I had originally planned on writing this blog post shortly after my defence (known as a viva here in the UK) back at the start of December, but life got in the way…and by that, I mean my job closed down due to the pandemic and we moved house and then the holidays arrived and I was trying (and failing) to get my visa extension application submitted prior to the end of the year…yeah, sounds like 2020, doesn’t it?
Similar to how I felt when I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of September, I didn’t exactly feel as celebratory as I probably should have felt…I mean, I did celebrate, of course. There was a lot of wine and takeaway and enjoying the start of my post-PhD life, but it didn’t feel like the end of anything. And that’s true in some respects – I still need to do my corrections, of course, which consists of about 10,000 additional words in the next 6 months. But what I always felt would be a huge milestone felt more like a single stepping stone.
And there’s probably a few reasons for that, of course. Yes, 2020 was the Year from Hell but let’s be honest, the only new thing it brought to the table was a global pandemic. That’s not to minimise the effects (which are still ongoing and likely to continue far beyond 2020) of coronavirus, but rather to say that it ultimately intensified things that were already in play: austerity, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, class warfare…the list goes on. Before I even started my PhD, I knew I was taking a risk – academic archaeology jobs in general are not plentiful, much less so for immigrants. But I wanted to continue my academic journey to the “end”, aka the PhD, and I wanted to remain in the UK for as long as I possibly can alongside the family I’ve created since moving here in 2015. As we leave 2020 behind, I find myself looking at an even more diminishing job market, saddled with student loan debt and the ever present threat of the Home Office still at my side.
It’s difficult, at least from my perspective, to then see my PhD as a jumping off point for bigger and better things when I have no idea what the future holds – not just for me, but for everyone, for the entire world. And that’s not to say that I won’t continue to try, either; alongside my corrections, I will be shopping a postdoc idea around in the hopes of getting funding for it here in the UK (or at least get the funding for a pilot study). I’m gonna fight like hell to continue to do what I love – to research, to explore our past and how it connects to the present and the future, to showcase how much we can learn from the dustiest, tiniest bones hidden away in a museum collection somewhere. But I’m also absolutely terrified at the same time, and I doubt I’m the only PhD student who feels that way right now.
I don’t want this post to be so negative, though! I should emphasise that I absolutely loved doing my viva. My examiners, Dr. Hannah Koon and Dr. James Morris, were so accommodating and nice! They went out of their way to make the viva a productive conversation that made me feel just as smart and professional as they are, they never asked “gotcha!” questions or tried to make me feel unwanted or unworthy of the PhD. To be honest, I don’t think I really felt like an expert until my viva, and it is definitely thanks to the care and kindness they provided during the examination. And this also made for my results – major corrections – to not feel like a major failing! They stressed it was about improving my work, and that made sure I was an active participant in discussing what exactly needed work. It was a fantastic three hours (that honestly flew by!) and I want to reiterate just how thankful I am to the both of them that my viva was such an enjoyable and productive experience.
I also want to thank everyone who reached out to me prior to the viva with advice, and let me pay it forward by providing some of my own tips for surviving the PhD viva below:
- Yes, reread your thesis! I did not (and still do not) want to ever look at my thesis again, but if you do anything prior to your viva, I would at least suggest reading it once more. Not only is it good to have a refresher (I know people who waited 6+ months to do their viva) of what you actually wrote, but you may already have had enough time away from it to see places where you could improve (and thus prepare ahead of time for when your examiners likely bring it up).
- Look at your last few drafts. Connected to that last point – it might be worth rereading some of the comments from your last few drafts. Obviously depends on your supervisors, but mine were always quite good at pinpointing potential talking points for my viva, even months and months away from the actual examination. Ultimately you cannot predict what will and won’t be asked at your viva, but the more prep work you’re able to do, the better.
- Remember: It’s Your Viva. Something I was extremely appreciative of during my viva was the ability to take the first 10 minutes to present the major findings of my work and the key themes of my thesis. I’m aware that not everyone will get that luxury, but I think it does speak to something that you should strive for, if possible: setting the agenda. It’s your viva, ultimately, and although your examiners will be the ones asking the questions, remember that you can lead the conversation where you’d like. And that of course includes everyone’s favourite phrase: “That’s an interesting question, but it is beyond the scope of this research.”
Have a Happy (and Safe) New Year, Everyone!
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