THE VIVA!

I’m preparing for my Viva this week.  For those of you who may not know, the Viva is the culmination of the PhD.  Most people think it is the Thesis, but in terms of the stuff that will stop a PhD candidate in their tracks, frozen and blank, it is the Viva that strikes fear.  But it shouldn’t.

Now, ask me again in a couple of weeks, when I’ve actually done the thing, but with the right preparation, the Viva should and can be a rigorous but invigorating exploration of the Thesis, your ideas, and your brilliance.  After all, in this brief moment in time, in this tiny specialism you have carved out for yourself, you are the country’s, if not the world’s leading expert in your thing. You have helped to choose your viva panel and you have written the thesis, read the thesis, re-read the thesis and done some additional prep by this point.

The reality is that many Viva candidates have waited far more than the much-talked about 3 months since hand in to have their Viva, mainly due to COVID this year. (Viva Voce – a verbal, rather than written examination, lasting anywhere between 40 minutes and several hours in which examiners attempt to dissect your work for strengths, weaknesses and simply to test it is as well thought out as it seems or not).  This means that focus on preparation is hard.  For me, this has had to be fitted in around dealing with the pandemic, running the business, working one part time job, one casual job and all the usual detritus of grown up life in a house with grown up children.  Whether it is cleaning the chickens out, cooking the dinner or realising that I haven’t bought any parsnips, there is normally something far less interesting, but much more demanding of my attention going on.  So preparation is not as easy as you might think.  For me it includes thinking about what to wear, even though it will be on Zoom.  This is not for the examiner’s benefit but for mine as it helps me get my head in the game.

Now, if you have ever written a large document, by any standard, put it to one side for a while, and then come back to it for a re-fresh, there will almost always be a moment when you wonder what illicit substances you were imbibing while you were writing, as it all becomes very surreal.  For me this moment came about 5 weeks ago.  This is an important moment for checking in with your support network – other people who have been there before you, and those who are in the same place.  It is important to work out that this is natural, we all feel like it, and you almost certainly have not made a huge error.

It is also important to realise that very few of us get a straight pass, certainly in the UK.  It is a rite of passage to get a pass subject to minor corrections, or even majors.  Very few people get a straight fail either.  What makes you so different?  We have a short break planned immediately after my viva (pandemic dependent) and I fully intend to take my laptop and use that time to make my corrections.  Blast through them, resubmit and get to the silly robe bit.

Finally, remember to blow your own trumpet (not my strong suit).  Those of us who get this far are special, your twitter feed may be filled with Dr this and So-and-so PhD, but in the real world, there are not many of us to the pound.  Make sure you publicly celebrate every milestone, every publication, every blog and every move forward – and do me a favour, remind me to do the same!

Working with your new lecturers

In this Coronavirus world, things are even more unsettled than usual as we start the new term.  Let’s face it, you may have moved away from home, you may be commuting, or not yet even sure whether your lectures are going to be on campus or on the internet yet.  Despite all this, there is one thing above all that has not changed; if you want a good Uni experience, you need to give good Uni experience!  There are two things you need to understand in order to achieve this:

  • You are not at Uni to be taught; you are at Uni to learn
  • You are responsible for building good communication habits with your lecturers and seminar leaders, with course administration and with your cohort.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  I acknowledge, in a way it is, but these are things that most Universities won’t tell you, and they really should!

So, what do these two things really mean?  With all due respect to my many valued teaching colleagues and friends, school and college is about being taught.  Your teachers teach you the content of the syllabus, they teach you the exam techniques and they teach you, basically, how to get to the answers.  At Uni, lecturers will deliver, wait for it… lectures.  These will often be quite broad in their subject material, or even very specific (I once sat through 2 hours on the difference Augmented and Neapolitan Sixths with a music student).  These will often be backed up with seminars, where between you and your colleagues you will develop the skills to investigate further, around structured tasks and goals.  Note that – you will not necessarily be taught the skills, you will develop them.  The difference between being taught and learning is where the proactivity comes from – and now it needs to come from you, the student.  You lead the learning; yes, you need to answer the question, but you can start tailoring those answers to the things you are passionate about from day 1.

But how can I develop these skills, I hear you cry! (Well probably not, I’m not that exciting a writer!).  The answer lies in my second point – be honest with your lecturers and seminar leaders from day 1 (Be appropriate, they don’t need to know you wear Sponge Bob pyjamas!).  If you have a concern, or a question, or are particularly enthusiastic about something, let the session leader know!  Normally, you would be able to stop for a (short) chat at the end of the session, but there’s a good chance that this won’t be happening this year.  Use Private Chat on Teams, send an email, or book a virtual appointment.

All Uni teaching staff have to provide ‘Office Hours’ for students to consult them.  Some have these as first come, first served, others use a booking system, but there is nothing more tedious for a tutor to clear their desk for 2 hours when they are in the middle of research and have no company at all for that time.  You are NOT a nuisance, you do NOT look like an idiot – go see them (virtually or otherwise).  You will look like an idiot if you don’t ask.  While we are on the subject, if you have an additional need, such as handouts on blue paper, only an idiot will not tell their tutor.  Yes, they should have had a copy of your learning support plan, no, they won’t have had it.  No, they won’t want to know the inside of a duck’s bottom about your condition, they just want to give you what you need to achieve, so help them out – give them a heads up!

In my next blog – the finer points of making your communication clear

Have a lovely week

Jane

Introducing Jane

This may be the hardest blog I’ve ever written – because it’s about me, and that makes me feel a little bit cringy.  The Brits are not, as a rule, good at self-promotion, or indeed talking about themselves in a positive way, and from that respect I’m very British!

So, taking Joyce as my inspiration, I’m currently 46 (check the date when you read this) and I was brought up in a jolly nice part of Essex.  No, that is not a contradiction in terms.  One of 2 daughters, my sister and I went to what was then the best state school in the borough and we both did very well at GCSE, thank you very much.  At A level I stumbled and did re-sits on two of them, but did not manage to improve.  This was the best bit of bad luck of my life – I had not yet learned that the harshest examiner is yourself, and if you expect to succeed and work and live accordingly, you will succeed, but if you have little faith in yourself, however hard you work there is a good chance you will ambush yourself sooner or later.  That is why, even though I am the Study Skills specialist, and Joyce is the mentor, so much of what we both do is about building confidence as a foundation to skills.

Why was it a lucky bit of bad luck?  Well the A level results I had took me to Liverpool Hope, just shedding its LIHE name, where I ‘clicked’ and with the support of wonderful academics and pastoral staff, I blossomed (4 spring to mind – Helen King, Jeff Brache, Doreen Heraty and Peter Taylor, but I could easily name more). I left Liverpool Hope with a 2:1, lifelong friends and a great sense of duty, but still lacking personal confidence.  I worked on a hospital switchboard for nearly a year, then entered the Civil Service, having the goal of keeping my head down, not being bored and retiring at 60.  Small goals.

It wasn’t long before I realised that not being bored is not enough, you must be fulfilled and content.  It took me a long time to work out how that could happen, and along the way I worked in 2 different specialist roles, acted as a team leader, and persuaded the Civil Service to pay for my Master’s Degree at the University of York.  From there I became a more senior team leader for a local authority, and sadly, my lack of self esteem meant I allowed myself to be bullied by a woman who finally had a class action taken out against her.  I thought I was the only one, poor at my job and worthy of nothing better. In fact, looking back on it now, I see now that she was intimidated by my intelligence and potential capacity.  I feel sorry for her now, thinking about how the only way she could get people to do what she needed was through fear, rather than having the skills to gain their respect and affection.  However, it is easy to use position against people, and we must all be careful not to get complacent about how we treat others.

From there, in feeling like I was running away, I moved back to Kent, where I was born and it turned out I was running to my true self, which I found via a strange conversation with a 13/14 year old about how a boiler might work.  That boy was the eldest grandson of my now wife, Joyce.  It is through her faith in me that we have formed CoomberSewell Enterprises, through her inability to tolerate procrastination that I have nearly completed my PhD, that I have learned that actually, I am quite intelligent and can use that intellect to help others, to earn a living at what moves, touches and inspires me, and most importantly, to have fun!  Through this confidence, I try things I would have been too scared to do when I was in my 20s.  I have ridden horses, quad bikes, segways (don’t talk to Joyce about segways). We travel the world together (bar pandemics), she groans at my awful, obscure puns and I laugh at my own enjoyment of big words.

My true self is curious, funny, a little bit arrogant, and keen to explore more of this moving, touching, inspiring world we live in.  Come explore with me?

Introducing Me

I thought I would start with introducing myself to you all. I am 65 years old, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, grandmother-in-law, non-binary, home owner, car driver, home maker, cat, chicken and fish slave, dreamer, company owner, cake maker, organiser, gardener, carer, not an academic, autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, with ADHD, enabler, holder of a Bachelor’s degree, undertaker of a Masters by Research, Oh! and bossy. I am sure there are other things, but I would not want to overwhelm anyone 😊

I have held down many jobs, from working on a market stall whilst still at school, on leaving I worked for the Ladybird clothing company in Research and Development, with aspirations to go on to university to become a colourist, but baby number one came along and back in those distant days women were expected to stay at home once they had children. Whilst raising my three little darlings I had several part-time jobs, some in factories making hairdryers and mud flaps, in an office, Woolworths, to name just a few.

Being dyslexic I believed myself to be ‘thick and stupid’ so when I landed a job as a Dr’s receptionist, I thought I had reached the highest of the high. Four years later I was sacked for carrying out a Dr’s instructions to the letter. Only finding out later that I was supposed to interpret his demand to ‘sort out’ the mistake another, younger receptionist had made. ☹

I then went self-employed into the telecoms business and loved being my own boss, eventually being sponsored by two London based business men to set up a much bigger company. This I ran for nine years with a PA and staff before selling it on and starting CoomberSewell Enterprises LLP with my now wife.

When Jane and I first met I already had custody of my eldest grandson, who she was happy to take on not knowing that in years to come his husband would be joining our home along with his brother. These three young men are all on the autistic spectrum but all very different.

In my family, from my mum down, there are fifty-four descendants, and sixty-six percent of us are on the autistic spectrum. You would think that I would know just about everything there is to know about autism but the more I research this condition the more I discoverer that I have only scratched the surface. As the saying goes, ‘when you’ve met one autistic, you’ve only met one autistic’.