Clearing out and moving on(ish)

I cleared out my PhD office at Edinburgh Napier University today. It was a bit of a strange feeling as I know that I will be back in the office a few more times before the end of the year as I finish up a project that I am working on with my colleague, Gemma. But at the same time, I’ve left. I am no longer a PhD student. I am no longer an associate lecturer. I am no longer a regular employee, although I am still listed as associate staff whilst I do some mop-up work. But mop-up work isn’t quite the same, and the paycheques have ceased!

When I left, I did so without fanfare. There were no good-byes. There were no “we’ll miss yous”. There were no leaving drinks; no email to alert people of my change in circumstances. I just… left. And that lack of fanfare left me feeling quite deflated. It left me feeling that my time at Napier was inconsequential; like I am not/was not an integral part of the Napier Machine. (I know that’s not true, really, I do!)

And I am still kind of there. Or at least, I will be around for occasional meetings over the next few months. That means I will still be interacting with folks from my research group, which would make “goodbye” seem silly. Although once my project there is done, I suppose I will just silently fade into the past; I will just be someone that folks “used to know”. (There will be some connections that continue, I hope!)

But, alas, this is another part of my story. I have to leave Napier so that I can go onto the next thing. I have to leave Napier so that I can build my academic career out there in the Big Bad World. Indeed, I have already gone onto the next thing by way of my post-doc in Dundee. And I am actively applying for other posts in the UK and further afield. Oh, and I have applied for a small pot of funding for a small project with one of my Napier colleagues, so my real departure might be delayed a bit longer.

Anyhow… now that I have boxed up my Napier office, I have to start working on putting my home office. That is where I will spend most of my Dundee hours, as I will only commute twice per week. It is also where I will work on applications for other jobs.

Of course, that task will have to wait just a bit. Because I am leaving for my summer holidays to The Homeland tomorrow. Which also means that I don’t have to think about the sadness of clearing out my office and moving on with my life. For now, at least! It also means that I will have to go through all of the contents from my office after my holidays. So I suppose the clear-out isn’t complete quite yet!

The doctor is in: Frances Ryan, PhD

It has been a long time coming, but I am finally a doctor. Oh yes, I am now officially Dr Frances Ryan. The PhD kind of doctor, not the medical kind – just so that there is no doubt.

When I say “a long time coming”, I mean that my PhD Dreams began with my undergraduate degree way, way, way back in 1999. At the time, I had hoped to move directly from my undergraduate work at Central Washington University into a master’s degree followed, hopefully, by a PhD. But after meeting a cute boy during my undergraduate year abroad, I put my postgraduate dreams on hold so that I could get married and do all that lovey-dovey family stuff. (No regrets!)

Later, with the full support and encouragement of my husband, Paul, the plan changed to doing part-time postgraduate studies whilst we raised our family (we were getting ready to adopt from the foster care system). But my beloved Paul died before I was meant to begin my studies, and so I put my dreams on hold so that I could relearn how to breathe. (No, really. When you become a widow, you can forget how to do simple things like breathe, eat, sleep, laugh, and even hope…)

But, eventually, I managed to find the strength to return to school for a master’s degree. And at some point during that degree path, my PhD Dreams were renewed. I was privileged to be offered three different PhD placements and I happily accepted the one at Edinburgh Napier University.

My PhD studies began in November 2013 under the supervision of Professor Hazel Hall (director of studies), Alistair Lawson (second supervisor), and Peter Cruickshank (third supervisor). Whilst the “ideal” PhD journey is about three years, my journey took a bit longer than that. Which isn’t uncommon, but I am a bit disappointed at myself for not finishing sooner. (Some of the delays were out of my control, but I have to acknowledge that some were down to me and my self-confidence – or lack thereof.)

In the end, I submitted my thesis on Halloween (2018) just shy of five years after beginning my studies and my (slightly delayed) viva took place in February 2019. I was quite keen to complete my minor corrections in time for the summer graduations, so handed in my corrections a tad bit early (so not everything about my PhD was delayed). After all, graduating on the 4th of July is a pretty cool thing for an American – especially one who is the daughter of two United States Marines!

And so, finally, here I am: Frances Ryan, PhD. Or Dr Ryan, if you prefer.

Of course, this dream could never have been realised without the encouragement and support of others. So, thank you to all of my family and friends in America, the UK, and in the virtual world for helping to see me through this crazy adventure!

I am not certain where life will take me next. Ideally, I will be able to remain in Scotland working as an academic for the foreseeable future. But I am a realist (begrudgingly so) and I know that I will have to be open to opportunities wherever they might be. (If you know of a job opportunity I should consider, please get in touch!)

And now that I have accomplished this great dream of mine, I suppose I should start thinking about the Next Big Thing. After all, having a big goal to focus on is what keeps me going!

You can watch the ceremony on YouTube below. I enter the stage about 6 minutes in, so no need to watch the entire 90-minute show!

My thesis: The final version

My PhD thesis is now complete and, more importantly, the final, hard-bound version has been submitted to the research office. This marks the last hurdle in my PhD journey, ahead of my graduation on 4 July. (The perfect date for an American to graduate!)

The final version of my thesis reflects the amendments that I was asked to make after my PhD viva in February. My edits were classed as “minor” which meant I was given two months to complete them (from the date of the formal corrections letter, not the date of the viva). That meant that I had until 28 May to work through my thesis again to make the necessary updates, before sending the corrected thesis back to the research office for the next steps.

To make the best use of my time, I started out by classifying the edits as simple, moderate, and “difficult”. That way, I was able to work on different types of edits based on the level of thinking that my brain was ready for at different times of the day or when conflicting priorities meant I had less uninterrupted time for working on the document.

I found most of the edits to be quite easy, even after marking them difficult. However, there were a couple of edits that I struggled with. Although I didn’t struggle because they were challenging, rather I struggled because I was overthinking things. Thankfully, the overthinking was the worst of it and the changes were all made with (relative) ease.

After the edits were complete, and approved by my examiners, all of the relevant paperwork was sent to the Research Degrees Committee for their final sign-off. Then, once I received the letter from the committee saying that my award was confirmed, I printed off my thesis for the final binding.

Today, I handed in the final printed thesis (and emailed an electronic version) to the research office. And I confirmed the title of my thesis. And confirmed my application for graduation. And confirmed my graduation gown hire. So, that’s my PhD done.

Almost… After all, I still have one more step before I am Dr Ryan.

The next (and final) step is now to walk across the stage to collect my degree. It’s been a long and winding road, but I’m finally (almost) done!

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: The viva version

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about my thesis. In fact, I haven’t done so since I submitted last October. At the time, I expected that I would be blogging about my viva before the Christmas holidays, but there was a glitch in the process that meant everything was postponed.

That glitch means that I didn’t return to my thesis until the end of January. (I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or not. I’ll make that decision post-viva!) I am now in full-on viva-prep mode, and I am dreading looking forward to a constructive examination.

I got a bit geeky and had my viva version bound with a light-weight, coloured cardstock in between each chapter. That allowed me to add sturdy tabs to each chapter so that I can easily flip to the section I want. (I even colour-coded the tabs so that all “like” chapters are the same colour.)

In addition to the main chapter tabs, I used writable Post-it tabs to mark out pages that are more likely to be referred to during the viva: my research questions, theoretical framework, study design flowchart, and participant details. These were placed on the top of the pages so that they did not add clutter to the main navigation tabs.

Small, narrow Post-It flags were also used to mark pages that need minor edits (for example, there is a missing colon on one page). These are also located at the top of the pages as to not interfere with the navigational tabs.

The rest of my thesis mark-up and notes are all hidden within the pages. Here, I have used different sized Post-Its to note minor edits or to clarify a point that might be a bit confusing the way I have it written. I have used larger edits to write down additional thoughts or to summarise more challenging or “technical” sections. This way, if I am asked about them during the viva I will be able to refer to my own notes about these things. Of course, that also assumes that I will only be asked about the things I’ve specifically prepared for. (I wonder what the odds are… ?)

My viva version thesis does not include any writing on the pages. There are no highlighted sections; no scribbles in the margins. Everything is done with notes on Post-Its. I just can’t bring myself to make any permanent marks on something that I worked so hard on creating. Although I am sad to say that the act of carrying “my baby” around with me has meant that the edges are starting to show a bit of wear and tear.

Anyhow, there are only two more thesis posts after this: One will be sharing the process of corrections and the other will be sharing the final product. It’s hard to believe that I am that close! In fact, my viva is so close now that my next post here will be about that. And, hopefully, it will be about passing my viva. So… stay tuned!