Solidarity for the viva-traumatised

So, you may have guessed from the radio silence on my blog over the past couple of weeks or so that my viva did NOT go as planned - in short, I had to defend my work at lengths I hadn’t been led to imagine I needed to, then found out I was being referred, meaning I have 4-12 months to try to make my thesis passable.

I’m not going to go into specifics as I don’t want to remember it too clearly or be unprofessional, and there will be an appeal.  However, I am going to rip off the plaster and talk about the feelings I had/have.  I’m doing this because I had never really heard of anyone having such a tough viva or not passing (other than the horror stories who hadn’t been supervised well/submitted without approval).  It was only after I told Twitter that a couple of people spoke to me about knowing people whose PhDs had ended in similar car crashes.  So this blog post is to help other people in similar situations feel less alone, as well as explain how it feels to have a hard viva and be referred.


In that ‘Surviving the Viva’ workshop I mentioned in my last post, we were told that the title of the workshop was unfortunate, because vivas are meant to be intellectually rigorous, but also a chance to talk about your work and how great it is, rather than something to be endured.  I was told by several people not to worry, because my work was absolutely fine and the viva would be a breeze.  As my last post showed, I prepared myself thoroughly.  So it was a shock when I was asked hardly any of the typical viva questions, and by the end I felt like I’d been through nine rounds with Mike Tyson.  I slept surprisingly well the night before, and went into the viva with confidence.  There’s talk of the possibility of another viva, but I’m wary of it because next time, I won’t sleep, I will get anxious, and I won’t have any confidence.

It also felt like everything I thought I knew about myself was dismantled in a matter of hours.  For three years, I’d been told that my work was great by several people (and seemed to have actually believed them despite my lifelong lack of self-confidence…maybe it would have been less of a shock if I’d continued to tell myself I was rubbish?) and that I was a shoo-in for doctorhood, and suddenly I had to adjust to the opposite reality.  That leads us to…

Loss of identity

For three years, my PhD was my life, and it appeared to me that I was good at it.  Everyone was singing my praises all the time, so I ended up thinking ‘huh, I must be smart!’  Suddenly, I didn’t have that ‘good PhD student’ identity any more.

I was damn lucky in one sense, though: my job started five days later.  So now my identity is ‘good (my boss and other colleagues have told me so) Web Content Editor for a library service.’  I would feel worryingly hopeless if my identity was ‘didn’t pass PhD, unemployed’.  Also, my job is proving to be a great distraction, as I barely think about my PhD during the day and don’t have time to dwell on it or check my university email every five minutes in hope of finding out What Happens Next.

The ‘neither-here-nor-there’-ness of referral is also hard on the identity.  I haven’t failed, so that’s good.  But I haven’t passed, and don’t know for definite that I will pass, which is bad.  And I’m going to appeal, adding another layer of unknown.  Plus, while a difference between ‘pass with major corrections’ and ‘referral’ seems mainly to be extra time to whip your thesis into shape, I think the semantic gap (at least ‘major corrections’ features the word ‘pass’) makes a hell of a lot of difference to how you feel.  I reckon I’d have felt more okay with major corrections, even if I had to do the same amount of work, because the implication would be ‘you need to make changes but you can do this’ rather than ‘you need to make changes but it’s unclear whether you can do this.’


People tell you your viva will be a breeze, you believe them, you tell people you’re going to finish your PhD on a certain day, and make plans to celebrate…and then it doesn’t come off.  Having to tell people was awful.  I felt like I’d let my entire family down.  I didn’t post on Twitter for a few days because I felt like I was admitting to being a stupid fraud who should never had had a PhD place or funding.  I forgot how damn good it was that I had those things, and actually completed an 80,000-word piece of work.  I also forgot that other people thought my work was great, and would still like me despite not passing my doctorate on the first attempt.  It didn’t occur to me that they would be as shocked and upset as I was.

Anger and Apathy

These are kind of contradictory, but they’re both presenting themselves, nonetheless.

On the apathy side, ever since I got the verdict, I’ve felt like I don’t really care that much about my thesis or becoming a doctor any more.  I just want to make as few changes as possible so that I can get a certificate to say I didn’t just bum around for three years of my twenties.  I haven’t felt like I’ll be as happy as I would have been if I had passed on the day I was expected to.  I feel like the whole thing has been poisoned, and that the more changes I make, the less it will be truly ‘my’ thesis.  It’s irrational, and I would never ever think or say it to anyone else who got referred, but I’m very harsh on myself and feel like I don’t deserve to be a doctor because I didn’t manage it the first time, even though it’s not exactly a qualification many people succeed in getting at all.  I’m all about that web content editing now and the dragging-on of the PhD is a hangover I’d hoped to be without.

On the anger side, relating to the whole ‘this was meant to be done and dusted by now’ thing, I resent the prospect of having to give up my future Saturdays to work on my substantial corrections, having to pay to print and bind new copies for resubmisson (it was like £65 in total last time), and potentially use my precious annual leave to prepare for and attend another viva.

Also, I feel angry at ‘the academy’. If nothing else, this has confirmed to me that I made absolutely the right decision to leave academia.  In what other industry are you going to be told your work’s great for three years, to suddenly be told the opposite even though there have been no changes in your efforts or quality of work?  My new boss has been telling me that my work’s really good and he’s glad he hired me; on the basis of my PhD experiences, should I assume that if I keep going as I am, there’s still a real chance that I’m going to be let go at the end of my six-month probation period?

Also, if I stayed in academia, I would probably wind up with permanent impostor syndrome.  Every time I wanted to apply for a job or funding, there would be a voice telling me I didn’t deserve it because I couldn’t pass my PhD first time.  Every time I failed to get a job or publication, I’d be telling myself that other people deserved them more because they passed first time.  Again, I would not think or say that to someone else in the same position.  It’s just what I’d tell myself, and I feel like I’ve been pushed from the academy because, quite frankly, sod feeling like that all the time.

What I really hope this post has done is assure other people in the same position: you’re not alone.  It is really, really hard to have this experience.  It can seem as though you’re the only one, and therefore there is something wrong with you.  I promise you: other people have been through this, and felt the same about it as you have.  Remember - and I know it’s hard to tell yourself this, and I have trouble convincing myself of it: you are so much more than your thesis.  You’ve done amazingly to get to where you have.  Nobody thinks less of you.  Your feelings are totally valid and understandable.

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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