by Rafe McGregor T: @detectingharm
This is the first of a number of guest posts by Rafe McGregor, who is a senior lecturer in criminology at Edge Hill University, where he researches political violence, media and culture, and policing. He is the author of A Criminology of Narrative Fiction (2021) and Narrative Justice (2018) and has published in criminology, philosophy, policing, politics, literature, and education journals.
My viva was a disaster.
One of my examiners pointed out a flaw in the thesis by comparing my approach to Kant’s. I had only mentioned Kant in passing, didn’t understand the criticism, and after several attempts to explain s/he gave up. The other asked me how I thought Freud would have responded to my conclusion. I had not mentioned Freud at all and not read any of his work so I had no idea why his opinion was relevant, let alone what it would be. My feeling throughout wasn’t fear, but of being nonplussed. Every question was unexpected and none referred directly to what I had written. After forty minutes, the examiner who had taken the lead made a pun about how bad the thesis was (reproduced in the official report in case I hadn’t got it the first time) and told me the verdict was major corrections.
It was the second biggest shock of my life and I should probably mention that I was forty-one at the time and had spent fifteen years in a career that many people consider stressful. I stumbled into my supervisor’s office, cancelled our plans for post-viva drinks, and staggered off to the bus stop. As the initial shock wore off the consequences of what had just happened crystallised: I had progressed to the second (of three) stage(s) of a major postdoctoral fellowship, but used my external examiner as a referee; the regulations did not allow me to resubmit for six months, during which period I would not be able to apply for a job; I was already published in my field so several people knew I had submitted and would realise I had (for all intents and purposes) ‘failed’…my academic career was finished before it had even started. If that seems like panic or self-pity, it wasn’t…the viva was the beginning of three of the most mentally and financially difficult years of my life.
I spent a lot of time trying to work out why I’d failed. I wondered if my access to academia was being deliberately blocked because of an embarrassing family history, a lack of cultural capital, or both. In retrospect, that seems ludicrous. I suspected that one of the examiners had not read the thesis. I think this is probably right and several colleagues have told me that it is not uncommon. Two professors I’d asked before submission had said that a thesis will always pass (with or without minor corrections) if it contains two publishable articles. I had three, two of which had already been published, and I think the answer is that the examiners set the bar too high, judging it as a monograph rather than a thesis. (The revised thesis was accepted by a publisher without any significant changes a few months after my award.)
Why have I written this and why might you benefit from reading it? Well, I’ve found writing about it therapeutic – this is the first time I’ve discussed my viva in a public forum – but, more importantly, I think that sharing these experiences is important for everyone who is thinking about doing a PhD, part way through a PhD, or just finished one. Doing a PhD is incredibly hard work and extremely stressful. For me, the stress was employment-related: I could see the job situation deteriorating semester by semester as I progressed through my degree and could do nothing about it. Despite finding a way to hide my viva result on my CV, I still hadn’t received a job offer three years later (after fifty-five applications and five interviews) and only gained access to academia by changing subject and publishing a second monograph. Experiencing intense and sustained stress during one’s doctoral research has become the norm in the twenty-first century, more so in the UK since the changes to higher education in 2012.
Unfortunately, the PhD is only the beginning. I’ve written about the gap between PhD’s awarded and jobs advertised here, but the situation is a little better in the social sciences than the humanities…for now. This year appears to be a bumper year for jobs, with dozens of criminology posts being advertised from April to June. It’s important to put this in perspective, however, and Tim Newburn recently pointed out on Twitter that many of these positions are fixed term, poorly paid (given the minimum educational requirements), or both. To that, I’ll add the more subtle methods that universities use to cut costs: lectureships where the research allocation is less than 40%; ‘lectureship (teaching and scholarship)’, which usually means no research time; and ‘university teacher’, which usually means no research time and the same pay as a further education lecturer.
Completing a PhD is tough, but becoming an academic is even harder and I think there are at least two reasons to make potential and current PhD students aware of this. First, if you are struggling I can assure you that you are not alone and I think that just knowing this makes the struggle a little more bearable. Second, if you have some sense of the challenge to come, you can prepare for it and find strategies to deal with the stress. I don’t have the psychological expertise to recommend coping strategies, but I have enough experience to know they are essential.