The Value of Vulnerability

“Cheer up, Dad. Did you know the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?”
“Yes. Crisistunity.”
Lisa and Homer, ‘Fear of Flying’, The Simpsons
How do I begin to speak about what my viva was like? I passed it, and that should be enough, but for a month now I have been in perfect agony about what that pass has meant, the qualifiers placed upon it, what mis-steps I may have made that precluded me from an even passier pass.
The viva itself was pretty much a dream come true; I felt quick and energetic, the whole thing went by in a short sixty minutes, and as soon as I stepped outside for deliebrations I knew it had gone well. I’ve always been proud of my project, but the experience of having some of your most respected academics give you the thumbs up is unbelievably validating. When I came home my husband had decorated the house, bought a cake, and put the champagne on ice. For the first time in weeks, I went to bed early and fell asleep immediately.


And then I woke up.


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The day after my viva was one of the worst days I’ve ever had. The high of hearing “This is a really interesting and new concept that I think you’ve defended convincingly,” was suddenly drowned out by “Can you explain a bit more about this? It’s not clear enough what you mean.” I suddenly remembered all the things I hadn’t said; why didn’t I talk about my methodology? Had I conceded defeat too readily on certain corrections? Why on earth would I allow myself to get drawn into an endless contretemps about whether or not the canon is a useful construct? (It isn’t, by the way) I began to feel what turned out to be a lingering insecurity about how well the viva had in fact gone, which turned into an insecurity about how the entire last three and a half years had gone when I read the examiner’s report.


I have to be honest. I found the examiner’s report painful reading. This was partly because receiving faceless, in-depth feedback on something you’ve worked hard on for a long time is difficult, but I also found some of the feedback to be unfair. There were one or two points which were raised at the viva which I feel I defended robustly and on which I sensed the examiner was backing down, so it was frustrating to see them reiterated. There were moments where I felt the examiner was being purposefully obtuse in the name of Devil’s advocacy, and I’ve never responded well to that as an intellectual exercise (the Devil has enough advocates, surely?). For a while I wondered if I was being insufficiently open to feedback, but then I realised while I did find parts of the report unfair, there were other points that I could immediately sense the benefit of, so that couldn’t be the whole picture. I imagine it’s easy to take these things personally, but some of the language used in the report felt excessively negative to me, and for the first time in this whole PhD process, I felt discouraged about my ability and the work I’d done.


To be clear, I don’t blame my examiner for these feelings. I’m sure the report reflected their honest response to my thesis, I’m sure that the positivity they exuded during the viva was authentic, and I’m sure that their intention was not to make me feel insecure. I’m not under the impression that my thesis is perfect, or that anybody is obliged to like it entirely and without qualification. I wish that there was a system of right-to-reply for the report, because I think the ability to defend the choices that I made on the micro, sentence-annotating level into which the report goes would mitigate the feeling left by reading that those choices were wrong. I also wish that early-career academia in general was a little less isolated and a lot more truthful. The PhD process is fraught at every stage, and we do ourselves and each other a major disservice by denying this. Why shouldn’t we admit what makes us feel vulnerable – surely openness about the emotional baggage that comes with the evaluation and implementation of PhD feedback is the first line of defence against the damage caused by that baggage? It’s worth demystifying this, because the feeling of being alone in your problems only emphasises them, which can be terrible for one’s self-esteem.


And what can we do with that vulnerability? It’s a high-risk, high-reward emotional state. It can fuel intense creativity and lend authenticity to our convictions, but it can also make us suspicious of criticism and closed off to new relationships. Tennessee Williams wrote that “All my life I have been haunted by the obsession that to desire a thing or to love a thing intensely is to place yourself in a vulnerable position, to be a possible, if not a probable, loser of what you most want.”[1] If vulnerability grows in proportion to drive, then those of us who are driven to undertake a research project for three or more years are leaving ourselves in a pretty raw position. The flip side of this, of course, is that vulnerability can be an indication that something matters enough to us to push through it. And so in this spirit I’ll push through my corrections, at least those of which I know will make my work an even shinier example of my ability. I’m so close to Doctor.


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The author, two hours post-viva.
[1] Tennessee Williams, ‘Foreword to Sweet Bird of Youth’ in Where I Live: Selected Essays, ed. by Christine R. Day & Bob Woods (New York: New Directions, 1978). pp.105-110. p.106.



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