Passed, with minor corrections

I am very pleased and extremely relieved to be able to (finally!) announce that I have passed my PhD viva – and with only minor corrections! This good news comes after more than five years of hard work and emotional turmoil, and I am just so thankful that my PhD Dreams are almost a reality.

The preamble:

I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of October. At the time, I had hoped that my viva (oral examination/defence) would be just before Christmas. However, there was a slight glitch that meant everything was delayed. But the outcome is such that I will still make the July graduation ceremony, so it all worked out in the end!

Because of the delay, I mostly ignored my thesis for nearly three months after submission. (Part of that was due to a post-submission illness.) It wasn’t really until the start of February that I started to really prepare for The Big Day, as blogged about here.

On the day of my viva, I woke up at 5am (after a slightly disrupted sleep). I showered, put on a suitable dress for the occasion, and painted my nails. I arrived at my office just before 8am and unpacked my bag, then I headed down to the canteen for a full breakfast (with extra bacon!). Then, I waited nervously for my 10.30am start time.

My thesis was examined by Sheila Webber, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield iSchool (external examiner) and Dr Laura Muir, Associate Professor at the Edinburgh Napier University School of Computing (internal examiner). My Panel Chair (viva moderator) was Professor Ben Paechter, Director of Research in the School of Computing.

My Director of Studies, Professor Hazel Hall, also joined me at the viva to take notes. She sat behind me so that I would not be tempted to look towards her for input, but also so that any facial expressions she might have made didn’t throw me off.

I went into the room prepared with my trusty water bottle (my medication makes this a necessity!), two pens, several sheets of blank paper for notes, a handkerchief (in case of tears), and my thesis. I also brought with me a tummy full of butterflies and a mixture of fear, excitement, worry, and hope.

The gritty details:

At the start of the viva, the plan for the examination was explained. The plan was to go through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, with questions alternating between the examiners (for the most part). As the questions were lobbed at me, I found myself examining the motivations behind them. Is this a question about clarifying a confusing sentence? Is it because they were trying to tease out the finer details about my methods? Is the question meant to challenge something that the examiners held different views about? Or is it because they want to see how (clearly) I can defend my position?

Some questions were easy for me to understand (assume) these motivations. Especially when in the process of answering it was clear that my response was “the right” response. But the motivation of others was a little harder to pin down, especially when it because clear(ish) that the examiners were coming at the thesis from a different perspective to my own.

Throughout the process, I found myself gauging how well the viva was going. I felt that I was heading towards a “pass, with corrections” but I couldn’t quite pin down if that would be minor corrections or major corrections.

It all felt quite positive and I felt (mostly) confident when answering questions and defending my work. I even felt that I stayed (mostly) on point and didn’t go off into a rambling tangent, something that I sometimes do when I am nervous.

And then I was blindsided by a bus! One of the examiners started down a path of inquiry that I was absolutely unprepared for. There was a back-and-forth that lasted what felt like about 5 minutes at the end of the viva that made my heart sink into the pit of my stomach. From that point on, I was no longer able to control my fragile emotional state and the tears started to fall (good thing I had that hankie, right?). I was certain that this was the thing that was going to take me from a pass with corrections to a resubmit (with or without a new viva). It was a horrible feeling and was, by far, the worst moment of my viva.

[Note: This isn’t to say that I think the questions were unfair or unwarranted. The examiners were fair, kind, and encouraging throughout the entire experience.]

At the end of that line of questioning, there was a very short (1-2 minutes) wrap-up chat where I was asked if there was anything I would like to add about my thesis as a whole. This was my opportunity to give my work a final sales pitch. But by that time, I was too emotional and felt too defeated to say anything more.

With that, I was asked to leave (along with my Director of Studies) so that the examiners could chat with the moderator to confirm the outcome. During that time, I sat in Hazel’s office, unable to stop the tears because I was certain I would be resubmitting my work based on the “bus” questions. Hazel, however, felt that I was still in the passing lane. She walked me through some of the (many, and high quality!) notes that she took during the viva and shared her own interpretation of the outcome. That helped to dry my tears a bit, although I wasn’t as convinced as she was.

The wait in Hazel’s office felt quite short. It might have been about 10 minutes – 15 at the very most. We were then invited back to the examination room by the chair. I was feeling a little more positive by that time (thanks, Hazel!) but I was still quite sure it wouldn’t be the result I was hoping for.

However, when I walked in the room I was greeted with smiles, a “congratulations”, and the words “passed, with minor corrections”. I was extremely surprised at that outcome, given the bus that had knocked me over just a few minutes earlier. But a short conversation followed about the “bus” incident and it was made clearer to me what the examiner was hoping for from that specific line of questioning.

The conversation to follow was about the general next steps in the process. The first of these steps is that the examiners will write a formal letter outlining the corrections that need to be made. That letter will be sent to the research office at my university before a copy is sent to me. It is at that time that my official corrections time will begin.

With minor corrections, I will have two months to complete the changes before sending an electronic version of the amended thesis on for my examiners to sign off on. After that, I will have my final thesis bound for submission before graduation – which should be in July, barring any hiccups along the way. My Panel Chair reassured me that we could revisit my current non-PhD workload to ensure that I have time to make my corrections. (Although I don’t think that there should be an issue, I felt very supported to have been told this help is available.)

Once the viva was officially over, I was invited out to lunch with my examiners and Hazel. We enjoyed a wee toast with some lovely prosecco followed by a nice conversation about a wide range of topics not related to my PhD. (Which was nice!) After lunch, I made my way home as I was completely exhausted.

The personal reflection:

In a nutshell, my viva was not a fun experience. I know that isn’t what people want to hear, but for me, that is the truth. Although, I do acknowledge that my reflections might have been more positive without the aforementioned “bus” incident! (Also, it wasn’t a completely horrible experience.)

In the lead-up to the Big Day, I knew that my viva might be an emotional and exhausting experience. Like many of life’s big moments, I had invested my heart and soul into this. Thankfully, I know myself well enough that I knew I would be shattered from the experience. And that means that I didn’t make any plans to celebrate the day.

And I was right! The experience was so draining that I couldn’t truly be happy on the day. In fact, when I got home, I donned my pyjamas and cried a bit. I then had another glass of prosecco and called my parents to share the good news with them. Then I shared the news on Facebook (Twitter was saved until the following morning). That was the limit to my celebrations. (But not the limit to my tears!)

The following day I returned to the office and politely thanked everyone who congratulated me. But I still couldn’t celebrate because I was still too dazed from the experience. And now, three days later, I am still a bit “meh” about it all.

Maybe these feelings of apathy are because I know that there is still much work to be done before I graduate. Or maybe they’re because I am too busy worrying about what my next steps will be after graduation (there are so many questions about jobs, post-docs, and locations!). Of course, maybe these feelings are simply a bit of exhaustion.

But, ultimately, I have passed my PhD (subject to minor corrections) and that does make me happy – even if I can’t quite celebrate that happiness just yet.

Thank you, again, to all of my lovely cheerleaders who’ve encouraged me along the way. My PhD Dreams aren’t over quite realised yet, but they are almost a reality!

My thesis: Submitted!

And with that, I have submitted my PhD thesis for examination and thesis season is over!

The last few days have been spent finishing up my thesis, all with an aim submitting on Halloween (success!). That included finishing my conclusion chapter and writing my acknowledgements page. These final days were also spent making sure that all of my references were accurate and that the fiddly little things like automatic bookmarks were rendering properly.

Once the document was finalised, I set everything up for printing. I intentionally planned it so that I was printing after office hours so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hogging the printers. After all, a thesis is a fairly long document and I needed four copies: Two for my viva examiners, one for my mock viva examiner, and one for me.

To save time, I sent the thesis to print as two separate print jobs, each with two copies. That way, I would take advantage of the two printers in the print room. It took about 30 minutes to print the four copies, and another few minutes to straighten the pages and (meticulously) fold a couple of double-sized pages for the appendices. I also included coloured cardstock in between each chapter for my own copy of the thesis. This way, I can add section tabs to the cardstock so that I can easily flip to the correct chapter when I am revising or during the viva itself.

After I finished printing, I carefully wrapped each copy in paper and called my taxi-driving landlord for a lift home, cradling my “babies” the entire way.

The next morning, I woke early and got the bus out to my university’s print shop. There, Gordon bound the documents whilst I waited. And then I took another bus to my campus where I panicked a bit (and got a bit teary) before heading upstairs to the research office to officially submit my thesis.

To be honest, submitting my thesis was quite an emotional and self-doubting experience. Although, to be honest, the entire PhD process was more emotional and self-doubting than I had expected! I won’t get into all of that today though, as I plan to share a series of posts (over time) that reflect on my experiences with the PhD process.

But yes, my thesis is done for now; it has been submitted. And that really is something to celebrate!

Of course, submitting my thesis is not the end of the PhD journey. No, there are still a few steps remaining before my PhD Dreams are realised. The first of these steps is my viva (oral defence). After that, I will be asked to make amendments to the thesis before I submit my final, hard-bound thesis. And then, finally, I will graduate.

Writer’s block? Write, now!

For more than a month now, I have been suffering from severe writer’s block. I haven’t been able to write my thesis. I haven’t been able to update my PhD blog. And I haven’t been able to write on my personal blog. In fact, it has been so bad that I haven’t even been able to reply to personal letters to my family and friends. (Yes, I write “real” letters!) I don’t know exactly what prompted my block, but I think it was caused by a lot of little things working together to become one great big thing.

However, before my block, I signed up for a three-day non-residential writing retreat hosted by my university’s Research and Innovation Office (RIO) that took place last week. The event, Write Now!, was held off campus to allow for a much-needed change of scenery—which I always find helpful.

And, thankfully, on the Friday before the retreat, one of my supervisors came by to check in on my progress. When explained my extreme writer’s block, he helped me to re-work a couple of things and to re-think my mindset. (And he checked back with me later that same day, which helped. A lot!) That chat helped to better set me up for the writing retreat.

When I first signed up for the writing retreat, I told myself that a 1,000-word goal would be achievable each day. However, I had to amend that to 500 because of my block. My reasoning was that if I tried to go from 0 to 1,000 straight out of the gate, I would become even more frustrated. So I chose a more manageable goal so that I could feel a bit of success at the end of the retreat.

In the end, I wrote 1,713 words (daily counts were: 539, 651, and 523).

That doesn’t seem like much for what should have been an intensive writing session. However, it is more than treble the words I managed in the month prior.

We marked our successes each day by hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Small baubles for 500 words, large baubles for 1,000 words, and golden snowflakes for 2,000 words. It was encouraging for me to see more baubles added as the hours and days went by. (Though I wish I could have added more than I did!)

In total, there were about 20 people at the retreat from across the university. And between us, we managed to write 40,000 words. Though it should be noted that some writers were editing documents, rather than bulking them out, which means that some people were working on negative word counts. (Which makes me think we should have had additional ornaments for reaching our daily goals—which would have included editing pages. I think I’ll mention that to the RIO team for next time…)

I am still feeling a bit blocked, but I am pleased to say that the retreat has helped me to see my way forward. It was also a good reminder that when your goal is total words, you can always switch to another section or chapter when you’re feeling blocked. Even if that is not the chapter you were meant to be working on that day. Words are words!

With the Christmas holidays (nearly) upon us, I am aware that I will not be spending full days at my computer—especially as two of my nieces are coming to Scotland to spend the holidays with me! However, I am going to aim for 250 words a day minimum with a stretch goal of 500 per day for my holiday average. (My nieces are 21 and 23, so if I plan to write when they’re Facebooking their friends, I should have plenty of time!)

Anyhow, as my thesis writing time is tick, tick, ticking away, I will need to work really hard at finding my motivation and overcoming this block. But I am confident that I will manage to pull it off. I just need to remember that writing needs to be prioritised and that, when I am blocked, I just need to suck it up and write, now!

Why am I still writing?

I am still writing my thesis. Still. Yes, still. I am still writing my thesis. Oh my goodness, I am still writing my thesis!

When I began my PhD more than three years ago, I was confident that I would be one of those irritating students who submitted their work spot on time. And then, I hit a bump or two in the road. One of those bumps was more of a mountain than a bump, which didn’t help. But that was fine; I would survive!

After I recovered from that pretty miserable first year (a year that led me to reconsider if a PhD was for me), I got back on my PhD Pony and began to ride again.

I was picking up speed and making up for some of the time I’d lost in the first year’s Pity Party. The way I saw it was that I could still submit within three months of my three years. Yeah, that would be good. I could be happy with that.

And then, I hit a bump or two in the road. I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed. And then I got sick. And then there were more social stresses. And then I broke my ankle. And then, and then, and then… And let’s not forget about the second bout of extreme self-doubt that led me to reconsider if a PhD was for me…

[Enter more excuses, rationalisations, and justifications here… Then enter a few more for good measure…]

But it was all fine. I was starting to feel confident again and, even though I would definitely miss my three-year [impossible] goal, I was going to submit within three months after the three years. Well, maybe four months. Five? Six…? OK, seven. Seven months. Definitely no more than seven months. Three years and seven months. And that’s it. Really. That. Is. It.

So here I am, three and a half years into my PhD and I am still writing.

Because I can’t do it. The work has been so very overwhelming and I have struggled to find a way through my massive mountain of data. And it doesn’t help that my own physical health has been less-than-brilliant which has added to my stress, creating a crazy cycle of, well, crazy. (You can read about my May madness on my personal blog.)

However, I have been working some new approaches to my writing, and to my entire work-life balance system. And I think I am finally starting to gain some traction. Some of those changes mean that I am spending less time in front of a computer but, happily, I am a more productive when I am working on a computer.

Over the next week or two, I will be busily (and manically!) working on completing my findings chapters which has been a massive, ugly, furry beast of a task. But if my new approach to work (and data analysis) continues to go smoothly, I should be able to succeed in this goal.

I am hoping (desperately!) that I will not face as many challenges when I start putting together the rest of my thesis. Because let’s be honest, my supervisors (as wonderful as they are) are probably getting really fed up with my ongoing delays!

And that, in a rambling nutshell, is why I am still writing. (But hopefully not for long!)

The buck stops here

Note: This post was originally shared on my personal blog. So please forgive me if it’s a bit more touchy-feeling than you would expect. But, as I am researching online information and personal reputation, I suppose it’s a good example of how information is shared differently for different audiences for the building and protection of personal reputation!

2016-10-27-the-buck-stops-hereThat’s it folks: the buck stops here. Actually, I suppose I should say the pound stops here. Why? Because my last PhD stipend payment was today, and that means I have no more money coming into my bank accounts—bucksbobsquids, or otherwise—until I am finished with my PhD and I get a job.

Am I worried about not having an income? Yes, I am. A little bit, anyhow. After all, I am looking at another 8–12 months before I graduate. Which means it will be about 8–12 months before I am in a position to get a job (and therefore, and income!).

But I knew this day was coming and so I have planned for it. I have saved back a little bit of money from each of my monthly stipend payments over the past three years. And that means that I will have enough money to see me through to graduation.

I am also quite blessed in that I have a rent-free place to live for the duration of my studies. That’s because at the start of my studies a friend offered up the guest room in his home, knowing that a PhD would be unaffordable if I had to pay Edinburgh rents. Whilst I’ve given him a (small) chunk of money, I have not really paid towards my lodgings. Which is the main reason I was able to save enough of my stipend payment each month to cover me through the next few income-less months!

Or at least I will have enough money if there are not major catastrophes that require me spending my savings—or that mean it takes me more than 12 months to finish. But as long as I manage to buckle down and write, write, write, I should be OK. And I have a plan for how I will manage to get those 80,000 written up, so that should help to keep me on track.

If I have done the sums correctly (and if I find a job by the slightly extended time frame I gave myself) I should be able to manage without further financial help. And I should be able to do it all without too many financial sacrifices on my quality of life. Of course, this is largely because my lifestyle is already one of (voluntary) frugality: I find great pleasure in saving money and reducing my spending!

And despite my income ending today, I should have a bit of money left in savings by the time I get a job—if I get a job—which means I won’t go further into debt. (I still have a small personal loan that helped me to bridge the gap between starting my PhD and getting my first stipend payment. And then there are those pesky American student loans from my undergraduate days that will follow me to my deathbed! But I digress…)

Anyhow, this post isn’t a plea for help or a poor-me tale hoping for pity. Instead, it is another illustration to show that I am moving a little bit closer to achieving my PhD Dreams. After all, the end of the stipend means I am officially in writing up mode. And writing up is the key to completing the thesis and graduating!

So the buck stops here and it stops with me. And that means the responsibility for completing my PhD is mine and mine alone. (Though I know I will have the support of my PhD supervisors, family, and friends along the way, too!)

Wish me luck!