As I announced at the end of May, I have completed my PhD thesis at the University of Chester and I have been awaiting my defence date. The viva voce, or just Viva, is this terrifying affair where two scholars who have no specific connection to my work take time from their impossibly busy schedules to read my 100,000-word monstrosity and judge it to see if it makes a significant contribution to research and meets the standard of academic work expected by scholars. The Viva will last anywhere from one to four hours, and is the chance for me to show that it was, indeed, I who wrote the thesis, and that I have carried my argument and distinguished myself in the field.
I have heard some Viva horror stories, where leading scholars brought to examine the thesis simply rejected the project as viable or tried to convert the PhD student to their point of view. There are reports of physical violence, mental breakdowns, various kinds of tears, and entire careers wastebasketed by careless or cruel examiners. I have also heard of PhD students who have arrived at the Viva with a thesis that is not up to the standards of a research PhD and nobody had warned them. Completely unaware, they faced a jury of their superiors, only to discover that, at best, they had months or even a year of work ahead, or, at worst, they had failed. And then there are those who arrive for examination having chosen not to heed the warnings of supervisors and peers. You can imagine how that goes.
Perhaps these stories were going through my head as I stared at the ceiling the night before I left, waiting for the 2:45am alarm to ring. At the surface of my mind, I know that these stories are pretty rare—maybe even apocryphal in some cases. Moreover, having read a large number of dissertations in my field, I know that my work is at the highest level. Though there are flaws, including a kind of forced feeling that you get in most dissertations and a self-consciousness you don’t want to see in books, my work is good and I know it well. Moreover, I think it addresses a critical gap in C.S. Lewis scholarship and sets the stage for a Christian critique of the ways many Lewis readers live out their faith.
And then there is always the prospect of planes falling from the sky and bursting into a fireball of death, agony, broken dreams, and local environmental chaos before I get to finish this torturous degree.
But that has never really worried me, honestly. And I’ve left instructions of what to do with my books, so I’m ready for whatever the skies hold for me.
No. I think this weird restlessness is just energy—yes, the pressure of facing the Viva, but also the fact that all this work is coming to fulfillment and I am at a watershed moment in my life. I have blogged about how I began by pretending I was a PhD student (see here and here), which ultimately led to a spot in a program in Chester. This has been eight years of my life, where my jobs have been constantly in flux, we endured a family health scare, the reach of higher education has spun out and is reinventing itself, my little boy has grown into a teenager, and I buried my mother after a walk with cancer. Add the long-term stress and poverty—and to quote Paul, “besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches”—and I am exhausted.
Plus, I have grown old! I put a selfie on Facebook recently and people thought I was using that 10-year ageing app. That’s what a PhD is: A ten-year ageing app. But not just in that bone-weary, bodily decrepitude—or even in the entropy of soul that often exceeds the entropy of a body under pressure. I have also grown in skill, experience, knowledge, connection, and (some) wisdom.
All this is to say that a PhD is not one thing or another, but all things, all together. It is not the exception or addendum to life, but is played out in the midst of life. I suspect that in any 8-year span of an adult’s life there will be a major job change or a family illness or a death. That I experienced all of them isn’t exceptional but speaks to the hidden costs of postgraduate education—a cost far beyond the huge fees and loss of wages. Though the cost of this degree was higher than I thought it would be, I chose my future regrets long ago and am prepared to be open to the future as it comes.
So Friday is the day, 2pm in Chester, mid-morning back home. Then I face my doom. I’m actually looking forward to it, honestly. I have spent a number of years shaping my work for this moment and I am ready to have it tested. I may falter, or I may be deluded, but here’s my moment. Wish me luck!