Orientation · Research

Week 45: First Year Report Viva

Early in the week, I received an email to my inbox from the assessors of my first year report viva, asking to meet up to talk about my report. For background, every first year PhD student in Cambridge needs to submit a report to their department about their research to date and outlining a plan for the future directions. I had submitted mine before I had left for France, and had put it out of my mind entirely. After a bit of negotiation, the viva was arranged for late on Thursday afternoon.

First, though, was an array of meetings. Monday was our regular Orientation Committee meeting. The previous week, we had sent out the Incoming Scholar Survey; for the incoming scholars to confirm their attendance, select their activities, and provide any other information we need to manage the logistics behind the scenes. We were getting a mass of new responses, and were seeking to manage the logistics for those who had unusual requirements or were special cases. Most of the major logistics have now been organised, and we are getting into discussing the smaller bits of detail.

I also had a meeting with Council president, Rebecca, among others, who were seeking cycling-minded people to set up a bike co-op. I approached it with my Orientation co-director hat on, trying to represent the interests of the new scholars, but the meeting slowly devolved from an informal discussion to general socialising at the Mill. I took the opportunity to catch up and trade notes with Alex, who was the previous year’s Orientation co-director. Finally, I had a Gates Council meeting on Tuesday, which went through the usual show-and-tell motions from each of the positions, updating the group on how the Council activities are running.

The Darwin kitchens remained closed, and mine remained under renovation, so I ended up spending a lot of the week at Churchill eating dinner with Jacqueline. On Wednesday morning, I went around to the Real Tennis club and bought myself a brand new tennis racquet from Peter, one of the Pros. Real Tennis racquets differ from Lawn Tennis racquets insofar as they are still made out of the traditional wood, instead of modern carbon fibre or fibreglass. They have an extended handle like a badminton racquet, but an asymmetric head, making them rather rare and unique. There are only a few manufacturers left in the world. I was tired of using the club’s old, spare racquets and wanted one of my own, and so now I have all that I need to be playing the game properly.


Finally, the time arrived for my first year report viva. I went into the department, and found Ben A, one of my assessors, had arrived at the same time. We had to wait for Alex, the other assessor, and we went into the latter’s office. They opened by asking me to briefly summarise my report. I had a copy printed out that I had been reading through. I spoke for a while, describing in broad strokes what the main points of my report were; occasionally they would interrupt and ask for more details. When I finished my summary, the questions continued, picking apart a few of the weaker points of my argument. I had to draw on a number of reserves of knowledge to sandbag the gaps. Then they asked a few leading questions each; I wasn’t quite sure where they we leading, so I fumbled over them. Eventually, I figured out the tangents, and tried to link it back to the main project, or snuff out the irrelevant directions. I felt silly that some of the tangents had taken a while to figure out. Finally, they asked if I had any additional questions, to which I didn’t have any. Feeling numb, I left the office and headed for dinner, confused and bewildered over what had happened. I recuperated and packed my bags for my next upcoming trip: that weekend, Jacqueline, Annalise, Krittika and I were heading for Scotland!

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