Monthly Archives: March 2012

PhD viva – one year on

Today marks the first anniversary since my PhD viva, so I thought it would be a good time to look back and offer my experience for anyone who is coming up for their viva. I found this account of someone else’s recent viva rang quite a few bells with me – the whole site is worth a read as there are lots of viva tales there.

I eventually submitted my thesis in December 2010, the submission was not without drama as the day I had planned on being my last day of finishing up before taking it into town for binding was rudely interrupted by a burst pipe meaning that I had to put the thesis on hold to run up and down a ladder from bedroom to bathroom emptying and replacing the buckets on top of the wardrobe (my husband said all I needed was giant comedy foam feet and I would have looked like a contestant in ‘It’s a Knockout’/’Jeux sans Frontieres’) (now there’s a reference for the ’70s kids amongst us!). Luckily the department and university were very understanding (helped by the fact that the originally planned submission day was the day the faculty receiving office were moving offices themselves so they were also in complete chaos) and let me submit a day late.

The drama continued with the eventual viva date, which was originally scheduled for 17th March, St Patrick’s Day. 2-3 weeks before I was informed that there would be a UCU Scotland one day strike on, you guessed it, 17th March, which meant that at the very least I wouldn’t have an internal examiner or a chair! There was some suggestion of making it a couple of weeks later, but I had already taken the annual leave for that week and had arranged for cover for clinics, etc, so in the end we all agreed to hold the viva the day before, on the 16th. This did leave me with a day less to prepare, but on the plus side it also left me with a day less to flap and panic.

Work (both clinical practice and my OU work) was quite busy at the time, including if I recall correctly having to do an OU tutorial the Saturday before the viva, so I didn’t actually feel like I was able to put everything to one side and concentrate on the viva till the weekend before the Wednesday viva. (I had of course been flicking through the thesis for a week or so beforehand, but due to work this wasn’t very concentrated reading). I was worried that that wouldn’t be anything like enough time, but in the end had to just make the best of it. Over the weekend I did a full read-through of the thesis, this was useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most mortifyingly for a grammar/spelling nerd like me, I spotted I don’t know how many typos, and wrote every last one down. Secondly though, and more encouragingly, I had quite a few “ooh did I write that, that sounds really good!” moments which did wonders for my confidence. Also, I found that reading the thesis all the way through reminded me of why I wanted to do the PhD in the first place, why my subject was important and why I was the best person (though I say so myself!) to research it. After that I did another full read-through, this time with various lists of potential viva questions garnered from friends and the internet, although of course I realised that the questions I would get would be much more specific. This was a useful exercise as although in the end not a single one of those questions was asked, it had got me into the vibe of thinking about justifying and defending the thesis and generally blowing my own trumpet.

On the day itself, the viva was scheduled for 1.30pm. I went to the university in the morning, via the Cathedral down the road (I found Morning Prayer really really calming!), getting to the library about 10am. I settled down in my chosen spot (on the floor where my department’s collection was; I think I was hoping that would help me gain academic gravitas by osmosis, but in any case the quiet calm atmosphere certainly helped! Being a reasonably small department, and on a floor without an amazing view unlike higher up floors, it wasn’t full of whispering students so I could fully concentrate). I read through my introduction, methodology chapter and conclusion in full, and also skimmed through my background theory and literature review chapters. I didn’t have time to also read through my three empirical chapters, but felt that I knew them well and that I was most likely to be asked knotty questions around methodology and theoretical background, as well as where my research fitted in the wider literature. By the time I had done that it was coming up to lunchtime, and that’s when I started feeling sick! I knew it was only nerves, but those two hours before the viva started were really horrible! I don’t think there’s any way around that, you just have to get through it.

When I went in, I had already decided to take off my watch. This meant that I didn’t keep looking at my wrist every 5 minutes, and so I found I could relax pretty quickly. It also meant that I was really taken by surprise when they said “this is the final question” – like the student whose account I linked to above, it really did feel like I’d only been there about half an hour, although mine in the end took about an hour and a quarter all told. My examiners were great, they tried hard from the beginning to make me feel at ease and this meant that it was much easier to relax and start to enjoy the experience. I really appreciated having the chance to discuss my work with people who had actually read it all as a whole, and because I was relaxed I didn’t feel too fazed when I was asked the odd unexpected question. I did find that aspects that I expected to be asked about passed by with barely a comment, whereas other things which I had thought were peripheral were asked about in some detail. Luckily I knew enough to be able to answer most things confidently, and I didn’t feel worried when for one question I had to say “I don’t know” – it was on a peripheral issue (which I now can’t even remember) so we just left it at that.

Once the questions were finished I had about 30-40 minutes I think where I had to wait for the decision. One of my supervisors had an office above the office where the viva had taken place, so I took refuge there and my supervisors gave me chocolate (this was possibly the best bit of the day, particularly since it was the middle of Lent so I hadn’t actually eaten any choc for a few weeks!). I definitely recommend getting someone on hand with goodies for that waiting period! It was interesting comparing my reactions (I think I sat there gormlessly) with a fellow student who’d had her viva the week before, who had apparently been pacing up and down like a caged lion!

Me at my graduation, June 2011

Eventually I was called back in, congratulated and given my list of minor corrections. Because I’d gone through the thesis with a fine toothcomb and identified all the typos already, it meant that the corrections list included a sentence along the lines of “the candidate should correct the typographical errors she has identified”, rather than 6 pages of individual typos! Most of the corrections were around providing a bit more detail in some areas (mainly the contextual background and aspects of the methodology), and in blowing my own trumpet a bit more around the thesis’ contribution. I was given a month to do the corrections, which was great as it meant that I could graduate in the summer ceremony rather than having to wait till November, and also meant that I could get it done and dusted and enjoy the rest of the year. We also had a brief discussion about where I might want to go from here, in terms of publishing (one examiner felt the thesis could, with some work, be reworked into a monograph; not something I particularly wanted to do but it was encouraging to have the discussion! We also discussed potential topics for journal articles). Then it was champagne time 😀

So there we are, that’s my experience. I’m grateful to my examiners for making it such an enjoyable experience, and for the opportunities that having the PhD has given me since. I hope this account gives encouragement to others getting close to their own viva – good luck!

Qualified to advise?

Looking at Twitter yesterday between marking essays, I happened to look over at the UK ‘Trending Topics’ (something to which I usually pay little attention) to find that ‘Gina Ford’ was trending. Gina Ford, for those who don’t know, is the author of a number of parenting books, the most famous of which is ‘The Contented Little Baby’. Her methods are controversial and contested, and with my health visitor hat on I have to say that I am absolutely and resolutely not a fan. There are a couple of newspaper articles here and here which discuss her methods, and I think this post on the Every Child Matters blog sums up very neatly my own concerns and more besides about her particular proposed methods of establishing an early routine with young babies and children. Gina Ford herself rebuts some of the criticisms of her methods here. She was trending on Twitter yesterday as she had been on a morning TV show promoting her latest book (called ‘The Contented Mother’s Guide’), and also was the subject of an article (apologies, it’s a Daily Mail link) in which she is reported to be suggesting that women have sex with their partner within 4-6 weeks of giving birth, regardless of whether or not they feel ready for it. [Update 8.3.12: see end of post]

What I want to discuss here though isn’t Gina Ford and her particular methods and views, as these articles show there are plenty of other places on the internet discussing these at great length. What struck me yesterday when I was looking at the comments on Twitter about this, and also the comments on the articles I linked to, was the large number who are focusing on the fact that Gina Ford does not herself have children, and using this as a reason to dismiss her views. I need to give a disclaimer here: I am a qualified health visitor so have been in regular contact with her target audience, and I do not have children. So I am aware that this is pushing some personal buttons. However, that aside, there is something I think quite troubling about comments such as ‘bah, it makes me sick that someone who hasn’t even had children can spout all this nonsense!’ (the first comment on the Every Child Matters blog post linked to above) or ‘”The divorcee, who has never had children..” says it all. Not been there, have no right to offer advice.’ (one of the comments on the Daily Mail article). I tweeted in response the following:

“shouldn’t have clicked on Gina Ford trending topic. Grrrr – Daily Mail *and* GF (but also troubled by ‘if not had baby don’t advise’ trope).”

and one person (@Superleelee80) tweeted back:

“why troubled? I could research climbing mountains and spout advice but why would anyone listen when I’ve never climbed one?”

It is of course a good question, an obvious one even, and to be honest I was surprised she was the only one who questioned my discomfort. My two part reply was this:

“Worked with some great HVs who’ve never had kids (some who can’t), and terrible ones who have. Person more imp than life exp.”

“my probs with GF about rubbish she says/claims and damage it does, rather than if she does/doesn’t have kids.”

On one level I think this is about the old mantra “attack the issue not the person”. There is enough to criticise in what Gina Ford is saying without having to resort to personal attack (as well as criticising her lack of children, there were a lot of comments making very personal remarks about Gina Ford’s appearance), and I think that by focusing on personal details the argument against the aspects of her methods people are troubled by is weakened.

I also though think (and this bit still requires some thinking on my part, but I will throw the hunch ‘out there’ so I have something to come back to later and flesh out) that there is something here about the elevation of mother/parenthood which is particularly illustrated by the ‘Not been there, have no right to offer advice’ comment. I remember when I was first qualified as a health visitor, I was chatting with a friend online when she asked me pretty much the same thing – how could I possibly help a struggling breastfeeding mother when I have never breastfed myself? To which I was happy to give the example of the client who had told me that if it hadn’t been for me taking the time to watch her feed and help her with positioning and attachment then she would have given up. I have come across similar arguments about male health visitors (and male midwives, an even rarer breed), yet one of the best health visitors I ever worked with was a guy, and my mentor when I was training (still the best health visitor I have ever worked with) was childless. I have worked with great people, several of whom would have loved to have children but sadly it didn’t/couldn’t happen for them, and I have also worked with people who were parents but who in my opinion had terrible skills when it came to relating to the people they were meant to be helping. I maintain that it is not motherhood which primarily qualifies someone to give parenting advice – of course it might help, but it is not inevitable (if an advisor themselves had a perfect parenting experience they may not necessarily be able to advise or relate to someone who is struggling, after all), and I cannot be more categoric that mothers/parents do not have the monopoly on empathy. The talk about ‘right to advise’ particularly troubled me, not just on the personal level, but also that elevation of motherhood reminded me of (small c) conservative debates around family being the basal cell of society (a trope which appeared often in my PhD media review of coverage of issues relating to sexuality and reproduction). Families come in all shapes and sizes and makeups, with or without children or partners – elevating one type above others is dangerous and exclusionary and does nothing to promote healthy, happy children and well supported parents.

Update, 8th March 2012: this morning via Twitter a representative from Gina Ford’s publishers sent me this announcement, refuting the reported claim that she was suggesting parents should have sex within a few weeks of birth. I would like to make it absolutely clear that nowhere in this post did I make any comment on this particular claim (much as I was tempted to), other than that it was reported and had therefore made Gina Ford trend on Twitter, and the substance of this post was my concern about the oft-repeated claim that as Gina Ford does not have children she is not qualified to advise about parenting.

On gaining that first post-PhD academic post

I am delighted to be able to say that this week I was successful in getting my first post-PhD academic position (I will say more about that some other time; I haven’t yet had the paperwork so will wait for that before saying too much about the actual job). Now that I’ve had a couple of days space from the interview, I’ve found myself reflecting on the process of applying for academic positions, particularly in these difficult times with increasing expectations and demands on even early career researchers and numbers of applications far outweighing the number of jobs available.

I have been applying for jobs for about the past year and a half, the first interview coming a couple of months before submitting my PhD. What I realised quite early on was that I needed a strategy for applying for jobs – conversations on twitter have convinced me that I am by far not the only one who invests a lot of myself, emotionally as well as in terms of time and effort, in each individual application. Therefore, whilst I have known other people apply for pretty much every job that ever came up, on the assumption that the more they apply for the greater the likelihood of eventual success, I felt that for me, given that I was working almost full-time in clinical practice whilst writing up and then subsequent to the PhD, as well as my Open University tutoring, I simply could not invest that kind of time and emotional effort for jobs which were likely to be more of a long shot. I therefore decided to concentrate my applications a) geographically, and b) on jobs where I could honestly say on paper that I pretty much met every one of the ‘Essential’ items on the person spec. Because of my academic and professional background, and the fact that my PhD was based in an area studies department but drew on a number of disciplines, I was able to be a bit more expansive about the fields I could look at than about the geographical location, and didn’t need to just restrict myself to one subject area.

Overall I think that point b) above is the most important. Whilst I didn’t quite get a 100% success rate of being shortlisted from applications, I did get shortlisted in 7 out of 11 applications, which I think is a pretty reasonable showing. That might not sound like lots of applications (I have a friend who I think applied for over 40 in a similar time period before getting her lectureship), but it meant that I wasn’t constantly going through the applications mill, and also (more importantly) it helped me to concentrate on applying my mind to thinking about how to sell myself for a job which I could realistically do, rather than on how to squeeze my particular skill set into a job which actually wasn’t suited for me at all. Concentrating on the person spec also helps me to work out if I have a realistic chance of being shortlisted. I saw a post recently which sounded amazing, would have been fantastic experience and where I met nearly all of the essential criteria. However, the one aspect I didn’t meet (experience of using SPSS) was big enough that I reluctantly had to decide to not proceed with the application, as that was too important and complicated for me to be able to inflate my (non-existent) skills in that area.

My experience with interviews has been much more mixed, and harder to pin down to a successful formula. Some have gone well, and I have felt that if I didn’t get the job it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough, but because someone else was better. Others I have realised pretty early on that I am not what they are looking for, or that despite my meticulous preparation they ask me about something really obvious I’ve missed which rocks my confidence. In some I have also felt that, even if I felt it was going OK as an interview, now that I was there I had doubts about whether the job was a good ‘fit’ for me. What I have found, in general, is that I have been able to trace my progress from that first interview in October 2010 to now, and can definitely see on reflection how I have improved in my ability to present myself. Of course there are exceptions to that; I had an interview a few weeks ago after having been ill and unable to prepare well, and I am well aware how poorly I came across on that occasion – however it was good practice for the next interview, which turned out to be the successful one. I think my main tips would be to be familiar with your own research (I read my thesis introduction on the train to the interview this week and having that refresher really helped), and also have a sense of where you would fit into the wider department; ie what you have to offer that complements what they are already doing. In this week’s case, my ‘fit’ came through methodology (the research I will be part of in this job is not in an area I have researched previously, but it is qualitative research so I have good experience of the methods they are using) and to an extent also my professional background. I also found that reading research that has already been done by the people I would be likely to be working with was particularly helpful – it meant that I had a sense of where they were coming from, and could think in advance what I had to contribute to that.

I don’t start until May, so I now have a couple of months where I intend to spend quite a bit of time trying to write some articles from my PhD research, something I’ve had minimal time to do up till now. I think having not published very much up till now is another thing which has, realistically, impacted on the amount of time it has taken me to get a job, and is something which I would urge people still doing their PhD and wanting to move into an academic post to take seriously and build into their work plans. I am lucky that I have the chance to catch up on lost time in that respect!

For all those still going through the mill on the applications merry-go-round, I hope that this post can provide a few pointers and I wish you every success.