The Viva – what happens next?

My Viva was a surprisingly joyous experience.  I am fully aware that not everybody is as lucky, even if their thesis is sound in the main.  I’ve had several friends who have had a truly rough ride.  One was nearly broken by their viva experience and it was an act of will for that person to continue to the end result.  I admire those who keep going under those circumstances and they will always have the support of CoomberSewell Enterprises if they want it.  There are other ways for showing collegiality, by the way.  We offer 10% discounts to students and alumnae of our Universities:  Canterbury Christ Church, Liverpool Hope and the University of York.

But I digress.  As I predicted, preparing for the Viva on the day became a much more practical task than any other exam I have sat before.  In addition to thinking about what clothes would not only make a good impression, but would put me in the right mindset, the room I was being examined in (our bedroom/office) had to be tidied to ensure that my Kermit Onesie was not visible and a cat couldn’t gate crash.  In the end, every member of the household was locked out – including the wife!  We probably had better hope the examiners never read this, as I have to admit to being beautifully presented from head to toe, but with a blanket wrapped round everything below camera level – it was cold!

So, when the opening remark of my viva was to the effect that the decision had already been made that I would be passing with minor corrections, did I feel a fool for being so thorough in all my preparations?  Heck, no!  The efforts I made put me in the right frame of mind for what would come next – an invigorating and largely enjoyable interrogation of a variety of issues, which led to my correction list.  I was (inevitably) asked a theory question.  Foucault is not an easy read, and apparently, neither was my interpretation of him.  I was also asked what I might research next and what was original about my work.  Honestly, if you don’t know these two are coming, shoot your supervisor!

I have 3 months to make my corrections.  On paper, there are five of them, and three have already largely been dealt with.  There is, however, another document I have been sent, the internal examiners annotated copy of my thesis.  While I don’t have to take these into account, I’d be daft if I didn’t.  In a way, this process of corrections is a good thing, not only for the standard of my finished and final thesis, but for the transition period I find myself in. This gives me three months to make my corrections, write up a couple of tangential research projects I have bubbling along.  This will help me ease myself out of the student mindset and back into the full time world of work, in whatever academic or alternative-academic form that might take.

What does this mean for CoomberSewell Enterprises?  Increasingly I will be looking at research work, archivism or museum projects, quality assurance of documents.  These all use and increase the skills I’ve gained and grown to love through my studies.  I was going to say that this is a new adventure, but increasingly I am aware that it is simply another chapter of the same adventure, one that I can shape and form, which is a rare thing in these COVID days.  It is a precious gift and I invite you all to kick me should I ever take it for granted.

Guest Blog – ‘Let me interrupt your experience with my confidence’ – Yvonne Bennett

I heard the above quote on the podcast Fortunately which is by the wonderful Radio 4 presenters Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. It was from an email a listener had written in and explained her ‘imposter syndrome’ when it came to her job and men. That these men may not have been as qualified as her didn’t matter as they would ‘interrupt her experience with their confidence’. She had been the first female bomb disposal officer during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was a lightbulb moment for me and could not have come at a more fortuitous time.

I am a final year PhD student, due to submit mid-December, and was tackling the Reflexive section of my thesis. I am researching conservative Presbyterian churches in the Outer Hebrides (very niche, I know) and looking at how women navigate between the patriarchal church and equality driven social spheres of their lives. I have discovered that not only do women comply to the codes of religious practice, they choose to do so and actually uphold the patriarchy. After listening to the podcast, I realised that I too was upholding the patriarchy when I was carrying out my fieldwork.

I am, and here I am appropriating Phillip Pullman’s phrase, a Christian atheist. I love a good sermon, love a church wedding and a baptism but have no faith. I am interested in religion from a sociological perspective and have spent the past 14 years studying it. When I am collecting data, I go to church in the community and take part in weekly Fellowship. On more than one occasion I have had men trying to direct the course of my research. During my MA, one went so far as to ‘hide’ all my questionnaires. He told me that researching the history of the community was better. I ended up writing about fundamentalism on that particular island and his actions formed the basis of the research. To this day he doesn’t know and thinks I gave up my studies. During my PhD, whenever men tried to tell me what to do, who to talk to and what to observe, I actually agreed with them, I agreed to let their confidence interrupt my experience. I then totally ignored their direction and continued on as planned. However, I am upholding the patriarchy in this church. I allow those in positions of authority to take control, albeit for a short period of time. I allow them to believe that they have directed my work.

A previous supervisor said to me ‘you are a product of your age and gender’. Before anyone starts jumping up and down in indignation, he was right, although I would also add class to his list. I was at school in the 1970s (yes, I am that old) and girls were not encouraged to have a voice or to go on to university. I attended a comprehensive school in a large industrial town west of Glasgow and girls of my academic ability became nurses or secretaries or bookkeepers. Of my peer group seven of us went into nursing. Girls did not speak up in class and those who did were seen as troublemakers or tomboys.

This is not a man bashing blog. I also allow women to talk me down. Recently I was in my local pub and was talking (from a distance of 2 metres and sitting down) to a couple I vaguely know. On two occasions the woman contradicted what I had said. On both occasions I was talking about events that had happened to members of my family. On both occasions I had the experience of the events, she, however, had the confidence to tell me I was wrong. One concerned the date my dad was diagnosed as having COVID-19, the second was concerning a university offer my daughter had been given. She continually spoke over me saying I was wrong on both accounts, COVID tests were not available then and the university in question did not offer that course. I assured her that COVID tests were being carried out at the end of March and that LSE did indeed offer Social Anthropology (to be honest I began to doubt myself on that one and googled it on the way home) but she refused to listen.

So, where does that leave me? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? What is this blog about? I am aware of what I do and why. I hate confrontation and know that I will continue to allow those with the confidence to believe they have the authority and power to direct my work. They do not. It has made for an interesting Reflexive section and being self-aware is no bad thing. The object of this blog is to say to all student:, be aware and do not doubt yourself. Stand tall and say, ‘Let me interrupt your confidence with my experience’.

Yvonne Bennett

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

It is that time of year

It is that time of year when we are thinking of starting or returning to University. Hopefully Student Finance England have approved your application, but did you know that you can also apply for DSA – Disabled Student’s Allowance?

To qualify for DSA you will need a current, medical diagnosis. This can include physical as well as neurological conditions and mental health issues.

Once your application to DSA has been made you will be required to attend an assessment with a local assessors’ company. This appointment is extremely important as the assessor will be looking at what you need whilst undertaking your course. At this point I would like to add if you are already part way through your degree you can still apply for DSA.

There are many things that the assessor can recommend for you. These might include; a laptop, software, a guide, mentoring, a reader or scribe, study skills, in fact the list is extremely long and will be fashioned to your particular needs.

Once your assessment has been completed the assessor will send the report to DSA where it will be looked at and approved where possible. DSA will then allocate different companies to supply the recommended equipment and support. This will be sent to you by letter, called a DSA2.

It is then your responsibility to contact the companies allocated to arrange delivery of equipment along with training on how to use the equipment. You would also need to contact the companies allocated for your support needs. For example, if you are allocated mentoring, study skills or any other services with CoomberSewell Enterprises, you would then ring us on 07789685185 or email us on info@coombersewell.co.uk to arrange an initial meeting to discuss dates, times and venues for meetings. Due to the current Covid pandemic we are meeting all our clients on Zoom (except for library assistance, of course). Meetings normally take place once a week during semesters, at a mutually agreed time. After each meeting your non-medical helper would complete two pieces of paperwork, one is an overview of the session and the second is to document the date, time and location of the meeting. These would then be posted to you once a month for your approval and signature. On your returning them to us we would submit an invoice to DSA for payment.

It is important to remember that although you are not paying, DSA is, you will have entered into a contract with us for services, so signing and returning is your part of the contract.

We hope that with this explanation of the DSA system, you now feel confident to start or continue this part of your University journey.