In the week before my viva, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to go well. I was sure what I had written was awful. I was positive I would be asked to do major corrections. This would have meant re-registering as a student and finding €6000 from somewhere. I was getting very nervous, a bad result looming ever more closely in my consciousness as the exam day grew nearer. I had planned a number of different Facebook statuses for how I could announce my failure. I had vividly imagined what my mother would tell my auntie when she phoned her with the news. I was having the worst nightmares I have ever had. I was trying to figure out where I would get the money from to re-register, whether I’d even bother, where I’d live while I did it. I felt so sick for so much of the last few days before the viva.
The only thing you can do to prepare for a viva is to re-read what you wrote. You don’t get points for extra knowledge. You need to be able to justify what you wrote. My plan was to do it on Monday and Tuesday. I read two of my chapters on Monday, and on Tuesday I spent hours and hours avoiding it. Eventually, at 11:30 pm, the night before the exam, I sat down and read the other six chapters. And I was carried along on the journey that was the PhD. The kitchen in Cunningham House, my coming out story, the Boys, my wedding plans are in there. My freeze when I couldn’t face transcribing is in there. I could visualise where I was when I wrote the words, and where I was when I read the books before I wrote the words. This thesis was me and I got genuine pleasure from reading it.
The part I had been dreading reading was the conclusion. It had been frantically re-written in my friend’s spare bedroom in the middle of the night before I submitted it in September and I hadn’t looked at it since. As I prepared for the viva, at about 2:30 am, I was done with the other seven chapters and just had to get to reading my conclusion. It was fine. And suddenly everything was alright. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fine. And for this first time in a long time, I suddenly had faith in my thesis.
I only got about two hours sleep, as I had expected. I got up, too nervous to have breakfast. I stood in my bedroom and cried. I’m not sure what I was crying about, but they were proper noisy, he-has-foresaken-me-for-another sobs. My body shook with each sob, like some sort of wild animal in the middle of coitus. Eventually, I got myself together and went in to college.
I arrived at ten, about an hour before the viva was due to start. I went into my supervisor’s office. He greeted me warmly. He had been more or less unable to find out from my examiners how they were feeling about the thesis. We chatted for a while. He was encouraging, but professional and warned me of the various possible outcomes, including major corrections.
He sent me away to get a cup of tea and relax. I bought a Diet Coke and tried to re-read my conclusion but the words wouldn’t go into my head, so I did what I did back when I collected the data for my PhD. When the interviews got me over-emotional, I used to go to my secret stairwell in the Arts Building, play Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe and jump around in an attempt to shake off the nervous energy. I did the same before my viva.
I went back to my supervisor’s office and together we walked upstairs to wait outside the room where the exam was to take place (the same room where I had done most of the interviews that made up most of my data for the PhD). My supervisor had managed to have a word with the examiners and he whispered to me that the outcome looked positive. As we went into the room, his last piece of advice to me was not to giggle during the viva. I couldn’t process this. As I was introduced to my external examiner, who had come over from London, all I was thinking was “DO I GIGGLE TOO MUCH?”
After the chair had done the introductions, and once again read out all the possible outcomes, my external examiner started by saying “We wanted to say before we got started that we liked your thesis a lot and we are happy to support it.” This was lovely, but my insides were screaming “WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? “SUPPORT” ISN’T ONE OF THE FIVE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES.”
As the exam went on though, it was clear that everything was going to be OK. They had questions, and I answered the questions, and I sounded relatively sane while I did and I don’t think I giggled. Although I could feel myself being nervous and twitchy throughout. There were theorists who they wanted me to include, but they didn’t want me to change any of the people I had included or how I had analysed my data. They had no questions at all about four of the eight chapters. And they clearly really liked it. My external examiner asked me if she could use my thesis as teaching material with her own students. She also gave me suggestions for articles I should write based on it. And she paused quite a few times to talk about my data and how I had presented and analysed it and how innovative and well-written it was.
I couldn’t believe it. They really liked it. I did OK. I had convinced myself I was awful, and unacademic and not able for this stuff, but I am.
It felt like ten minutes, but it was about an hour and twenty.
They sent me out of the room while they decided my result and after about two minutes called me back in. I could immediately see which option they had ticked on their report forms. I had passed with minor corrections. Everyone called me doctor and shook my hand. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to.
My supervisor swooshed me into his office. He congratulated me again. He was clearly in shock. He said he hadn’t expected such an easy ride for me. We had a little chat about how I’d got to the end of the PhD, about what kind of research student I’d been, we talked about his last minute panic when he didn’t want me to submit, we talked about the eighteen months when I did nothing, we talked about how rarely I had asked him questions. He tried to phrase how bad a student I was in a positive way. “You were in the classical mode of a doctoral student – doing the work with minimal supervision”. The poor man – he would have been very happy to supervise me closely if only I ever gave him the chance. I thanked him for the many, many second chances he had given me. We were both getting emotional and we talked about the PhD as a transformational experience and he shook my hand and then pulled me into a hug, and I still didn’t cry, but I wanted to.
I went outside and stood outside the Old Library to phone family and friends and tell them the result. But I couldn’t. Because then I cried. And I cried. And I cried. I couldn’t believe it. I started phoning people eventually. And of course put a triumphant post on Facebook.
I went for a celebration lunch with my brother. And then for drinks with my PhD friends. At no point did I really believe I had passed.
I was onto my seventh pint and couldn’t do any more. I was in bed, fast asleep by 8:00 pm.
I’m a doctor. *Squeeeeeeeee*