Submission & Viva

Submission (redux)

Yes, I know, shocking.  I’m writing about my PhD again, something I’ve not done for a long time.  Why?  Well, because essentially all of 2016 was writing, editing, revising, rewriting and then more editing.  Oh and panicking, there was a quite a bit of that when I realised I wasn’t going to make my official deadline (thanks to family deaths, illness, general life events etc).  Thankfully, and despite the usual scaling of Mount Administration, I got an extension through to Jan 2017.  I was ready to submit before Christmas, but gave myself the first couple of weeks of the new year for a final proof-read and tidy before submitting on 18th Jan 2017.

 

Setting the Date

I kinda expected the viva would take place within about three months post-submission, since THAT’s what the university’s own regulations stipulate.  And given I’ve had to keep to their administration rigid timetables myself, you’d expect the same to be true for their own efforts.

Yeah, I know.  Anyone who’s spoken to me or read my earlier posts, knows that my professional opinion of the university’s administration layer is low, and my personal one is probably not repeatable in public.  Hence, consider how much foul language I’ve used when finally I got the viva date set for 15th June 2017: 5 months post submission.  This really wasn’t ideally, especially for applying for jobs where having had the viva could have made all the difference between securing paid employment and not even getting an interview.  I really feel the university has damaged my potential future earnings and career by their poor speed of turnaround.  Glad I had the opportunity to feedback on this in the recent PGR student survey, but this couldn’t make the viva happen faster.

 

I’ve been trying (and failing) to read 10 pages a day of the thesis in the build up to the 15th June.  Certainly, once I hit May (the month, not the PM) I made a redoubled effort to try and get through the chapters again.  I’ve probably eventually re-read it about three times fully, with one final skim through in the last couple of pre-viva days.  It struck me as being not too bad at all, although I kept finding the odd niggling grammatical error.  I know far worse theses have passed muster, as I’ve flicked through them over the years, so I wasn’t letting this stress me out.  All the same it’s frustrating to realise that despite all the careful proofreading by me and Mrs Llama, these things still slipped through.

The Day Arrives

I was pretty calm, and relaxed about the approaching date, although my sleeping patterned had gone to hell.  I partially attribute that to the light June mornings – I do not do well here, and Mrs Llama insists on leaving the bedroom door open to let more light flood in.  Given a free hand for my own room arrangements, I’d be sleeping in a dark, dark hole all summer long!

2017-06-15 12.07.34
Campus was dead quiet

On the day, I packed some water, a hat and my thesis and headed off into campus bright and early.  I planned to hideout in the library for the morning, having a last skim of vital parts (research rationale, claim to knowledge, theory, results, conclusions).  The viva was set for a 13.15-13.30 kickoff, so I had some time to collect myself and my ragged thoughts.  The library was (mostly) nice and quiet, until 11am when schoolkids on an open day came tearing through excitedly looking for “The horror section”.  I think they were disappointed by what they found!  Meanwhile, I was struggling more and more to keep myself calm.  I indulged in a few BJ Blazkowicz-style breathing exercises, chatted to the Wife and tried to dissuade myself of the notion that the last page I just skipped over would be THE bit I should have read more closely.

2017-06-15 10.42.39
Trying to study. Trying not to panic.

Shortly afternoon me, and my rising nerves, headed over to see my supervisor for a chat and lunch.  Or in my case, some camomile tea – I do not like eating ahead of interviews or other stressful events as my stomach tends to throw a fit.  ‘Lunch’ was just what I needed, in that in our talk about future papers we’re aiming to write I was nicely distracted.  Then it was time to head to CELS101 (yes, Room 101, thank you NTU for that Orwellian additional fear factor!) and face my panel.  Well, it was time, but the Independent Chair was a very much ‘by the rules’ kinda guy, and hence I had a loooong wait (20 minutes, it SEEMED long) before I came in and things began.

Your Starter for 10

Superlab, 300412
I entered a boy, and left a man…possibly

The viva itself was actually as I had hoped.  A conversation between relative peers, focussed on my research, approaches, thoughts, conclusions etc.  I didn’t feel stressed, I was able to talk (mostly) clearly about what I’d done, why and how it was important.  All credit to the External and Internal Examiners for that.  There was a very interesting debate over my conceptualisation of activists and indeed my whole ethnographic-framing, and that was probably the nearest I came to having to make it a viva-defence.  Did my best to take their points on board, while at the same time making my own thinking and perceptions clear.  Eventually, we ran out of questions, followed by a chance for me to ask them if there was anything they should have asked.  Yeah, like I’m going to say “Hey, you should REALLY have asked about this bit, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing“.  I suggested they could have asked ‘What’s your perfect Sunday?’, but that was about it.  I was excused while the examiners took a comfort break and then deliberated their decision.  I glanced at my phone – the viva had only taken 65 minutes.

Congratulations, Dr Llama

I didn’t have long to wait.  2 minutes.  And was greeted by the Chair almost immediately saying “Congratulations, Dr Johnson, we’ve recommended that the thesis be passed with no corrections“.

Despite THIS moment being what I’ve been working towards, hoping for, for over 4 years…to finally hear it was beyond a shock to the system.  I remember muttering some thanks, shaking everyone’s hand and trying not to beam like a loony.  I kept thinking “No corrections…not even Mrs Llama’s PhD got passed with that!“.  No thesis is perfect, and there was a lot of really useful feedback and suggestions from the examiners on how to improve it for publication as a book, or preparing it for journal articles (I’m not quite sure which yet).  They also wanted to tweak a single word in the title to “Better represent the depth and breath of your research“…wow.

A New Dawn

Writing this two days later…I’m still not quite sure it all happened, there’s still that slight doubt that I dreamed it all and I’m still waiting for the viva.  But I’m not.  Sure, I need the official letter to arrive and there’s (hopefully) an amusing hat-wearing related ceremony to attend next month to get the certificate.  Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes I am now a Doctor.

There was time for a quick drink and a chat with the examiners and my supervisor, which was a great wind down.  Nevertheless, I was bursting to go home and see Mrs Llama to share the moment with her.  Needless to say, she was quite excited too and we went out to dinner to celebrate.

2017-06-15 19.23.23
Three kinds of dip.  My kind of dinner!

All that remains now, is I just need to find a paying job that’ll make all the struggle, effort and learning really feel like it was worthwhile!  Stay tuned for that one…

A Semblance of Normality

Monday

Must remember not to use it to play car-games
Must remember not to use it to play car-games


With the coursework all finished for the academic year, this week finally sees me able to focus my attention squarely back on my research.  Something I’ve been frustrated about not being able to spend more time with over the last month.  Today I’ve been typing up interviews (got through two of them, or around 60 minutes of audio) which I was quite pleased with.  However, I’ve given in and ordered myself a foot-control pedal.  It’s something I’ve known about for a while, and now they can just jack into the USB port of my PC it should make the hands-free control of the playback a snap.  It also means I can spend more time typing, and less time taking my hands off the keyboard to pause and rewind.  I imagine though it’ll take a little while to get used to it, so I’ll cover my experiences here!

Tomorrow, I plan to spend the day reading for the vast bulk of the day, to give my hands a bit of a rest.

Tuesday

Didn't Duran Duran record "The Remix"?
Didn’t Duran Duran record “The Remix”?


Read Remix by Lessig, a book I’d started reading last month and then had to put to one side to do all the RPC coursework.  It’s a good book, and as I’ve read all his earlier books it’s really interesting to see how his writing style and arguments have come on.  Peppered throughout with real world examples and interviews, and notably an excellent essay by a student on just why they “pirate” music (free lunch, yes please, who wouldn’t take it!), Lessig does make a powerful case for his central theme – criminalising youth through legislative efforts is not advisable. While allowances he argues must be made to allow the digital remixing by the amateur, non-commercial individual, he does argue that for the professional sphere that (c) needs perhaps less modification.  A second central plank is his examination of the economic dimension of (c) and aspects of social production. Here, rather than looking at the entirely social productivity of efforts like FOSS (c.f. Wealth of Networks by Benkler for more) he examines the hybrid models like Wikipedia, Google and Amazon where total exclusivity is not claimed and yet commercial stability has been achieved. There are some similarities with the hybrid model of open access that might be worth considering.  Finally he introduces the ideas of Read Only/Read Write culture – the former being the consumer model of the 20th Century and the latter the ideas behind remix. Historically we had a remix culture (folk songs), but this was slowly erased by (c) reform in the second half of the 20th Century.

Having finished this thoroughly interesting read, I went on to sort out some bibliography issues and engaged in battle with RefWorks online again for a while to close out the day.  Research posters day tomorrow – keep feeling like I should have spent some time revising my research notes, but I guess if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing by now I never will.  A little nervous as not quite sure what to expect tomorrow from the assessors.

Wednesday

Not a great night’s sleep, worrying about today’s research poster day which saw me taking an early train to Nottingham and the City Campus.  As usual I was the first one there, but I needn’t have rushed as the promised boards for the posters didn’t turn up (due powercuts and floods we were told) until after 10am.  It was nice to have the chance to chat to my fellow RPC PhD students, and in some cases finally put names to faces.  There were some genuinely really excellent posters from my group too.  Once the posters up, we then had to wait for various academics to come and see ours and grade them and our ability to talk about our work.  I got seen by three, the most senior of whom was…pretty caustic about my theoretical aspects.  Not quite crucified, but her certainly didn’t mince his words or scorn – being told that currently “It’s not a PhD” was an especially hard body blow to take.

Just knew I should have gone with this poster
Just knew I should have gone with this poster

*engage sulky teenager mode*

I’m fully aware the theory is the weakest part of my research proposal at the moment, and something I’m trying to develop – indeed my supervisors advice has been that we will develop it over the 3/4 years of the study.  At times I feel like I’m slightly hobbled as unlike a lot of people in my school I’ve not come through an Arts and Humanities degree path.  It think this goes a long way to explain why this bit is a real struggle for me.  If there was just some book I could read that would give me some insight, I’d pay good money – but all the texts I’ve picked up so far have just muddied the water a lot.  I think I’m going to have to have some discussions with my supervisors about this more, as the guy’s comments really shattered what little self-confidence I have about my research.

The other two reviewers were a little less challenging, though I still struggled a bit in my explanations (managing to blank the word “ethnographic” at one crucial point – arg!).  So no idea how well I did in that, though i was told my poster was fine.  At least I don’t have to worry about it being forwarded to any further internal competitions, pretty sure that’s all dead in the water for me.  Just do hope I’ve done enough to get a passing grade.  Not my finest of moments I fear, and I think I felt pretty rubbish when I couldn’t pick up anyone else getting anything like the grilling I did.  *sigh*

After the poster session a group of us retired to the delightfully named Spanky Van Dykes (!) bar across the road.  A fun couple of hours there in conversation and companionship slightly soothed my fevered mind.  Then took the long train ride home, and sorted out some administration issues, and tested out the pedal for transcriptions.  Going to take a little getting used to, but honestly I think it’s going to really help.  Hopefully a good night’s sleep will restore my self-confidence and enthusiasm a little.

Thursday

Me, today
Img by C0L0SS4L-ST1NK3R

Still a bit down after the adverse comments on my work from yesterday, which is rather impacting on my motivation to do anything today. Not helped my multiple family medical traumas that are going on at the moment as well, which aren’t exactly leaving me free of cares and ready to refocus and redouble my efforts.  That said I’ll be using my pedal in anger today for the first time and do some more transcriptions.  Hopefully this will help get me going on something useful, while freeing me mostly of the need to think to much.

[Later] Three whole interviews transcribed, which is somewhat of a record.  Especially considering I had to pop out for an hour to get a new tire for my car.  The pedal has already repaid my investment, and I’m almost kicking myself for not buying on sooner.  Still in a funk even by the end of the day, despite Mrs Llama’s best efforts to cheer me up.  This week does seem to be the week that keeps on kicking me in the ass emotionally.

Friday

Another day leaving for Nottingham before tea of breakfast, and still suffering under a bit of a funky cloud; despite last night’s highly enjoyable Eurovision semi final (2) – all my favourites went through, that’s not happened in ages!).  I’m here for the RPC Conference, organised by the 3rd year PhDs, papers by the 2nd years and supposedly attended by us 1st years as well.  However, from a straw poll of my cohort on Weds I suspect there will only be a smattering of folks from my group there.  Which is fine, it means I can spend the day listening quietly and chatting to a potted plant in the corner of the room.  An old conference technique of mine on those days when any shred of self-confidence seems to elude me.  Today’s one of those days sadly.  However, maybe it’ll spark my grey thinky thing into action hearing other people’s work and perhaps pull back some of the mists around theory that are dogging my waking and sleeping hours at the moment.

[Later] Well as events go, today’s was pretty much symptomatic of the whole RSP.  Turning up to be greeted by what appeared to be the cast of The Apprentice squabbling about organisation, being told I was an “external guest” which meant I didn’t get lunch*, a programme, coffee or a name badge – well let’s just say as a veteran conference organiser with over a decade of experience…I’ve had people walk out on conferences for much less!  It wasn’t a good way to greet people and certainly gave a very poor first impression.  Oh, and there was the small matter of hearing that thanks to the estate services while the posters from Wednesday were up somewhere, they’d been transported in a bit of a numpty manner – and were folded (!) and in one case ripped beyond hope.  Nice…

Still no matter, I thought, these quibble shouldn’t spoil matters – doubtless the content of the day would be engaging and that’s what really matters.

There were some good sessions (thank you Kornelia!), that were some brilliantly off the wall sessions (fly in/on/outside the room – loved it) and then there were the large majority of the rest which were…erm, not that brilliant.  Some of them had interesting content and weren’t that well presented, certainly if the remit was to explain matters to a multidisciplinary audience.  Others were just bizarrely structured that they didn’t really communicate anything.  This was a source of some frustration as some of those in the latter category were, in the abstracts, really quite fascinating sounding bits of work.

Thankfully the main key-note was interesting, even if it did delve into crowd-sourcing and Clay Shirky’s work with which I’m more than a little familiar already.  The other keynote was from an avant garde film director and was…erm, yes, I’d say interesting except that might need some clarification.  It was interesting in the empirical sense of watching a film maker’s journey from student film maker to artist.  But on the other hand while I could kinda see how this relates to the research student’s journey, the films left me pretty cold.

*cancel sulky teenager mode*

Fly her apart then!
Fly her apart then!

At the end of the day when it was announced that this year’s conference was great and an improvement on last year’s, I honestly felt the need to make a sanity check.  Hopefully next years will be better, since muggins here and my cohort will be presenting at it**.  Still, the day was not a waste as I did catch up with a couple of people, had a few ideas of avenues to explore more in my own research and reading, and was reminded that I’m actually a pretty good public speaker.  Nipped out to catch the (one an hour) train as soon as everything ended as I was kinda glad to make myself scarce though, but mainly so I could get back home in time to take Mrs Llama out to see Star Trek: Into Darkness.  A film, much more in my oeuvre…

*I think I could have got lunch in the end, but suffering a massive attack of low self-esteem I went off and explored the library instead.
**Assuming I’m still doing the PhD and have not been run over by a rampaging academic again

The Next Phase

Monday

Today was my Project Review Panel meeting.  At this the idea is you present a brief presentation to your supervisor team, and the institutionally appointed internal assessor.  Then the assessor gets to quiz you about any and all aspects of your proposed research, and goes off to make a recommendation to the School Graduate Research Board as to whether or not you can progress, and any amendments that need to be made to the proposed research.  Having spent nowhere near enough time to be happy with the presentation during Sunday’s preparation, I was up early going through my notes and rehearsing my talk.  I’m lucky in that my research is within a field and environment that I’m quite professionally familiar with, however, saying that and justifying it to academics with years of experience in applied humanities research is a whole different matter.

Thankfully it was't quite like thisThe Project Review in many regards had been sold to us as our first taste of that most dreaded of PhD elements the viva – and thus I approached it with that in mind, an oral defense of my research.

Hence, needless to say I had a bit of a sleepless night and arrived at the room where I was to present fairly early.  Having mooched around the nearby computer labs to calm my nerves, at 9.55am I went into the room to find…well, I was the first one there.  I spotted my supervisors a few minutes later coming into the building  and I thought I saw my internal assessor.  As it turned out it wasn’t him, and a few minutes later we had to shout and bang on the window to attract his attention as he nearly headed into the wrong building!

Loss of assessor averted, and after introductions I went into my talk.  Now like most people I had prepared some slides.  Sadly to (everyone’s) surprise the room lacked a computer or a projector.  This didn’t especially bother me, as I’ve had to lecture more than once in the past sans-expected equipment, and to be honest I was talking about something that’s pretty much been my full time focus for the past 7 months.  Thus if I couldn’t talk about it now, well then I certainly wasn’t fit to progress on with the research!

Nor was it like this eitherPersonally despite my nerves I felt it was a very positive discussion and the whole team in the room had some good suggestions for areas I need to think about, or explore further in developing my work.  I did manage to suppress a wide grin when I was told I had an excellent and extensive bibliography, especially for a PhD at this stage.  All those hours of reading paid off it seems!  I was also able to bring in some elements of the discussions from the conference at the weekend, and aspects of the scoping interviews I’m doing at the moment; to give the proposal that up-to-date edge.

We will still talking when the next room booking folks turned up, and so we continued the discussions in the corridor outside for the next 15 minutes.  Thankfully we weren’t outside anyone’s office.  Some good ideas came out of the discussions, not least of which the suggestion that I could turn the tables and make use of my assessor as one of my research interview candidates.  That might be…interesting!  Now I just need to wait to hear formally what the assessors and graduate panel’s judgement is, and then I can relax.  Hope I don’t have to wait too long.

Having done this I came back home, lunched and ran another of my enjoyable and informative telephone scoping interviews.  After that I confess the past 8 days of work kinda got to me and felt a bit burned out, and thus beyond this blog I can’t really cite much more I’ve achieved today.  Ah well, 4 interviews tomorrow should see me back on the old work horse once more!

Tuesday

As I expected a day of interviews, and one or two nice comments about this blog. Thanks, I think I’m writing this largely for myself as a reflective aid, but it’s really nice to hear that other people are getting a little something out of it as well.  This site is never going to get major traffic, unless, you know, I say something really controversial or discover the cure for cancer of something; but it is nice to know that I’m not writing into a total vacuum   It also helps to keep the writing muscle engaged I think, given that one of my assessor’s comments yesterday was that I should be writing chunks of my thesis from here on out pretty much on a regular basis.  I think writing up my methods and outcomes from the interviews will probably be one of the early bits, though I suspect a framing/introductory chapter will by default be the first thing I’ll need to concentrate on.  Doubtless my supervisors will have ides when I see them again next week to discuss my activity and focus for the coming months.

Given my hectic schedule of the past week or so (this marks day 9 on non-stop work) after the interviews were over I went for 12 mile walk to clear my head and stretch some non-thinky muscles for a change.  I’d say I did it to relax, but at the speed I try and walk, relaxing doesn’t get much of a look in!  Still, it’s the last long walk I’ll do before the marathon this weekend down in Wiltshire.

Wednesday

My brain keeps suggesting a poster that looks like this!Came into campus today as it’s the last RPC-A session today (course review – which I suspect might be a bit painful to experience due to niggles with the course that a lot of people have expressed).  But I also came in to kickstart my research poster design.  I’ve really only got a week in which to pull this one together, though thankfully having my panel review this week has at least brought some of my thoughts on the research into sharp relief.  The feedback from the assessor will be useful in this respect too.  It’s a bit annoying that as I don’t have the MS Office suite at home I can’t easily work on the poster at home.  Might play about with Open Office designer later and see if that’s a viable alternative, as I don’t much fancy sitting in a student PC class room for the next week (and given that the one I’m currently sitting in is at 35DegsC I might just melt before then!).

I did sketch out a design for a poster a few weeks ago, but now I’m having second thoughts about it.  Given that I’ve really only got an hour to work on it before class, I plan to just mock something up visually and see how that looks on paper (A3, can’t print to A1 easily!).  It’ll at least give me some guidance, and then I can work offline tomorrow on the actual textural content.

[Later] Well the feedback session about lived up to the rest of the RPC course, it had some good bits and some not so great bits.  And it didn’t deliver everything that was promised at the start, not least of which was the idea to record us talking us about our research again.  Waaaaay back at the start of the course we were recorded talking about our research briefly.  The idea was at the end of the course that this would happen again and then we could could compare how much we had improved in our thinking and communication skills.  Given that about 2/3 of the people on the course didn’t bother showing up for this last session, it was perhaps just as well.

We spent the two hours instead giving the (slightly nervous) tutor course feedback.  It wasn’t exactly cathartic as some of the complaints we might have aired didn’t really seem worth the while, given that this is the last year the RPC course runs in this format.  And given that we’re now beyond the course, there’s always a slight disinclination to say anything as it won’t be of tangible benefit to ourselves.  I think we did experience a little of the British reserve as well – if you can’t say anything good about something, don’t say anything.

After this slightly tense two hours a small group of us retired to the student union beer garden.  This might sound like typical student behaviour, but for me this was:

  • a) The first time I’ve set foot in the union since I wandered through at the start of October.
  • b) The first time I’ve been out with any of my PhD course mates socially full-stop.
  • c) Probably the first time I’ve been in a pub in 7 months.

*sigh* My social life basically sucks, okay.

I always knew that living off and working mostly off campus and being a mature student wouldn’t make for an especially social time, but I had kinda hoped something might have happened before now.  However, this was a delightful couple of hours, and so I’m going to probably end today with a smile on my face.  Although having learned about a Spanish tradition involving a goat, a church steeple and the phrase “hurled from the top” I shall probably remain perhaps a little disturbed!

Oh, and we only left around 5pm because the union was hosting some kind of awards ceremony so they threw us out.  Been a while since I’m been thrown out of anywhere!

Thursday

Back to normality with a day interviewing, and transcribing.  Thought about doing some work on my poster, but in the end decided to think about it tomorrow afternoon in a bit more detail.  That way I can mull it over the long weekend and then crack into it full steam the following week.

Friday

Kicked off the day with my last currently scheduled interview (number 23 of a series, collect them all!).  There are still a few people I’ve semi arranged to sort out a date later in May, and one or two other people in locations (Wales and Ireland mostly) where I’d like to include their views and institutional thumbnail sketch in my work.  But with the poster presentation, and a week of training after that I’m a bit backed up with competing priorities.  So I think I’ll concentrate on these, along with transcribing and reviewing the interviews I’ve done to date – and then see where I am come mid-May.  Of course since I’m meeting with my supervisors late next week, they may well have a different view they’ll want me to take on board, so I won’t be making any more concrete plans.

The interview was great, and I spent most the morning transcribing.  After lunch I had fully intended to work on my research poster, however one of the regular irritations of working from home is having to clear the dining table and re-assemble my working space in order to actually work on things like this.  Hence it was 3.30pm by the time I had cleared the space, sorted my papers, and done all the filing of books, papers and interview scripts I’ve neglected for the past couple of weeks.  As Mrs Llama tends to arrive home around 5pm on Friday (and often with demands that I down-tools “Because the weekend is here!”, this didn’t give me much thinking time.  So I’ve now assigned Tuesday as a full on poster day, and Wednesday as an on campus day to work on the computers there.  Instead I finally sat down and wrote up my notes from the meeting on Monday, and shared them with my supervisors.  That way it’ll give us some focus when we meet next week to discuss my work plans.

I then spent a while debating the merits of Dragon Naturally Speaking (or similar) voice recognition software as a potential way to transcribe faster.  I think it doesn’t look like it would work, as it’ll have to cope with two different voices – but if anyone’s got any experiences with using it for interview transcribing (good, bad or indifferent), I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts*.  Certainly don’t want to fork out for a copy if it turns out to be naff.  My Amazon discount only goes so far!  Finally I sat down and went through my notes from last Saturday’s conference on Humanities, Copyright and New Technologies.  Good conference, and I suspect other’s have written more thrilling and impactful write ups; but I wanted to stick my own notes somewhere – and the blog is as good a place as any!

Me finishing it for the first time in 2011!And with that (and this) post finished this brings together the longest week I’ve worked yet on this PhD 12 days straight.  Thankfully it’s a Bank Holiday; although always a sucker for more punishment I’m doing a marathon power walk across Salisbury plain this Sunday.  Hope everyone has a splendid bank holiday – and here’s hoping I don’t boil/freeze/collapse down in Wiltshire!

*[Edit: Some interesting thoughts here, and yep looks like nope is the answer]