Saturday, 8 December 2012

Change of perspective

I know I am expected to blog about it, so here it is. Yesterday I had the first experience as a supervisor at a British viva. I was a co-supervisor to a British student some years ago, and I wasn't even invited to the viva, which at the time felt an insult, but I now know wasn't. The supervisor's role seems to be finished when the thesis is submitted, not when it is approved.

Anyway, my first Cambridge PhD student submitted her thesis this term, and yesterday she had her viva. For a British viva, there is an internal and an external examiner. (I have been an internal, and I am going to be an external soon, so I am getting it). They are supposed to write their reports independently and are not alowed to confer before the pre-viva, which is half an hour before the viva. Needless to say, the supervisor is not allowed to confer with any of the examiners. So the past two months, although I met the internal daily, I pretended that I hadn't even heard of any student or any thesis or anything even remotedly resembling picturebooks.

The external is a very good old friend of mine - that's why I chose her as an external, although it certainly helped that she is an expert on the topic of the thesis and is affiliated with a university approved by Cambridge (arrrrgghh!). She only came over for a day and two nights, but I wanted to see her as a friend, so I did invite her for dinner, although I think it was against the protocol. I believe that I can keep friendship and business apart. She could have declined if she thought it was inappropiate.

The day before, I had a mock viva with the student. A mock viva means that you pretend to be an examiner and ask awkward questions. The point is to give the student an idea of what kind of questions the perverted mind of an examiner can think of. Having been an examiner makes the exercise easy, although it takes some effort to pretend that you haven't actually approved of every single semi-colon in the d-d text and therefore believe it immaculate.

On the morning of the viva I had very deliberately decided to sit down and write an article long overdue (very unlike me!), but of course it didn't work. I went to the office and moved around some books on the shelves, telling myself I needed to tidy up the office since I am going on study leave soon. Then I joined the two examiners for lunch, and we chirped happily on unrelated matters until I left them to do their dirty business and re-shuffled some more books.

Then I went to see the student, and we went through all the possible questions again, and chirped on unrelated matters, gradually joined by a support club including her husband. I don't quite know what the student felt, but I felt sick. However, I am very good at pretending, so I don't think she noticed. Finally, she was called in, and I felt like a husband whose wife is taken in for a ceasarian, and he is not allowed to follow into the op room. We went on chirping, and I was watching the clock and trying not to think about all those dumb questions they were sure to ask, and when the student's husband wondered whether vivas could go on longer than an hour I said cheerfully that yes of course they could, they could go on for ever, and they did. Then we saw her coming down the stairs, waving, and I knew that she felt good, so I tried to feel good too, although the worst was still to come. And I promise that next time I am examining a thesis I will not make the student wait for twenty-five minutes before she is called back to be told that she has passed. I was too angry to feel good, but I am very good at pretending. No seriously, I did feel good. It also felt unreal and surreal and everything I had told the student it would feel for her.

The Faculty doctoral manager brought in a bottle of sparkling and plastic flutes. She poured out and sipped a bit of hers and left, ordering me to take the remains of the bottle to the office. I told her we would finish it ourselves. What good would a half bottle of sparkling do in the Higher Degrees office after office hours on a Friday? 

I wanted to go home and go to bed. I was almost relieved when the taxi company said it would take half an hour to get a taxi. I was texting the student to say I wasn't coming when the taxi finally arrived. Then of course we had a wonderful dinner and a lovely time together, the new Doctor, the examiners and the support club.

1 comment:

Annika said...

Wow. Shouldn't have read that.
I'm currently doing the analysis for my final two papers, then getting started on the "kappa" before hopefully having my PhD defense next autumn. I've managed not to feel very stressed out about it yet (despite the fact that it's a very tight schedule), but reading this I suddenly wish that Swedish PhD defenses weren't public... Oh well. At least the final seminar isn't, and I'm guessing that one will be scarier going in.