On Monday of last week, I was examined for my doctorate and I passed. Yesterday, I received a letter from the university confirming that I had indeed been successful and that a PhD degree certificate would be coming my way.
The reason that I haven't blogged this until now is that I've been really quite overwhelmed and it's taken a week to try to get my head around the whole thing. I started on the journey to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in November 2006, shortly after I finished my Master's degree. Three years and eight months later, in July of this year, I'd submitted my thesis, all 47 thousand-ish words of it.
I'm not sure I can quite pinpoint the time when I first decided that I wanted to do a PhD; it sort of grew on me slowly. I do know that I always quite liked the idea that there were people around who worked in universities and spent their time thinking about things, proving things, experimenting and occasionally emerging with something that would have an impact. The impact you get from this kind of work is almost certainly going to be different from the kind of impact that is created by commercially driven short-term market chasing. Even "long-term" or "blue sky" research projects in most companies don't, it seems, provide the same kind of thinking space as a purely academic environment. Both are needed, I think, but the latter always intrigued me.
Throughout my MSc degree I had no real intention of applying for a PhD, despite having told people in job interviews prior even to that that I would quite like to do a PhD one day. I suppose I always saw the idea of actually doing it as being quite mystical, not something I could readily have a go at. (Note to others: it's not mystical, it's fun, just ask.)
I suppose it was only after I finished my Master's degree and started working again that I realised how much I missed the academic environment and the sorts of conversations and work that took place. I wanted to go back and did so quickly. I happened to be really rather lucky at this stage, since a funded place just happened to be available in the school where I'd just completed my Masters. I'd done rather well at that, so they were happy to take me on.
Starting a period of PhD study is a strange experience. I was given a desk, a computer, library card and unlimited supply of free coffee. My office mates were largely a curious type, all at different phases of what now seems to me to be a fairly well defined process, though one which nevertheless feels incredibly individual. In week one I was given a whole load of blank progress forms, bearing dates reaching out into the far future of the next four years. I was vaguely aware that I would almost certainly be thirty by the time I finished. That seemed like a long time away.
For the next couple of years it felt like I was in suspended animation, like some stasis field had come down and swallowed me. I was swimming around in some kind of mental treacle. There was plenty of activity going on, I was reading, writing things, giving talks, making notes, throwing notes away, reading more things, drinking coffee... but any real progress seemed like it would only be observable from outside the stasis bubble. Inside, things were largely calm, but in a wave-like fashion punctuated by the occasional filling in of the next progress form, or going over feedback from a talk or paper I'd written.
Was this actually progress? Actually, such was the effect of the suspended animation that I don't even think it really dawned on me that I would, at some point, have to actually produce a thesis, and preferably before the progress report forms had run out. What does a thesis look like anyway? At this point, perhaps as late even as two years in, I started to be more aware of the outputs rather than just the activity.
Well, luckily I'd already received a lot of good advice from others. I had been writing since the very start, not waiting until the "writing up period" (the bit after your money runs out when you start to panic) before actually starting to write the elusive two hundred page document. In fact, when I actually sat down to enter File -> New... t h e s i s . t e x into Kile, subsequently copying across the various bits of written work I was roughly happy with instantly gave me a 91 page PDF. I cannot overstate how much of a boost this was, and how grateful I was at that moment for the advice to start writing from the get-go.
Another good piece of advice I received, and something that was actually repeatedly followed up by my supervisor and thesis group (that's the progress committee) alike, was to write and maintain a draft chapter structure (try saying that when you've had one too many dirty martinis). After emerging from the stasis field around the end of my second year, the draft chapter structure kept me focused and acted to harness the panic into action with outcomes. Whereas it's usual to spend the early part of a PhD study reading widely and exploring different avenues, towards the end my mantra became "if it's not in the draft chapter structure, don't spend your time doing it". Of course, it's not possible to obtain this kind of focus until you know basically what your thesis is going to be about, but when it did come, I found it really refreshing. "This week I did the experiments for the first half of chapter seven" is quite a nice thing to say.
Towards the very end, of course, as with all deadlines things got a little frantic. I needed to finish. The main technical parts of the thesis were written, but there was a lot of other stuff to get right. From basic stuff like formatting, to important things like evaluating the significance of the work you've spent the last three to four years doing (this could actually be quite soul destroying, I'd imagine). Writing the abstract is also an interesting experience. Distilling all that thought, time and effort into 200 words. It feels like a sort of opportunistic blasphemy.
And then suddenly it was done. The whole thing felt like it came together very quickly at the end. I think, after having spent a couple of weeks writing over a thousand words a day, I sat there just looking at it for almost another week. I changed a few words, tweaked the fonts, wrote and re-wrote the acknowledgements. The mental treacle had returned and I wasn't quite sure that I hadn't just gone a little crazy and wondered whether I should trust myself to know that I'd actually finished.
Well, after about a week and nothing obvious seemed missing, I submitted. This always sounds grander than it really is. Even a plum-in-mouth melodramatic call "To the Bindery!" (you shall remain nameless) didn't add any real excitement to the rather dull process of taking a couple of hundred pieces of paper to an admin person at a helpdesk in exchange for a receipt. I've heard talk of people not wanting to physically part with their thesis at that point, but it didn't seem a big deal any more. I think then I just wandered around for a while and then went to the pub.
My viva was scheduled for two months to the day after I submitted. For those that don't know, a viva, or viva voce ("live voice" in Latin) is the face to face defence of your work to the examiners. In the UK at least, no PhD student ever really knows what goes on in a viva other than by word of mouth. And that is from people whose memories are made under reasonable duress at the time. There are plenty of resources around to help with preparation for the viva, but at the end of the day it comes down to the examiners, their style, their interests and their view of your thesis. I was told to basically just know my own work - and let's face it, who couldn't after this amount of time?
My viva itself was around two hours long. It wasn't particularly pleasant, but that I think is largely due to the anxiety brought about by my having no real idea what the outcome would be. There's always the potential that every time one of the examiners opens their mouth, they could be about to blow your work out of the water and effectively write off the last few years of work. Other than that (which thankfully didn't happen in my case), the discussion was really interesting, the examiners were obviously well informed and had good and seeking questions.
The outcome of the examination process, as I blogged about after I submitted, is that the examiners can do any one of the following:
- Award the degree outright.
- Award the degree subject to minor corrections. This means that the thesis is acceptable, but corrections, usually typographical, changes in phraseology, corrections of faults in subsidiary arguments, are required.
- Award the degree subject to major corrections. This means that the thesis is acceptable, but corrections, such as rewriting sections, correcting calculations or clarifying or amending arguments, are required.
- Ask for the thesis to be revised and resubmitted either for the same or a lower qualification. This basically means that the requirements for the degree have not been met.
- Award a lower qualification without corrections. This means that the thesis and/or performance in the viva were not up to standard for a Ph.D., but possibly an MPhil or something else.
- Award a lower qualification with corrections or revisions. This is the same as the above case, but subject to corrections or more major revisions.
- Reject it without the opportunity for resubmission. It's not good enough and there is no reasonable prospect of being able, in a reasonable time, to revise the thesis or improve performance in the viva, to merit the award of any qualification.
As I said in my earlier blog post, in the last few years of watching people complete their research degrees in the school, I can't remember ever seeing anyone who, after making it to submission, got anything other than the second or third option - major or minor corrections.
Well, back in July I wrote that "this obviously doesn't mean the others can't happen" and how right I was. Despite the discussion in the viva bringing up a range of "this thesis would be better if..." points, all of which were valid, I was awarded the PhD outright, without being required to make any modifications. Although when I was called back into the room after the examiners' deliberations, I was expecting to be presented with list of the points we'd discussed during the viva as corrections to make, they merely said that they thought that there was enough in the thesis to warrant a PhD, it was clearly my own work, and there was nothing that was wrong and needed correcting. Sure, it would be better if... x, y and z, but what piece of research is ever completely finished? And of course there's always a time constraint too.
I think it's fair to say that I wasn't really expecting to fail, having got this far and published much of the work in the thesis already, but having no corrections hit me like a brick and I'm pretty sure that I actually felt my jaw drop. The stasis treacle was back and this time set to the tune of some deafening symphony.
I've subsequently got it on reasonable authority that I'm the second person in the history of the School of Computer Science to pass their PhD without being required to make any modifications, and about this I'm quite lost for words.
So, thank you to all the people who helped me through the last four years and to achieve this - you know who you are. Thank you for putting up with my odd moods and obsessions. I hope this post might go some way to trying to explain how it's been.
Well, if you're still reading now, go read this.