Somehow, I've done a PhD
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
academia blog personal
Follow up post to Somehow, I'm doing a PhD
So - here I am, freshly made a doctor in title, at another one of those intersections in life where one looks back and acknowledges something has finished its due course. It happens when first going to school, going to college, then to university, the first job. Or the first ended relationship. This time it is completing a PhD - which is as anti-climactic as it comes. But then there are brief flashes of recognition where the brain remembers that the world - both inside and outside - was vastly different four years ago when I started this piece of adventure. And the dawning of the fact remains: somehow - I've done a PhD.
Reminiscing about how wonderful this has all been, or what an experience it was, the good stuff and the bad stuff, epic proclamations of how I have changed and/or grown, or the things I have achieved - these are all cliches. They do not resonate with me, so I will not talk about them. Instead, I'm going to talk about this specific moment in time - the instant where I (quite literally and figuratively) finished the PhD.
Doing a PhD means slogging through three or four years (generally) and managing to write a thesis that argues on some merit of your work as a contribution to the world. At this point, the first step towards completion has been done - writing the thesis. Once it is finished, you are no longer expected to work on your research topic (and instead - you know - get a real job). You continue doing this with the best of intentions to forget the past four years and the academic life - but then you still have the viva / defense to go through - so there is no clean detachment. The submission of a completed thesis is considered to be an achievement of the PhD itself - given that most of the thesis are successfully defended (otherwise the supervisors / PIs suffer in reputation) and most people in academia will be happy with assuming success at this stage. But the reality of bureaucracy and due process remains that the PhD is actually completed when the viva/defense happens and the thesis incorporates any comments or corrections from those. And then the university decides that they are not happy with this, and will make you wait for months in order to get a scroll of paper signaling 'officially' that you are indeed a PhD - with a graduation process and ceremony. This is where the person wears a fancy gown they would never wear otherwise in life and gets to throw their hat into the air (but not too far as its often a rental and you have to return it). No one cares about graduation as much as the thesis and the viva. No one drinks after it as much either.
In some countries and places, there are two sets of vivas - one internally with a committee and a second public defense. In Ireland (and UK) - there is a single viva that is not public and consists of a committee made up of an external examiner, an internal examiner, and a chair who exists solely as a distraction in case the other two get rough and violent. The chair also has the responsibility to manage the proceeding of the viva and to conduct the due processes managed by the university. The external examiner is the warrior supreme in this fight - they are expected to be methodous and rigorous in their attack on the research you've managed to build in your time and find its weak spots and loose threads. They are also expected to have read your thesis - which is then made evident by citing specific page numbers or sections not evident from the table of contents. The choice of an external examiner is crucial in the defense because the stronger their reputation is within the domain - the better it is considered in terms of the quality of the work. The internal examiner is someone from the university who has a vague idea of what the work means and can sit and follow through most of the arguments between the external examiner and the candidate (me!). The internal examiner is also supposed to have read the thesis.
The viva defense usually starts with a presentation where the thesis is outlined and summarised - at the end of which there are questions invited (or alternatively, interrogations are welcomed). The external and internal then proceed to ask questions to the candidate who is expected to address them through discussion, argument, slides, or if everything else fails - breaking down in to tears (though this has almost never happened as far as I know). At the end of this, the candidate is then asked to leave the room and await the decision of the committee. Now this is where you wait and expect either of the two results - no corrections or minor corrections. If you get no corrections, then straight to the bar/pub for drinks. But if you get minor corrections, you need to work a little bit more on the thesis after coming home from the pub. The committee will submit suggested corrections - which you incorporate - and then submit it back to the internal examiner to get approved. Then you submit the thesis to the university as a hard-bound copy that is then deposited into the library to fill up the empty shelves that otherwise would have more useful books. And then you go to the pub again for drinks. (hint: it takes a lot of alcohol to sanitise four years worth of accumulated stuff) IF you get a decision other than these - big trouble. You are either told to make major corrections - which means your work was shit and not up to the mark - and you should seriously consider quitting everything altogether - but we will give you one more chance to make things right. Then you go back and fight with your supervisors for not seeing this coming, work some more, write the thesis again, and off to the viva to defend it. OR you get told that you're incapable of doing a PhD and are asked to take a Masters by research instead and leave. At this point you should leave because there are chances of a murderous rage being induced with potential serial killings comprising of defense committee, your supervisors, and that one person who totally made you believe you could do a PhD. Thankfully, this doesn't happen (often), and most people have supportive environments.
Now that you know what could have happened - I will tell you what did happen. My viva was online - on Zoom - because of the COVID-19 situation. This meant I didn't have to wear a full suit (silver lining on the cloud) but I still wore a shirt and a tie (and yes, formal trousers too). The presentation went well, the questions were all familiar and (I think) I answered them well. At the end of the hour, I was asked to wait (offline) while the committee deliberated what to do about the awesome little me. At this point, I was disappointed that the questions and discussions about my thesis and research had stopped. Because - well, this (probably) is the most interest anyone will ever show in your work - and after that initial panic of being found guilty of fraud - I think there is enjoyment in getting away with it and actually focusing on the work - and realising that yes I am the expert of this topic. So after the wait, I was told that I had minor corrections to do - which was expected that the corrections were also quite fair - and welcomed as a doctor and a peer. This is the second moment when you think about having finished a PhD.
This moment is more definitive than the first - because you receive a piece of paper (or email) saying that you have been awarded a PhD - so it is official. And as a result the resulting celebration is usually more intense. There are scores of people congratulating you - from relatives, friends, colleagues - and people on mailing list and Twitter you haven't met or known about yet. There are some good things said - by your supervisors and examiners - which you feel good about but don't let it get to your head. It feels like a big deal is made out of something that you don't feel that big about. But in the middle of all that, when there is a moment of clarity in your thoughts, you realise and acknowledge to yourself that yes - somehow, I have done a PhD. You then get to finishing those minor corrections and submitting them to the internal examiner for corrections. This process can be frustrating because you've told yourself twice that you've finished the PhD and yet here you are still trying to get rid of it but it is stuck like a slimy residue. So you persist and manage to submit it nonetheless, and are done with the due process. At this point, you get the official response from the university that they don't have anything else to make you do - so congratulations and you've been awarded the PhD - except not really because the actual award will be in the graduation ceremony. So at this point, you have a meek little realisation that this is the actual finishing of the PhD because you don't have to do anything else about it after today. Sadly there are no big celebrations or congratulatory moments or feeling good about yourself things that happen. You move on with the acceptance that somehow you've done a PhD.
If you have really nice and super examiners and supervisors as I did - then this process is super nice to go through. And they will make you feel good about it - and offer mentorship, helpful advice, and collaborations on the work. This is proof of a good working environment and a good relationship. Otherwise I have known and heard about people who have had an absolutely horrible experience - which if it had happened to me would have been the equivalent of taking a match to a barrel of gunpowder (me being the barrel). So you count your blessings and the good fortune and get out of the celebration zone. Now there is a vast expanse of the world awaiting you - with no idea on what to do. You managed to avoid this after graduation by going for a Masters and avoiding this after that by going for a PhD. But here you are - and you're finally not a student anymore. This is as adult as you can be. And you move ahead with acknowledgement of your worth and credentials as someone who has done a PhD.