I had a brutal PhD viva followed by two years of corrections.

[First published on The Faculty]

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Here is what I learned from a grinding, traumatising and occasionally comic journey towards getting a PhD. In the UK, a viva is a verbal defence of your thesis; unlike other countries, it is not a formality, there are lots of ways it can go wrong.

For me, getting a PhD was a deflating struggle across an arbitrary finish line; a relief rather than a cause for celebration.

Writing the thesis took four years of challenging but satisfying work. The subsequent corrections, however, were exceptionally unpleasant — I woke up every day knowing that my sense of self-worth, not to mention years of work, hung in the balance. My weekends were spent at my laptop, sometimes physically struggling to type through anxiety, responding to feedback written by two examiners with whom I could not communicate, who are accountable to no one, and whose feedback nobody was able to confidently interpret. Even though I’d moved on to a full-time job, undertaking the corrections dominated my life more totally than any other part of the PhD process.

Before I’d submitted my thesis, I wish I’d read a frank account of a PhD viva that didn’t go to plan. Such accounts seem to be relatively uncommon, perhaps because drawing the curtain back and showing the grim details of how you got permission to put ‘Dr.’ before your name ruins the mystique — especially if you are an academic with admiring students.

I hope that if you are doing a PhD, or considering one, my experience can provide a useful perspective on what the end game is like — perhaps even a warning. Of course, there is also an aspect of catharsis in relating this story.

I don’t want to scare anyone unnecessarily, two years of corrections is an unusual outcome. On the other hand, while I might not be typical, I’m also not that atypical. At the Royal College of Art, in 2018 and 2019, around 25% of students got major corrections. Whether or not they were as long-winded as mine, they will have been a nightmare for the recipient.

If I could convey one thought about doctoral research, it would be this: there is a colossal disparity between how you think about your PhD and how the university thinks of it. For you, the thesis will become a profoundly personal endeavour, embodying your most careful reflections on a subject that you are devoted to. The heroic effort involved will make your emotional bond with the thesis even deeper. By contrast, from the perspective of a university, the thesis is a disposable dummy run, a formal training exercise, a prelude to any actual research.

No matter how hard you try to remember that a PhD thesis is a bureaucratic formalism, it’s hard not to become personally invested. A classic refrain — one that I tried to keep in mind at all times to ward off loss of perspective — is that no one will read your thesis except your supervisors and examiners. None the less, everything about the writing process fosters the delusion that you are creating something that will be treated, at least by that tiny audience, with a modicum of respect.

In my viva, the personal investment that had driven me forward for so long train-wrecked into a wall of indifference. I am an extreme case, but I expect other PhD veterans will recognise some echos in their own experience.

In case you aren’t familiar with the details, I’ll briefly describe the process of doing a PhD. I did my PhD at the RCA, in design research, focusing on software design. Approaches vary by institution, but the RCA system will give a flavour. First, you’ll need to write a thesis — in the UK, that might take between three and five years. Then, two’ external examiners’ from other universities, selected for their expertise in your area of research, read your thesis and interview you about it.

This interview is called a ‘viva’, or a ‘defence’. A chairperson oversees your viva. Your PhD supervisor — the university professor who is in charge of you throughout the PhD — may also attend, but cannot speak. At the RCA, your supervisor sits behind you so you cannot make eye contact; however, they are allowed to make notes to help you interpret the feedback. At the end of the viva, the examiners will decide between four options: pass with no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections or failure. Minor corrections are those that the examiners anticipate can be completed in three months, and the candidate can be nearly certain of passing. Most candidates can expect some minor corrections, as small as nit-picks about grammar, occasionally more extensive re-writes. Major corrections are those anticipated to take longer than three months, and a significant possibility of failure remains.

I got major corrections. When I submitted my response to the corrections, I got a further round of corrections, taking two years to complete in total. I believe experiences similar to mine could occur in many disciplines, but, in case you are curious, I built a social media analytics tool intended for use by local government, called ‘LocalNets’. LocalNets filtered and visualised Twitter data to give insights into local civic issues — crime, planning, policing, etc. My thesis reflected on design principles for social media analytics tools, drawing on my experience with LocalNets.

The viva

Just before we stepped into the room where the viva took place, my supervisor reassured me that the examiners would not have turned up to the viva unless they saw at least some merit in my work. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing — supervisors have to approve your thesis before you can submit. Why would they have approved my submission if such significant doubts remained? At the time, I chalked it up to nerves on the supervisors’ part; looking back it was the first hint of the risk that I had been allowed to take.

In the run-up to the viva I was preparing for — looking forward to, in fact — being grilled on every arcane technical nuance of my work — could I explain Arrow’s impossibility theorem? How does Nussbaum’s account of capability diverge from Sen’s? All the things I’d been filling my head with for four years. I was exhilarated at the prospect of having my work taken seriously and defending my ideas.

This expectation was misplaced; my viva ignored nearly every substantial aspect of my research with exquisite deftness. The examiners focused almost exclusively on the periphery of my work, the structure of the appendices or questions about disciplinary boundaries. Was my thesis truly a work of design research, or was it sociological? I expected this question and had a prepared answer. We circled this issue for what seemed like a large proportion of the viva. I still have no idea what was at stake here, none of the corrections I was given related to this topic.

On only one occasion did we discuss something I considered to be a significant component of my thesis. I was critical of the way contemporary design research fails to engage with fundamental ethical philosophy. I knew I was in contested territory, and I was anticipating having to defend my views. One examiner suggested that my ethical argument was a ‘straw man’ because design researchers often specify their ethical framework. I said that what was frequently missing, in my view, was an account of how they had selected that ethical framework. The examiner looked at me and said a single word — ‘ok’. In the corrections, I was asked to remove the ethical discussion from my thesis en bloc. ‘Ok’ did not indicate, as I had assumed, a clarification successfully communicated, but instead was more akin to a psychiatrist muttering ‘ok’ as a patient elaborates a paranoid fantasy.

If the examiners were indifferent to the intellectual aspects of my work, they were even less interested in the basic facts of what I had done. The first question in my viva was, “Does your software collect tweets automatically?” I could not have been more stunned if the examiner had hit me round the head with a frying pan. The software I created processed approximately 28 million tweets. Did the examiners think I had copy-pasted 28 million tweets? I had written whole chapters about automating the collection and processing of tweets, what else could my software have been doing? I don’t know if I misinterpreted, but in the viva and the corrections, I saw evidence that the examiners had only the most distant understanding of what I’d done during my practical work.

At the beginning of the viva, as is required, I gave a presentation. It was like going for a jog on dry sand. Every bit of energy I projected was absorbed without the slightest reaction. The examiners were like black holes — as I spoke, each syllable sailed over their emotional event horizon without a ripple of rapport left in its wake. I was left with the feeling that every word I said was a waste of their time. One examiner avoided eye contact throughout the viva, directing their gaze almost exclusively at the floor. It’s nearly impossible to give an answer to someone who won’t meet your eye. I don’t know if this is an established interrogation technique, but it is an excellent way to destabilise someone. The disdain the examiners evinced throughout the viva was far beyond anything I have experienced in any other setting.

When the chair told me the result was major corrections, neither of the examiners could look at me. Their failure to acknowledge me had a lasting impact on my emotional response. I did not leave the viva feeling that I’d handed in substandard academic work, as you might expect. Instead, I had the visceral sense that I was the object of physical disgust. When I say physical disgust, I’m not using that turn of phrase only to convey intensity — I mean very literally that I felt as I might have done if I’d vomited down myself. I had an almost primordial sense of being repulsive, as though the examiners had gagged at the smell of me. The feeling lasted for weeks.

There was a feeling of shame, but also anger — anger at the examiners’ personal cowardice in failing to meet my eye after having been so enthusiastic in dismantling years of my work. It’s a detail, but it seemed to make the experience doubly pathetic — pathetic on their part and mine. In the longer term, I felt grief, compounded by the fact that I had brought the situation on myself. I also experienced kindness from friends and strangers that I found incredibly moving.

The examiners may have been brutal, but they could make a case that they were fulfilling their academic duties. Their role is to judge whether your work reaches the standard of a PhD. They can, and in my case did, do this with very little interest in the research itself. Again, a question of perspective: for you, it’s deeply personal; for the examiners, it’s a dispassionate dissection. Their lack of interest was, for me, more psychologically damaging than their hostility.

Immediately after my viva, my supervisor and I wanted a private room to discuss the outcome with the chair of the exam. Bear in mind that we’re in art school. There was only one room available, and, presumably as part of someone’s art project, it was knee-deep with balloons. I sat there, shattered like a dropped wine glass, wishing I could drown in the primary colours bobbing around me, waiting for the chairperson to deliver the gruesome post-mortem details. She arrived with a beaming smile. She loves balloons! She started to tell a story of the time she saw a funny balloon. She looked through her phone for some considerable time, finding a photo of the funny balloon. We looked at the funny balloon. I’m sorry to disappoint — I cannot remember what was funny about the balloon; my brain must have capsized.

For you, the viva is the pinnacle of years of research; your thesis is a timeless contribution to the stock of human knowledge. For the university, it’s just behind an amusing balloon in terms of significance. I understand the chair was looking for a moment of lightness in a dark situation, but the infantilising tactlessness of it captures the absence of empathy and decency that characterised the examination process.

Reflecting the total lack of importance the university accords to the whole enterprise, all kinds of logistical mistakes occurred in my examination process. Perhaps most egregiously, my examiners were not told that my examination was ‘by practice’. By practice exams are relatively uncommon outside of the world of art and design research, and mandate an unusually low 40,000-word limit. When the examiners received my 40,000-word thesis, it must have seemed perplexingly, probably lazily, short. The word count I was working to only became apparent to the examiners mid-viva when I mentioned it. It is impossible to know how this failure of communication affected the outcome. Again, that question of perspective: I’ve been haunted for years by the thought that I might have a better outcome had this mistake not been made; from the university’s point of view, the mistake is just an inconsequential admin glitch.

The corrections

A candidate given major corrections will receive a list of the improvements the examiners expect them to make. In theory, the candidate can ask for clarification from the examiners if there is any ambiguity; however the discussion will be mediated by the chair, who has no specialist knowledge of the PhD subject area, so this channel of communication is limited. Within one year, the candidate is expected to resubmit the corrected PhD thesis, accompanied by a commentary connecting their amendments to the list of corrections issued by the examiners.

Some of the corrections I received led to clear improvements to my thesis. Some of them asked me to remove sections altogether — a disappointing necessity I was not going to contest. Other corrections were harder to understand: asking me to add a chapter that already existed, or to explain in more detail prosaic aspects of research I’d already addressed at mind-numbing length. One correction seemed to be asking that I change the shape of the arrows in a diagram, so, through tears of disbelief, I replaced right angles with curves. After the first round of corrections — and months of anxious waiting for an outcome — a second round was required.

Often, when I added text to address the corrections, I had to remove something else to stay within the word limit. Was I removing content the examiners considered essential? Given my track record of anticipating the examiners, every edit felt like a spin of the roulette wheel.

One December evening, months after I had submitted the second round of corrections, I received an email telling me the PhD had been accepted. Beyond the examiners’ decision to accept the thesis, I have no idea what they thought of it — they do not give feedback. PhD corrections are Kafkaesque — so much arbitrary and traumatising work without ever being able to imagine a human mind behind the process.

The consequences

Over the two years that the corrections took, everything else in my life was paralysed. I constantly laboured under the impression that I could be weeks away from completion, only to have the finish line recede into the distance as new corrections, or new interpretations of the corrections, arrived from various quarters.

Writing, a crucial part of my life, came to a dead stop because of the knock-out blow to my confidence. Worse — and I understand this is not wholly rational — I was concerned that anything I published might be held against me by the examiners as evidence that I had not sufficiently recanted my views. I mention this to highlight the paranoia of the corrections process; trying to read every interpretation into a few paragraphs of feedback on which so much hangs.

Before the viva, I was setting myself up to continue my research once I’d finished the doctorate — running collaborations, publishing write-ups of my work. I was working on a tool that explored citation networks on Google Scholar — and excited to see it starting to attract users. I watched all my projects collapse as I focused on the corrections and dealt with the psychological fallout. Someone with more mental fortitude than me might have kept all the plates spinning, but I couldn’t manifest the grit.

For me, the viva outcome meshed perfectly with my deepest fears — that no one can understand my writing, that my ideas are perceived as malicious, that my interdisciplinarity has left me with no recognised expertise whatsoever. The topic I had previously assumed would become central to my career became a site of trauma so intense that the whole area was off-limits.

In short, I eventually got the piece of paper to prove I have a PhD, but by precisely the same act, all of the avenues for using the PhD were, at least temporarily, shut down.

What went wrong

I underestimated the risk of major corrections and the awfulness of the corrections process. I overestimated the quality of my writing. My work on design ethics, and other parts of the thesis, were needless hostages to fortune and should have been edited out long before submission. Perhaps the examiners could have been better chosen. All these factors are down to me, although I could have received much better support.

They talked about their doctorate with a reluctant mournfulness that I couldn’t understand — probably I didn’t want to. I promised myself I wouldn’t end up that way. I thought people who did PhDs were all otherworldly, I was lucky that my supervisors were kind and had plenty of time for me, but ultimately our amicable relationship was disguising the fact they were not sufficiently critical of my work. The interdisciplinary nature of my thesis, which mixed political economy, design research and sociology, made it harder to supervise. Perhaps my lack of experience in design research was not taken into account. My background in tech was part of the reason I was offered a place on the PhD program, and it allowed me to produce software that helped the funding program address its overall research goals. However, when it came to supervision, extra support to offset my lack of experience was not forthcoming.

As you can see, I was very naive, though perhaps not quite as naive as I’ve made it sound. Nothing in my PhD process hinted at how the viva would go — I had no issues in my annual interim exams or my mock viva, I had a good relationship with my supervisors and their support when I submitted.

I have painted a picture of a viva as a moment where the university’s understanding of a PhD as a training exercise clashes with the student’s profoundly personal investment in their work. That clash of perspectives is important, but the broader truth is that in a viva, years of complex work are evaluated in a necessarily subjective way over the course of a few hours — casualties are inevitable. Part of what happened was just the luck of the draw; an unfortunate combination of supervisors, examiners, miscommunication, and, of course, the shortcomings of my thesis.

Lessons learned

I have only experienced one viva at one institution; my experience may not generalise. However, there are some practical lessons I would draw on if I ever had another viva. I would:

  • Ensure I’d had an utterly candid conversation with my supervisors about the risks they perceived in my thesis. For a thesis that crossed disciplinary boundaries, I would also ask my supervisors how confident they were in identifying potential hazards outside their specialist area.
  • Draw up a list of potential examiners at a formative stage of the research and keep it updated. Picking the examiners is as important as writing the thesis.
  • Be constantly vigilant for administrative mistakes across the examination process. I regretted not getting legal guidance immediately after my viva, even if only to understand the options. At the same there are lots of risks (and costs) associated with consulting a lawyer. especially if your University finds out about it.

Most of all, as much as is possible, I would brace myself for the combination of indifference and hostility I have described in this account. Universities love looking down their nose at the ethics of the commercial world. For all that posturing, academia has incredibly low standards when it comes to how individuals are treated. I have never encountered a job interview, or any other professional situation, that even approached the complexion of my viva.

When I wrote my application to the RCA, I got help from someone who had just finished a long PhD. They talked about their doctorate with a reluctant mournfulness that I couldn’t understand — probably I didn’t want to. I promised myself I wouldn’t end up that way. I thought people who did PhDs were all otherworldly, idealistic and impractical, where I, coming from the commercial world, was pragmatic and robust. I loved writing, had a rock-solid idea of my research area, funding, and a calm detachment that I thought would see me through. How wrong I was.

Now it’s over. I got an unwanted, but no doubt beneficial, lesson in resilience; a counterpart to realising that I’m fragile in a way I hadn’t understood before. I got an extensive, possibly excessive, lesson in armour-plating my written arguments. I even got a PhD, which I might not have done.

I’m writing again. I love telling a story, and, though I wish this one was not in the first person, I hope it does something to help others understand the risks of the PhD examination process.

If you’ve had a bad PhD viva and need some solidarity, send me a message.