Don's Diary

February 23, 1996

SUNDAY. Three days to my PhD viva. I alternate between blind panic and profound gloom. Finish re-reading my thesis for the third time. Any "original contribution to knowledge" seems to have evaporated since I wrote it. More immediately, what am I going to wear? People tell me to wear what I am comfortable in, but "comfortable" is contextual. Do I just go in scruffy like normal, or move up a gear to "easygoing but smart"? Perhaps I should just go for Marks and Spencer Graduate Interview Suit? No one has had their thesis failed for not wearing the right clothes, I suppose.

MONDAY. Two days to go. I imagine the viva. My thoughts range from mild despair at being told to rewrite it to a full blown Beau Geste-style nightmare, where the examiners strip off my buttons and bury me up to my head in sand. I conclude that I should not wear anything with buttons. I mark a pile of first-year essays: these all seem to offer more profound insights than my 280 pages. I stare at a huge pile of post-modernism essays which stare reproachfully back at me. I tell them that my PhD viva is more important than marking them, but they rustle unsettlingly.

TUESDAY. It is now tomorrow. I teach my philosophy students Derrida and my English students Jacobean tragedy. I do not think that a PhD will make that much difference to my employment prospects: I am still too philosophical for literary studies but too literary for philosophy. I collect my suit from the cleaners but I also iron my smart-but-casual shirt.

WEDNESDAY. Viva day. Getting dressed I vacillate over my clothes. I go with the suit. Always better to be overdressed. People phone to wish me luck. I play an Oasis B-side (very loud: hope the flat above will not complain) and go into the department. They told me that the viva was to start at ten, but the examiners must meet and discuss my work. I am not on for about 20 minutes so I wait in the seminar room, alone. Try to read the New Musical Express to create a nonchalant air. Unfortunately, I am not even fooling myself. My God, I have forgotten how to read! Stroll about the seminar room, which is much, much smaller than I remember it. Help, the walls are coming together to crush me! The chairperson and examiners come in. I sit at the end of the room. The chairperson begins his formal speech, and finishes by saying "I think we've come to an arrangement that will satisfy everybody". What does he mean? Arrangement? Satisfy? I picture them haggling over how long I have to rewrite the thesis. The external begins to talk. "There are two ways of doing this, a humane way and an inhumane way . . ." he says. What does this mean? Is there a polite, humane way to tell somebody that their work is useless? I feel sick, as if I have started a roller coaster ride that I simply do not want to be on. He continues ". . . and I am going to do the humane thing, so I would like to tell you right at the beginning that I have no doubts about recommending your work for a doctoral degree". My smile starts to hurt my cheeks and climb over my face to my ears before I work out what he means. Perhaps unsurprisingly the rest of the viva goes well.

My supervisor (ex-supervisor?) and I leave the seminar room together and we both burst out laughing in the corridor. The departmental administrator lets me make a (very) short international call to my partner in the States. Even at whatever ungodly hour it is there, she yelps. She had pointed out that, in the past few months, I had developed a worrying tendency to discuss everything in terms of my research. Anything to stop that is a good thing. (In fact, although I would never admit it, deep inside I have trouble in believing this - I find my research fascinating, why doesn't everybody else?) THURSDAY. My supervisor calls to congratulate me again. He points out that it has been a real success. It was written in only three years despite the fact that, as a postgraduate teaching assistant, I taught six hours every week. I look forward to rediscovering weekends (but I have a sinking feeling that the thirty 4,000-word postmodernism essays I have to mark in the next week might have something to say about this). His congratulations cannot make me feel any better - if I glowed any more I would have to be entombed in lead as a public health hazard.

I can just about remember being in a very late night bar with my brother. I think.

FRIDAY. I pay off my book shop account and, rather shyly, ask them to change my card from Mr to Dr. Then I buy lots and lots of books (on account, obviously), including all the things I have been planning to read for months. It is a bit of a relief to know that I do not have to check the shop for anything new that relates to my research. I do anyway, of course. I don't remember going to bed.

SATURDAY. I wake up with another killer hangover, thousands of pounds in debt, without a proper job and with limited prospects in a higher education system that is collapsing. But today, I am filled with a peculiar sense of happiness, achievement and optimism.

Robert Eaglestone English graduate student who passed his doctoral viva last week. He is teaching in the English and philosophy department at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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