09 December 2003 - 3:04 PM
Five years ago today I officially finished my PhD work and had my viva. This is not a statement of past triumph so much as an acknowledgement that at this time of year I go off my feed for a few days. The sense of unease comes back annually, like malaria.
'Viva' is short for 'viva voce examination' -- what in the US would be called the oral defence. Of course, by the time a doctoral candidate gets to the actual examination, the real work is done, and probably has been for months. I submitted my thesis to the postgraduate office on 15 August 1998. Theoretically, the examiners (two -- one 'internal' to the university, and one 'external') had three months to read the thing and convene the viva. Also theoretically, the thesis was supposed to be no more than 100,000 words.
Theories are all very nice, aren't they? I applied for and got an extension on the length from the university. Officially, my thesis is 120,000 words. Unofficially, it is rather longer. Theoretically my viva was late, but since my external examiner was (and is) a fiendishly busy man, the head of the Scottish history programme at a large, prestigious, and old (though not ancient) university, that too was excused.
I remember very little about my viva. I can recall entering the building, climbing the stairs to the internal examiner's office, and knocking on the door. I remember being offered a cup of coffee, which I declined, because I'd spent most of the day having coffee with various people, and my bloodstream was probably half caffeine at that point. A mistake, in retrospect, because the next thing that I remember is the sensation of my adrenal glands kicking into overdrive.
After that, a blur. The only actual comment I remember clearly was that the word I had transcribed as 'Renchbrig' was corrected to 'Reuchbrig,' and glossed as Regensburg.
There was more, of course. The session took about 90 minutes, which was considered a marvel by most people. The average viva is 3-4 hours long. At last the internal examiner cleared his throat and intoned the magic words, 'well, of course we're going to recommend you,' meaning that I passed and the examiners would recommend to the Academic Senate that I be awarded the degree. I cried, cried harder than I ever have, before or since.
This alarmed the examiners. They were both dour Aberdeenshire men, but not unkind and to have a young female colleague bawling her eyes out was disconcerting. Eventually Roger (the internal) handed me a box of tissues and sent me down the hall to the coffee room to pull myself together.
I had progressed to the intermittent broken sob and noisy sniffling stage when my supervisor, whose office was one floor above, came down the back stairs and saw me. 'What ...?'
I tried, through the sniffles and intermittent sobs, to assure him that it was all fine, I was just a little overwrought, nothing to worry about. I'm sure I wasn't convincing. Norman had seen me through all the stresses of the thesis, the deaths of my father and best friend, and never had I fallen apart on the scale I did that afternoon. He headed down the hall. I heard him rap on Roger's door, heard the door open, and then I heard Norman roar.
'What did you do to her?!'
I didn't catch the reply. I was told later that there was much sheepish mumbling and foot-scuffing. I can't imagine that I was the first person to cry at the end of a viva, but they hadn't expected that from me, and didn't know what to do.
Eventually I did stop sniffling and went back to settle the paperwork, followed by a call to Maman to let her know it was finished, and finally celebratory food and libations with friends -- not exactly a Doctorschmaus but sufficient.
I stayed in town a couple more days to finish up a few corrections and get the document safely delivered to the bindery. The town Christmas decorations went up. It snowed.
Tonight, I am going to go home and have a glass of whisky, neat.