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John - PhD experience
Name: John
PhD discipline: Classics
Area(s) of work: University teaching; information technology
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: John - PhD experience
John shares his experience of doing a PhD, and particularly the challenge of completing his thesis while working as a lecturer.

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Thinking about during your PhD, can you describe how you worked, how were you managing your time? What else were you doing in addition to the PhD?

I was quite lucky as I was pretty well funded. I was living reasonably hand to mouth but it was nothing compared to what some people were up against. And so I got to live quite a nice and focused lifestyle. I was doing a lot of teaching as that was one of the conditions of one of the scholarships. I was living a very university centric life, most of my friends were in university.  I was hanging out at The Institute of Classical Studies in London. There was a lot of socialising, which was quite nice.

My work schedule, because I was so university centred, was quite intensive actually looking back on it. Putting in 14 hour days didn't seem that strange once you include research and teaching in there. But it really didn't feel like work for most of that time.

Can you say how the teaching experience added or changed your PhD experience?  What influence did teaching have? 

Teaching was vital although not for the reasons you might think. I should say straight up I did not like teaching students that much. I shouldn't say I didn't like it but I didn't get a lot of reward out of it. I was never that thrilled by the community involvement of teaching. I was much more research orientated I liked talking to other researchers. Some people that I knew really liked hanging out with the students but I wasn't so keen. Teaching is very good at exposing what you don't know about something and I quickly discovered, (I was a very cocky graduate student), that I didn't know all the things that I thought I had. One of the problems you run into when you are doing a research degree is that of structuring things and I think it is hard to realise quite how much the structure that you are supposing depends on things that exist only in your head that you haven't really explained to anyone else. As soon as you start teaching and you are forced to start thinking about what this looks like to somebody who is not me, who doesn't have the same knowledge base that I do. That feeds quite directly into how you write the thesis. I think it would have been a much more chaotic and confused thesis if I hadn't been structuring material all the way through with teaching in mind. So it was quite a valuable experience.

Can I ask about the writing up stage?  How did that go for you? 

The writing up stage went pretty badly for life reasons rather than writing up reasons. I ended up taking a lectureship in my writing up year, which meant I was trying simultaneously to write lectures, organise seminars finish the writing up, all of which was somewhat harder than I had anticipated. And so together it made writing up extremely difficult. The actual process of writing up if I had been allowed to do it on my own without sort of other worries to think about was actually quite pleasant in that this sort of horrible mess that you have created over the previous three years suddenly starts assuming this kind of shape. You get a gel effect happening, where things that just didn't seem related to each other start tying in quite nicely.

When I was writing up was quite rewarding but it had to be juggled with lots of other things and so it ended up taking much longer than I had hoped. 

And then you submitted but there was quite a wait for the Viva. Can you remember that time and what that period was like?

That period was okay for me actually because I wasn't that worried about the Viva. I was working at the time, I was already in the temporary lectureship and so really I was so busy doing stuff that I really couldn't spare a thought for the Viva. It did make the process of preparing for the Viva a bit more difficult because two weeks before the date I suddenly realised that I hadn't looked at my thesis in the better part of a year and it was time to remember what it was about. But the wait itself wasn't a problem and in fact talking to other students who have been in similar situations I think that is quite common you are so frenetic that the Viva sinks off the bottom of your priorities until you are staring at it. 

Can you say something about the experience of the Viva itself and how you managed that? 

Good fun, I loved the viva. I was lucky, as I walked in they said 'We are minded to pass you'. I think they are not supposed to do that anymore but it is a very nice thing. So it became just a 60 or 90 minute chat about my research with the people who had actually read the whole thing and who had influenced my work. I was lucky that my examiners were people who I respected and whose work I had integrated into my own thesis, so it was quite a high level discussion of a type that wouldn't be possible in many other contexts. Once you're a fulltime academic you don't actually have time to engage that much with other people's work and so it was an entirely positive thing. I liked the Viva a lot.

That's very good to hear. Were there corrections to be done afterwards? 

Pretty minor, it was really punctuation and things like that so that went nicely. I went at the workload in a way that I think a lot of people would say was wrong but actually worked for me in that I wrote the thesis as a book and was very keen that it work as a book as one piece of writing that was quite ambitious in its scope which meant that it took me four years to write the thing which led to extreme stress. But equally once I was over that hurdle it meant that everything went on rails after that point. I disregarded everyone's advice in following that path but I think it worked out okay in the end.

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