The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Month: May, 2019

How to prepare for the PhD Viva

The Viva, the word that is never far away from a PhD students mind. The mythical almost legendary word that looms over everything that you do. When you start the PhD, it seems a long and distant prospect and as you progress, the Viva looms ever larger like a storm cloud bubbling up on a clear summers day. The Viva is the final battle all PhD students know they must face but never want to. The Viva is the most important battle a PhD student will face as if all the other constant battles weren’t enough already! A hill to either die or survive on, the outcome of you becoming a Dr relies on your ability to survive a two to three hour (on average) defence of your thesis with at least two experts.

Many people outside of academia are simply unaware of what a PhD is or even the amount of work, sacrifice and challenges that come with it. Simply too many to list in this blog that’s for sure! However, many people are aware that by the end of your PhD, you will produce a thesis of substantial word count, for example, including references and appendices my thesis came to 212,000 words! If I had to include all my rewrites and deleted and changed words over the course of the PhD, I’d be looking at having written over 300,000! Yet, people don’t understand outside of academia that writing of the thesis is less than half of the PhD, the rest comes down to the Viva. The word that sends a chill up any PhD student (sorry fellow PhD students for the trigger!).

The term ‘Viva’ is actually short for ‘Viva Voce’ which is Latin for absolute hell. I joke. It actually translates to “by live voice”. In layman’s terms, you’ve walked written the walk, now you need to talk the talk. Every country is slightly different, but in the UK at least, it’s an oral exam, a defence of your thesis between usually an external and an internal examiner behind closed doors. They will have read your completed written thesis multiple times and now you sit in a room where they’ll ask you many questions about it for which you have to justify every decision and action made in the time you’ve been on the PhD. As a general rule of thumb, the examiners are looking for three things (1.) Is it your own work and have you written it (2.) Do you understand what you’ve written and what your results are saying and (3.) Does what you’ve done actually contribute new and original knowledge to the scholarly community.

So, how do you prepare for this showdown to get your PhD? Below I’ll outline how I tackled my Viva preparations and if the Viva is on the horizon for you, I hope it may give you some ideas about how to get yourself in the best shape possible for it.

Read, re-read and when you think you’ve read enough, read one more time

By now you’re probably downright sick of your own writing and if you’ve been editing, you’re perhaps resenting your own work with having read it so many times. However, it is vital that you go back and re-read, multiple times from cover to cover. There where three critical aspects that I took to my viva prep re-reads. Firstly, I read a chapter or two chapters a day, making no notes, just reading, remembering and understanding my work. It may seem obvious, but some of your writing is over two years old and with so much going on and so much different sections that you’ve written its good to refresh your brain. After reading it thoroughly, I then went back through and re-read it under a critical eye. I looked for any formatting, spelling or grammatical errors. If you’ve rushed to get your thesis in you’ll probably find a lot of them but even me, someone who spent three solid months of editing and checking my work prior to submission I still annoyingly found 13 errors including an utterly wrong graph!

I hear that many people don’t want to re-read their work for fear of finding exactly that, a mistake. It happens and the examiners will know it happens too. You’re writing in excess of 100,000 words there is bound to be mistakes. Of course, in your edits its best to catch as many as you can but even if you’re diligent you’ll still miss one or two. Chasing the perfect error free thesis is chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a nice idea but ultimately, a futile one. If you submit a thesis that is strung with spelling and format errors because it’s been rushed or you failed to re-read it before submitting it doesn’t mean the Viva will go badly, but it will cast some doubt in the examiner’s minds I’m sure. You’re giving them more ammunition if you’ve failed to check your work. Use software, colleagues, supervisors and friends and family to check before you submit! If, however, you still find mistakes, relax! Make a note of them (I highlighted mine) so that if the examiners point them out, you can be ahead of the curve as you’ve identified it (my examiners didn’t even point out the mistake in the graph which I was stressing about so much, so don’t worry!). Also, it’s super rare that the outcome of the Viva is no changes, you’re most likely at a very minimum getting minor corrections so don’t stress, you can correct those errors in the post-viva corrections phase!

Highlights and sticky notes

After reading my thesis multiple times, I went back through again and brought out my trusted highlighters and post-it notes. I used different colours to represent various aspects of the PhD. Green, for example, was a simple identifier for me of where each chapter began, thus in the Viva when referring to individual chapters if needed, I could just flip to it straight away. Orange I used as fundamentals, i.e. research aims, questions and critical results where purple I used as potential sections of note be that an important paper or parts I feel they may well grill me more on or want to know more about. Find whatever works for you, you don’t want to over complicate it and highlight absolutely everything in your thesis, it’s best practice to only refer to the thesis in the Viva if absolutely essential. So highlight what you feel are the key things and use a system that you know.

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My thesis and appendices with my post-it notes

Prepare Questions and Summary

While making your post-it note decorations on your thesis, I opened up two word documents. The first one I used to summarise each of the key points of that page. For example, when summarising your methodology outlining the key papers and 3 principal pros and cons of the method chosen. This helps in your re-read to focus your brain, and the day before the Viva I found it really helpful to just focus on those summary notes because that gave me the key points I needed to focus on without getting too lost in all the details.

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Example of my summary pages

As I went through, I also came up with questions that they could potentially ask me about those sections and I wrote them down. I also utilised some fantastic sets of questions out there online about viva preparations. The most effective way of preparing for the Viva was actually to be asked the questions so that I could answer them verbally. It’s all well and good preparing your answers in word, but it’s far better to practice verbalising them. My friend Rosie skyped me a set of questions from her Viva cards, I made a note of that question and then answered it. It’s seriously great practice! For example, she asked me what the theoretical implications of my study where and I gave a very long winded and pretty terrible answer. We discussed together how I should tackle that and be more focused and low and behold a similar question came up in my Viva, and I was able to nail it because I had been prepared. So get a friend, a supervisor or even your family to throw as many questions your way as possible. Below is the 19 random questions Rosie used from her cards to help me prepare. After answering all 19 that came to just under an hour of talking, so you can see how quickly a viva can go, especially as these are generic. Sadly, you can never truly prepare for the very specific and in-depth questions the examiners may have!

  1. Why did you narrow your focus of enquiry to this?
  2. How did research questions emerge?
  3. Which previous studies influenced your work?
  4. Who or what was most influential?
  5. What is the area in which you wish to be examined?
  6. How did you choose your methodology and were there any constraints?
  7. Limitations of your method and study?
  8. Did you encounter any problems?
  9. Talk us through how you analysed the data?
  10. What steps did you take to mitigate errors and bias the data in your qualitative methods?
  11. Do you believe your methods entomologically aligns?
  12. If you could start again, what would you do differently?
  13. How did your thinking develop as you went through your research process?
  14. How do your findings challenge the established literature in this field?
  15. How long do you expect your work to remain current?
  16. Where did you go wrong?
  17. What are the theoretical implications of your findings? What are the policy implications of your findings?
  18. How can it influence your findings?
  19. How do you intend to share your research findings?

Give yourself some space

I can’t stress this enough, it seems counterintuitive that as you scramble to cram as much in and practice as much as you can for the Viva that you should give yourself some time off. But seriously, trust me. Do it. Take a day off, go for a walk, go do something you enjoy. A tired brain is not a brain that’s going to perform well in the Viva. I know that its really hard to do because your mind will keep going back to viva prep, but you need to force yourself to do something differently, even if for an hour. I am forever indebted to my friend Ro who gave me no choice but to go out for a walk or my parents who forced me to go food shopping to take my mind off it. It seems small and daft, but it really worked. It gave my brain a few minutes of breathing space and especially on that walk realising that, yes, while the Viva is probably the most significant thing you’ve ever done to date and yes, so much is riding on it. That you have so many people who support you and there is so much more to life than getting three letters after your name. It does put things into perspective.

The day before try not to throw up and get some sleep

I read that some people say not to touch any viva prep the day before to give your brain a rest. I agree in principle, but I still did some prep. I read those summary pages a few times throughout the day and then gave it a rest. There comes the point where you know you’ve done all you can, and you feel as prepared as you can, so doing more won’t help. I spent a lot of that day sitting in the sun listening to music and trying to take my mind off it. Whatever coping mechanism you use to deal with stress now is an excellent time to use it! I also read and made notes of the latest papers that had come out since I submitted my thesis. A read a lot of these viva prep blogs who placed so much emphasis on you knowing every single paper since you’ve submitted. Please do not spend a load of time on this! Examiners can ask you to make sure you’re aware of how your research fits in, but they cannot directly examine you on any paper that’s been published post submission. Focus on your own work, I wasn’t even asked about any new literature in my viva. Imagine if I had dedicated so much time to that, what a waste that would have been!

Go and smash it and some final tips

The Viva is undoubtedly massive, and there is no denying that the day is enormous and massively stressful. You will feel like you’re crap, that your thesis is rubbish and you’ll feel vastly underprepared despite being the most prepared you’ve ever been for anything. It happens. I felt awful before my Viva! I think any PhD student who says they’re not nervous about the Viva is either a liar or incredibly naïve, or at worst has delusions of grandeur. Well, they’ll just set themselves up for a fail. Remember, and again I read this before I went into the Viva but didn’t really believe it until after the Viva, the examiners are not there to trick you or catch you out. They’re doing their job and your examiners should ask some very tough questions, you should expect them, it is a PhD after all. But any question is never a personal attack and its never to catch you out. Remember, despite the feeling of imposter syndrome, you really are the expert in the room. You should try and enjoy it as much as you can too. My Viva was brutal and tough but it was really enjoyable once I got into it. There is no other time in your life as a student where someone outside of your supervisory team will have read your thesis cover to cover, and you can sit in a room and discuss it at length with people who are just as enthusiastic about it as you are. My parents, for example, have only read my acknowledgements of my thesis so, yeah, make the most of two strangers taking an interest in your work because your family don’t!!

I found it vital in my preparations to be critical and honest with the thesis. What is good about it and what are my weakest points. I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to know before I went in what I was going to defend until I was blue in the face and what I was happy to let go. You need to know what battles you’re going to pick in the Viva. You don’t have to defend every word, in fact, if you do you could be posing more problems than its worth. An example, if I defended the term pedagogy in my title and following sections, I have no doubt I would have had major corrections instead of the lower end of moderate. I was wise enough to know it was my weakest part of the thesis and the examiners saw it too, I was happy to not defend it, I’m glad I didn’t. On the flip side, my examiners weren’t that excited about my large section on UAV regulations and asked not once, not twice but three times was it critical. This, to me, was a fundamental aspect of my argument in the thesis and one of my mantras in the conclusion so three separate times, I defended it in the viva. I would have justified it a 4th if I had to because that was one part of my thesis I was going to defend until the end. Of course, by time they asked me a second time there was a flicker of “they’ve asked me this again, should I concede?” but no, it was a test to see me stick to my argument and defend it. By time they asked a 3rd time I was more adamant than ever to keep it in!

Be honest. Seriously, this is my final point and one that is vital in the Viva. Be honest. In mine I was asked if I was familiar with a particular set of literature which to them was essential if I had mentioned one thing, I really should have mentioned this. I was honest that I wasn’t familiar and they simply said thanks for being honest, one of your corrections is to do a small section on it. Then that was it, happy days we moved on. If I had tried to blag it, it would have caused so many more issues! You’re not meant to know everything in the Viva, you’re human. If you don’t know it put your hands up and admit it, they’ll be absolutely fine with it. If you don’t know it and you try and blag it well, they view that very dimly that’s for sure. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be thought of as a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

So try and enjoy the Viva, if you’ve had the right attitude, if you’ve prepared well enough then I am sure you will survive, and you will get what you’ve worked so hard for, you’ll be a Dr! Good luck and godspeed to you!

If you have any questions or even if you want me to read anything or even Skype you with some viva prep questions, let me know in the comments or get in touch on social media @TonyCliffe210. I’m currently in the process of writing a book about my PhD experience and how to tackle the many issues it throws up, so get in touch if you want to be involved in that! Or you can read about my Viva experience here: The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105 

Or read here my thoughts i penned before the viva: Some thoughts about the PhD journey as i near the final battle.

If you want to chat about the PhD or viva, get in touch, us PGRs need to help each other out to survive.

Go and smash it guys! You’ve got this!

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Post viva you get to wear cool badges!

The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105

“So congratulations Dr Cliffe” my internal examiner raises a huge grin and leans across the table to shake my hand, followed by my external then a slap on the back from my supervisor. I slump back in my chair as I thank them. I’m exhausted. I take a deep breath as I feel the stress of the viva flow through me and out with every breath. I can’t quite believe that I’ve survived. Is it over? There is no rising movie score of epic proportions, there is no confetti canon or wild cheering. A formal handshake completes the epic journey, a refined act for what has been an epic battle from day one. I’d just finished a PhD in 2 years 8 months and come through a tough viva, but I feel numb, completely numb. I’m happy, of course I am! But I’m also acutely aware of how instantly tired I am. When you’ve been stressed and working so hard for what felt like forever, with the goal reached it was that surreal moment of reaching the summit of the highest mountain you’ve ever climbed, looking back from where you’ve come from and then looking out at the view and just standing in amazement. I had reached my goal and now what was my first thought.

But more than that, I’m numb with bewilderment because I thought I had lost it all within 2 minutes of the 1hr 45 minute viva. I had done the best I could in the Viva but felt that my best wasn’t good enough, too many torpedo hits and not enough patching up to stop the ship from sinking. I was wrong, I had survived, I had done enough. Brutal. Intellectually brutal is the only word I can describe for the Viva. Nothing compares, and nothing ever will. I get it now, I really do when they say getting a PhD and particularly the final battle of the Viva is the hardest intellectual thing you can ever do. It all became apparent how hard it is to get a PhD in this moment.

There is no amount of patching up that you can do to save it, and no amount of effective counter weapons can save you and your thesis either.

I replay the morning ahead of me as I took a deep breath and thanked them all for their time, collected my belongings and walked out of the room. I could barely feel my feet under me, my mind still ultimately shell shocked at the whole experience, not just the Viva but the cumulation of nearly three years of solid hard work was over. Like a solider that’s been told the war is over, looking down at his dishevelled uniform.

To paraphrase a dear friend of mine, Rosie, she once offered her pearl of wisdom about the PhD and torpedoes. In essence, your thesis is a ship in a battle, and there are certain things that you’ll do or write that will come under attack from the examiners. So it’s your job to make sure your thesis is as watertight as possible, yet that is impossible. The examiners will always find something, they’ll send their torpedoes directly towards your ship. The point of her analogy was that there will be small torpedoes that you take the hit and move on, but there will be fundamental torpedoes such as your methods where if you’ve got that wrong, the examiners will send a direct hit, and you’ll be sunk. There is no amount of patching up that you can do to save it, and no amount of effective counter weapons can save you and your thesis either.

That analogy flashed across my mind as I watched that torpedo ripple under the waves towards my ship. The opening salvo of the battle of the Viva had begun, and in my head, it had felt as if I’d already lost. “Have you written a thesis that matches your title? We don’t think you have”. Boom. Damage report. Flashing lights and noise fill my head as I scramble to right myself, any sense of I could win this had vanished, any plan of attack I had and had prepared to defend my thesis was thrown out of the window. I scramble for a confident tone in my voice despite feeling my heart in my mouth and my entire PhD crumble around me “Yeah…I have…Absolutely”.

In my head, a million thoughts are rushing around my brain, and an internal dialogue goes on in my head, What have I missed? What has everyone else missed? I’ve planned for this worst-case scenario, but I never thought it would come true, what do I do? Have I failed? Is this a test question? I’ve come so far ahead of the curve people are going to be so let down if I fail. Did I gamble not ever working a Friday? Fuck. Fuck. Breathe Tony. Fight, you know your stuff, believe in your work. Come on! Battle stations!

For the next hour and three quarters, a healthy and in-depth viva discussion occurred with my excellent examiners. I had to take some torpedo hits that I was willing to let happen, but I fought back with my own, defending my thesis and my journey to this point. It was constant, question after question, no time for rest or composure. An intellectual debate of the highest order it had felt as if my brain was in a boxing match. From defending the use of certain words in the thesis, to a discussion of changing my title, to me shouting about the merits of my innovative EVFG that I’d created. Despite that initial blow, I felt that I had recovered throughout the Viva. The examiners seemed pleased with my answers to their tricky questions. I thought I had defended my thesis when needed and let it go when I needed to. For example, I have the term pedagogy in my title, I’ve never liked it, always felt uncomfortable with it in and its corresponding sections in my thesis. It showed in my writing. That torpedo they sent my way was directed right at that. My weakest section, my ships design flaw. They’d honed in on it straight away, a vulnerability I had recognised but put up with because I was in an education department, so it had to be in there, despite my true self being a Geographer, not a pedagogic researcher.

“Pedagogy means something very important to both of us. Why is it in your title? We both agree this is by far your weakest section, everything else is great but this. Let’s get to the bottom of it” was something like how they approached this deciding question of the thesis. I told the truth. I agreed it was my weakest and I explained how I didn’t ever really want it in there but gave it my best shot at putting it in there. I hoped my defence was enough, but there was no real telling from their responses from my perspective. My external sends a giant torpedo my way, I know at this moment that it’s the big one. Depending on my answer, I was either going to be sunk entirely, or I was going to stop that torpedo before it hit me. “Did you make your virtual field guide to enhance the students learning? Or, did you make the virtual field guide to prove a concept exists and if it happened to enhance their learning that was a byproduct?”

I answer without hesitation. The examiners despite the title had seen my vision and my work, I had created this brand new model to prove that as no one has done it before, that the concept could be done and it has benefitted students and educators in their learning on fieldwork, but that is just a fantastic bonus. I’ve proved the concept works, I was so glad that they agreed and were so enthusiastic about it. They saw real merit in it. In this moment I thought I might actually survive.

After what was the longest and quickest 1hr 45 mins of my life and after more thesis defence, the battle of the Viva concluded and I was released to enter the staff room while they spent 30 minutes conferring what my outcome would be. I had no way to tell how it had gone, I had fought back from that opening but I prepared for the worst.

“Oh, here he is!” Tim, my supervisor, exclaimed with a grin as I enter the staff room. “Fucking hell, Tim, that was brutal!” I exhale as I slump into the chair.”Ah can’t have been that bad?” he says jokingly as I turn to him “they want me to change my title, Tim!” I exclaim in exasperation. “Oh” is all he could offer. I then debriefed him on how it went, blow by blow, torpedo by counter torpedo. “I don’t know Tim…after that it could be anything, I suspect moderate but prepare for major. It all depends on if I’ve done enough to let the pedagogy go and defended the VFG well enough…” is my concluding statement of the debrief before I’m interrupted by the internal examiner knocking on the door asking for me and this time Tim, to join me in the room.

The walk up the stairs felt like the longest walk I’ve ever done. In my head, as I always do, expect the worst case scenario, and if its better than that, then that’s a bonus! Sitting down at the table, there were no signs from my external or internal which way this was going to go. My external commends me on how much work I’ve done, which according to him felt like 3 PhDs worth! And commends me on a great and in-depth viva before saying “congratulations Tony, We’d like to award you the PhD pending moderate corrections” I didn’t hear much after that! The examiners went through what corrections where to be made, what to remove and what to add. It had felt earned this moment, despite being mentally exhausted. It had been a hard viva, as hard as everyone says it was going to be. But weirdly, I’m glad it was hard. If the examiners had just said okay that’s great it wouldn’t have felt like the PhD was earnt but now it did. Both Gary and Judith as examiners where exceptional. No question was asked to catch me out, all their questions were to draw out of me clarity of my work and to see me defend every word, every action over the past 2 and a bit years which accumulated in the thesis. A textbook example of how a viva should be done. I can only thank them once again for what was the toughest but ultimately rewarding experience in my academic life thus far.

When I exited the room, I noticed that my old DoS’s door is open, a woman who I could not thank enough for getting me where I am today. If this were indeed a research war, she would have been my commanding officer. Fran was my DoS for just under two years before going on maternity to which my 2nd supervisor Tim took over for the final stretch of the campaign. I also realise at this moment how fortunate I was to have them both! Fran had made her way in especially for my Viva, to be there whether it was good or bad news. I guess while it was nerve-wracking for me, it was in my hands. For Fran, she hadn’t seen or been updated on the PhD for months since she was on maternity so I can only imagine what she must have been feeling as I ventured into that Viva!

I offer a weary, tired knock on her door and enter, god knows how I must have looked! I placed my stuff down on the table as she looked at me with a face that said: “Well, how did it go?”

I manage to raise a smile and just two words “Dr Cliffe!”

Seeing how happy she was for me, it slowly started to sink in just what it was that I had just achieved. In 2 years and 8 months and only working Monday to Thursday on it I had completed a PhD! I give her a quick debrief about the moderate corrections the examiners want me to do. “They’ve given me three months” I relay to her to which she replied “Knowing you, you’ll have it done in three weeks!” she knows me well! I leave and head down the old staircase and out into the bright blue sky and sunshine as I lug my giant thesis between my arms, what once was a mental weight on my shoulders has been lifted as I breathe in that cool fresh air. I offer myself a wry smile as I walk down that path towards my office that I’ve done thousands of times before with the crisp blue skies, lush green rolling grass giving way to the twinkling of the river in the distance capped by the looming Welsh hills. A sight I’d grown fond of over the years, a sight and a path I’ve walked for 2 years 8 months as a student, now finally a Dr.

I walk up to my office and notice a card and a blowup minion sellotaped to our office door. I raise another smile as I peel it away and open the door. For the first time today had I felt comfortable, I was home. H105.

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Thanks Sha!

Opening the door, my dear friend Vic turns around from her PC. I had grown used to and often looked forward to her cheery greeting and smile whenever either of us entered the office for the first time in the day, not so much today. “How did it go?” she asks a hint of nerves I detect. Which is my fault, I told her if I’m not back in 3 hours something awful has happened. A Viva shouldn’t be that long, so if it is that long, I’ve fucked it. As the Viva had started 45 minutes late and post debrief while it had only been 2 hours for me, it was touching 3 hours since I left the office for the Viva! Plus, how I looked hot, sweaty, and shell shocked probably didn’t do much to instil any good vibes from me!

“That was fucking brutal! But I did it! Mod corrections!” that hug was most definitely welcome! Vic joked later on that she’d never seen me like that before, that’s how bad it was! Outwardly and in person I have a firm control over my emotions and as such I have this persona of a very confident, calm and self-assured person. So much so that it is an injoke that I’m a robot. That had gone out of the window by time viva had come around! This robot was trying very hard not to malfunction! A few days before the Viva, I was out on a walk with my close friend Ro to clear my head pre-viva. “Wow, I’ve never seen this side to you before! Where is your confidence!?” truth of the matter is I never really have it I just think I have it!

We are the fellowship of the PhD

Vic came with me to the lunch with my supervisors and my examiners and Katie joined too with another welcome hug (and a fantastic Viva present, a llama lamp!). My mind was still spinning. The journey was over although I knew I still had corrections to do but I was confident in getting them done in a quick turnaround. After an hour or so, I thanked my examiners once again and my supervisors and was given what I was told is a tradition for passing a viva. A giant bottle of Champagne from Fran!

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Post Viva smiles!

I walked back with Vic and Katie to the office, just like so many times before. And that’s where it all feels like a double-edged sword for me, a victory and a loss at the same time. I’ve come and did my duty, I’ve fought my fight and I’ve won, I’ve finished, I’ve survived. Yet, I feel guilty that I’m not back in the fight with them anymore, I feel guilty that I won’t be in the office anymore, I feel guilty that I’m on the other side while they’re preparing to go through it all. They’re not colleagues, they’re not even friends or close friends, they’re more than that, so much more than that to me. They truly are a family to me, there are no other people I would have wanted to share this journey with, to stand shoulder to shoulder within this PhD war. In a war where everything does its best to not make you succeed, in a war which makes you doubt your abilities and in a war which takes you to some incredible lows, they’ve been there, a beacon of friendship, advice, solitude, a light in the dark. H105 and its occupants had become a sanctuary in the chaos. A bond that was forged in adversity would never be broken. We’ve faced it all together. I am forever indebted to them for everything, to them, to Laura, to Rosie and the rest of the PGR community. No words can ever express just how much they have meant to me on this journey. We’ve had highs and lows, we’ve laughed in the sun and we’ve wiped tears away in the rain. We’ve travelled to conferences together and had European adventures. We’ve been rocked by life and we’ve each been a shoulder to cry on. We’ve dropped everything to race to be there when tragedy has struck. We’ve celebrated the little and the big wins as if they were our own. I had to fight back a little tear as I read in my card “we are the fellowship of the PhD”. They mean everything to me.

 

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It really does pain me that I’m not going to be on the frontlines with them anymore, but I can offer something I couldn’t before. As the first to go through this process, I feel like I can be that lighthouse in the stormy seas. I have survived and I know they will survive too, I’m going to make sure that they do. Whether it’s the PhD or the Mphil. My family, my H105, forever stronger together. We can beat anyone and anything! The PhD and life here have thrown so much stuff our way, but we continue to defy the odds and come through it all. I cannot wait to be there when we’re all safe, when we’ve all survived, when we’ve all graduated. When we can all sit back whether we’re in academia or not, PhD or Mphil, and raise our glasses, to the best group of people I have ever known, I raise my glass to H105, the true meaning of the fellowship of the PhD.

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H105, the greatest office of them all

 

My last academic trip to Bergen, Norway

PhDs are a journey and like all great journeys, they’re punctuated by moments, stages and turns. It felt surreal and a very long journey to on the eve of heading off to Norway for my final international and what was to be my last official conference as a PhD student. In my university at least, PhD students are expected to present their work at faculty and university level but to prove yourself you need to present on the world stage. You’re expected to present at both national and international conferences during your term as a PhD student. I’ve been fortunate to present at 4 national and 3 internationals both in the UK, Croatia (which can be read here My visit to Split, Croatia) and finally, here in Bergen, Norway.

What made the final conference trip special was not only was it in a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but for the first time, I’d be presenting twice. Alongside my PhD and my many hobbies, I work as an Editor for the International Journal for Students as Partners. It’s been a fantastic project I’ve been involved in from its inception, and while I still feel like I shouldn’t be there (good old imposter syndrome again), it’s very much been one of those amazing opportunities that I couldn’t turn down. It was most definitely when the opportunity arose to say yes and to learn how to do it later! To be an editor as a student and at this age is unbelievable and so rewarding, despite the amount of voluntary time it takes up in what is a busy schedule. I’m fortunate to not only work on a fantastic and vital journal with world-leading experts in SaP literature but to work with them on the editorial board. Despite the 9pm meetings with colleagues in the UK, Canada, USA and Australia and with the new addition of Hong Kong and Malaysia, it’s been a rewarding and challenging experience. Ruth, my longtime mentor (I’ve gone from being her student to her RA to finally my colleague at IJSaP, we share co-editor responsibilities for all Case Studies the journal receives) was presenting at the ISSoTL 18 conference about the journal alongside her work. What made it special was other colleagues on the board would be presenting too and after years talking to them via a computer screen in our meetings, I’d finally get to meet them all in person!

“The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.”

It’s felt like a long journey from my first ever international conference in Amsterdam when I was an RA for Ruth. Way back then the world of conferences and most certainly at International level was a whole new and confusing world. However, Ruth has been and continues to be an excellent mentor, she guided me through that first international and even allowed me to present solo in that. Throwing you in the deep end was the best way to learn. Therefore, I felt proud and thankful that (a.) I arrive in Bergen comfortable at International Conferences with a few under my belt and (b.) The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.

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Great opening at #issotl18 so far!

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Bergen in Norway was a place that always looked so beautiful, charming and at times, rugged. Nestled in the Fjords with it’s delicately painted shop fronts I was so excited to finally go and a fitting place it was for my final jaunt as a PhD student. With my laptop, camera and the all-important USB stick with my presentation on, I was off to the airport. I flew with a new airline this time (SAS) and on a brand new aircraft type for me, the Airbus A320 NEO (Avgeek win!). Getting to Bergen isn’t that easy! I had to fly from Manchester to Oslo, wait for two hours and then fly onwards to Bergen.

What actually happened, however, was a technical fault with the NEO meant that after a severe delay sitting on the plane, what was meant to be 2 hours turned into a 15-minute dash across Oslo airport including passport control, another security check and then a 2-mile run to catch my flight to Bergen! However, the landing in Oslo was terrific, as was the landing in Bergen! There is something special about flying after sunset across the frozen north, I was tired but filled with excitement for the next few days ahead.

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It's a bit cold here.

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After what felt like a very long day, I arrived in the cold rainy airport of Bergen, Norway, in the dark. After 40 minute tram ride I arrived into the city for the first time, the clatter of my Case behind me. My hotel was near the central train station of Bergen, and through the drizzle and low cloud, I could just about make out one of the three giant mountains that flank this small city. The glow of the street lights that crisscrossed up the mountain disappeared into the darkened sky. Cool, really cool, I thought. My hotel was a typical Scandinavian style, small but well equipped even if it did take me 5 minutes to work out how to turn the lights on! I was on the 8th floor with a giant wall to floor ceilings which made the room feel bigger than it actually was but good luck finding a big hotel room in this part of the world! After a shower, I was off to sleep.

The next morning I awoke to an amazing buffet breakfast and joys to me, free coffee! Nordic countries know how to make super strong coffee, which is just to my taste. The conference weirdly didn’t start until the welcoming ceremony in the evening, so it gave me a full day to go and get a feel for this city, a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. Within moments of walking through this city, I fell in love with it, it had that rustic charm that I found so endearing on my time on the maritime coast of Canada.

This place reminded me so much of St. John’s that all the memories came flooding back, it was just as cold as that place too! I loved the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured wooden shops and houses. In this part of the world, the sun rose late and set early, so I was out way before sunrise, but as the sun rose as I explored the city, I had a big travellers grin on my face!

As followers of my travels will know, I always go and climb the biggest thing there is in any new place I visit. What’s bigger than a mountain top? After a pleasant walk around the city, I put on my hiking boots and set up on the climb to the top of the mountain. After a fantastic walk through streets which turned into gravel tracks lined by dense Norwegian spruce forests, which then cleared away to reveal the city and the Fjords below. Simply stunning and well worth the effort of getting up here, a just reward indeed! I scoped the top of the mountain off for photo opportunities with my camera, and I went for a hike through the forests. I love hiking, especially alone in new places as it has that relaxed adventure vibe that I love. Plus, it’s a new challenge to get the best shots out of this stunning scenery in front of me. I came across dense forests and little lakes with tiny waterfalls. I loved it!

Waterfalls and rain Walkway to the mountain through the forest

However, I couldn’t spend too long as it was down the mountain on a train, which was cool! See the video!

Before it was back to the hotel to shower and change for the opening night of the conference, after all, that’s why I was here! I was presenting as part of the IJSaP team the next day and my PhD work on the final day of the conference in three days. So I devised a plan that evening and the following day I’d spend at the conference. The Friday, I’d go explore more and take a cruise around the Fjords (how could you not when you’re here!) then the Saturday was another conference day before I had a final free day to explore. I won’t talk too much about the conference but wow, what a conference to finish on! A genuinely supportive and enjoyable event to have been a part of. I loved meeting loads of new people, I loved presenting my own work and as part of a team, and it was great to finally meet my fellow colleagues! It truly was a super ending to my time as a PhD student on my final ever international conference.

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Time for a Fjord cruise!

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Away from the conference, however, I skipped a few sessions (don’t judge) to go and explore more of this beautiful city and the surrounding fjords. In between, my two days of presenting, I took a day off from the conference to go and explore the Fjords (I wasn’t the only conference attendee to do so either that day!). I looked online the night before due to the first day with no rain forecast since I got here, for around £60 a cruise would take you out for three hours into the beautiful fjords, I couldn’t turn down such an offer!

My mind casts back to when I sailed out of the river Mersey in torrential April showers with the Battle of the Atlantic fleet, all 26 warships heading out into the wild Irish Sea was a fond memory, but, a distinctly cold one. I’d never been so cold, until this cruise! Walking to the harbour, there was a crunch of ice underfoot as the rising sun glinted off the frost on the ground. I thought I’d get to the boat 30 minutes before departure, but It seems everyone else had the same idea, so I was already far back in the queue. Annoying too as I really wanted to get on the top deck. I was aware of the potential for, but how could you sit inside a boat when you were surrounded by all this beauty! Living in a Norwegian Fjord

Morning in the Fjords

I watched as our ship pulled alongside and before long everyone was boarded and I found a really nice little spot on the top deck. As we trundled out of the city and past the giant ice breaker resupply vessels, it was decidedly calm as we crossed the harbour wall and out into the fjords. Well, that illusion was shattered as the captain opened the throttles, and as the waves and speeds increased, so did the biting icy wind. I had thermals on but I might as well been wearing a t-shirt that’s what it felt like! The pain of the cold and particularly my fingers curled around my camera soon disappeared as I got lost in the beauty of it all. Morning fog hung in the valleys of fjords and the island like a fluffy blanket, the sun now lost behind a thick grey layer of cloud. I couldn’t stop myself from taking hundreds of pictures as I slowly watched the bridges and the fjords loom out of the mist, to then watching the mist swirl and form different shapes and then finally, the sun broke through clearing the mist from the water to reveal stunning peaks and troughs, snow-capped mountains and cascading waterfalls.

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😍

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This has to be the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I get it now, I really get why people put up with the cold to go cruising around the Fjords. As an avid World War 2 follower with history, I was brought to the thoughts of what it was like for both allied and axis ships patrolling such waters in horrific weather and especially the Bismark and Tirpitz who would hide out in the Fjords. Such idyllic location for such a war to be fort, the juxtaposition of the best of mother nature and the very worst of humankind. After three hours and well over 500 pictures, we arrived back on dry land. I could barely move, and my muscles ached from the constant battering of -25c wind chill. I exited the boat and walked straight across the harbour to a coffee shop. The heat inside wrapped around my chilled bones like a much-needed hug. Weirdly, in Norway, everyone’s English accent is well, weird. I’ve heard South African vibes, I’ve heard American and in front of me serving my long Americano was a quintessentially British woman. “Ah, you’re from Liverpool?” I guess my accent was a give-a-way for that. “Yeah, where in the UK are you from?”…”Oh I’m not, I’m from Oslo, I go to university here”. That messed with my head!

“I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out.”

As you know, I am a fond coffee lover, and I’ve sampled many coffee shops all over North America and Europe. There is something about coffee shops, their vibes, the music, the constant chatter and often that cosy feeling. This little coffee shop that looked out into the small busy cobbled streets of Bergen with the harbour glistening behind me was much like the fjords, perfection. I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out. I chatted to the locals and tourists and flicked through my pictures. What a fantastic morning! Back in the hotel, I got the hottest shower I could cope with and got in bed to edit my photographs.

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Coffee views!

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After a sleep and some food, I headed back out into the city to climb that mountain again. Despite still feeling a little frostbitten, I was so amazed by the photo opportunities in this city that I just had to get back out there for a sunset and some star photography. I think whatever you do in life you have to go watch a sunrise or a sunset from the peak of a mountain for you to truly appreciate natures beauty. As always on my trips, I’m often fortunate for mother nature to gift me such epic and truly wonderful sunsets.

After the sun had set and the thermometer dropped well below freezing I ended up hiking through the forest in the pitch black to find a nice spot for some star photography. I felt completely safe here but its possibly not the best idea to hike through a mountain forest with no map or torch, in the pitch black. Not my best idea, but sometimes you have to risk it for a great shot. Of which after stumbling upon a little lake, I was so glad I didn’t turn back. However, out of nowhere, the fog from this morning rolled back in, and I could barely see my own feet.

Nighttime on the lake

Star spangled forests

I used my phone camera to light the way, and suddenly I heard footsteps behind me! I was ready to use my tripod as a weapon, but what it turned out as it passed me in a blur was a local, obviously very used to the weather fell running at night! What a crazy Mofo and I certainly nearly had a heart attack! As soon as it came, the fog went again and the summit cleared to the twinkling lights of Bergen. I sat on an ice-cold slab of concrete with no one else around gazing at the stars and the views of the city far below. I reflected on what a fantastic final conference it had been and how far I had come. My journey as a PhD student was ending, but as I sit looking down upon high, it had been one hell of a journey!

Full album of pictures can be found here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmmmE7Rj