Post-Viva Update

Confession: it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog. Sorry! I successfully passed my viva with minor corrections in early January (woohoo!), and bizzarely I’ve been kept busier than I was before submission with a mixture of article writing, teaching, job applications, and part time work. On the side I’ve also begun to organise a conference with a colleague that will take place in early May entitled “Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics and Comic Seriousness‘ (for which a rudimentary website can be found here, and which will be updated as plans progress). In fact, I’ve effectively become a part time researcher, which feels very strange (I have half a day here and there, a few hours between teaching, that sort of thing), and makes it difficult to feel like I’m getting much ‘work’ done.

But anyway, today I thought I’d discuss the viva itself and how to approach life post-viva.

The viva itself is an arcane beast. After three (or more) years of hard research, thinking, and articulation of those thoughts through writing, the finished piece of work is subjected to two (or more) hours of oral examination. There are lots of self-help guides out there, but it’s hard to know what to prepare for and how. (I read How to Survive your Viva by Rowena Murray on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a bit basic at points, but it does take you through every possible stage of the process, and gives some food for thought.) I think the key issue I found was that I wanted to know what the exam would be like, and how I could ace it – essentially, I wanted to treat it like I’ve treated every other [written] exam I’ve ever taken.

But the problem of the viva is that it’s impossible to prepare for. To an extent, at least. Just as everyone’s PhD is a different entity, everyone’s viva voce involves a different subject and different examiners. Because of this I overprepared in some areas and underprepared in others, as I realised pretty soon into the process! While I had focused quite a lot on rereading the chapters and stitching together the overall argument of the thesis (an important thing to do, of course), my examiners were more intent on teasing out some of the bigger picture/blue skies thinking. And that made things quite uncomfortable at times. That’s not to say I hated the viva – I found it very discomforting emotionally as I dislike being put in the spotlight and poked and prodded at, but I also had the brilliant opportunity to discuss my work with a captive audience (and a very captive me).

In particular my examiners were interested in my methodological chapter, and some of the issues in how I drew several theoretical approaches together. There were disagreements, works I hadn’t read before came up (but I was honest about this), and by the end of the detailed discussion of this section I felt pretty thoroughly worn out. My examiners had told me at the start of the viva that they reckoned I would pass, but I was beginning to panic about major corrections (heaven forfend) by this stage. But everything was fine, and now the corrections have come back the majority of what we discussed is potentially shelved for ideas about The Book (cue dramatic music), which I think is a discussion for another day.

I think the main issue with the viva is that it can feel like a massive anticlimax. Three years of blood, sweat, and tears is compacted into two hours of non-stop discussion. It’s draining. I felt like an idiot for being so nervous I could barely string a complex sentence together. And when I found out it was minor corrections I thought “wait, really? After all that?” But it is what it is, and it should be celebrated for what it represents. It’s the end of a very long road, or at least a major stopping point along the road, because it’s important to note how much work there is still to do to turn the thesis into articles and/or a book project.

So life post-viva has been relatively idyllic. To an extent. I’ve taken up more hours at my part time job, and I teach more often now, and I can focus on other bits and pieces that I’ve neglected (like this blog, *cough*), so I’ve been kept happily busy. I’ve also taken the time out from the thesis to ‘recover’ from the viva, and to get my thoughts into order about the job market, book projects, what to do with this year. That sort of thing.

I think as a final note it’s important to reflect on what the PhD journey has been like. Like many, I was pretty naive when I entered the PhD programme. I thought it’d be like the MA, but more “PhD-y”, whatever that means. It’s been hard. I felt like quitting I don’t know how many times. Most of all it’s felt like I’ve been pulled apart and put back together again multiple times, but with (mostly) positive results. I always give a quick “warning Spiel” to wannabe PhD students about how difficult and isolating a PhD can be, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So while the PhD has been up and down I’m looking forward to the road ahead, and where it leads. Fingers crossed someone will pay me to teach and research Latin literature, and soon I’ll be published (woohoo!) in a few places. Here’s to making it this far, and to wanting to carry on.

Is it a PhD…or not a PhD? Unpacking the viva.

I’m currently preparing for the viva, and this post has really helped me think through some of the broader questions that might get asked. It’s aimed at a social science audience, but many of the prompts apply for humanities students too.

Stuff About Unis

[There’s a sister blog to this one – a few tips on how to avoid failing your viva.]

A doctorate is a peculiar thing: there’s an indistinct finishing line, it’s hideously complex, and far more difficult than you probably imagined when you started; mine certainly was. You spend years reading, thinking, planning, worrying, collecting data, analysing and writing up, rethinking, re-editing, re-editing, and then re-editing again. By the time you get to the end, one question remains:

Is it good enough?

This is the acid test. There is no grade, it’s a pass or fail: you’re either a doctor or you’re not (yet). Within the pass, though, you have different degrees of corrections that the examiners want you to undertake: none, minor, major, resubmission. It seems that most people get minor corrections, although major corrections and resubmission do happen. Either of the latter will involve months or maybe even years of work, so you don’t want…

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PhDing in a Foreign Land

Just over a year ago I did something that was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: I got on a plane and set out to spend three months in another country to continue my PhD research and improve my foreign language skills. This was the longest I’ve ever spent abroad by myself, and I was shocked (and surprised) by how much I learned about myself while out there, and the personal challenges I faced. I thought that in this post I’d share some of those experiences to try and help any other research students out there looking to do some research abroad.

How to Get There

Possibly the most important thing on the list is to get where you want to go. This is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane; you’ll need to select a host institution, find a colleague to work with, and try to get any funding to cover your travel costs. This is actually a lot like choosing a PhD supervisor and institution, but with the added advantage that you’ll probably know more about your project at this stage (and you’re not burdened with your choice for the next three years).

I narrowed it down to two institutions, and decided on Munich in the end. This city has produced a bunch of Martial scholars who’ve heavily influenced the field, and the option to meet these people was too good to miss. The person I contacted at Munich also got back to me very quickly and although she couldn’t supervise me due to her being on sabbatical she put me in contact with a late PhD student of hers who was hugely helpful. The other institution… was less helpful, and the scholar I would have worked with was very busy. I went with my gut.

For funding I was lucky enough to have a fund specifically designed for AHRC students to travel with, but there are numerous institutions like the DAAD which regularly advertise this kind of travel scholarship. My advice would be to get everything sorted out a long time before you travel as deadlines can be quite tight (I didn’t apply to the DAAD in the end because of this). It might be worth considering waiting until the next funding round to get everything sorted in time. The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität also helped source my accommodation for me (which was a godsend), but there are loads of good websites out there to help you out. Make sure to ask your local contact(s) for advice and support.

What to Do When You’re There (Academic)

The number 1 priority for me was to improve my reading and conversational German, but it’s also worth experiencing life and study in another country, as well as seeing what you can while you’re there.

I found improving my conversational German very difficult when I was in Munich because Germans tend to try and practice their (irritatingly good) English on you. If you discover that people find it easier to communicate with you in English I’d suggest finding a couple of people who are exceedingly patient to practice on (elderly landladies are perfect for this). I’d also recommend doing what I didn’t and joining an intensive language programme. They can be expensive, but the results speak volumes. The proudest moment of my stay was going grocery shopping for my landlady and managing the whole trip in German (the frozen red cabbage was particularly hard!). After nearly a month and a half feeling like I couldn’t express myself it was moments like this that really boosted my confidence. My spoken German is still not perfect, but I’m so much faster than when I started, and my reading abilities have sky-rocketed. It’s worth being honest with the levels you can achieve while you’re there as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

You should also check out the institution while you’re there. Find out how their research culture works, how their undergraduates learn, and how they socialise. I found it a bit odd that there was a much sharper distinction between work time and free time (lots of very serious German faces 9-5, for instance), but the sense of community was stronger too. The more you can see and do the better. I also gave a research talk (in English) and got to meet several colleagues at this and other events (including those scholars I mentioned earlier). Make sure to make the most of the time you have, too – going over and chatting to some big-shot professor because you may never get another chance is a good idea, and you might well be the most interesting person in the room at this point too so knock yourself out. If all else fails you won’t be there long, anyway.

What to Do When You’re There (Non-Academic)

Don’t forget that this is still a trip. Travel! See the world! What’s the point of going hundreds of miles to simply sit in another dark room reading books and articles? The chances are you’ll have far too much spare time in a strange, new place anyway so you can always catch up on work in the quiet hours. The worst thing to do is just sit around feeling sorry for yourself – force yourself out of the front door and see the local sights, walk the block. See, feel, smell, hear, and taste the novelty. If you don’t when’s your next chance? What stories will you tell your envious friends at home when you get back?

I guarantee that travelling for part of your PhD can be one of the hardest parts of the doctorate, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding for me. I’ve met so many exciting new people, seen and experienced new things, and got to travel a bit more of Europe in the process. This is the most free you’ll ever be in your academic life, so go out there and, as a wise philosopher once put it, just do it.

Acknowledgements

I’ve been thinking a lot about acknowledgements sections recently. This is a bit preemptive given that I’m not going to submit the thesis until at least early autumn, but bear with me.

Acknowledgements are essential – we have to credit everyone who’s significantly important in our academic and personal lives, but this doesn’t make it easy. After the funders (thanks AHRC!), supervisors (you’re awesome), and relevant institutions (here’s to you, LMU) there’s not much space left for anyone else. In fact, it can be a delicate balancing act where you don’t want to come across as too embarrassingly effusive (because scholars can’t have emotions) while also wanting to say a few simple thank yous (because we are, after all, human beings).

Nevertheless, because of all of this there’s a traditional format for acknowledgements sections. Important people up front, family and friends towards the rear, and a final statement about any remaining errors being the author’s own. Tradition rolls ever onward.

Anyway, on with the Martial blog. I’ve pondered how I’d write my acknowledgements section, and one idea that’s really stuck with me is Martial’s second preface. It’s a masterpiece that toys with these ideas of tradition and the bored reader who might be tempted to skim over yet another vainglorious prefatory letter of dedication. I like to call it Martial’s anti-preface. Here it is:

VALERIUS MARTIALIS TO HIS DECIANUS GREETINGS.

“What use to me” you say “is a letter? For do we not do enough for you if we read your epigrams? What more will you say here that you could not say in your verses? I see why tragedy or comedy receive a letter, forms which are not allowed to speak for themselves; epigrams however do not need a herald and are content with their own (i.e. bad) tongue. They make a letter in whichever column [of text] suits them. Therefore don’t, if you deem it proper, make the matter ridiculous and introduce the character of a dancer in a toga. In short, consider whether you’d like to go up against a retiarius with a twig. I sit among those who protest straightaway.” By Hercules, Decianus, I think you speak the truth! What if you knew with what and how long a letter you would have had dealings? And so may it be what you demand. If anyone happens upon this book they will owe it to you that they don’t come through to the first column worn out!

In short, this is a preface concerned with why Martial needn’t actually write a preface. Epigram, he says in the mouth of his patron Decianus, speaks for itself – each poem is short enough to contain everything you need to know about it. Further, the epigram isn’t as important as tragedy or comedy, high dramatic art forms, but should be ranked as light entertainment like dancing. To Martial’s ‘Decianus’, a preface to a book of epigrams would be far too pretentious and ambitious. But Martial still writes the preface. Indeed, that’s the whole joke.

Martial – as ever – irreverently challenges the generic preconceptions of his audience (here Decianus, but also general readers like you and me) to make a larger point about his contemporary readers. In the following poem (2.1) Martial bemoans readers who want to skip through his books, and judges them as easily bored and inattentive a few epigrams later (2.6). This preface, then, is a breath of fresh air. It openly acknowledges the problems the poet faces in writing a preface, apologises for the act of writing a preface, and then writes one anyway. Scathing assault on poor readers, jumped-up attempt at achieving higher-genre accolades, and (most importantly of all) comic gold, this preface certainly stands out as an example of Martial’s dry wit.

For me, writing an acknowledgements section in the style of an anti-preface like Martial’s offers a way out from the traditional boring format while still giving the honest thanks to the people who’ve helped me out along the way. But let’s see what actually happens in the end, eh? I might just chicken out at the last moment!

And while I’m here and discussing acknowledgements it’d be remiss of me not to say a quick thank you. To all of you – friends, family, supervisors, even those of you reading this blog – thanks for putting up with me for however long you do/have done, and continuing to support this silly little PhD of mine. I’m absolutely certain I couldn’t have got this far (and won’t get to the end) without you all.

And if you’ve got through all this drivel expecting something worth reading at the end, you can blame Decianus.

Updates: Thesis, Conferences, and the Blog

Hi everyone,

So it’s been nearly a year since I updated the blog – I think we can safely say that things are likely to remain sporadic (but hopefully not quite so spread out!), but I’d like to relaunch the blog on a semi-regular basis. My posts will continue to explore some of the ideas I’m having as I research Martial’s book structure & book culture, but I’ll also try to give more of an idea about life as a postgrad as I go on.

Anyway, a few updates people might be interested in:

  1. I’m now in the third year of my thesis. People keep asking “how is the PhD going” and, to be honest, I still have no idea how to begin answering that question. Nevertheless, things seem to be going well, and I have a timeline that looks more or less feasible to adhere to. Can I finish by next September? We’ll just have to see…
  2. I’ve since presented at my first ‘grown up’ (i.e. not solely postgraduate) conference! The Cambridge Triangulationships conference took place in July. The general theme was exploring the relationship between the triangle (hence triangulationships) of author-reader-text. You can check out the website here, which includes a list of the papers presented. I’m hoping to turn my paper (on general readers in Martial and Pliny the Younger) into a published piece within the future. Updates to follow…
  3. I’m booked to talk at two more conferences! The first is the annual Classical Association conference at Edinburgh (6-9th April). I’m taking part in a panel discussing “Audience Interactions” – how audiences are programmed into the text or how authors prepare for their audiences. My paper will consider how the recitatio is programmed into the structure of the Epigrams.
  4. The second conference is June 9-11 in Zurich, and is entitled “The Materiality of Texts between the Lebenswelt and Lesewelt.” I’m very much looking forward to this interdisciplinary event, and I’ll be considering how the shift from ancient form to modern text (i.e. papyrus scroll towards codex and the modern book) radically changes how we interact with the Epigrams. You can find the conference CFP here. Hopefully more updates to follow nearer the time.

So far the upcoming year looks quite busy – I’m teaching in the Spring term on a course on Roman Laughter (which includes Martial – huzzah!), and generally headed towards writing up the thesis. At the moment it looks like it’ll be split into two or three sections, but maybe I can go further into that another time…

At any rate – thanks for dropping by! I hope to upload some more Martial Musings in the near future.