I fear the viva (Bedtime Story Edition!)

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 22 December 2007

For the non-British readers out there, I think 'viva' translates to 'dissertation defence' ('-se,' fine, fine) in other parts of the world. Or, at least, I used to think so. Since then, I have read a cheery piece on Preparing For Your Dissertation Defense that included, in all seriousness, the suggestion that you bring homemade cookies for the panel, and while I'm mostly sure that the author just has some very eccentric views on the whole process, part of me is convinced that you people on the other side of the Atlantic have found a portal into some cozy parallel universe in which academia is actually fun, and that the viva-equivalents in that universe cannot be compared to the trial by fire we have in this one.

Or, I don't know, maybe we just have different customs surrounding these things. But, seriously: cookies? Taking cookies to your viva here would be like taking a scarf you'd knitted yourself to your court hearing ("just for you, your honour!")

Anyway, so, the viva. I am afraid of the viva. I am very afraid of the viva, and the day creeps closer, and my fear grows. Instead of curling up into a corner and gibbering to myself, then, I'll tell you all a story about the last experience I had with these things. Are you sitting comfortably? Excellent. (People who know me in real life: you've heard this already, so feel free to get back to the present-wrapping I'm sure you're avoiding.)

My department has a version of the viva which falls at the end of your first year of PhD study. It doesn't grant you a PhD, but it does bump you up to 'PhD candidate'. This process has a reputation of being an hour or two of sheer, sheer terror, and the reputation is not undeserved. They are tough. They are very tough. They tear you and your work into itty, bitty shreds, and then sit, stopwatches in hand, while you assemble a papier-mache version of the Sistine Chapel from the remains. You are not there to have fun. You are not their colleague. You are their prey.

In practice, mine was nowhere near the terrifying experience I was expecting, but that's immaterial for now. What's important, or what was important to me at the time and remains important for this part of the story so if you'll just bear with me a while longer thank you very much, is that I was sure it would be. This is back when I was scared of discussing my work in public, terrified of presenting conference papers. I was a nervous wreck for days leading up to this, and I'd also promised myself that if they failed me - if they even sent me back for revisions - I'd give up the PhD and quit academia for good. And I meant it.

I walked into the room, trying not to shake too obviously. Intimidating Professor #1 told me to take a seat and 'make [my]self comfortable', which the tiny part of my brain not shrieking 'OH GOD OH GOD THEY'RE GOING TO LAUGH ME OUT OF THE ROOM' found darkly funny. Intimidating Professor #2 explained the process, Intimidating Professor #1 pulled out a heavily-annotated copy of the piece of work I'd submitted, along with a list of what I'm guessing were questions or concerns and which at any rate filled an entire page in his tiny handwriting, and declared that we'd begin.

I could feel my heart beat in the back of my throat.

Intimidating Professor #1, he of the reputation of roasting students alive at such events, he that I once heard someone at a conference compare to Torquemada, asked his first question.

And this should be the bit where it all goes right, and where I tell you about how sweet it felt when I realised I could answer his question, after all, and that I could get through this, and that I could too be an academic! Reach for those stars! But what actually happened is that he asked the question, I said "Well -," and the entire building plunged into darkness.

A fuse had blown, it turns out. And it was a December morning, when there's not much in the way of natural light. And the Intimidating Professors had closed the blinds before I came in, just in case - I'm speculating here, but I may not be far from the truth - one of the other students tried to give me hints via Semaphore from across the courtyard.

And there I sat, in the darkness, with the weight of Intimidating Professor #1's question hanging over my head, thinking "Huh. Well, this can't be a good omen."

The story has a happy ending, though; I passed with flying colours, decided to stay in academia after all, etc. etc. And people have cheered me up about the impending viva by pointing out that I probably won't get a repeat experience of The Day The Sun Died.

(Except, though, I'm fairly sure that helped. Because while the Intimidating Professors were fiddling around with the blinds and looking around in baffled confusion and discussing what the problem was, I was thinking up an answer to IP#1's question. Maybe my supporters are right, and the electrics won't fail and it won't happen again, anyway. But there might be tough questions. And so I'm going to plant a friend by a fuse-box, just in case.)


  1. francofou Says:
  2. Oh, no, no one fails here in the inhumanities unless they (since you like "they" with "one") are intent on it. The result is that, as in the earlier stages of "education," no one knows if they can make the grade until they find a job and, eventually, come up for tenure.

    So we have a lot of 35-year-olds up against the wall for the first time in their lives.

    P.S. I think you will do fine. What are you writing about? (I'm too lazy to dig through the archives).

  3. We don't have a tenure system here - for better? for worse? I don't know enough about how the systems compare to judge either way, really. US academics I've spoken to seem horrified by the idea of a system that lacks it, but given the amount of aggravation that seems to follow in the wake of tenure decisions and so on, it doesn't sound sp wonderful.

    My own area stays deliberately vague on here lest future employers track me down and refuse to hire me based on my music tastes. (Unlikely, yeah, but we've all heard the stories...) It's edges-of-canonical Victorian literature, though.

  4. francofou Says:
  5. Interesting.

    Tenure or no, the system seems beyond repair, as was scholasticism. If intellectual vitality is to count, at least in what used to be the heart of the humanities, it will probably be outside universities, it seems to me.

    The very fact that people are supposed to present individual research into significant areas of study in fifteen or twenty minutes at a conference reduces the exercise to a formality -- like a sonnet (minus the beauty) -- and is a sign that there is something seriously wrong.

    I am intrigued by the fact that you have so few comments, by the way. Given the vacuity of most blogs, I would have expected more reactions. Maybe people write personal emails to you, but I enjoy public discussion, myself.

    Please don't give up.

    Edges-of-canonical. Hmmm.

    I'm a canon man myself.

  6. While I'd agree that there's something woefully inadequate about the conference-paper model of presenting research, can you imagine what would happen if some of those speakers were allowed to go on for as long as they liked (or as long as they thought their research warranted)? One, two, three hours? Turn the sonnet into a verse novel, as it were? There would be riots, and justifiably so. It's bad enough when the boring ones go over by a couple of minutes. I've seen someone actually climb out of a window to escape before now.

  7. hey, congratulations!

    You were probably joking about not knowing this, but the US diss defense is with the three advisors you've supposedly been working with for years, plus one outside reader, and ideally, it's a conversation about the revisions you'll make for the book. They are public by law, so friends/family might come, for some. The UK one is far tougher, what with the strangers reading it. (I think you've reminded me to post about mine someday soon)

    US exams to become a PhD candidate--at my school, you wrote four closed-book exam spending one day on each, within the span of a week. Then a few weeks later your four professors quiz you about them for two hours, and ask you the questions you chose not to answer in the essays, plus whatever they want about any aspect of your specializations. This is intended to be more intimidating, I think. Nevertheless, I brought juice and cookies, and taking a sip bought me *invaluable* time to think.

    the US thing--for both exams and defense--is that if they don't think you'll pass, they shouldn't let you take it.

    The system is broken, but conferences don't have to be the main symbol of that. I put some energy into presenting work-in-progress so that people can ask interesting and useful questions with only 15 minutes of knowledge. But too many people don't.