Name: Jessica Goodman
Status: Third-year DPhil student
Subject: French, eighteenth-century theatre
College: Worcester College
This year I will mostly be: applying for jobs, editing a journal, teaching French literature, putting together a history of my college, organising a research network. And finishing my thesis, obviously…
Over and Out
Three weeks ago, that mythical day arrived: that event that I’d never quite thought would ever happen, the moment at which my mettle as a researcher would be tested, and I would be admitted into that mysterious circle of ‘academics’. My viva.
Rewind to the morning of April 2nd, and you will find me handing in two copies of a phonebook sized volume to the Exam Schools, and triple checking that I had spelled my name correctly on the front cover. The last few days before submission were a fairly painful blur of reading and rereading, creating copy after copy of the file ‘Thesis – final’, ‘Thesis – final 1’, ‘Thesis – FINAL final’ as I sought to weed out every last typo, repetition and italicised comma. Submission itself was, as I had been warned, a bit of an anti-climax: whilst it was a fantastic feeling to have finished, filling in a slip of yellow paper and dumping two padded envelopes on a desk hardly felt like the fanfare I felt the moment deserved. That notwithstanding, freedom was very welcome.
Just over three weeks later, I received the email I’d been dreading: my viva date. 22nd May: seven weeks after submission… and my 28th birthday. Typical.
After reading every bit of advice I could find on viva preparation, I took a deep breath, and opened the hefty document that had been lying, unopened, on my desk since early April. The first typo I found threw me slightly. How was this even possible? What else might I have missed? But once my image of a ‘perfect’ finished product had been dispelled, I began to enjoy the process. Reminding myself of my arguments, making new connections, noticing areas that needed clarifying, or expanding, and seeing the ‘big picture’ that my close-up proofreading had obscured in the final weeks.
All the advice had stressed that the most important thing was to know your thesis inside out, and that proved completely true. My two-hour viva was basically a tutorial on a much bigger scale: an in-depth discussion of my work, with two experts who had read it carefully, and who were genuinely interested in finding out about my choices, my evidence, and my arguments.
Then, suddenly, it was over, and the examiners were telling me that they’d send me my list of minor corrections. That was it. In that sense, the viva too can be slightly anti-climactic: there are almost always corrections and various administrative hoops to jump through, and the Oxford system means you don’t actually get told you’ve passed, but have to wait for an official letter of confirmation from the Faculty Board.
But I’d survived, and more than that, I’d enjoyed it. In just a few months time, the whole process would be over, and I would be putting on that purple and red gown to finally, officially, become Dr Goodman. For now though, it was time to celebrate…
The thesis gets real
The last few months have been quite a whirlwind. Michaelmas Term rushed by in the usual slightly breathless fashion, and Christmas came around in a blink. Seminars, admissions interviews and job applications had kept me fully occupied, and so I’d barely noticed the time passing. But without me realising it, something fundamental had changed.
In September I could blithely state that I was putting together a first draft of my thesis, and ‘planning to hand in some time next year’.
By December, that first draft was complete, and in January, that ‘some time next year’ became ‘this term’. Eek.
In those four months, a set of separate chapters, written across a three-year period, had metamorphosed into a real thing. It was a coherent whole; an object that I could print and bind, and hand to my supervisor to read and comment on.
There’s a moment in that process when something suddenly clicks: when a conversation with a colleague, or a comment from a supervisor, or even an attempt to explain what on earth you’re doing to a slightly confused scientist friend, gives you a moment of clarity. Your thesis (in the traditional sense of the argument that you are upholding) comes into focus, and the past three years shift a little, and retrospectively settle into a recognisable, logical shape.
Ok, that’s probably a little exaggerated, and might well attract scathing remarks about an inflated sense of my work’s importance. But I’ve certainly felt a sense of satisfaction in bringing everything together.
For me, it was preparing a presentation for a job interview that finally forced things to a head. When you have six minutes to describe your research and its value to a non-specialist audience, you have to have a damn good idea of precisely what you’ve done, and why it’s useful. Because it’s pretty easy to forget, when you’re mired in footnotes and semi-colons, that what you’ve done is a ‘significant and substantial contribution to your field’, to quote the exam regulations.
And realising what this contribution is doesn’t just help you make that presentation, or write your abstract, or prepare for your viva. It also lifts you out of formatting and referencing for a minute, and reminds you what an achievement it is just to have written those 80,000 to 100,000 words.
There’s a long way to go yet before I get to put on that red and purple gown and change all my bankcards to ‘Dr’. But before I set off on the final slog to submission on April 2nd, I’ll just enjoy this little moment of satisfaction at my thesis finally becoming real, and admire it for a minute before I go back to sorting out those semi-colons, and prepare to let it loose into the world.
Life as a third year: doing the summer time warp
When you’re a DPhil student (or any kind of university researcher, I imagine), there’s something very strange about the summer. At the start of July you breathe a sigh of relief as you complete the last teaching report, go to the last seminar, and give the last tutorial. Three months of uninterrupted research time! No panicking finalists in the library! A freshly-written and obviously completely realistic ‘To Do’ list detailing chapters to complete, articles to tidy up, conference proposals to write, and so much more.
July slips gently by in a relaxed haze, as you reward your term-time efforts with shorter work days, and enjoy the freedom to spend whole weeks exploring tangents, just because you can. August is patchy: time stretches so that weeks seem endless, then suddenly contracts when you realise the library is about to close for its annual break. The shorter items on the ‘To Do’ list are gradually ticked off, because, you reason, you’re off on holiday next week, and it’s better to have a run-up at the chapter draft when you can give it your full attention. And then suddenly, harshly, it’s mid-September. You’re receiving emails about next term’s teaching. The journal editors are back from holiday and sending you proofs to correct. This is the point at which people often panic and give up on ever hitting the chapter draft deadline, or else lock themselves in the library in a desperate attempt to get it done before term arrives.
But this is where I differ. I, secretly, am anticipating the buzz of term; looking forward to days in which I run from seminar to supervisor meeting to conference-planning discussion, fitting in my reading and writing around the hundred other things I have do. Much as I enjoy my research, I often find I’m the most productive when it’s not the only thing on my mind; when it can tick away in the background whilst I’m marking a tutorial essay, or listening to a talk about public engagement.
Because being a DPhil student is about so much more than just writing your thesis. There are so many opportunities to get involved in different aspects of the university, in ways that complement and expand on your life as a researcher. It’s basically a graduate training scheme for academia: a place to learn all the very different skills you’ll need if you’re planning on staying in the university world. And even if it turns out that’s not what you want to do, all those same skills – networking, teamwork, project management, communication – are immensely valuable in any setting.
So that’s why I’m looking forward to getting out of the summer time warp, and back into the hectic but rewarding days of Michaelmas Term.