As I might have mentioned before, I come from a business background. Now, I am not going to fall into the trap of imagining that it’s always good to transplant practices from the business world into academia, which is an idea that is patronising and often inappropriate. But, there is one topic where some lessons can be learned and that is viva rehearsal.
On academic twitter feeds you can sometimes see people asking, is it a good idea to rehearse for your viva? It may just be me, but I find that even asking the question seems very strange. My former occupation required me to make sales presentations or go to interviews where you had to make a strong impression on a group of senior people assessing you from across the other side of the table. As far as sales presentations were concerned, this was a weekly event for me. It takes a few years of doing this for real, where success and failure have a direct impact on your career, to become competent. There is a strong learning effect; failure, triumph, observing more experienced people, all provide the material that allows you to improve slowly over time.
The most successful business presenters use rehearsal as a key way of preparing for the fray. PhD candidates getting near to their viva very seldom have this level of expertise to draw on and are, as a result, unconsciously ignorant of the skills needed to make the best case they can at their viva, which is, let's face it, one of the most important meetings of their lives.
Rehearsal is a fundamental element in making a successful presentation or impressing hostile interviewers at a meeting and I would recommend it to anyone facing a viva. What reasons could you have for not rehearsing? Failure to rehearse is ignorance or arrogance or both.
So if you are with me so far, what makes for a successful rehearsal?
Timing is key to a good rehearsal; it needs to be early enough so that you can do something about the recommendations that result from it. I would think three to four weeks before the viva is about right.
This should mimic as far as possible the actual location for the viva. Back in my business days I would try to get to see the actual room before the big day, so that I knew I would feel comfortable in it. At the very least, make sure that you have a decent sized room with a table and chairs where you won’t be interrupted.
These should be two of your academic colleagues who have been through the viva process themselves and like you enough to read most of your thesis and to think up appropriate questions. Favourite viva questions are readily available online. The reading burden can be reduced by sending each interviewer, using a humanities thesis as an example, the following chapters:
Two content chapters each
It may well be a good idea for the candidate’s supervisor to attend the rehearsal and to take notes. I don’t think that a supervisor can be sufficiently distanced from the thesis to make a good interviewer.
Viva rehearsals have two main functions. The first is to make the candidate more comfortable with the process, the second is to make them more confident about dealing with the content of their thesis.
As far as process is concerned, the emphasis for the interviewers should be to replicate as far as possible the conditions for the actual viva. The lead interviewer should introduce themselves, explain what happens next and how they will communicate the results of the practice viva. A series of questions follow. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a good idea to drop out of role play and to stop the rehearsal and to go over a particular answer or explain why it needed some improvement. It’s a judgement call that is a function of how confident the candidate is. It is probably best for nervous candidates to go all the way through the rehearsal and then deal with the improvements that are required. The rehearsal is an opportunity to practice: tone of voice, body language, getting to the point, smiling … all the things that build up to a confident performance.
As far as content is concerned, the rehearsal should try to encourage the candidate to get a distance between themselves and their thesis, so that they can see it objectively as a piece of work that has strengths and weaknesses, but one that satisfies the technical requirements of a doctorate. The rehearsal should be an opportunity for the candidate to get over any sense of embarrassment that they may have about discussing their own work in public. It will also point out weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge of their thesis, giving them time to improve their indexing, highlighting etc.
The ideal outcome from a rehearsal is for the candidate to think of themselves as equal to the examiners in status. Ideally, the viva should then consist of three members of the academy having an interesting discussion about a thesis, rather than a supplicant defending themselves from an attack from his or her superiors.
This level of preparation provides a candidate with much of what is needed to successfully handle small, perhaps conflictual, meetings. Most examiners are kindly and well intentioned and will respond positively to a meeting that the candidate has prepared for properly.
When undertaking doctoral research, you are of course influenced by a number of academics whose books you have read, but are never likely to meet. My PhD was on the impact of the car on middle-class suburban London between the wars. Two authors I admired on a long reading list were Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince) and Sean O’Connell. Matt’s work on an alternative history of the mid twentieth century capital Queer London, was beautifully written, exhaustingly researched and really different. Sean’s groundbreaking social history of driving The Car in British Society sparked my interest for my PhD project.
Unlike younger doctoral students, I had worked in business, specifically sales, for many years and this definitely influenced me in the way I supplemented my research by asking the authors I admired for some help. In the business world, if you want to meet someone or to find out something, it is usually possible to get in touch to arrange a short meeting. So, when I was busy with the early stages of my research, it seemed normal to me to get in touch with academics whose work I admired. I now know that some people in the academy might think this approach a bit weird, or unseemly, or pushy. Well, perhaps, but senior academics are generally pretty grown up and capable of looking after themselves. If they don’t want to be bothered by an upstart student they can just say they are too busy. I found that a carefully written email was enough to get a meeting and that I did not need to use a plea from my supervisor.
My approach was to write to Sean and Matt and say could I meet them for a cup of coffee for 45 minutes to discuss my work. I’m pretty sure Sean thought this was odd because he worked in Belfast and I was in London. Still, it was £50 on a budget flight well spent as far as I was concerned ( I understand that not everybody has £50 spare). Sean kindly accepted my offer of a coffee and we spent an hour together talking about my thesis. It was great to talk to the expert in my chosen field and I came away with lots of solid advice. In fact, one small thought transformed my research. I had been using The Autocar as a key primary source and I didn’t know, but Sean told me, that there was an index to the magazine, which not all libraries had with their copies. This nugget transformed by research, focussing me in on my topics instead of endless reading through copies of the magazine.
I met with Matt at his rooms in Magdalen College in Oxford, again for 45 mins. I was interested in discussing Kate Meyrick the infamous owner of many of Soho’s illegal nightclubs in the 1920s. Matt was full of good advice, and also wanted to discuss my research, which was of course flattering and great. Two things happened as a result of this meeting. Firstly, Matt was one of the organisers of an interwar history discussion group and he asked me to join. This allowed me to meet lots of big names in the field and present papers and generally build my confidence. Secondly, we were able to join up our research in a small but interesting way. Between us we were able to establish that parties of queer men visited suburban roadhouses for a night out in the 1930s. The queer liaison history was new to me, and the roadhouse stuff new to Matt. This one small research gain has had a big impact on my future work and is one of the reasons I am still researching and writing about roadhouses.
Experienced academics are usually open to a brief meeting as long as you explain why you want to meet them and you are clear that it won’t last too long and that the least they will get out of it is a cup of coffee. The benefits of expanding your network in this way will surprise you.
By which I don’t mean publishing at the Co-op, although they do funerals and travel so perhaps it is possible.
I am in fact talking about my current book project, 1930s London: The Modern City. I will write about the book itself at some later date. My first book, The Experience of Suburban Modernity, was published by Manchester University Press, which is, of course, a very prestigious organisation. They offered an excellent and conventional experience for this newbie author. They commented on my proposal, they sent drafts to a reader, they delivered editing, copy editing, technical support, printing, series branding, marketing and distribution. This was all provided at no cost to me. From a financial point of view, all I had to pay for was the photographs. In return, I get a modest royalty from sales of the book. This is the business model that has been used in publishing since Charles Dickens was a young lad.
For a new author, the advantages of using a major academic publisher are enormous; most important of all, it guarantees that your writing will be given the benefit of the doubt. If you are with a major imprint then you can’t be a complete fool. This privilege comes with some constraints. You soon learn that it is as much their book as yours, in some areas it is definitely their book not yours. Format, size, typefaces, layout, pricing etc. etc. are not open for discussion. Quite right too, anything else would not make business sense.
One of the conditions of my contract was that I had to give MUP first refusal on my next book. I proposed London in the 1930s, which is a sort of hybrid academic/coffee-table book and because they don’t publish this sort of thing, they passed up this wonderful opportunity. Discussions I have had with other academic publishers suggest that they would have done so as well.
At the same time as these discussions were being held, the world of publishing was facing a hugely disruptive effect from the rise in tablets, e-books, self publishing and micro publishing. For fiction, access to readership for new authors seems now to have shifted to Amazon where through variable pricing and crowdsourced reviews, authors can break through into the mainstream world of physical books, while there still are some. Fiction publishers can now bid for authors who have already proved that their work sells. It can’t work in the same way for academic publishing and the endgame for this genre is hard to forecast.
Meanwhile, I was discussing my predicament with a friend of mine, Maddy who is the owner of Yellowback, a small company that provides editorial services to academic journals, and editing and copy editing to authors (www.ybediting.com) . Yellowback are beginning to move into micro-publishing which is a natural extension of its current work. Chatting my problem through, it became apparent that we ought to be working together on this project. So we came up with a plan to produce a book between us as a co-operative project breaking down the barriers found in the traditional publishing model.
Yellowback are responsible for editing, sourcing designers and printers, marketing and distribution. I am responsible for the intellectual content and selection of photographs. In the middle we are both responsible (contract lawyers, please look away now, you will find some scenes disturbing) for agreeing the design, fonts, cover, blurb, page layout, page size, paper quality, book pricing and anything else that is not specifically spelled out in our agreement. Maddy and I are friends, and we see the project as a bit of an adventure, but for a normal commercial arrangement, these mutual responsibilities would have to be carefully thought through.
Projects like this have some set-up costs that would normally be exclusively paid for by the publisher. In this particular version of co-operative publishing the initial costs are shared between author and publisher. The receipts from sales pay off these costs before any profits are distributed. Any profits are then shared between publisher and author on a negotiated basis, determined by the allocation of work and who takes the most risk on the initial investment. For the author, the profit share is likely to be far higher than a royalty model would provide. One of the key benefits of this approach is that if the book fails, the author loses money, which keeps everybody keen. Of course, for this to work, the author has to find some funding. In my case, my employer, the University of Westminster has provided some partial financial support from their research budget. The logic behind this is that my book will deliver some demonstrable impact for the next REF, or maybe they just like the idea.
The benefits of the approach for the academic author are manifest. In short, you have a lot of artistic control over how the book will look. I was able to have a real discussion on photo size, fonts, page layouts, paper quality etc. etc. Of course it helps that Maddy is very open to my ideas. You are committed to the project’s success in a far more immersive way than in the traditional model. Discussing which distribution channels to use and how the printer gets the books to Amazon and how much it costs to store them and send them to customers is fascinating. The time to market is much quicker too. The time from submission of manuscript to finished book is going to be about four months.
So, is this an alternative to the traditional way of producing an academic monograph? Yes, but the market needs to develop. In Maddy, Yellowback has an experienced editor with a doctorate who is very connected to the academic world. This means that she can find an appropriate academic reader for the book who will understand what we are trying to achieve. Without these credentials, what is left would be a sort of facilitated self-publishing, which would not be seen as credible. The other issue is finding the initial funding to pay for the printing and design. Experienced academics might be able to access QR funds in exchange for some of the book’s future profit share; the department might even make a surplus on the deal. Younger academics, who have not yet made their way in their university career, would struggle. Of course, the middle class ones could get their parents to ante up, so the system would be discriminatory in a most unhelpful way, even though the traditional route would still be open.
I will report back on progress as the book takes on its physical form.
I am speaking at a conference next week, which I am very much looking forward to. I consider myself an experienced presenter, as I have been talking in public for about 35 years or so. Of course, this doesn’t make me a great presenter, but I have at least reached a state of general competence. I enjoy presenting and the sound of my own voice, which fits my self-diagnosed psychological profile as a noisy introvert.
At least 25 of my 35 years experience in speaking were in business. Before I became an academic, I worked as a management consultant for a large international business and that required me to present sales, technical and other stuff to audiences around the world, but mostly in Britain and the United States.
I have now transitioned into making presentations to academic conferences with a recent stab at radio, which seemed to go fairly well. I was thinking this morning that although the skills needed to present in the commercial world and in academia are the same, the audiences you present to are very different. Not better or worse, just different. I thought it might be helpful, to explain the differences as I see them, particularly for doctoral students wishing to make the reverse journey from academia to business. Presenting ideas clearly to an audience is one of a PhD student’s key transferable skills, but it is worth noting the differences.
Please forgive the ridiculous generalisations I have made, I’m not trying to be balanced here…
In business, punctuality is expected and is seen as a sign of efficiency and of respect for the audience. Most speakers rehearse their presentations to ensure that they work, but also to make certain that they do not overrun the time allowed. I have noticed that, in the academy, it is not unusual to start a bit late and then to overrun the timeslot. If you do this in business then you stop getting asked to present, whereas in academia the cleverness of your idea determines whether you present or not.
A key advantage of presenting to an academic audience is that they are almost always there voluntarily (I don’t mean teaching students) so they are keen to hear what you have to say to see if it tells them something new, or might provide the possibility of a collaboration, or to ensure their work is not contradicted. Whatever, they are normally paying attention to the speaker. In commerce, this often not the case; people are obliged to go to presentations that they are not very interested in, or do not concern them and so often aren’t listening. The fact that most people are not listening to what you are saying allowed me to gain confidence as a speaker, but that is a small benefit in a much larger negative. One might think that in business an exaggerated 'salesy' tone is required. Not really. People respond to confidence in both spheres.
Business presenters never read from a script. This would be seen as the mark of someone who doesn’t understand the detail behind their presentation and is nervous about talking in public, which would be two black marks. It is just about acceptable to use cards as reminders of the structure of the presentation. In business, presenters are keen to engage an audience and take the techniques of presentation very seriously, whereas in the academy, a lot of inexperienced presenters don’t get the important feedback that they are failing to connect and need to do something about it. This is one aspect where academia is far more polite than business and it is not a very helpful trait. Of course, academic work requires a high level of precision which is why a script is useful, but it would help speakers to get their point across if they looked at the audience and changed the pace and tone of their speech from time to time.
Business audiences are more tolerant of the use of very detailed slides. It is accepted that some topics are very technical and deserve some detail. It is normal to share these slides before the presentation to give the audience time to think about the topic. The slides they use will be immaculate, but then they have the software and marketing support to make them look great.
Questions and response
Generally in business when the chair asks if there are any questions, there may be none, whereas in academia this would be seen as the height of rudeness and the chair will ask some starters. If a businessperson asks a question they are probably doing it to find out something they don’t know or don’t understand. In academia, as is well known, some questions from the audience will be in the form of statements or act to direct the audience to the questioner’s own work and eminence. This passive-aggressive stuff is found irritating by all, it would seem, but is not called out by the over-polite audience.
I had been on a good run recently. I had a couple of articles accepted on material I am strong on, stuff that was an extension of the work I did for my PhD and for my first book. I had been asked to do two radio interviews on suburban modernity. So it was with some eager anticipation that I opened an email from a journal editor to whom I had sent a prospective article. It was a rejection. A bit of surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. I know that rejection is statistically far more likely than acceptance, but I had got used to the idea of succeeding. This particular article was in a new, but cognate, field from my previous work and with this result I was forced to learn again some lessons that I already knew.
The first of these was the danger of unconsciousness ignorance. In my field, I mostly know what I don’t know and can carry out whatever extra research is needed to fill the gaps. If I have missed something, the referees will tell me. It turned out that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Secondly, I had become complacent, thinking that if I was capable in one field (which took ten years to master) then I would be successful in anything else I was interested in.
Thirdly, I fell in love with my research. This is something I was warned about many years ago, and in turn, I warn students of today. My research was so intriguing that I failed to place it into its historiography in a convincing way.
I read somewhere that if you keep getting your articles accepted then you are not trying hard enough, meaning you have to keep pushing the boundaries. It turned out that I wasn’t trying hard enough in a different way. After a bit of sulking, I got engaged with the topic again and was quite excited to learn from my referees that I had a lot of new reading to do and new ideas to absorb and that, if I did that, then I had the possibility of producing something worthwhile and different.
Almost all the writing I have done in my life has been of a technical or academic nature. When I worked in the commercial world, I had to be careful to keep my writing accurate and to the point, but to quickly engage the reader. When I moved into the academic world, I had to learn how to write in a new way, pretty much from scratch.
You will know what I mean by this. Ensuring that I engage with a sometimes wide historiography, making sure that every use of someone else’s work is properly designated as such and is accurately cited, explaining how I know certain things to be ‘true’. My writing became drained of the elements I used to be proud of, such as what passes for my sense of humour and the ability to conjure up from a set of conceptual ideas what they might mean for a reader.
I am writing something different at the moment, which is a cross-over history book aimed at the sort of history geek who is always found furtling around the history section at Waterstone’s. (i.e. me about ten years ago). I am trying to write something that is serious and has a thesis but which can be appreciated without a literature review and footnotes. It is a sort of coffee table book where I discuss fifty photos from modern London in the 1930s. For each photo I am writing about 450 words, so with an introduction, about 25,000 to 30,000 words.
The good news is that by removing the strictures of academic convention, I can get the narrative and the idea over to the reader very quickly, so that they can see why I found a particular photo intriguing and why it tells us something important about the history of the 1930s. This has made my writing much more immediate and accessible (I think). The bad news is that this format makes building up a sustained argument difficult, as complex ideas are rendered in plainer tones than they really require. I am attempting to solve this by building up the case, picture by picture. I will be reliant on Maddy Hatfield, my editor at Yellowback, to kick me around enough to make sure that I get there. At the moment, because I am treating my first drafts independently for each picture I am repeating my ideas a little, and that will all need to go.
On balance, I like writing for a wider audience. It is good to get to the point inside a few paragraphs. It feels more like journalism than academic writing but that is OK with me for the time being. I also feel like I am learning a new skill and that is a good feeling at my, or anybody else’s, age.
So, yesterday I did my interview at Resonance FM. My appointment was for 11, but because I have a ( it turns out) regressive punctuality gene, I rocked up at about 10.30 and sat in the nearby Pret and had a coffee. I'm pretty sure that sitting in a Pret a Manger does not qualify you as a boulevardier, the boulevard in question being Borough High Street. Resonance FM are located in one of the yards behind a building on the High Street, one which is so typical of this area reflecting its quite recent adaptation from housing businesses in the fur, hops and tea trades to radio stations and coffee shops, a possible metonym for much of central London.
Resonance's studio was busy when I arrived. The red light was on, very exciting. Inside was my colleague from the University of Westminster, Dr. Rachel Aldred who was speaking about her project to understand more about near misses of accidents that cyclists experience on their daily rides. When they had all finished it was my turn to be interviewed by Jack Thurston, the host of The Bike Show.
I am doing a radio interview next Thursday for Resonance FM with Jack Thurston of The Bike Show. This is an interesting thing for me. I'm used to speaking in public for small or larger audiences, but sitting across the room with just one person and a hidden audience is something new and a little intimidating. To the rescue comes my next door neighbour Simon Mattacks who just happens to be one of the country's leading voice-over artists and voice coaches. So I nipped next door to sit in his studio and have him rehearse me for an hour or so. The first thing he told me was that I would need a glass of water. My God!, I needed about a gallon of water. There is something about it, nerves etc. that turns your throat dry. With help from Simon , I got my earphone levels right and started to make a bit of sense. What was clear to me, which was I suppose bleeding obvious, was that I needed to be really precise about what I was going to say. Well I thought I knew the contents of my book pretty well. I wrote it don'tcha know. It turns out, not really. So how did cycling contribute to interwar modernity? Well, cough, it's very complicated, um, y'know. Anyway, there is time for a bit of rehearsal before the day and it turns out that Jack wants to hear some readings from one of my primary sources, an odd book by an odd guy who cycled round suburban London in the late 1930s. That should be more straightforward. I will report back on the outcome. (Only if successful)