Tuesday 3rd of July was my birthday, hooray! It was also the date of my transfer viva. The transfer or upgrade viva is a milestone in the PhD process that (hopefully) moves you from provisional to official candidate status. In order to make that move, we have to satisfy a panel of internal readers that our work is of sufficient scope and quality for a PhD and that the project can be realistically completed within the given timeframe.
Usually, this requires the submission of a sample chapter of around 15,000 words alongside a synopsis of the wider project. This submission forms the basis for the viva, which is often more of an informal chat than an oral examination at this stage, though the level of formality can vary depending on the personalities of the panel members and the guidelines of a given department.
My viva felt quite informal. The chair created a relaxed atmosphere, organising chairs into a circle, providing a jug of water, and carefully explaining the format of the forthcoming hour. I was put at ease by positive comments from both the chair and the independent reader about my project as a whole, and my submission in particular, which prepared the way for what felt more like a discussion between interested parties than a quiz.
The expertise of both the chair and the independent reader was in ecocriticism and the environmental humanities, which was appropriate to my project and extremely welcome. It complemented my supervisor’s specialisms in American fiction and masculinity studies and afforded new insights into the work I had produced.
For me, the viva has been a positive experience. It has given me more confidence in the work I am producing, and some excellent suggestions for further reading and other things to consider moving forward. The build-up to the viva, however, was quite stressful, and I think that is the case for most people.
On the day if the viva, I woke up at 4am to prepare. My coach was booked, and I had organised a taxi to take me to the bus station. I had packed my bag with everything I could possibly need: my transfer submission, some extra reading material, a notebook, pens, a full power bank, a USB mini fan, a bottle of water, my purse, tissues, an oat bar and some sunscreen. My clothes had been picked out the night before. My nails were done. Nothing had been left to chance. My hair, however, wasn’t playing ball.
After blow-drying it into some semblance of volume, I had decided to put it up to combat the heat, but no matter what I did or how many pins I used it was determined to become a huge mess. My taxi was booked for 7.15am and the hair situation was out of control. Between the time spent wrangling the mop on top of my head and the punishing indoor temperatures of a British terrace in a heatwave, I was a sorry sight indeed before I was forced to give up and wear my hair down.
On any other day, this wouldn’t be a big issue. On the day of my viva, it felt like an omen.
This sense of impending doom was only compounded when my taxi did not arrive at the expected time. It was nearly half-past seven by the time it turned up and I was incredibly fortunate to make it–in a rushed and harried state–to my coach.
Arriving in Leeds just after 10, I had some time to pull myself together before the viva at 2 so I went to my favourite place on campus, the Brotherton library. After navigating my way through the massive medievalist conference taking up the foyer (because of course, that would be happening then) I found a blissfully deserted nook and took a moment to breathe.
I used the opportunity to read a couple of papers I thought might be useful to questions that could come up during the viva, and to look over my submission once more. I was feeling reasonably relaxed for most of that time. It was only when it came to around 1 o’clock that I started to feel sick.
My record with public speaking is perhaps a little strange. As a teacher, I never got nervous, even when addressing large audiences of staff and students. When giving presentations, I prepare well and deliver my material with confidence. In unfamiliar situations with people I don’t know and where preparation can only get you so far–situations like interviews, Q&As and vivas–I do not cope well. However it comes across externally, on the inside I am dying. My heart races, I feel like I’m going to be sick, and I exist in that perpetual state of panic until the ordeal is over.
The symptoms began as I packed up my things to make my way over to the building where my viva was to be held. I tried all the things you’re supposed to do. I focused on my breathing and managed to stave off a full-blown panic attack, but the thing that I think helped me the most as I walked to my apparent doom was listening to “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare on repeat. In the opera, this is where Sesto vows to avenge his father’s murder, but, putting the violent overtones to one side, I found the purposeful thrust of the piece helped to focus my mind on the task ahead rather than the perceived negative outcomes. (I had some Wagner on the playlist too, but that felt a bit much!)
During the viva, I switched between overwhelming nervousness and a sense of total detachment. My panel did everything right to put me at ease. Everything was explained thoroughly, the body language was relaxed and non-threatening, the tone was friendly. Unfortunately, as a PhD student (even a slightly older one) facing three senior male academics, I was always going to be a little intimidated. Given my state of panic, it’s difficult for me to assess my performance during that viva. I think I answered some questions well, particularly those that focused on why I’d made certain decisions, and others–those that were more in the “comment” category–less well, but I will never really know how it all came across.
At the end of the viva, I left the room while the panel deliberated and felt an intense wave of nausea. I went to the bathrooms on the floor below to collect myself for a few moments but I couldn’t shake an overwhelming sense of dread. In the time I was in that bathroom, I mentally prepared myself for a fail. It was a genuine shock, when I returned, to be told the panel was recommending me for transfer. On reflection, it should not have been a surprise–my work is good and I do know what I’m talking about–but panic and anxiety distort reality to an incredible degree, and when you are overcome by those kinds of thoughts it is impossible to see clearly.
Knowing that I had “passed,” particularly after convincing myself I hadn’t, should have been a relief, but I was more exhausted and empty than anything else. After calling Jonathan (my partner) to tell him how things went, I went back to the library with the intention of doing some work. Instead, I ended up scrolling mindlessly through social media and listening to a wider selection from my opera playlist (no more Handel for a little while). I was in a daze. At some point, I went to refill my water bottle and eat my oat bar and when I returned to my desk it was nearly time for the England-Columbia game.
Sat in the library, streaming the football on my phone, I finally relaxed, and at halftime, I made my way down to the coach station to wait.
My coach was scheduled to depart at 9.10pm but it was extremely late (there had been an accident on the M1). I ended up watching the incredibly tense penalty shootout in the bus station. It was a surreal experience. Strangers huddled in groups around those of us streaming the match on our phones, the pin drop silence erupting into cheers (or groans) with each penalty, and culminating in a moment of pure communal joy before the small groups splintered apart and normal life continued.
After the stress and excitement of the day, my return coach trip in the dark was a time of welcome peace. It was my birthday. England had won. I had passed my transfer viva. I got home just after midnight and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in months.