And so it is over.
Thirteen years of academic studies, four years of laboratory based research and close to five hours of an oral examination later I can finally call myself a ‘Dr.’!
Today it was the first morning after years and years that I woke up feeling stress-free. It felt like a heavy load was lifted off my shoulders and that I could FINALLY breathe again. From now and on there will be no late nights in the laboratory, no more stressful meetings, no more crappy meals eaten in a hurry in between measurements, no more frustrations, no more failed measurements, no more imperfect experimental designs and most importantly no more late night showers at the University ladies rooms!
While going through this PhD journey I made many friends who encouraged me to share my thoughts on my PhD viva experience at the University of Aberdeen (regardless if the majority of Natbee’s readers are not PhD students). So, this lengthy post is for all the students who have closely followed my journey with its ups and downs, worrying for me and frequently getting in touch providing me with words of encouragement and support. This post is for all the students that are studying for a higher education degree in a foreign language and in a country far away from their families.
— Anastasia Fountouli, PhD (@natbeestravels) February 20, 2018
This post is for everyone who got in touch with me yesterday morning, before my examination, to wish me ‘good luck’ with the best of intention in their hearts because they, too, have been through this, or have a family member or a friend, who is about to go through this and totally understand my agony and feelings. So this is for you and me, because we have been through this tough journey together! And for mum of course who is my biggest fan up to date. So yes, that’s for you, me and mum!
My PhD viva experience!
I submitted my PhD thesis in Soil Biophysics at the end of October 2017. To finish the writing up was one of the most difficult parts of my PhD journey for many reasons. Deep in my heart, I wasn’t in a good place. I was doubting myself, I thought I didn’t do well and that I didn’t deserve to be a ‘Dr.’. Call it imposter syndrome, call it insecurity, call it tiredness from everything that was happening around and inside me, the point is it was hard to get my brain working on a high speed every day until submission.
The day I submitted I was a hot mess. I remember going to the Students Hub offices to hand in my thesis copies and I was nearly crying. Actually, scratch that, when this picture was taken I was crying! And if it wasn’t for Cruzy’s (that’s my puppy if you are new here) impatient nature, I would have not been able to control myself. I hated my thesis so much I refused to take a picture of it until I signed the copies. It then strike me that my mum would like to see my thesis so I took a deep breathe and politely asked the girl at the Services to take a quick picture of me, the thesis and Cruzy before handing it. I am so glad I did!
As soon as I submitted the thesis, I took a break and flew to Norway and then Hampshire for some blog related work before getting back in Scotland. Just after January worries kicked in. Up until that point the viva date hadn’t been confirmed yet and I had heard nothing from my supervisors or internal examiner who was organising the whole procedure. So I reached out for them and I asked them if they had any updates. To make a long story short, a few days later I received a response and the viva was set for the 19th of February. The clock started ticking as soon as I sent my confirmation e-mail…
Twenty days before the viva day I opened the thesis again. Initially, I read the entire thesis to refresh everything in my head without paying too much attention into details and results. A couple of days before the big day, I re-read the thesis questioning myself every single thing. From the easy things that are how instruments work, or why using these particular chemicals at these concentrations, to the more crucial one such as, what is the biggest finding of your research, what is the uniqueness of the project and why did you find this result on your last experiment, and so on.
I wanted to be ready for everything and anything, but most importantly I wanted to prove to myself that after all these years of hard laboratory work, I deserved this precious award.
On Sunday, a day before the viva, I felt sick just looking at the thesis. I felt that I knew everything by that point and there was no reason to keep studying. So I went to the gym for an hour and I felt amazing! Not only it helped me take my mind away but it relaxed me and helped me burn all this concentrated energy I had inside me!
On the morning of the big day I woke up feeling ready! I didn’t get a good night’s sleep mainly because my brain could not stop thinking and answering questions that came in my dreams. I took my thesis and lab book with me and to the University I went.
I had heard a billion of horrendous stories of viva experiences. From people having panic attacks to people arguing with their examiners and having things taking a wrong turn. I had heard of vivas lasting as long as 8 hours and vivas being described as ‘the most traumatic experience of my life‘!
In the UK, a viva examination is performed in front of a panel of examiners behind closed doors. I didn’t know my external examiner and I shouldn’t be in touch with her otherwise I would jeopardise the whole thing. Everything had to be fair and unbiased.
Before going into the examination room I went by my supervisor’s office. He said I looked ‘calm and confident’. The reality is, I was calm and confident until the minute I stepped into the building…all of the sudden all the bad memories came back and I started feeling anxious! I said I was aware of all the horror PhD viva stories and that I wanted to disproof them while defending my research with dignity.
I stepped into the examination room at 10 am with, indeed, much confidence. My heart wasn’t pumping like crazy and I was smiley. When I started talking to my examiners I realised that they were just two humans interested in science and more particularly into my research. They weren’t there to humiliate me (another PhD viva myth or extreme occasion), or devalue me (which sadly happens in the academia more frequently than it should!). The time went by quite pleasantly, I was challenged and I was asked questions line by line, page by page, graph by graph. But there wasn’t a single question I didn’t answer and a single thing I felt incapable of explaining. We were all lost in time until my stomach started rumbling at around 12.20 pm. It was then that my examiner suggested we hurry up a bit otherwise it would take us ages. So we discussed the next Chapters and findings in detail but without any pauses for jokes in between. At exactly 14.00 I was asked to get out of the examination room, for my examiners to make a decision. Meanwhile, my supervisor was being ultra anxious because the whole viva took much longer that he had anticipated. So he cancelled the lunch table he had booked for us and he waited in his office until further notice -something I was told later on!
A minute or so later, my internal examiner called me back in his office where the external explained to me how amazed she was by my Conclusions Chapter and the analytical way of explaining things while taking into consideration all of the Biological, Chemical and Physical aspects of a field. To think that this was the Chapter my supervisors were mostly dissatisfied with, I felt a huge wave of satisfaction going through my blood stream. However, what she said next was what made me feel like an Olympic Games athlete winning a medal: ‘There are a few typos and grammatical mistakes so you are being awarded a doctorate with minor corrections!’ *
MINOR CORRECTIONS – not even in my wildest dreams!
I let my tears wet my face like rain as all of my worries melted away at once! Years and years of stress and hard work, were finally recognised and a huge life journey had just come to an end successfully.
After this everything else went by in a blurry. I run into my supervisor’s office and told him I was done ‘with minors’. He hugged me and congratulated me and I cried once again because, even up until I am typing this, I cannot believe it is over!
*please excuse our stuffed faces
We then went with my examiners for lunch at Kilau in Old Aberdeen. I had a spinach pesto pasta for what it matters and I was still feeling my body being intense.
Meanwhile I posted this on my Twitter:
— Anastasia Fountouli, PhD (@natbeestravels) February 19, 2018
and my supervisor posted this:
— Paul Hallett (@PD_Hallett) February 19, 2018
so my phone went on fire from all your lovely wishes. At some point I had my mum trying to call me, my sister texting me ‘what is the difference between a doctor and a Dr.‘, and my friends texting me ‘how did it go?‘. In between these and the pasta, I decided to shut my phone down and focus on the food.
Soon after it was time for my team to have a lab meeting and instead of talking about research updates they invited me to have some champagne and a chocolate cake with them in celebration of the day!
Annette, our lovely technician, constructed a chocolate cake with melted chocolate and golden eggs on the top, and handed me in a card signed by all of the students and staff of the department. How sweet of everyone – if you are reading this, THANK YOU!
I blew the candles and it felt as if it was my birthday again 🙂
Then my supervisor trusted me to open the bottle of champagne…which I did with closed eyes as my camera feed indicates.
We toasted our glasses and ate the cake while discussing about my PhD viva experience and catching up with each other’s news. And as we were talking, I looked around me and it felt like I was part of the team again even though it has been more than 6 months that I haven’t worked in the Soil Biophysics laboratory.
Trying not to get emotional, again, we said our goodbyes and I ordered a taxi to get me back in the flat where Cruzy welcomed me with heaps of energy! This dog understands more than I give him credit for!
I had a quick change of clothes, drunk some tea -boy do so many hours of talking leave you dehydrated – and called my family which I hadn’t spoken to until then! I tried to relaxe and forget about what happened before getting ready for dinner which took place in Malmaison.
And that was it! The 19th of February will forever be a good day!
Thank you all for following me along this journey and for sticking around while I was hardly blogging. Thank you for being patient, kind and encouraging. I am ready for the next life Chapter, so let’s turn pages!
* I did think how things would have ended if English was my first language…