Viva Voce

Between. Reflections on a year post submission (part 2).

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This is the second part of my series on life after the PhD. This week, I’m discussing the importance of an institutional affiliation, and what that means for how you’ll spend your time post-completion.

The Institutional Affiliation

Before I begin, I should say that this advice is in no way meant to deride the significance and contribution of independent scholars, many of whom produce important, innovative work whilst unaffiliated with a particular academic institution. Given the current state of the job market, alt-ac routes are becoming an increasing – and often exciting – reality for many, offering valuable alternatives to the traditional academic route I’m discussing here. For the time being however, I want to draw attention to a few of the benefits of maintaining your affiliation following your postgraduate degree.

Affiliation means having an institutional email address, access to on-campus facilities (e.g. teaching and research rooms, common staff areas, the library, university special collections), and often a healthy printing budget, the benefits of each of which should be self-evident. If teaching at a local institution is not an option, enquire as to the possibility of a non-stipendiary fellowship in your awarding institution/department.

Teaching 

Teaching, which will provide you with said affiliation, a viable way of supporting your research whilst simultaneously adding lines to your CV. Many of you will have taught during your PhD, and if possible, I’d recommend keeping that going, as your familiarity with the courses you’re teaching on will really help you to limit the time you devote to preparing. Beyond this, (time permitting) I’d also recommend seeking out teaching in other departments in your PhD’s host institution – I ended up teaching on courses in four departments and three schools, which, although challenging, has been an unparalleled source of income and pedagogical development. You might also want to think about local alt-ac teaching opportunities – for art history this might include ventures such as The New School of Art – as well as tutoring on subjects related to your discipline.

Organising Events 

Being part of a HEI can also provide crucial access to the funds and venues necessary for organising all manner of events, something that can be important both in terms of contributing to current debate in your field, or simply as a way of fostering a continued sense of belonging (which can be particularly significant in the period post submission). The possibilities of what you could organise vary wildly, but between organising a conference relating to your postdoctoral research, a panel at a disciplinary conference, a public engagement event, a seminar series, a reading group, or a postgraduate or early career researcher focused event, there’s bound to be something to suit your needs and the specific demands on your time. I organised a research seminar series – Edinburgh’s Eighteenth-Century Research Seminar Series, which is about to go into its second year – as well as a panel at this year’s Association of Art Historian’s Annual Conference. Organising the seminar series was beneficial in a number of ways: it allowed me not only to meet emerging scholars in my field, but to engage meaningfully with their ideas; it improved my skills in applying for and securing funding; and it encouraged me to build relationships with the Series’ host institution, Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Perhaps more significantly, organising our AAH panel allowed me to think through some key ideas for my postdoctoral research, the development of which I’ll discuss in my next post in this series, which will examine starting your second major research project.

The Viva

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I’m excited to announce that I passed my viva with minor corrections on Thursday. Despite several sleepless nights and countless hours of worrying, the event itself was fine. In fact, it was an enjoyable and conversational discussion of my research, during which I benefitted from the keen critique and probing questions of my two examiners.

However, the process wouldn’t have been nearly as smooth had I not received advice from a number of colleagues and friends. Particular thanks must go to my two supervisors, as well as Dr. Natalie LusseyDr. Isabella Streffen, Dr. Ellie Mackin, Heather Carroll, Elisabeth Gernerd, Dr. Sally Holloway, and Vicky Holmes, each of whom shared links and sage words prior to the event. In that spirit, I wanted to write a quick post documenting the blog posts, podcasts, and videos that I used as part of my own preparations, in the hope that others might find them similarly useful.

1. Top 40 Potential Viva Questions

I consulted several such lists whilst preparing for my viva. Whilst not many of these questions actually came up, preparing and practicing the answers I would give to them, provided my viva prep with a focus, encouraged me to think critically about my thesis, and helped to soothe my nerves.

2. PhD Surgery: how do I prepare for a PhD oral examination (viva)?

Vicky Holmes recommended Tara Brabazon’s excellent PhD Surgery video series to me. Prof. Brabazon is deeply invested in postgraduate development, and has written and made a number of informative podcasts, videos, and articles on the topic of the viva. Her podcast, ‘Ten Tips for a PhD oral examination’ is here, and her ‘Practice Questions for a PhD oral examination’ is available here.

3. Viva Survivors Podcast 

The final source I’m going to recommend is the Viva Survivors podcast, which is run by Nathan Ryder, and asks people ‘about their research, their PhD, what they did […] how they prepared for their viva and what happened on the day’. The podcasts record the range of experiences that the viva can encompass, providing essential nuance to a narrative that is often dominated by horror stories. The podcast archive is available here.

Stand out words of advice from various sources were to relax, to breathe, and to write down the questions posed by your examiners before answering, as well as to ask to take a break if you feel it to be necessary. Perhaps the most useful advice I received, however, was not to over-prepare. Despite the temptation to prepare set answers to a set list of questions, it’s important to answer the question you’ve been asked, not what you wish you’d been asked.

With a mind to my post from earlier this month then, you might be wondering how my AcWriMo is going. Whilst I am definitely behind in terms of ‘academic writing’ in the strictest sense, preparing for my viva encouraged reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of my thesis, its key contributions, and its central argument, whilst the viva itself was an exercise that helped to crystallise plans and strategies for turning the thesis into ‘the book’. Whilst AcWriMo stresses the importance of writing, preparing for my viva has emphasised the equivalent importance of prolonged periods of thinking, a strategy I will take forward into the final stages of the month of November and into ‘DecWriMo’.