We’ve asked our #DataImpactFellows to share a day in their life.
Here, Bozena Wielgoszewska talks us through a day she will never forget: the day of her PhD viva.
“Beep, beep, beep” goes the alarm clock. I am not a morning person – it usually takes me a few minutes to remember who I am, what day it is, and what is on my agenda for the day.
24th October 2018 was different. It was the day of my viva voce examination, and I was to sit in front of two established and experienced academics and respond to their questions and concerns about the work I conducted during my PhD.
I was up straightaway, firmly grounded on my feet, ready for action. I was slightly achy, as I had attended two yoga classes the day before to stop my brain from going through every possible hypothetical scenario of what might happen. I was trying to stop impostor syndrome from kicking in, as I knew from experience nothing good ever comes of it. I went to shower.
At the time, I was already living in London, and working at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, so I took a few days off work to travel to Edinburgh for my viva.
I was staying in a shabby hostel and found it more difficult than usual to get ready. It was not what I was used to, things were not where I was used to finding them, and my brain was already in the examination room running through answers to possible questions.
“It will be ok!” I tried to convince myself; “I am prepared!” I worked on this project for four years, and I knew my work very well – I went through it over and over again. I read lots of blogs and articles on the internet, and prepared answers to frequently asked questions.
The day before, with the help of colourful post-it notes, I annotated the printed version of my PhD thesis.
I had been there during friends’ ‘big days’ and had grilled everyone I knew, who had gone through a viva before. I knew that each PhD was a very individual experience, and there was little point in comparing myself to others, but I was keen to prevent myself from making any obvious mistakes.
Yet, even with all of this preparation, I could not stop myself from feeling very anxious.
I put on my most professional outfit, which usually makes me feel more confident. I made myself a cup of coffee to help my brain operate at full capacity. I used to play basketball, so I was familiar with the ‘game day’ feeling.
None of this helped. I felt increasing trepidation.
I walked to the building where my viva was to take place through the beautiful Meadows Park. I used to live nearby, so I was a frequent visitor.
Memories started to flash through my mind. I started to recall my walks to yoga classes, with a ‘heavy’ head after a day of work on my research, and my walks from yoga classes, with a rediscovered lightness. I remembered the countless barbeques spent debating epistemological approaches with my fellow PhD students – was this halloumi objectively burnt? Or, did we choose to perceive it as burnt in our subjectively constructed realities? I remembered struggling for breath during the inflatable obstacle 5k-charity-run I once did there.
“Focus!” I thought to myself, as I arrived at the building.
I found the room with no issues, and my examiners welcomed me with friendly smiles. After very brief and official introductions, one of them said: “We thought your work was interesting, but we are academics, so obviously we are going to pick it apart. Shall we start?”
I do not remember the details of what happened over the next few hours – it all seems a bit of a blur. Perhaps my selective brain does not consider it as worthy of remembering or denies the existence of this experience – I do not know. My vague recollections mostly consists of my clumsy attempts at convincing my examiners that I had good reasons to do what I did.
I remember a few more things:
I remember talking, but not knowing where I was going with certain arguments.
One consistent advice that I had received from several people beforehand was to think before speaking, and to take time with my answers.
I was keen to take this advice on board, and it seems doable in theory. In practice, things were different. Sitting there, in front of the examiners, trying to control the thoughts jumping around my brain, thinking and speaking started to melt into one. Maybe the nerves got to me. Maybe I wanted it to be over as soon as possible and thought speaking fast would speed things up.
Maybe it was my version of a fight-or-flight response.
I also recall being glad that I had kept up to date with the literature which had been published in the areas of my research interest since I submitted the preliminary version of my thesis, three months earlier.
The last few months before this submission were very stressful, and I often found myself having finished reading a page and not being able to recall any of the information I had just read. At the same time, re-reading every page multiple times did not seem like an efficient use of time.
However, since the preliminary submission, I could enjoy reading once again and I managed to tick a few books of my reading list. This turned out to be very useful, as I remember referring to these books a few times during my viva, despite the references not featuring in my bibliography.
I also remember being grateful for my colourful post-it notes.
At times, I could not find the words to express what I was thinking, but I knew I had carefully worded and thought through every sentence I wrote in my thesis. I was used to working with an electronic version, so searching for the words I wanted to find was easy.
During my viva, the post-it notes were my only go-to. This was useful, as I could read out fragments of my thesis, instead of re-creating my thoughts from scratch.
After what seemed like forever, one of my examiners said: “I think we’ve heard enough, so if you don’t have any more questions, please wait in the foyer and we will come to get you shortly.”
With my brain not fully caught up with what had just happened, I went to the foyer and called my boyfriend.
“Are we celebrating tonight?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. They were not convinced by anything I said!” I felt my eyes tearing up.
“Let’s wait to see what they say. Let’s not jump to conclusions.” He responded with stoic and reassuring calmness in his voice.
“Do you think I would be a good hairdresser? Or an interior designer? I wanted to be an interior designer when I was young.” As I started planning my next career moves outside of academia they called me back upstairs.
I sat back down in the same room. The air seemed filled with knowledge, but lacking oxygen. Here I was, patiently waiting for the verdict.
“So, there are a few things we think you should work on,” one of my examiners said, as he started to elaborate on the aspects of my work they were not convinced by. Perhaps noticing my worried and disconcerted expression, he continued “but we should be saying congratulations, really…”
“What? Congratulations? Does it mean I passed?” I thought to myself as his voice was becoming increasingly quieter and my thoughts louder. “I passed… I passed. I passed!”
We spent some time discussing the marking system at the University of Edinburgh. These systems are different at every institution, and at Edinburgh, the possible marks vary from ‘A – no further changes to be made to the thesis’ to ‘J – thesis is deficient and cannot be revised to satisfy the degree requirements’ with different possible outcomes in-between.
My thesis was marked with ‘D – the thesis needs work beyond editorial corrections, but student appears capable of revising the thesis to satisfy the requirement’. My examiners talked me through these corrections, but I found it hard to focus on what they were saying. I passed, and that was all that mattered.
With no more energy to defend my intellectual stance and integrity, confused, surprised, and relieved, I thanked them for taking the time to read and examine my thesis and I left the room. I planned to worry about what was to come another time. It was the end of an era. One stage of my life was over, and a new stage was about to begin.
Later that day we went for a drink with some colleagues and friends. My supervisors and examiners joined us too. We chatted about research, our ‘big days’, and laughed at my (apparently intimidating) colour-coded post-it notes. I realised that a viva can be a draining experience for the examiners too, and that I had been too one-sided and self-absorbed to notice that.
My supervisors, supportive as ever, tried to explain that ‘D’ was a good outcome, but this time it was me who was not convinced. I found myself on the other side.
About the author
She primarily works on a project which aims at harmonisation of the income and earnings data across three cohort studies: National Child Development Study (NCDS), 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).
Bozena was awarded a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in July 2019. Her PhD research was supported by the Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) collaborative funding programme.
Her PhD thesis is entitled “Understanding University Graduates’ Social Mobility Trajectories: How Does the Route affect the Outcome?”. In this project, she analysed economic activity histories of a sample of graduates from the 1970 British Cohort Study, mapping the patterns of change in their employment and social class over time.
Follow Bozena on Twitter.