Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My viva

My last blogpost seemed to resonate with many readers. In it, I addressed the fact that major corrections were still a pass, and that it was important to:

  1. Dispel the myth that major corrections equaled a failed viva
  2. Reduce the stigma associated with major corrections
  3. Break the cycle of one-upmanship and the notion that UK/US PhDs had grades.
But that led me to think - did I ever fully describe what happened in my viva? I have discussed this in a podcast for Viva Survivors but never in print. So here it goes.

As brief background, my thesis was about an obscure 12th century medieval courtesy text which had never been translated and had little scholarship associated with it. As such, there were 100+ different approaches which could have been taken but I chose to look at it thematically, pulling out different themes and contextualising them.

My external was my second choice option and had published two key articles on my text. When I entered the viva my internal took the lead in asking questions but the external interjected only to provide negative criticism. Now, no big deal. That is what a viva is for. But what I had hoped for was that the external would be critical of what the thesis was, not what it wasn't. It became increasingly evident to me that the external was disappointed that the thesis was not the study that they would produced on the text. So every question they asked me was phrased as "Why didn't you do this?" or "Why didn't you do that?" It rarely seemed to actually focus on the content of the thesis. Whole chapters (which I thought were the most interesting and innovative) were glossed over. They had no problem with it. They were just uninterested.

It became clear that I was not going to pass with minor corrections, and it was confirmed at the end of the viva that it would be major corrections (in my institution, that constituted anything that would take between 1-6 months to complete). I am grateful that they didn't keep me waiting or make me leave the room, but now that I think about it, it was clear that they had already decided that it was major corrections before I entered the room. I don't think there was anything I could have said or done that would have changed that. However, to be fair to my external, they concluded the viva by saying that the thesis was good but the corrections would make it even better. 

When the list of corrections came through (which thankfully were very clear and well ordered unlike a colleague of mine who received a rambling list of thoughts), my supervisor and I sat down to go through them. We agreed on the substantial corrections that we were willing to address (such as structural rearrangements and an additional section), and also noted those that we disagreed with and felt were unfair and unfeasible. This included a correction to discuss the style of the text in greater depth. Mine was a historical thesis, not a literary one. It was corrections like this which confirmed that the external examiner just wanted the thesis to be something else, something more like what they would have done. We agreed that my error was not being more explicit in my introduction on what my thesis was and was not. 

So, my supervisor duly met up with the internal examiner to find out what happened and discuss next steps. This was incredibly helpful and revealing. The internal admitted that they had taken a rather passive role within the viva and wished they had done more to help me. She discussed what corrections were valid and which one's were beyond the pale, and an action plan was created. It felt so nice to know that the internal was on board and would stand up for me if there was any push back when I handed in the corrections.

I took a methodical approach to the corrections, addressing each one in turn. I had two versions of my thesis - one clean and one with amendments highlighted in red. I also took the list of corrections and annotated their comments with my own, detailing what changes I made and which page(s) they could find them on. I wanted to be 100% sure that there could be no challenge from the examiners.

So by the time that I put in my corrections, I felt confident that I had addressed all their points, explained why I didn't do something they wanted (with the support of the internal), and the corrections went through no problem.

What can be learned from my experience? 
  • Be careful in your choice of external. They shape the viva. 
  • Be explicit in explaining why you are choosing to take a certain approach and not another. 
  • You supervisor is your ally. When things go wrong, they should be your champion and defender. Mine leaped into action and I couldn't be more grateful.
I share this because it is important to remember that difficult vivas exist but people are afraid to talk about them for fear that it is a negative indicator of the quality of their research. It isn't. Vivas are conducted by humans, humans have biases/preferences/etc. Who is to say that my result would have been different with different examiners. The point is that a difficult viva/major corrections has not held me back at all. My thesis is published. I'm working on the next publication. I have two essays published post-viva. I still get conference invites. 

We shouldn't be afraid to speak about our experiences and show that, at the end of the day, all that counts is the thesis as deposited into the library not the earlier version in the hands of the externals.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Announcing you passed your viva

Anyone who has completed a PhD knows the excitement and relief when you get to announce that you have passed your viva. It is the culmination of many years work and is absolutely something to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftop.

However, there is a trend now to qualify that announcement. No longer is it sufficient to pass your viva, some people now feel the need to add "passed with minor corrections", or "passed with no corrections". One tweet I saw, boasted of only having spelling corrections. Another boasted that they had 11 corrections which only took 1 hour to complete.

This post follows a recent Twitter conversation on this subject:
I have noticed this trend more and more, and the worrying thing that it conveys is that a pass is no longer good enough. No, we all must pass first go with no corrections. There is a real one-upmanship going on here, when in actual fact the degree is the same at the end of the day regardless of the route there. The achievement and effort is the same. The intellectual content is the same standard.

It was put to me that this phenomenon was maybe not that prevalent so I did a mini-experiment. I searched "passed" and "viva" on Twitter and did a very rudimentary analysis of posts relating to people passing their vivas. I only went back to December 22, 2017 because I underestimated the number of people passing vivas (plus, I have a day job!)! These were the results:
  • 52 posts had no qualifiers, only "I passed my viva!".
  • 22 posts did have qualifies, including "no corrections"(7), "minor corrections"(13), and "typographical corrections"(1).

Now, that is 30% who qualify their announcements. And that is data that only goes back 25 days. I would also argue that the percentage is actually higher because in reality I should filter out US PhD vivas which are more confirmations that the UK-type of viva where the outcome really is unknown until the very end.

Nevertheless - 30% may not seem like much, but to those who experienced more substantial revisions to theses, it can be a real kick in the teeth. And while I fully acknowledge no intended superiority from people who qualify their announcements, it comes across as putting down those who had more difficult viva experiences for myriad reasons (which may not always be about the academic quality - that's for another post).

Please do not think that I am not advocating for people to stop announcing their viva success. Please, make a song and dance of your achievement - it is massive! But don't feel the need to qualify it publicly. Sure - be proud of your minor corrections. But spare a thought for your colleague who maybe needs to do another 3-6 months work on it (or even more).

Think of it the same as any other announcement. We wouldn't say "I got the job (after only 1 interview!), or "I landed a postdoc (on my first attempt)". Sensitivity and kindness is needed in academia and how we celebrate our successes dictates how others feel about their own successes and challenges. And we all know how tough the current landscape is for ECRs so solidarity and support is key.

And if you did pass your viva recently - CONGRATULATIONS!!!!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

I am pleased to say that for the past two weeks over Christmas and the New Year I managed to completely switch off. I barely checked my email and social media, and did a little bit of academic writing (mostly because I was switched off then my mind felt less busy and more focused - but I only did a half days work!).

It is only now that I can think about 2017 in retrospect and look forward to 2018. 2017 was a year of change and adventure for me. I achieved my dream of travelling to Japan and it has spurred me to plan more adventures in the future (and a return trip to Japan - it is magical). Professionally, I took the plunge to leave Oxford, my academic and professional home of 7 years, to move to London to be with loved ones and friends. While I do think I need to be more considered in my career choices, I am so grateful that I quickly found a well-paid permanent position in professional services at a great university. Academically, things kept ticking along nicely. My thesis was finally published by Routledge in January and, while I'll never make any money off of it, it was lovely to see it in print and sitting on my parents bookshelf! I also finished the final draft of an essay contribution to the Harlaxton Symposium Proceedings.

That's not to say that everything has been great. The move to London meant saying goodbye to amazing colleagues and also the realisation that making connections gets harder as a) I get older and b) live in a massive city. After a conference where I felt dismissed and unimportant as an unaffiliated researcher, I made the decision not to bother with that for a while. It wasn't good for my mental wellbeing to force myself into situations where I didn't feel comfortable. That may change in the future as I keep researching, but right now I'm done with conferencing. Finally, on a personal level, my sister was badly injured in a road traffic accident. While she is doing very well now, it brought home the importance and fragility of family, a wave of homesickness I've not experienced in a while, and a desire to try to return to Ireland in the future. 

But to the positives and looking forward. I'm not one for resolutions as I rarely keep them so I am making a list of academic, professional, and personal goals for 2018. It doesn't matter if I reach all of them - the important thing is the attempt.

  1. To publish the translation of Urbanus magnus by Daniel of Beccles, again with Routledge. This should go into print this year, I just have to get through the final push to get the manuscript complete.
  2. To work on a collaborative article on health in courtesy literature with a contact I met at a conference. 
  3. To think more strategically about my professional career and work with an HR specialist to hone down my professional priorities.
  4. To undertake more Career Professional Development opportunities to develop myself further.
  5. To travel more!
  6. To be able to run a 10k by May (if you know me, you'll know this is a big challenge)
  7. To be more sustainable and environmentally conscious (Blue Planet 2 destroyed me)
  8. To try to foster more links with people, to reach out, and be more sociable.
  9. To make the most of London - I don't know how long I will live here for so I cannot let this opportunity go to waste.
  10. To not feel obliged to say YES to every opportunity that presents, but also to learn to speak up and say NO when something doesn't feel right.
Let's see how that goes. What I like is that 50% of my goals have nothing to do with work or research! Getting the balance right is so important. 

For now, Happy New Year and I hope 2018 can be a brighter year than 2017.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'Admin' Bad Days/Good Days

As readers know, I wear two hats - my professional services hat during the day and my academic hat in my spare time. I am proud of my achievements in both areas, but that does not mean that I don't experience difficult days or tensions managing both identities. While I am anxious that this blog highlights professional services within universities as a rewarding and important career for recent PhD graduates, I also don't want to give the illusion that everything is easy.

I have written previously (here and here) about the divide that can exist between academic and administrative staff. (Please note, I refute the term "non-academic" staff and think it is wholly inappropriate to describe vital members of staff in the negative, describing them by what they are not). In institutions where decision making is academic led, finding one's voice as professional services can be a challenge. Feeling like you are on the outside looking in is another common feeling that I have. What is difficult is knowing that you are an academic too, but that it is separate from your 9-5 job. When criticisms of 'admin' are leveled at you, it is hard not to want to stand up and say 'but I'm just like you! I have a PhD, I have teaching experience, I have publications too!'

Now, I have had some incredibility rewarding experiences and good days in my short time in professional services. I have supported students in crisis, I have worked on an institutional strategy for sexual harassment, I have written policies and guidance on mental health and responding to student tragedies, I have kick-started user experience initiatives in library services, and more. I am incredibly lucky to have worked with amazing colleagues (both academic and professional) in a variety of different roles.

The bad days comes when you are perceived to be a gatekeeper or someone who gets in the way. And it is difficult when you get lumped in with all 'admin' and have to listen to complaints in areas outside of your control. Yes, I am sorry you are having HR issues or IT issues, but that has nothing to do with me! It is also difficult when in meetings you often don't have a voice, or feel you have a diminished voice, due to the nature of the committee meeting you are in. It is fascinating to be among the conversation but there are times when you have to acknowledge that you are not part of it, you are not making those decisions (but rather facilitating them).

However, the hardest thing for me is when you come too close to your own discipline. If you were an English PhD graduate acting as a secretary to a meeting reviewing an English faculty you may find that an interesting prospect. I found the opposite. Knowing so much about your field and not being able to participate is difficult. Feeling like you are judged as the bureaucratic 'admin' gatekeeper by your colleagues and peers who have no idea that you have the same teaching and research profile as them, that you go home and continue working on your next publication which they may well use in their courses. You do have to prepare for that feeling of being an outsider. 

I think this experience would be different for professional services staff embedded in schools/faculties rather than in central services. Why would anyone who met me for the first time know about my academic profile? What is important is to try to separate the two identities and to be clear which hat you are wearing when.

But if I could make a plea to academics. Please let us professional services types at least sit down before you tell us how awful we are. And please remember that we are not to blame for the ills of all admin. Nor are we the ones making the decisions that annoy you; rather, we just have to implement them. Those decisions are made at a senior level populated by senior academics in the university governance structure. The irony is that academics' perceptions of admin suffers precisely because we implement (sometimes unpopular) decisions but those decisions are being made by academics.

I think my takeaway here is just a reminder to all to be kind. Treat everyone respect and don't assume that because someone is 'admin' that they are any less accomplished or valuable than someone else.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Passing deadlines

As some readers may know, I have signed the contract for my second publication, which will be a collaborative translation of the text which formed the basis of my PhD and first monograph - Urbanus magnus (The Book of the Civilised Man) by Daniel of Beccles.

Our deadline for submission of the manuscript was mid-January and I have just asked for an extension. Now, if myself and my collaborators really pushed, we probably could have got it finished in time. But that would have meant working through the Christmas vacation.

Academia has a weird sense of duty and sacrifice. Because we love our subjects, we must therefore be willing to devote all our time to it. Free time should be dedicated to the next project.

This is problematic at so many levels because it creates a sense of servitude to your passion and no allowance for taking a break. For me, my day job is not academic (although I work in an academic environment. My 9-5 job means that my academic pursuits already take place in my free time (evenings/weekends). Although that is a choice I have willingly made, there are limits to it all. I try and do as much as I can in my spare time without it negatively impacting on my personal life and impacting on loved ones. 

So what is the point of this rambling post. Well, one reason I asked for the extension was to spend Christmas with my family not worrying about the submission date and working towards that. While I may do some work, I didn't want to field beholden to this project to the detriment of my experience home with family.

Do I feel guilty about this? In the past I would have. My last monograph needed an extra month passed the deadline and I felt horrible about it! But I have realised that accepting your limitations and red lines are important. Christmas is a red line for me. I wish that academia accepted more the fact that everyone is due a break. And a true break. Not a break where you catch up on your research and find time to write. But rather, a break where it is absolutely fine to switch off and do nothing. Because we all need to do nothing sometimes.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Expenses and Finances

I saw this on Twitter and it reminded me of an experience I had when I started my first full-time paid job post-PhD a couple of years ago. Here is the Tweet:
Like many people graduating from University, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, I didn't have much in the way of savings in the bank. I lived in an expensive city and while my job paid adequately, it was a slow process of trying to save each month while also enjoying myself.

For four months during my job, I had to commute from Oxford to London. Luckily, my employer would pay for this but the expenses process was financially burdensome for someone who didn't have a lot in the bank.

I calculated the cost at approximately £2,400 for the whole 4 month period, or about £540 if I paid monthly. My employer had an advance expenses process, but this involved them advancing a percentage of the cost and then me making up the rest. This would be reconciled later. For ease of administration, my employer first requested that I pay the whole thing up front and do a simple reimbursement. I responded that I simply did not have the money in the bank to do that. To be fair, my employer simply forgot what it was like when you were starting out. We compromised, and did the reconciliation process monthly.

The point here is often there is a lack of understanding from more senior staff about the financial state of its more junior colleagues. This applies massively to doctoral students (especially self-funded ones) and early career researchers (as well as more generally professional services). It affects travel expenses, publication image costs, conference fees, etc. I have received grants in the past for all of these and have always had to pay upfront and then chase reimbursement. Not only does this impact people financially, but it is time-intensive too.

The reconciliation process does seem a more fair way of approaching this issue. An employer could upfront 50% or more and allow the individual to make up the rest. Once proof of purchase is provided, the remainder can be reimbursed.

It is not that employers are innately distrustful of people claiming expenses. They have just been locked into a system that has been in place for years. The disappointment for me is that the more you earn and the more senior you become, filling out expenses becomes a thing of the past. Your PA does it for you (at least, that has been my impression in three separate institutions). That means people become divorced from the realities that junior staff face, who may have to forego a conference because they simply don't have the money in the bank to pay upfront and expense later.

It is an easy problem to fix. If the will is there.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Making Friends

In the spirit of honesty with which I started the blog, I want to talk about friendships and making friends post-university. I will state at the outset that I am an introvert and the sort of person who would have 2-3 close friends to confide in. I love having friends/acquaintances to meet with for coffee/lunch but I would find it hard to have too large a circle of close friends.

All my friends I have made at university, during different states of my educational career. I think this is fairly normal but has the subsequent problem of distance for those who studied abroad. I made amazing friendships during my Master's in London but due to the international nature of the cohort, many moved back home to the US. Similarly, during my doctorate most of my friends were international and few have stayed in the UK. (*Here I would also like to add the difficulty in that PhD students study for 3-4 years while you may make friends with one-year Masters students - people dip in and out of your life). For those who did stay, many did not stay in the same town. 

Oxford became a more lonely place when I completed my studies and began working. Without a college affiliation, much of the social activities I used to be involved with were closed to me. Even if I had retained it, I didn't want to the odd alumna who just hung around. I realised that university (and particularly Oxford with its ready-made collegiate community) made it too easy to organically make friends. Little effort needed to be made to meet others. Work-life was completely different. People's priorities are different - hanging out after work isn't as easy for those with childcare responsibilities for example. I was lucky that some of my friends who moved to other parts of the UK had reasons to come back often, but cultivating new friends post-university was and still is a challenge for me.

Oxford began to feel small. London was calling. I knew way more people who lived and worked there and I hoped that I would organically begin to cultivate those friendships more. But London is huge, plans fall apart, and new friendships are harder to develop. I'm not writing this as a pity party. I have plenty of friends, I just haven't developed my London social circle yet! What I have realised it that I took making friends for granted, that it was a given. But student life creates an environment that is designed to make it easy - shared common interests and experiences, close networks, ready-made socialising, etc. I know now that I have to try, which as an introvert is a challenge but one I must face. I have to be proactive at contacting people and making plans.

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions but I think this could be a good one.

And if anyone in London fancies a coffee, please do get in touch!