Thoughts on the Eve of my PhD Viva  

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!

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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52 Responses to Thoughts on the Eve of my PhD Viva  

  1. Eileen Tanner says:

    Brenton, I wish you nothing but the best of luck; continue to appreciate you for your faith, and believe that God has placed this desire in you and you are prepared and ready.

    Go in peace, Eileen


  2. Earthoak says:

    I wish you all the best! I admire the way you maintained your passion for your subject throughout, and that you still had time to share and give to others via your blog. Don’t worry about the viva horror stories – as you say, your restlessness is probably just energy (and often is a sign of someone who is well-prepared). p.s. be prepared for them asking you to sum up your dissertation contribution in a nutshell!


  3. David McNaughton says:

    Good luck. Remember, if it does not go smoothly it is the fault of your supervisor! (I speak as one.) And take a break afterwards – not just a day or two. You will feel flat


  4. Peter T. Johnson says:

    I did not do a Ph.D but a D. Min. It took me 13 years to complete the theses-project. Like you, I had a lot of life things going on: among other things, a church to pastor, a wife who was very ill and died during the process, a Mom who also died, and a new marriage which more or less reenergized me. All this to say that the process became a discipleship-making event in my life. No one was more surprised than me when my professor and mentor “hooded” me in front of my very supportive congregation the last Sunday of my tenure with them. There were tears and laughter. God is good.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All the best to you, Brenton! You got this.


  6. hatrack4 says:

    Good luck, as you requested, but also, may God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. lolalwilcox says:

    Here’s try #2, hopefully will post – the orginial went something like this: I do wish you luck, but more I wish you the satisfaction of doing it, delight in the conversation which you do not fear because you have mastered your material and know the truth of it, and, particularly, the Joy of Finishing.

    We are all burned by the fire
    We are ashes and dust.
    But we are rising, rising
    on the wings
    Of Justice, Compassion, and Hope.

    From Rising Appalachia


  8. Dorothea says:

    I am sending you a bit of luck, just in case you need it, but I doubt you do since, as you know, you are the master of your field. I think you have every right to feel like you know what you’re talking about and walk away having taught your peers (and yes, even if they are evaluating you, they are your peers, because unlike other PhD students, you’ve been dedicating yourself to this field for a lot more than 3-5 years!) about C.S.Lewis, et al. Less control you have over your travels, so wishing you safe ones!


  9. Wesley Schantz says:

    Good luck and godspeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. mlktrout says:

    Brenton, I’ve only been following your blog since I discovered it about two or three months ago, but your work never ceases to blow me away. I just watched the movie “Tolkien” based solely on your recommendation. So obviously, I regard your writing as magical. I’m sure you will enchant and blow away these two unconnected scholars, as well. Blessings and shalom to you from Mel Hughes.


  11. Better and more reliable than luck (which does not really exist), I’ll pray the trip itself will be safe, the experience exhilarating and the results positive beyond your expectations.

    Perhaps we’ll pass you somewhere overhead; we leave California for Uganda (to meet orphans we support through Ugandan Lambs) via Amsterdam tomorrow. Wish us “luck,” too, if you will. Our saga will be on Thanks.


  12. Ken Miller says:

    I do indeed wish you luck! Having gone through the process myself almost 20 years ago, I know that it is survivable and that there is life after a defense. I have read your thoughts and ideas for several years now, even had a go at your Master’s thesis, and I know that the skill and the knowledge is there. Congratulations Dr. Dickieson!

    Ken Miller



  13. Lynn Schlesinger says:

    Thinking of you, sending prayers and good wishes. By now perhaps you have finished, or at least in the midst of what I hope will be and exhausting and pleasurable experience. Yes much happens in life during the process of getting a PhD , Life with all its ups and downs does not pass in order for us to complete our academic goals! Remind me to tell you about my defense, attended not only by the committee members but some of the people interviewed, my husband with a brain injury, his father with Alzheimer’s, my brother who is in charge of both of them, it goes on. I can’t imagine with the external reader thought of the event…thank you so much for the support you have given, now on to the next chapter in life!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sarah from Maine says:

    There’s a lot of intercessory prayers for performance at an exam or audition, but when the stakes are high, one stands out – the refrain from the Mary Tyler Moore theme.

    I just sang it, but in case you couldn’t hear: you’re gonna make it after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. robstroud says:

    Wow–hearing that your thesis is a million words long makes me feel much better about comments that mine was twice as long as it needed to be. (Not verbose, but excessively footnoted and digging deeper in the weeds than they would have required.)

    You will do great at your defense!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! It is in final form just 100,000 words, I’m afraid. Mine was far too long, but the limits are so precise now. But I’m glad I only have to edit 100,000 words instead of 150,000 or a million.


  16. frank4man says:

    A million words?!!!!!……………

    Liked by 1 person

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  18. Mela Sarkar says:

    Best of luck, and I hope you will still have energy for blogging afterward.


  19. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Two hearty dollops:

    “All Luck is good”.
    Charles Willams

    “Fare forward.”
    T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, III


  20. Kerry says:

    You don’t need any luck. You have worked hard and are ready for this!

    There have been lots of trials for sure, but we weathered them. Onward for whatever life has in store for us next!

    I hope that you have a little fun wowing your adjudicators. I can’t wait to hear the how it goes, and all your friends here will be waiting for the blog version of the story too!

    We are proud of you and love you so much!


    Liked by 1 person

  21. river42song says:

    God Bless you on this exciting climax of your PhD journey! I have enjoyed your blogs for 4-5 years, and we appreciate your writing, especially the humorous ones.

    You have contributed much, and we are thankful.

    Congratulations, Dr. Dickieson!


  22. Hi Brenton! I just picked this up in a pub in Pembrokeshire with a pint in front of me, my daughter, Beckie sitting beside me pondering sources for her final year BA dissertation on operatic treatments of stories from classical Greek mythology and about to read my daughter, Bethan’s Masters dissertation on the music for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. It all seems to fit somehow!
    It has been great to share this journey from time to time and especially to host you last year when you came to England. I do hope that our paths will cross again.
    Every blessing on you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Stephen, thanks so much. It is so good to hear that your girls are becoming masters (and bachelors?) in their own right (or is it rite?). Of course I spoke with Bethan about her research. Beckie I only summoned through the Harry Potter-ness of her room!
      I missed seeing you this time. I think you would have enjoyed my Cheshire walk. I hope your vacation was great and your ministry is thus more energized.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Lynn Schlesinger says:

    As my Aunt Molly would say: “So….nu?” The suspense…


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