Reflections on attaining a PhD, including vivas, mock and real

Posted on January 31, 2011. Filed under: Methods, PhD stuff | Tags: , |

Haven’t posted in a while as felt need to shut up a bit before viva. That was two and half weeks ago and I’m still digesting doctoral status – feels very quietly, deeply satisfying, an almost private pleasure. Too soon to know what difference it will make, if any, in the big wide world. Anyway I’m too exhausted to venture into that world, having been poleaxed into catatonia since viva – not entirely surprising after three and a half years hard hard slog, particularly past eighteen months.

The most gratifying aspect of the viva was the fact that three respected experts (Profs Keeble and McKie and Dr Cohen) so deeply engaged with the material, met it at the place where I hoped people would meet it.  This sounds obvious but the mock viva was so disappointing, made me realise that even accounting for the ‘worse case’ scenario that framed it, 3 people (including two supervisors) could end up asking reductionist, marginal questions, locked in their own fields of study. At the real thing, the examiners saw beyond their own borders as to how each of the fields under investigation might benefit from cross-fertilisation. They then asked really interesting questions that expanded rather than shrank the debate, like the tension between the critical approach that I’ve adopted in most of my writing to date and the more inclusive, less confrontational attitude suggested by a Jungian attitude. Spot on! Have felt this tug throughout the writing, but end up plumping for the latter (post-critical hermeneutics, I believe) – but emphasising that this is not about homogeneity of the Disney Its A Small World variety, more a recognition that at a deeper level the divisions are not so absolute after all.  There was also some discussion about Bernays and propaganda. Lots of agreement about it being well written apart from an overlong intro which needs cutting – other suggestions are up to me to include or not from the discussion: will take on board the need to modify or expand my criticism of the critical approach; expand section on propaganda; increase references to non-corporate PR and to locate the whole debate emphatically in the current crisis. This is very helpful – allows me to re-emphasise central points. The examiners were also great in letting me know from the off that it was a PhD – these minor amendments will only take a few days to make then the MS can be bound and lost in the depths of the library. Also lots of encouragement for the personal afterword in which I describe my own journey in and out of shadows – not a traditional academic thing to do, but one they welcomed as part of a general move to acknowledge the personal aspects of academic writing.

I think I would recommend anyone to think hard about how useful a mock viva might be. On the one hand it made me realise that just turning up with knowledge of the thesis but no prepared defence might be a terrible error; on the other hand I did not need an opening statement or a defence of methodology in the event and did not refer to the pages of prompts I prepared before the final viva (though it did clarify my key arguments). And the somewhat hostile effect of the mock was demoralising, especially the recommendation that I prepare a list of practical recommendations, despite having declared throughout that this was not the objective of this thesis. I suspect however that if the thesis is published (as now seems likely) this will represent a great chunk of potential readers. Luckily there will also be some like the examiners who will make the whole effort worthwhile. There will still be a journey to publication and beyond so I will keep this blog going even though its main task, as a PhD diary, is, astonishingly, accomplished.

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