One year on

Today, it’s a year since I had the viva that turned everything I thought I knew on its head and threw my post-PhD plans into the air. I resubmit in just over three months, on the 11th January.

In some ways, I feel better than I did, though I don’t think I’ll ever not be sad and angry about what happened to me. I can’t imagine being philosophical about something that’s completely disrupted my plans. I’m confident that I will submit something. I recognise that I’ve done well to get my head down and get the work done considering how close I came to quitting out of despair. I no longer feel like it’s ‘not my thesis any more’ because it is me putting the hours in and making the decisions about what to cut, what to include, and how to frame things. Some of the extra reading I had to do was very interesting and useful.

However, I have no confidence that what I submit will pass. I’ve set myself to expect failure and tell myself it doesn’t matter to my life really, but that doesn’t stop me being scared to go through a second viva. If I find myself enjoying what I’m doing, or thinking my new work is ‘better’ or even ‘good’, I shut it down immediately, as I felt confident last time, and look what happened then. I’m still doing it for the wrong reasons - getting something in return for the extra fees I’ve had to pay, to have something to show for four years, not wanting to deal with the feelings dropping out might create, as opposed to notions of ‘bettering myself’ or passion - and I’m still not sure that I’ll feel much if I do pass.

I flip between blaming myself - if I’d been cleverer, less willing to believe the people who said my work was good, more articulate, maybe I would have passed - and the system. When I’m beating myself up over it, I have to remind myself that I would never judge - have never judged, in fact - someone else in the same situation to be as stupid as I often regard myself, and I would suggest that the PhD examination system is archaic and needs a rethink for the twenty-first century. Here are some ways I think the PhD process could be more compassionate and transparent:

Universities could be clearer about what can go wrong. When I went to a viva preparation class, I got the impression that the only people who ever get referred or failed were those who didn’t get their supervisor’s permission to submit. No wonder I thought I was home and dry after I submitted my thesis. It’s only afterwards, from sharing my own experiences, that I found other people who had also been led to believe their vivas would be absolutely fine, only for them to be horrible. It should also be made clearer that ‘it’s a nice constructive chat about your work!’ is an ideal, and possibly far from the norm. On the same note…

Universities could be clearer about what happens when you get referred. I had my viva, waited about three weeks for my report to come through, and with the report came a demand for £250 a term and a £145 resubmission fee. It’s a lot to suddenly ask from someone who didn’t know to expect it. It might be an idea to mention it to completing students so they can plan financially for that scenario. And related to that…

Would it really be so bad to let completion year/referred students go part-time? I know universities want their students to submit within a certain time frame, but if they can double the period for part-time PhD students before they submit, is there really any harm of giving completing students an extra year? There would still be a deadline, it wouldn’t be like they’d be continuing indefinitely.

I want this because many students, like myself, are only funded for the first three years of their PhDs. It’s in the fourth year that they might need to get jobs to support themselves, giving them less time to work on their theses. It’s even worse if you’re referred, because you haven’t planned for it - if you know you’re going to take a fourth year earlier, you might be able to save up a bit of money for it and/or see if you can get extra funding.

In my case, I’d already accepted a full-time job before my viva, thinking it would be OK. I’m glad I got the job, because it’s given me distractions, a chance to start moving on and learn new skills that will actually help in my future career (as opposed to grudgingly rewriting a thesis), and very much-needed income. However, it’s meant that I’ve only had time to write at weekends, and editing at the end is going to be a mad rush and annual leave-gobbler. I constantly question how my resubmission can possibly be as good as my original stylistically when I won’t have had the time to go through it with a fine-tooth comb like before.

Also, I don’t like working like this. Throughout my university life, I’ve always finished work a week or more in advance to give me time to breathe. That is my working style. I’m right up against it this time by necessity.

Universities should cater better to part-time and working students. I never realised quite how bad it was until I couldn’t go to the library all summer because it was always shut when I wasn’t at work. It makes the kind of university admin where you have to turn up in person pretty bothersome too.

There should be some sort of indication of how your viva is going to go. Is it really necessary to put someone through a viva if the examiners have decided they’re going to refer or fail them? I’d have much preferred a discreet email saying ‘there are some problems with this, let’s chat about some of them informally, you can address them and try again’.

I’m not saying ‘devalue the qualification by letting students keep going until they get it right.’ Maybe just one round of help from the examiner, same as with a viva referral, but without so much trauma. But it’s an oral exam for a long-term project where you’ve already had lots of help, and it seems daft that it can then fall apart in just a few hours. It would also save the shame for the student - all that build-up among their family, friends and colleagues, just for them to feel they’ve let everyone down.

What makes me really scared of my second viva is that I have no idea how it’s going to go - a repeat of last time, complete with the exact same stomach drop I can still vividly remember as I’m told my work still isn’t good enough? A gentler experience than before because I either have passed and don’t need to be questioned quite so thoroughly, or it’s a dead loss so they might as well sit me down and break it to me gently? Something else?

People need to talk more about failure and how to deal with it. I had never heard of anyone getting referred or failed (apart from Carolyn Steedman, who is a good example of someone failing their PhD yet not being stupid or disappearing through shame) until I talked about it myself, and then I found kindred spirits who also felt like exceptional horror stories.

There has been a bit of an explosion in ‘failure is a good thing!’ and ‘look at my failures!’ content recently, but I don’t feel like it really gets to the heart of the issue. It always seems to be written from a point of view of ‘I failed, but then this thing went right, so failure is good!’. But what if you’re experiencing failure at the present time? What then?

I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing: plodding. Getting out of bed and going to work every day. Going to the gym, eating fruit and vegetables, taking my meds, going to counselling. Trying my best to complete a piece of work I have little hope or time for while also giving myself enough time to rest and do things I enjoy. Reading, bumbling around on the internet, playing games. Trying to reason with the voice in my head telling me I’ll never be good enough. Looking forward to the PhD being over so I can properly move on with my life, because, as a student who’s never on campus when much is open, and a full-time worker who hasn’t stopped being a student, I’m neither here nor there. I don’t feel like I can identify as ‘post-ac’ yet, or like I’ve fully completed my rejection of academia as a career even though I’m definitely not intending to stick around. A year seems like a short time to produce a better thesis when you’ve got to deal with how rubbish being referred makes you feel at the same time.

Another thing is that while people are talking more about mental health in academia, not a lot seems to be being done. People appear to be falling over themselves to offer practical support for undergrads. Yet when you don’t pass your viva, while you get informal emotional support from the people you’ve come to know in your department, all you get from the university at large is your viva report and demands for payment. A ‘what happens now?’ email which tells you what you can expect next, and details of staff you can contact who are trained to help in a postgrad situation - academic, mental health/advice, financial services - would be a good start. It might make referred and failed students feel less abandoned, and less like what happened is their own fault.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK