Endings and New Horizons

I started this blog what seems a long time ago. I was just starting my PhD journey – except University of Sussex called a PhD a DPhil back then. It was a journey that was not really part of my life plan; I thought doctoral research was for much cleverer people than me and also I couldn’t imagine anything being interesting enough to devote 3 years of my life to studying. During the journey I’ve learned that postgraduate research is not so much about being clever, but about wanting to learn and about having the dogged determinism to keep going through the ups and downs and frustrations of completing a pretty big project. I also learned that although postgraduate research involves developing expert knowledge in a specific area, it is also about broadening knowledge in many areas and beginning to see interconnectivity between ideas from many different sources.

This week marked the formal end of my PhD journey with a graduation ceremony in Brighton Dome, formal photos of me in my new academic dress and a hug from the Chancellor of the University of Sussex and a handshake from the Vice-Chancellor. But there is little point in spending years journeying towards a goal, if there is nowhere to go next – no new goals. I have sometimes claimed my PhD journey is a form of retirement preparation. In a way it is – I do have a bus pass and draw a pension – but being retired does not mean curling up in a comfortable chair with my knitting, but looking ahead for new challenges and opportunities.

In the immediate future, that includes some writing – there is little point in gaining expertise if it isn’t shared in some way – and some teaching – I have continued my work as an Open University tutor and am about to start teaching on a new module. It also means having more time to pursue personal interests and to do fun things with friends and family – the ‘me time’ spent as a student can now be enjoyed in different ways.

However, there is another challenge for me as an older person. The usual postdoctoral options for early career researchers do not apply – I am not looking for a job or a career. I am looking for opportunities to use my experience, not only of the PhD journey, but of all the things I brought to that journey based on years of previous experience in social work, the voluntary sector, management and parenting a child with what are euphemistically referred to as ‘special needs’. As I come to the end of this particular journey, I am looking at the road ahead and wondering where the journey through retirement will lead and what new opportunities and challenges may present themselves in the coming months and years.

Thank you to all who have accompanied me on this particular journey, especially friends and colleagues met through #phdchat and at the University of Sussex many of whom I hope to continue to work with and share ideas with in the future. Here’s to the future!

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More post-viva reflections – change

Last week I made the journey south in order to attend a doctoral conference at Sussex and to pick up my student son and bring him back to our new home. (Being realistic it’ll probably never be his home, but we want him to at least know where we live and to feel at home when he visits us!) I want to focus on the conference experience in this blog.

The conference was an annual event run by the School of Education and Social Work at Sussex. I have attended twice previously, using the opportunity to present aspects of my research while formulating my ideas. Although I was not in the School sponsoring the conference, there has always been a strong affinity between my research interests and the conference themes. This time, I was attending as I had agreed with a colleague to put together a presentation around developing a community of practice on the Twitter platform. I saw it very much as a fun thing to do, and one that would allow me to revisit some ideas from work done a few years back when I was doing a lot in Second Life – I wonder what happened to SL.

I found I was participating differently in the conference from how I have previously. No doubt this was in part due to the conference theme, which drew on ideas of complexity and connectivity, and in part due to the quality of some of the presentations, but it was also because I was able to relax and enjoy what I was hearing and mentally engage with the arguments in a different way. Since my viva, I have had a sense of not needing to prove anything any more (at least for the present) and of some of my early academic mishaps no longer being relevant. I think at this conference I realised that nobody cared any more what my BA degree classification was – it was history. What matters is who I am now. That realisation freed me to respond to what was said and contribute to discussion in a very different way from previously. I was able to hear things and make connections in a way I haven’t done for a very long time if ever. I realised I knew stuff – and the stuff I knew wasn’t just about the areas focused in during my doctoral journey, but about a whole host of other stuff.

So to get back to the title of this blog, one of the things my viva did for me was at the level of my personal and academic identity formation. I realised that I wasn’t the failure I have  considered myself to be for the past forty or so years (it is forty years since I attended my first graduation!), but I’m actually reasonably bright. Although my supervisors had been positive about my work, I did not actually believe I had done anything worthwhile until I heard it from my examiners. I’m not quite sure what clicked, but something did, and now I know that not only have I changed and grown through my doctoral journey, but I have also changed as a result of my work being affirmed in my viva.

For the moment, life is fun and I am enjoying being rather cocky!

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Moving on

Such a lot happening over the past two weeks.

At this time two weeks ago, I was in my viva.

At this time one week ago, I was sitting on a sofa while around me removal men were putting all my possessions into boxes.

The last few days have been crazy: unpacking boxes and finding homes for my possessions, leaving some boxes for later until book shelving is built, finding things I thought I had disposed of long ago, talking to tradesmen about all the work I want doing on my new home, finding we have far more garden to care for than we realised (and we’re not gardeners), exploring the locality. Little or no time to think about thesis corrections, forthcoming conference presentation, or anything else connected with life before the move!

Today, I feel ready to start moving on, albeit slowly. The next few weeks will continue to focus on making our new home really our home, but enough unpacking and sorting has been done to begin to live. I woke this morning feeling energised and ready to start thinking about writing and creativity. It’s time to look at my thesis again and think about the amendments I need to make and, as importantly, to start thinking about the writing I’ve been encouraged to do.

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Leaving Limboland

The past few months between submitting my thesis and my viva have been a sort of ‘limboland’. Although I have done quite a bit in that time, mostly totally unrelated to academia, there has been a sense of not being able to do very much. In part, this was the loss of the working on my thesis and the related research activity. Yes, I could have started drafting articles and presentations based on my research, but my attempts to do so felt as though I was wading through treacle. Instead I have focused on other things, in particular preparing to move house.

As a somewhat geriatric PGR – well I am 63 years young – I am in a different position from many younger colleagues, most of whom would have been job seeking or starting new jobs during this period. I have always known my PhD had nothing to do with work and career, but much more to do with me, with pulling different threads together and retirement preparation. Nevertheless conversations with others who have recently been ‘viva’d’ suggests this feeling of being in limbo is not that unusual.

After getting over the shell shock of the positive result of my viva, I have found the last week interesting as I have now left limboland. My work has been authenticated. I have been given a green light to write stuff – and I feel energised and confident and have a sense of knowing what I want to write and knowing that I have something to say that is worth saying!

The other post-viva effect has been waking up in the early morning with my head buzzing. Not so much reliving the viva, but thinking around the areas which I have to add to my thesis. It is a like a repeat of when I was ‘writing up’ and my head was spinning with ideas that seemed to get processed in my sleep. Although I won’t be tackling the ‘corrections’ until after the house move and receiving the official list of things to do, I have been able to makes a number of notes by way of preparation for the work I still have to do. Again, I am noticing that I am writing from a different position – instead of having to prove myself, I am writing knowing that I know what I am talking about.

So for the moment I am out of limboland and into being a ‘cocky kid’ (or maybe a ‘cocky geriatric’ – and looking forward to the next few months of new beginnings and active retirement (though I suspect retirement will include a lot of work and networking and collaborations!)

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The day after the viva

I think it is going to take some time for me to fully process what happened yesterday.

The bit of the iceberg that is visible above the surface is the public outcome – I have passed my PhD but need to add a few paragraphs by way of clarification and explanation and to write the conclusion that I couldn’t write in December (see my blog post of 29th December). There is nothing too arduous there – and there is no way I am walking away at this point when realistically there is probably no more than a few days work involved.

I guess like many others, I am a little confused about who I now am. I’ve got lots of congratulatory messages calling me Doctor, but I know I’m not quite there yet – I’ve got that bit of work to do, its got to be approved and then ratified and I don’t formally get the degree until I graduate.

The more interesting effect of yesterday – and the one it will take time to process – is around changes in how I view myself. Whether it is because of the persistence of the imposter syndrome, or because of hangovers of inadequacy from earlier academic journeys, or because of some of the challenges of this journey as I have sought to use methods and ideas not usually used in my discipline, I have felt a need to be cautious in saying too much about my work. Sitting in a room yesterday and hearing two senior academics talking positively about how I had brought different  theoretical ideas together in a way they would never previously considered was a real eye opener. Yes, we talked about other ideas I could have considered or incorporated, but I was not in the position of having to apologise for what I had done, or to defend it in any negative way. Instead, what I had done was valued! Similarly, I was encouraged to write about my findings, not just because I was saying something that is not currently in the literature, but because I was saying something one of my examiners wanted to be able to cite!

I don’t know how I will feel in a week, or a month, or a year, but for the moment, the main takeaway from my viva is a realisation that I have got something worthwhile to say and that I can say it with confidence!

Over the past few years like most PGRs I have read a number of texts about ‘the viva’, preparing for the viva and possible outcomes, and various survivor accounts. I am very glad the advice from my supervisors was to view it as a conversation – which is what it was. I understand a little better why the viva is viewed as such a watershed. At this point in time, I just feel it was a privilege to have two senior and respected academics taking the time to explore aspects of my thesis with me, both finding the holes that I knew were there but, more importantly, helping me see that I have done something worthwhile and well worth sharing and shouting about!

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48 hours to go

In just over 48 hours from now, I will be in my viva.

How am I using this last bit of preparation time?

I am still feeling very laid back about Tuesday – and I am beginning to find this worrying. I sense a need for the kind of adrenalin rush that will put me on my edge and assist performance, but at the same time being relaxed about the process is a whole lot more comfortable than being on edge. Maybe I got the nervous energy out of my system during the final writing up/submission stage of this journey. Or maybe I am going to go into a blind panic at some point in the next 48 hours when I realise how little I really know. Or maybe the panic will hit in the exam room itself and I will clam up or forget everything or something else embarrassing.

On the other hand there may be no need for nerves. Hang it all, I’ve lived with my research and my writing for the past five years or so. I’ve been part of the domain I’ve been researching for the past fifteen years (knowingly) and longer (unknowingly). During the journey thus far, I’ve argued my case many times – and done extensive additional reading to understand more fully the context of my theoretical framework and the nature of the problem I’ve been investigating. Most of what I know is not just what is written down, but what is embedded in me and in the way I think and understand elements of the world around me.

Does the viva actually matter? Well, it matters insofar as it is when my work is being scrutinised by experts and I learn whether I have done enough and done it appropriately enough to be awarded a doctorate. If I am found wanting, I will be disappointed but it isn’t the end of the world. In an absolute sense, I do not need a doctorate. The result will make no difference to my future life plans. On the other hand, it would be nice to have something to show for the past few years.

I have often said that a doctorate was not part of my life plan. I started this journey by accident at a time when some of my friends and colleagues were talking about doctoral research and when I was involved in a number of projects that meant I was more involved than previously with academia. It was a surprise to find that I embarked on this journey, when others I considered far more able and equipped to do so didn’t. I have quite often referred to my doctoral research as retirement preparation as I have revisited so many ideas and so much literature that I have encountered over the past four decades and there has been a sense of drawing threads together and challenging previous presuppositions. At the same time, I have done new things, made new friendships and enjoyed the challenges the journey has presented. In ten days time, I move from my present home to the longed for bungalow that will be our retirement home. The viva is not the end of my current journey, but a stop on the way. Only time will tell whether the way forward will keep me with a foot in academia or whether I will focus on various creative pastimes that have been on hold in in recent years.

So the plan for this final couple of days of viva preparation is to focus on reviewing my notes, relaxing in the sunshine which has suddenly appeared and looking forward to the future. My hope for the viva is that it will be an interesting, stimulating and challenging conversation with two people that I respect and who I trust sufficiently to allow them to read and critique my work.

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Real life and viva prep

Less than 12 days now to the viva and very little thought given to it since last post.

As a (very) mature student, I have lots of other things going on in my life apart from thinking about my viva. I guess that is true for most PGRs! My main focus over the past few days has been marking student work, which is always more time-consuming than it should be, and trying to help my student son sort out various issues. In addition, I have been giving thought to a planned house move – still waiting to exchange contracts, but hoping to move around 12th June – and saying goodbyes to the parent support group I have been helping to facilitate for several years.

Sometimes I dream of an idyllic, idealised existence when I could spend all my time focusing on the things that interest me, but that just isn’t real life. However, the reality of having other things to do, does mean that my mind can work on thesis/research/viva related stuff in the background, while focusing on current real life issues, most of which do not need that much processing power!

However, it is now time to engage brain and focus more on preparing for viva. My plan is to review the notes I have already made, identify areas where I know I am skating on thin ice, and then re-read thesis, focusing particularly on the problem areas. I have also engaged husband as an active listener for a couple of hours a day – idea is that he will ask me a question, giving me a chance to practice answering. This should help me to get used to hearing the sound of my own voice and will act as a ‘waffle check’ – husband good at knowing when I am full of hot air. That should also help me to focus on areas I need to get better acquainted with again.

I’m still feeling fairly laid back about the process – maybe I need to feel a bit more anxious to get the adrenalin to motivate me to do more… We’ll see!

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Three weeks to viva

During the past week, apart from writing two blog posts, I have read quite a number of articles written by my external examiner and made notes on those aspects of them which underpin aspects of my research. In addition, I have followed up the links to critical realism that I mentioned in my last blog. Somewhat usefully, I have found an article that specifically looks at links between critical realism and systems thinking and critiques the focus in sociology on Parsons and Luhmann’s social systems theories, effectively ignoring the wider systems discipline (Elder-Vass, 2007). If I had read this material earlier, I could have used it in my theoretical background chapter, but I couldn’t read or know about everything.

I went to a workshop on Friday presented by Wendy Hollway and organised by colleagues at Sussex. Again, the material covered could have been useful to me both in planning my data gathering approach and in my data analysis. It extended the ideas from Merrill and West (2009) that introduce psychoanalytic thinking to qualitative methodology and addressed directly the problem of people becoming invisible in research findings if there is too heavy an emphasis on scientific methods, including thematic analysis.

This reading is helping me to understand better some of my unresolved dilemmas and taking my thinking forward in ways that I find useful, whether or not anybody else does!

The third area I have given some time to is the hoary old issue of my ontology and epistemology. This is something I want to talk to my supervisors about when I meet them later today for a viva prep session. I am still very confused about what the two terms mean in practice, though I did read a useful section in Ritchie and Lewis (2003), which discussed the view that it is possible to develop a pragmatic ‘toolbox’ approach that can incorporate different methodological and epistemological approaches. I guess this reflects the comment I mention in my previous blog post about ‘epistemological eclecticism’ and does feel a more comfortable fit than some of the labelling that seems to be used to describe epistemology and ontology. Will see what supervisors think.

For the next two weeks I will be buried in marking so not sure how much time or opportunity I will have for thinking about viva. I am told by others that distractions can be good, so I’ll also continue to think about how I am going to furnish the rooms in my new home (move planned for early June – but not immediately following viva!)

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Learning while prepping

During my research and writing up, I struggled with questions of ontology and epistemology – both in understanding what the terms meant and also in positioning myself. I actually avoided addressing these questions directly in writing my thesis, muttering things to myself about eclecticism and crossing disciplinary boundaries.

Yesterday, in re-reading some of the work of the person who will be my external examiner and who I reference in a number of places in the thesis, I came across the description of Tom Shakespeare’s view of disability, which recognises impairments as both a biological reality and a socio-cultural construction, as a ‘critical realist’ perspective. As I have found this view of disability, which is also espoused by several other writers coming from disability studies and sociology perspectives, much more rational than the binary of social model or medical model, I decided to explore a little further.

It was not the first time I had encountered the term ‘critical realism’ but I hadn’t knowingly read anything around it. A quick search found a number of articles linking systems thinking and critical realism – now downloaded to scan through later – and a podcast of a presentation by Roy Bhaskar in 2012. As I listened to the podcast, I found I was hearing things that made sense to me in discussion of a laminate, or multi-layered approach, to social phenomena, interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives, problems of communication between and within academic and professional groups, and much much more. Part of me wishes I had heard/read this material much earlier, part of me regrets reading it now as it makes so much sense of things I was trying to say in my thesis and may need to be included in amendments.

A phrase that sticks with me was used in a question at the end of the presentation ‘epistemological eclecticism’ – I guess that is what I am about.

So the question is, given that viva prep is supposed – I think – to focus on really understanding my thesis, being able to defend and discuss it, what use if any can I and should I be making of new insights? Should I carefully hide them in a dark corner of the closet until after the viva? Should I put them on show? Or should I be ready to refer to them should it be helpful to my argument on the day, but otherwise ignore?

As an aside, one of the things I really enjoyed during the writing up phase of my DPhil was making new discoveries that helped to make sense of what I was trying to say. During the weeks in limboland, when I have read little of substance, I have missed that, but didn’t really how much I had missed it until yesterday and stumbling across critical realism.

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Starting the viva countdown

I submitted my thesis on 4th January. My viva will be in early June – 5 months after submission. It is now time to emerge from hibernation/limboland and begin to get ready for the next stage of the journey. (Actually, I started to crawl out from under the duvet a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t really started to focus properly yet, so this blog post is an attempt to kick me into action.) The plan is to write at least one blog post a week until after viva and then to either disappear into oblivion, or blog about what happens post-viva – which I do probably being dependent on the viva outcome.

When I got the viva date (about a month ago), I opened my thesis (which had been lurking on a shelf) and read it through, marking up typos and bits that could have been expressed better as I read. This achieved two purposes:

  • it reminded me of what I had written. Although there is a fair bit to groan about, I realised there is also some interesting content that is possibly more interesting than I had realised in the hiatus of getting submitted
  • identifying glitches means that I have been able to make a list of the problem areas and put them on one side – nothing I can do about them this side of the viva

Having read the thesis, I then found a notebook and without referring back to the text, I jotted down quick notes on some of the questions that appear in the multitude of  books and other advice sources on viva preparation: why this topic; what contribution am I claiming to make; who has done the main work in this area; who is my audience – and what is my message to different elements of my audience; what could I have done differently; where do I position myself; what are the strengths and weaknesses of my thesis; ideas about future research; plans for dissemination. Although these jottings can all be expanded on, writing freehand means that I was able to convince myself that I do know something about the work I have been doing for the past few years.

The next thing I did was to look again at my research questions and to make notes, again without referring to the text, on how I had addressed those questions and what I had found out. This made me think about the choices I had made about methodology and theoretical frameworks – and reminded me of how iterative the process had been.

Finally, I looked at my chapter headings and subheadings and made notes relating to each chapter. Some chapters I know well and others led to a note telling me to re-read and check out references.

So much for pre-preparation, now I need to get to know my thesis properly. I have started a ‘to do’ list. At the moment, that consists of re-reading some of the work of the main authors who have influenced me, and looking back at how the thesis outline changed as I decided exactly what to include and what to omit. Next week, I meet with my supervisors and hopefully get some guidance on what they think I need to work on.

I still need to decide whether to try to organise any kind of mock viva. I suspect the very fact that I haven’t done anything about this means I won’t. Whether I will later wish I had, only time will tell.

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