Last PhD update ever

Well, that happened quickly. I successfully defended my PhD 11 days ago. The defense lasted about 45 minutes; and then, suddenly, four years of hard work had paid off.

Now the real fun starts: where to next?

I’m presently in residential purgatory and looking for a job – research or teaching; anthropology, media or technology-related; universities, public sector or industry – on either side of the Atlantic. That should narrow it down. In the meantime, I’m concentrating on publishing (more on this soon) and I’ll be launching some fun updates over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative in the New Year that I hope will improve member experiences and encourage more discussion and collaboration. Besides that, I’m thoroughly enjoying re-adjusting to life without 15 hours of PhD writing each day.

Hit the jump for my viva voce/defense advice for PhD candidates based on my own experience.

While preparing for the viva, I consulted various blogs and websites, my supervisors, friends, colleagues and twitterers about what I should expect. In the blogosphere, I found very few candid accounts of personal experiences from social sciences PhD candidates. Most people only seem to write something if their viva turns out to be a complete disaster, which is less than comforting. Physical sciences bloggers, on the other hand, suggest some pretty scary preparation rituals, including writing a one-sentence summary of every paragraph in every chapter and then committing it to memory. Another suggested that you bring a copy of every single source used to comprise the data and analysis portion of the thesis to the actual examination for reference. I determined that these would not be practical options for me and, later, worried for several days that I had grossly under-prepared myself.

In short, most of the viva advice on the web simply serves to scare the hell out of people. And yet, now that I have gone through it myself, I appreciate that it really is an odd experience to try and write up. It’s highly personal and only parts of it can be generalized to all PhDs. So for those similarly Googling for insight, here’s the best advice that I can come up with:

A lot depends on preparation that is done far in advance of the actual defense. As the day nears, that should be a comforting notion. IMO, if you’re not confident about your thesis, your committee should never let you get as far as the viva (because you’re not ready). So any advice I offer here will be based on the presumption that you and those around you believe that your work is of a high standard and recognize any existing holes (hopefully none too gaping) and room for improvement. This is important: it is essential to be aware of any weaknesses as well as successes you’ve had. Remember that the PhD is only the beginning. You should see a future for yourself and your ideas in whatever you produce.

The standard process in the UK is to submit your thesis and then wait 2-3 months for your viva. Mine took place only a month after, so I diligently took 3 weeks off after submitting to gain some clarity. I was working with tight time constraints, but if you have plenty of time, let your thesis rest for a week before you even submit it to catch any last-minute (by then obvious) errors. That’s what I would have done if I could have.

When I picked it up again a week before the viva, I read my thesis through in 2 days, making notes of some typos I had missed (inevitable) and marking pages containing key ideas with color-coded post-it notes so I could flip to them quickly. Then I made a short list of 5 or 6 questions I anticipated might come up during the viva, including the typical ones: What kind of impact/wider relevance does this work have? Strengths/Weaknesses? And “Why”: why this area, why this place, why this theory, etc. (You’ll inevitably forget any practiced answers on the actual day, so this is just for mental exercise.)

My supervisor also suggested that he host a mock viva session a few days before the actual examination. His insights on my thesis in its entirety were extremely helpful and differed greatly from the chapter by chapter comments I’d gotten throughout the year. In short, don’t be embarrassed to ask for help from people who’ve done this many times before.

In the UK, the defense is just you and your examiners in a room. No spectators or well-wishers are likely to be there, including your trusty supervisor. Choice of examiners is crucial. This is something you should talk about with your supervisory committee at least 6 months in advance. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion on this and do plenty of research. Whose work do you admire most in your field? Whose input and insight would be most valuable to you?

The actual day will arrive swiftly and go quickly. Make notes if you can (you’ll forget stuff if your nervous, and you’ll be nervous). Listen intently for words like “outstanding” and “pass”. They are good signs. Be honest and open in response all questions. Finally, try to schedule your viva with plenty of time to have a relaxed chat afterwards, and, if you’re so inclined, a good drink. You’ll need it!


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