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Is it possible to do a PhD without doing the viva?

(29 Posts)
BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 11:10:12

I think I know its not possible, which is why I can't ask anyone face to face...

I'm half way through my masters, I loved my degree, love my course and I'm a good student. I am also mad as a box of frogs (not in a fun way, in a serious mental health way - schizophrenia, bipolar, and psychosis) and suffer with intense anxiety. I can't present. I just can't. I am violently sick and have panic attacks for weeks before a presentation comes up and to date I have been unable to do any of them. I always plan to, I really do, but the illness takes over every time. its crippling.

My dissertation supervisor in encouraging the PhD, which I would love to do, but there is no way I will be able to do a viva if I can't even manage in class presentations.

I'm not concerned about career prospects, I have none. Uni is my therapy really but I will never be well enough to hold down a job. I use student finance to fund my studies so I can't just do another degree, (I wish!) So it would be PhD or nothing...

History/literature btw.

Lisette40 Mon 27-Nov-17 11:13:40

I found my history viva was more like a discussion rather than a presentation. How did you find undergrad exams? Were you able to manage the anxiety then?

Lisette40 Mon 27-Nov-17 11:16:00

Can you see it as an extension of your supervision discussions? I do feel for you but I can't see how a viva can be avoided.

fivepies Mon 27-Nov-17 11:18:21

How are you with sit down meetings rather than presentations? The viva isn't about you standing up and presenting your research, it's typically a sit down discussion (how formal it is depends on the examiners). My viva was just me, the internal examiner and external examiner sat around a table. Would this seem any less unachievable to you?
It sounds as if you are really suited to doing a PhD in many ways, but not being able to present is tricky as PhD students are now expected to discuss their research much more outside their supervision meetings i.e. reviews by other staff members, going to conferences etc.
How aware is your dissertation supervisor about the challenges you face? They'll be keen not to let a good student go, so perhaps chat to them about what they and your institution can do to help you? Good luck.

Lancelottie Mon 27-Nov-17 11:20:01

There might be some adjustment available for your disability. I've lost touch with the friend who had some adjustment made for his very severe stammer, but IIRC he had a sort of question-and-written-answer session rather than a presentation or face to face viva. (His other option would have been to turn up roaring drunk, in which state he was far more fluent than usual, but I don't think they'd have gone for that.)

Thetreesareallgone Mon 27-Nov-17 11:21:41

I don't think so, sorry.

Also vivas can differ from a conversational discussion, to an intense 2/3 hour interrogation about your topic (mine). It is expected you can defend your work, your thesis.

You also do this in an upgrade at my uni which lasts 1-2 hours, at the end of the second year.

You could talk with the disability service about what adaptations could be made so that you are not discriminated against due to your condition. That said, they will usually be an adaptation of the existing set-up, not the option to just not do it at all.

If you are not fussed about doing this for career reasons, then could you carry on studying anyway, using MOOCS if you run out of money.

This is a really difficult problem, I can't think of an obvious solution, but it's a shame if you feel you can't do a PhD because of that.

I'd also say that doing a PhD tends to be very stressful because of the isolation/lack of structure, and mental health difficulties are very common amongst PhD students, so that's another thing to bear in mind. That said, a good uni will have support services.

BikeRunSki Mon 27-Nov-17 11:22:45

My viva was a fairly informal chat. It was quite a long chat, but I didn’t have to present anything. I’m an engineer if that makes a difference..

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 11:27:43

sad I thought as much.

Exams are fine, essays are fine, dissertations are fine. I'm not anxious about them at all. I only study because I enjoy it and I love writing about my subject and grab any chance to do so. The anxiety comes in actually presenting - due to the meds I take to control my mental health I'm always 'sluggish'. Its like constant brain fog and my speech is often slurred and confused. I appear drunk, I suppose, which makes me incredibly anxious in any social situation. (As I think it would anyone).

May I ask, what was the set up like? Is it like facing an interview panel or more sitting around a table? ( I realise how inconsequential this would be to most people, but I am trying to find anyway I could make this possible!)

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 11:28:28

Sorry, there was only two posts when I replied, reading through now smile

LaContessaDiPlump Mon 27-Nov-17 11:30:00

My viva involved sitting at a table with my internal and external examiners, and they went through it section by section. They asked questions and I answered, defending the position/admitting errors as needed. It ended when my internal had to leave to collect her daughter from school grin

Honestly, they can be very very informal.

MuggaTea Mon 27-Nov-17 11:35:15

In the Uk, it is typically you, an internal examiner and external examiner sitting round a table. It is more informal than an interview. Good examiners are there to help you demonstrate your knowledge, not to trip you up.

They are used to nervous candidates! Speak to your supervisor about your concerns.

Honestly, a phD is more about hard-work and stamina. You should get support through your course to help you prepare for public speaking and your viva.

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 11:42:11

Oh I'm so glad I posted!
This morning I was sure it would be impossible but there seems to be some variation with how these things are conducted. So that could mean there may be adjustments I could ask for with my disabilities. Student services have been great with that so far. A sitting down chat would be much more possible than standing up presentation. It really is the little things that help when you're this mental.

My mental health has improved so much whilst studying and I really don't want to stop. I can't go back to rocking in the corner waiting until med-o'clock sad

Isolation sounds great to me - I would have done undergrad and MA by distance had it been an option. The lack of structure could be an issue, but they run language courses here that I would sign up to and I think that would be more than enough to shape my week around.

Thank you for your replies. I'm going to email student services and see what they can offer smile

Lisette40 Mon 27-Nov-17 11:53:37

Do email Student Services. I used to work in a branch of disability support post-PhD and there is a lot of support available.

For my viva, I had a face to face discussion which was robust but fair. We didn't have a table, just three chairs arranged in a circle. I actually quite enjoyed it as it was a chance to defend and explain my approach. I also had a captive audience of two people who had read the PhD and who were happy to discuss and challenge it!

I suffer from anxiety and I psyched up to go in only to find the examiner was running late. I had to go away until he turned up!

Good luck!

GentlyGentlyOhDear Mon 27-Nov-17 11:55:31

I had terrible anxiety through my PhD about presentations and my viva. I also seriously considered dropping to an MPhil to try to avoid a viva. Looking back, I was very unwell for a lot of the time. I was absolutely dreading it, but I survived and it was ok! You have a lot of say in who your examiners are, so I was comfortable with them and they were aware of my anxiety before hand. It was absolutely fine. The anticipation was much worse than the experience.

I think that if you just want to do a PhD for personal reasons rather than career (which was the case for me also), then can you view it as, 'oh well it doesn't matter if I perform terribly in the viva as I don't need to have the PhD on my cv' etc?

Thetreesareallgone Mon 27-Nov-17 11:57:02

If you are really nervous, this won't necessarily affect the result of the PhD. I was with a very nervous student recently and they didn't do a great job in the viva, but their written work was strong and they ended up with the same amount of corrections they would have done anyway (in my opinion). I was very nervous and didn't do an amazing job in my viva, but still have a PhD now!

NotDavidTennant Mon 27-Nov-17 12:00:01

My advice is to make sure you choose a supervisor who is understanding of your problems. A sympathetic supervisor will be an ally in making sure that the University makes reasonable accommodations for you mental health and in helping choose examiners who will put you at your ease during the viva.

themostinterestinglife Mon 27-Nov-17 12:29:00

Please, please do not let this be a reason for not doing a PhD. I have been in this situation; developed severe mental health problems during the second year of my PhD. These included amnesia, dissociative disorders and post traumatic stress, to the point where I had no recollection of even doing some of my PhD work. I would have to read papers again and again and again; I would look at a piece of writing and have no idea that I had written it; only if my name was on the top of the page would I know if it was my work or not. I refused to walk in to any room that had people in it that I didn't know. I delayed handing in my thesis because I was so scared of doing my viva - how could I defend my work if I couldn't even remember doing it?

But I did :-). With the support of excellent supervisors, my internal examiner, the university disability support office, and the university counselling service. The disability office helped me write guidance for the examiners. It was a bullet point list of ways to communicate that would help: please avoid a confrontational tone; please repeat questions if necessary; examiners may need to return to aspects of the conversation later in the viva, to allow further discussion; please allow the student time to write down your questions, and to refer to her written notes if necessary.

My supervisor made sure this guidance was sent to the internal and external examiners beforehand. Also, my internal spoke with me beforehand about where I would be most comfortable to have the viva take place; I asked for a room away from the busiest part of the building, with windows (felt calmer if I could see out!). I had some counselling sessions at the university specifically on how to deal with the viva, in the three/four months leading up to it.

In the end I nearly enjoyed the experience...wouldn't quite go so far as to say the viva was fun, but it wasn't unpleasant! The examiners conducted the viva in such a way that academic standards were maintained, but without it needing to be a confrontational, negative, stressful exam. It was clear that the guidance that we had sent had been read, understood and followed by the examiners and that made all the difference. And at the end my examiners said I had defended my thesis well, which meant a lot; almost more than getting the PhD itself. So use the resources the university has available to you, seek help early, and have faith that it will be ok and you can do it. I was so well supported by a number of academics throughout the process, they were great. Good luck!

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 12:29:31

Gently, yes, that's totally my approach to it - I don't have a cv, no one will ever know if I totally fucked it up and failed anyway! Channelling my inner hippy - I'm here for the journey, man! It is yet to help the anxiety in the sense of actually doing a presentation, but it helps in that I should do the phd anyway and not worry about failing.

Thetree, that's great to hear! (Not that either you or your student were anxious, of course, just that its still possible to pass in that state).

This is all much more positive than I expected. Thank you all so much.

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 12:36:53

Themost, thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like you went to hell and back so I'm glad it worked out for you in the end and it sounds like really useful, and reasonable adjustments were made so you could complete. Those sort of things would make a huge difference to me, too. I'm writing them down.

I can relate to so much of what you have said. I have felt anxious in lectures and concentrated on taking notes to avoid my defunct brain. Written reams and reams of notes, only to read them later and realise I wasn't even writing words! just bloody letter chains like the little ones do in nursery!

PickleFish Mon 27-Nov-17 12:47:16

Mine was definitely a sitting down chat.

i have great anxiety. My internal examiner asked me beforehand what kind of things would help. I took beta blockers, and i made sure I knew exactly where/when/how things would be conducted, so I could mentally rehearse as much as possible.

It was fairly informal. I didn't have to present anything; they took the lead and asked about my work, some questions, pointed out a couple of typos, etc. It helped that I knew the internal examiner already. There were only two of them in there. I didn't feel they were ever trying to catch me out - they want to pass people, and just have to make sure that it's justified, rather than trying not to pass you unless they have to! So no tricks or anything, just making sure I had done it all, I knew what it was about, I could answer more detailed questions about what I'd done or where I'd go with the research in the future, etc. It wasn't 'defensive' in the sense of them playing devil's advocate and trying to disagree, but just asking sensible questions about the arguments and research.

It would be worth finding out from your supervisor whether he/she'd continue supervising you, who your internal examiner might be, what the process is, etc, unless you want to change universities. Some have more people than others in the viva. Mine was one internal and one external, and not my supervisor, though I think some places do include your supervisor. You also get a say in who the examiners are, both internal and external, though I think it's your supervisor who actually asks/arranges it.

genever Mon 27-Nov-17 12:56:28

The viva is not a presentation. It's you and three people in a small room who don't know your thesis as well as you do.

I did find that there were frequent expectations to do things that required speaking/presenting in front of people along the way, such as presenting research at postgrad seminars and conferences, teaching undergrad seminars, speaking at reading groups, etc.

You might be able to get out of all of those.

But more importantly, I think there are much more significant considerations given the mental health problems that you have. I would personally advise you to think *extremely* carefully before embarking on a PhD.

I have seen at very close hand what trying to work towards a PhD can do to people whose mental health is not great to start with. My ex-husband had an absolute hell of a time, (suicidal, severe clinical depression, self-harm, violence) and ultimately did not complete his PhD. It also led to us divorcing.

While i never had any problems on the scale that he did, I left academia a year after completing my PhD and have never ever wanted to return.

The pressure to deliver something massive by a particular date is really difficult. I also think you may underestimate the isolation: not the physical isolation, but the intellectual isolation. This is very different from doing a taught course or even an MA dissertation.

I think, from your OP, that you would be applying for funding. That is another stress; if you don't complete by a certain date, you have to repay all the money you've received.

Even when universities grant extensions and sabbaticals and accept medical certificates etc. etc., ultimately it can and does break people. I have seen this very close up and it's not pretty.

As you say, it's not essential as a career step for you, so if I were you, I would really strongly consider independent study. You can then still enjoy learning and even writing, if you want to, but without the huge pressure.

All the best.

PickleFish Mon 27-Nov-17 15:01:24

That is another stress; if you don't complete by a certain date, you have to repay all the money you've received.

This was not the case for me, so it varies from funding source to funding source.

I was still under pressure to complete within a certain time limit, as it would have affected the department's access to future funding (even from different providers), but I don't think that is the case any longer in my old department. And it's not like they could have done anything if I didn't complete - they just wanted to try to make sure I did, which would have been giving any further support possible. I wouldn't have had to pay anything back. It's worth checking what the rules might be in your case before you make any decisions.

LetsSplashMummy Mon 27-Nov-17 15:03:35

Academia does involve quite a lot of presenting though, it's how you share your independent work with others and is essential to peer review. I had to attend conferences and enter abstracts with hope of presenting as part of my PhD. It was also a condition of my department to take turns presenting at lunchtime and journal clubs, even taking the odd lecture for my supervisor. I think it is to help prepare for lecturing. If you don't want to go further in academia anyway, perhaps see if there is a research assistant type job in your area instead? Maybe consider a PhD when you have more confidence or have received help for this particular phobia.

BabyDubsEverywhere Mon 27-Nov-17 19:48:07

"presenting research at postgrad seminars and conferences, teaching undergrad seminars, speaking at reading groups, etc."

Good point, I will ask student services how that would work for me when I go in and see them. They have asked me to go in and talk it through when we go back in January. but they said not to panic, and that there's help available, so that's hopeful! I am wondering how that works for distance phds? Or are you still expected to go to the uni and do these things?

I am planning on using the student finance funding, as that should be up and running by Sept 18. If that funding doesn't go ahead it wont be an option anyway. I wouldn't want to even try for other funding sources, it would feel disingenuous when I'm only doing it for interest. (I feel 'wrong' enough about using student finance!)

I would love to wait out my health issues but I have been living with this for over a decade and I can't see any big changes coming, it is what it is. I've been much more stable whilst studying than the years before when I was rotting, really. I dip terribly in the summer when I have little to work on. I do Moocs, I've done hundreds of them and they are great but its not the same with no pressure at all. As weak as I sound being as ill as I am, I love the pressure of having to turn things in etc, having a purpose, of sorts.

I'll see what student services can do in the new year, but I am considering everything you have all said so thank you for the different perspectives.

Booboostwo Mon 27-Nov-17 20:14:34

In some subjects at some Unis it is possible to do a PhD by publication.

My viva was also a very civilized affair. I was told I had passed as soon as I walked in and then we discussed publication ideas. They are not all an awful drilling.

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