was preparing for — looking forward to, in fact — being grilled on every arcane technical nuance of my work — could I explain Arrow’s impossibility theorem? How does Nussbaum’s account of capability diverge from Sen’s? All the things I’d been filling my head with for four years. I was exhilarated at the prospect of having my work taken seriously and defending my ideas.

This expectation was misplaced; my viva ignored nearly every substantial aspect of my research with exquisite deftness. The examiners focused almost exclusively on the periphery of my work, the structure of the appendices or questions about disciplinary boundaries. Was my thesis truly a work of design research, or was it sociological? I expected this question and had a prepared answer. We circled this issue for what seemed like a large proportion of the viva. I still have no idea what was at stake here, none of the corrections I was given related to this topic.

On only one occasion did we discuss something I considered to be a significant component of my thesis. I was critical of the way contemporary design research fails to engage with fundamental ethical philosophy. I knew I was in contested territory, and I was anticipating having to defend my views. One examiner suggested that my ethical argument was a ‘straw man’ because design researchers often specify their ethical framework. I said that what was frequently missing, in my view, was an account of how they had selected that ethical framework. The examiner looked at me and said a single word — ‘ok’. In the corrections, I was asked to remove the ethical discussion from my thesis en bloc. ‘Ok’ did not indicate, as I had assumed, a clarification successfully communicated, but instead was more akin to a psychiatrist muttering ‘ok’ as a patient elaborates a paranoid fantasy.

If the examiners were indifferent to the intellectual aspects of my work, they were even less interested in the basic facts of what I had done. The first question in my viva was, “Does your software collect tweets automatically?” I could not have been more stunned if the examiner had hit me round the head with a frying pan. The software I created processed approximately 28 million tweets. Did the examiners think I had copy-pasted 28 million tweets? I had written whole chapters about automating the collection and processing of tweets, what else could my software have been doing? I don’t know if I misinterpreted, but in the viva and the corrections, I saw evidence that the examiners had only the most distant understanding of what I’d done during my practical work.

At the beginning of the viva, as is required, I gave a presentation. It was like going for a jog on dry sand. Every bit of energy I projected was absorbed without the slightest reaction. The examiners were like black holes — as I spoke, each syllable sailed over their emotional event horizon without a ripple of rapport left in its wake. I was left with the feeling that every word I said was a waste of their time. One examiner avoided eye contact throughout the viva, directing their gaze almost exclusively at the floor. It’s nearly impossible to give an answer to someone who won’t meet your eye. I don’t know if this is an established interrogation technique, but it is an excellent way to destabilise someone. The disdain the examiners evinced throughout the viva was far beyond anything I have experienced in any other setting.

When the chair told me the result was major corrections, neither of the examiners could look at me. Their failure to acknowledge me had a lasting impact on my emotional response. I did not leave the viva feeling that I’d handed in substandard academic work, as you might expect. Instead, I had the visceral sense that I was the object of physical disgust. When I say physical disgust, I’m not using that turn of phrase only to convey intensity — I mean very literally that I felt as I might have done if I’d vomited down myself. I had an almost primordial sense of being repulsive, as though the examiners had gagged at the smell of me. The feeling lasted for weeks.

There was a feeling of shame, but also anger — anger at the examiners’ personal cowardice in failing to meet my eye after having been so enthusiastic in dismantling years of my work. It’s a detail, but it seemed to make the experience doubly pathetic — pathetic on their part and mine. In the longer term, I felt grief, compounded by the fact that I had brought the situation on myself. I also experienced kindness from friends and strangers that I found incredibly moving.

The examiners may have been brutal, but they could make a case that they were fulfilling their academic duties. Their role is to judge whether your work reaches the standard of a PhD. They can, and in my…

Jimmy Tidey

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