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.

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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.

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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…

The Inevitable Fall After the Rise

Cheer up you miserable old sod
Cheer up you miserable old sod

Should have known this was coming, after last week’s wonderful feedback (and I even had some more over the weekend), this week has rather pissed on my chips a little.  So I’m finishing off the term feeling exhausted, worn out and totally depressed with the world.

And I’ve still got a long hard slog over the coming week before a couple of days off over Easter.  I’ll talk more about my woes below – those of you who enjoy a good moan will at least get a little schadenfreude out of this; so it’s not a total loss I guess.  See, I’m starting to get more cheerful already…

Blog Revamp

Yeah, I’ve been threatening this for a while – and I’m now in the process of revamping the look and feel of the blog.  As I’m using the free version of WordPress I can only really make changes to the live site, so my regular reader (I think I’ve got one of them…possibly) might be a bit surprised that the site will keep changing over the next few weeks as I tweak the colour palette etc to get it just the right shade of vermilion.  I jest…possibly.

UKSG Conference

Lots of preparation for this, this week.  Didn’t think a 15-20 minute talk would need this much work.  I’m basing my talk around a couple of previous ones, but at the same time tweaking the narrative so it tries and segues in with my co-presenter Bryony’s (aka librarygirlknitone.  Been enjoying a smashing correspondence with Bryony, which reminds me how much I enjoy collaborative work!  While our talks our separate we’re trying to give it a bit of a ethnographic theme.  As of this writing I think I’ve got the talk down, although I keep taking more and more words off the slides to make them appear less texty (my default mode, what a shocker eh) and more pictorial.  Might see if I can’t work in some more of the ideas I got from this week’s lecturing buzz lunch as well.  Although perhaps not the drum loops.  Will be spending most of Sunday travelling up to Glasgow for the conference, so am glad that next weekend is Easter and I get a few days off, I suspect I’m going to need them.

As of Friday afternoon though it’s all sorted out, I just now need to sort out my clothes and pack for the trip.  How many hats it too many though?  Also having seen the weather forecast I hope I don’t have to swim across the centre of Glasgow next week.

Buzz Lunch

Freud's theory of psychodyamics vividly brought to life in my seminar
Freud’s theory of psychodyamics vividly brought to life in my seminar

Went along to a lunchtime seminar hosted by the NTU academic staff development people on The Lecture as Performance.  Sounded interesting for raiding for ideas to improve my own teaching practice (hey, the feedback was great but I could always be better and I know it!) and also for my communications workshop for FIL later this year.  Free hot lunch too, which was great – although catering did forget the first rule of serving food: hot food: hot plates, cold food: cold plates.  So as I ate my rapidly cooling mushroom and butter bean pie (tasty) I listened to talks from a former actor turned mathematician, an avant-garde urban historian with a penchant for drum loops, a man deconstucting the speeches of Barack Obama, and a chap showing off tricks using simple PowerPoint and free apps.  Well worth the attendance I thought as it sparked some ideas in my head for future workshops and lecturing practice.  Also nice to feel (if only ever so briefly) part of the lecturing family of NTU, rather than the outside PhD student who they just chuck teaching at and forget about (can feel a bit like that at times).  Was particularly interested in the use of a phone-driven voting app for lectures- so much more effective than having to hand out those little handsets.  Wonder if it works on all systems or if you need install rights?  I shall have to have an explore of this over the next week or so, as anything that drives more student interaction in sessions can only be a good thing.

I did particularly like the little factoid about people remembering more about the questions you asked than the facts you tell them in a lecture.  Makes them engage on a more cognitive level, which perhaps explains why seminars have such a good reputation for allowing students to get to grips with aspects of their courses better.  I think I shall be looking closely at my next conference and lecture slides and trying to embrace that idea a little.  Or shall I?

Teaching – Face to Face to Facebook

International communications this week looking at Radio Free Europe and its role in the 1956 Hungarian revolt.  Slightly confused for a minute as I didn’t think I was teaching history!  But mostly this was about discussing the moral and ethical issues around the application of soft power like radio in terms of destabilising or countering effective hegemonic control of a state.  First session of this was pretty informal as I only had three students – and they had a lot of questions about the exams, so get a little sidetracked.  All the same it seemed a positive teaching engagement so I’m not going to stress about it.

Also been dealing with a whole host of questions over the last week or so from students worried about or wanting advice on their essay.  Hopefully I’ve steered them all in the right direction without giving them too much overt assistance.  Tricky line to straddle, especially doing it all online (lacking an effective on site presence is a bit of an issue being a seminar tutor, and not one that’s going to be resolved sadly).  Feedback from the students seems positive here, so am hopeful that this means I’ve averted their concerns and I’ll have a stack of top flight essays to mark next week.  Although slightly terrified at the idea of marking about 84 scripts in a short period of time.

Teaching – Media Communications

A bit of a confusion behind the scenes next week, wonder if the students were even aware of it?  Had the plan for a seminar on the power of images in hand, despite the lecture showing up as being about propaganda in the timetable.  Decided there must be a cross over…but no turns up there’d been a slight hiccup in the planning – as this was supposed to be a week for a tutorial on their PR campaigns rather than a seminar.  But as we had the material for the seminar it was decided to go ahead with that anyway.  Turned out the lecture was on the role of images in the media (including a potted history of art and image) – which was fascinating.  Great lecturer I’d not come across before with a wonderful relaxed and deeply informative style.  Just a little embarrassed that only 12 students out of almost 200 turned up for it.  I know we’re near the end of term but…wow.  I had 7 to my seminar (out of 26) so actually my %age attendance rates are a lot higher.  Not quite sure the students quite got what this week’s seminar was about mind you, but I could be wrong.  Possible they’ve done aspects of this in other modules so this might have all been pitched at too low a level for them.  Ah well.  Shame really as it’s the last time I teach this group – just seminars and assessed presentation sessions for the rest of the year now.  Going to miss them, as they’re by far my liveliest mix of students – which makes interacting and teaching them a whole lot easier.

Thesis

Supervisors seem to be on silent running since my email last week.  After a week I sent them off a gentle reminder, to hear on Friday that they’re snowed under and will get back to me after Easter.  Fair enough, but does leave me slightly in limbo.  Guess I’ll just have to finish off all my marking and conference funding applications and get bookings in place for the Vienna conference in the meantime.  And then move onto sorting out my next phase of interviews.  And catch up on my reading.  Actually, when I think about it, I suspect I’ll manage to fill all the time very, very easily.

Future Employment

I'm more Captain Slow than Clarkson, truth be told
I’m more Captain Slow than Clarkson, truth be told

Never thought I’d end up in the same position as Jeremy Clarkson this week, only you know, without the violence.  Went in to discuss my potential lecturing next year as ideally I was looking to expand my role a bit, even up to a day or two part time.  I’m acutely aware that when my studentship ends this summer I am going to be very, very broke and I can’t rely on Mrs Llama to pay for everything  – we’ve had three years of being not very well off, and this will exacerbate matters.  Turns out though dept aren’t permitted to keep me on now I’m this far through the PhD as they need me to complete on time so that that their PGR stats don’t take a hit.  (I’ll try not go off on a rant about marketised HE subsumed by aspects of neoTaylorist measure here…).  I could totally see their point from one direction, as I too would like to be able to finish this PhD before the end of time itself and move on to the next stage of my career.  But I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t expecting this when I went in to the meeting – so I did my best not to sound like a deflating balloon throughout the rest of the discussions.

I will say they were really nice about it, and I could tell they were annoyed by the situation as well, so I’ve ever sympathy for the akward situation they’re in as well.  Especially as I can well understand it’s a position a lot of PhDs find themselves in .  On the positive side of things, and I’ve got to remember that there are a lot of positives about this whole experience, at least they told me I was an excellent teacher, which was great to hear.  Even if it isn’t going to keep the wolf from the door come September.  Did make it clear at least that I can work, as the university can’t stop me finding other employment, and will write me a stunning reference.  They just can’t provide it.

So what does this mean for me?  Well on the down side it pretty much destroys any plans I’ve got for holidays or LARPing type adventures unless I can find somewhere else to employ me in the meanwhile.  Suspect I’m a bit old for bar work.  So feeling a bit of a total failure right now, as my self-confidence has taken a right old nasty knock from all this.  Not really a rational thing, and I know I’ll cheer up in a day or too, but I might have to mooch around over the weekend doing positive things like updating my CV and scanning jobs pages.  Frankly, glad I’ve got the UKSG conference to go to next week as I need the distraction.  Debating hanging a “For Hire” sign around my neck at it or maybe just taking a batch of short CVs to hand to some people.  Not sure if I’m enough of a tart to do that, but I guess I might have to be – Mrs Llama has expensive tastes I need to cater for!

And of course I’ve still got 4 more weeks of teaching to come after Easter to look forward to, so I shall have to just enjoy every moment of what has been a great experience and opportunity for the past couple of years.  Not that many PhDs here get teaching experience, and that I have is something for which I’ll continue to be grateful.  I just know I’m really going to miss the weekly contact with…you know…people.  Working as a humanities PhD from home was ever isolating, and this was a brilliant distraction from that.  And at least now I have no excuses for not knuckling down and finishing the thesis.  If I can just get my supervisors to let me push on to the next bit!

Welcome to Level 2

And so I slide into the second (of potentially four) years working on my PhD.  It’s been a bit of a choppy week for me workwise as I’ve had some family issues to deal with, which have taken out a few days from my schedule.  As such I’m not going to belabor the epistolary formula this week and just give you the short report for once.  I’m sure there may be some of my (semi) regular readers who’ll be glad of that!

Library camp: Despite no longer being a librarian, I owe a lot of what I am and my outlook to that glorious becardiganed set. As such I’ve signed up to attend the Library Camp 2013 unconference in Birmingham in November.  And offered to run the odd session or two too.

Editing: I’m still working on the chapter. Go away.  I don’t want to talk about it right now. (Gah!)

Research Training: Despite horrid train issues I made it to the briefing for the RPC (or the Professional Research Practice Course I think it’s called now) briefing on Tuesday.  Turns out you can opt to do the whole module 2 in a three-day intensive burst or every couple of weeks.  I’ve opted for the burst mode.  I’ll miss seeing some of the old gang, but as they’ve relocated it out to City Campus it really is a pain and a half to get there for me.  That’ll all be in November.

PhD Chat: As a consequence of the briefing for the course I did catch up with some of the old gang, and had a very intensive conversation with a few of them.  Thanks folks, that really helped cheer me up (and I am NOT going to finish this PhD as quick as some of you seemed to think!).

New year, new job: Yes, I was interviewed (or rather had an informal chat to my department head and a module leader) on Thursday.  As a result I am now a university lecturer of sorts – I’ll be leading seminar groups from next week on a core media module.  More on that…once I know what it is I’ve got myself in to!  Excited as this is just what I wanted to do as part of my PhD experience, and mildly terrified as to what I’ve taken on!

My dad: Thanks for asking…he’s likely to pass in the next few days.

Next week: Looks like a busy one.  I’m deadlining myself to edit the last half of the chapter so I can wave it past my supervisors, I need to sort out this research training course and of course find out just what I’m teaching in these 23 seminars I’ve got lined up!

Twilight

It’s been a while, but I think that I’ll be blogging my thoughts more frequently in the coming weeks.  I’m certainly going to have more time.

I’m currently in the twilight of my current employment.  Actually that’s a slight misnomer, if the life of a job is a day I’m actually sitting in a late night dinner sipping coffee and watching the waitress put the chairs on the tables.  The clock reads 11.50pm.

I’ve been with my outgoing emNo! Not THAT twilight!ployer for 4.5 years, and that seems a more than reasonable time to move on to try something knew.  While I’ve had a couple of different roles within the organisation during this time, I will confess that my heart’s gone out of the whole experience now.  Which is why I’ve taken this decision to jump, eyes open, with both feet.

People have been asking me for weeks (months!) how much longer I have to go.  What’s been interesting is some of the people speaking to me have been folks I’ve barely exchanged a few words with in my time here; more’s the pity.  Does seem a shame that I’ve come to know some of my co-workers here all the better for the fact that I’m leaving.  Maybe it’s an element of catharsis for them; maybe they long to leave themselves but whatever reasons they can’t.  And thus they can experience through my departure on my own terms, feet first, a measure of that satisfaction they crave themselves.

Or perhaps they’re just passing the time of day.  Could just as easily be that.

(The waitress just stared wiping the counter down.  Long, methodical strokes.  Like she’s trying to tell me something)

There are some odd feelings about this whole process.  3 months notice period is just far, far too long a time.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve had to quit my role on my terms rather than stay on longer and see what pans out from our grand reorganisation.  There are certainly some green shoots I’m leaving behind rather than scorched earth, and while it might not have been quite my cup of tea doubtless I would have swiftly found my feet and made the most of it.  But on past experiences I’d decided to get while the getting was still good.

Is that a ray of hope through the mists of uncertainty?But having made the decision, gone through the interview with the boss following my resignation, I was just ready to get on with the rest of my life.  Now in the twilight days I’m really more than ready to depart.  Although I will, it is true to say, miss more than a few people I currently see on a daily basis.  I’m not one of those people who leave an organisation and then keeps popping my head around the door every few weeks.  Where I am now there seems to be a lot of people who do that, and I confess it always makes me a little uncomfortable.  Move on people, that phase of life is done, embrace the new, the unknown, the scary.

Ah, that might be why they do seek the comfort of the familiar. I suspect I might pop back once, maybe at most twice, but chances are for 90% of the folks I’ve worked alongside this coming week will be the last time I’ll ever see them.

(The waitress is looking pointedly at her own watch now, and across to me, I think maybe she wants me to pack up and go home.  Sorry love, two more days of this to go; or 10 minutes your time before my bus comes.)

There are the scary feelings about what I’ll do next, and if I’ll ever work in the same kind of environment again.  Actually, scratch that – I never want to work in exactly the same sort of environment again, that would rather defeat one of the major reasons for making the clean break.  But in terms of what I do next, I hope it’s challenging, engaging, stimulating and above all different.  I’m not someone who relishes the routine, the mundane, the prescriptive – I’m ready for those fresh verdant fields that I’m sure must be just over the next hillside.

Suck, your perspective, doesWhich explains why I end up walking a bit too far cross-country at weekends.  I always want to know what’s just over the next hill.  Yoda would tell me, I’d make a terrible Jedi.

I am though looking forward to rediscovering the delights of my own house.  Of not having to rush meal preparation.  To working on the various building and renovation projects.  I’ve a number of courses I’m looking at to acquire some more practical skills too, butchery, DIY, more project management.

Stop sniggering at the back, project management is practical!

I had given some thought to moving into consultancy or taking on some short term contract work, but I confess to date these have been little more than speculative thoughts.  I hope I’ll have time to explore some of these options, as I’ve now accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge that I’m sure some organisation somewhere will value.  Or maybe I’m fooling myself, I’m really not so sure – my CV looks impressive but there are moments when I question if it’s really me that’s accomplished all that.  Oh dear, self-doubt – that’ll never doo in the twilight café!

How to run professional organisations: With axe and blood!I think what I’m most sorry to leave behind is the running of organisations like FIL and UKCoRR. I love working with dedicated professional people on the national stage.  I’ve always been one of life’s perennial organisers and committee people throughout my life, so perhaps that’s why I took to these roles like a duck to water.  That and the chance to work with the fabulous people who run them too.  Of my experiences with the Organisation That Shall Not Be Named I’ll draw a discrete veil over; I try not to let that one sour my outlook.

Nighthawks by Edward HopperAnd so as the waitress slouches past with her broom, bashing deliverability now on the legs of my stool I better take the hint and wrap this up.  After all there are just a few minutes left before this job-café closes for good.