There was a moment, a brief, foolish moment, when it seemed like Spring was about to arrive. And then, at the very end of February, Winter returned to England and as I sit here typing in the Radcliffe Camera, the lawn outside is once again blanketed with snow. There is something wonderfully concentrating about being inside while snow or rain fall outside. I would be lying, however, if I said I would not prefer the rains of Springtime to the snows of a second Winter.
However. As the snows do fall, I have now found myself working on a 5000 word essay which I will present to the Theology Faculty as part of the next step in my DPhil process.
In comparison with the five or seven or nine years it can take to get a PhD in the US, and the extensive coursework and hoop-jumping that the US process entails, getting a doctorate in the UK is relatively straightforward and self-driven. There are no classes. There are no grades. Instead, it’s just me and my supervisor and an increasingly large pile of read, unread, half-read, and optimistically-skimmed books. However, there are a handful of way stations on the way, if everything goes according to plan. The essay I am presently carving out of the rather middling-quality stone blocks of my reading so far is part of the first milestone: the Transfer of Status.
Upon entering Oxford on the DPhil course, I was not immediately given the status of a DPhil student. Rather, we all begin with the rather delightful title of “Probationer Research Student.” I think that makes my supervisor my probation officer. Given that all postgraduate students must live within 25 miles of Carfax tower at the center of the city, the parallels grow more uncanny.
In order to progress from PRS to DPhil status, I have to present the faculty with two pieces of writing: 1) a 500 word abstract of my research giving my project a title, summarizing the project’s goals, and outlining how I am going to get from here to there and 2) a 5000 word writing sample, on the topic of the project, perhaps constituting a draft of a chapter. Finally, after submitting the writing to the faculty, it will be read by two of its members who will then interview me on my research to make sure I really do have some sense of what I’m doing here.
Assuming this goes well, I will be given full DPhil status, and the next way station is the Confirmation of Status viva (that is, an in-person interview/examination), whose purpose seems primarily to be to confirm that I am indeed still alive and still working.
Finally, at some future date, a year or two from the Confirmation viva, is THE Viva. Having submitted my thesis (here it’s a doctoral thesis not dissertation), I will dress in my sub fusc and defend my work in a one or two hour to two members of the faculty who aren’t my supervisor. Then, if my experience conforms to that of my friends, I will go drink lots of whisky.
Given the degree of freedom afforded DPhil students in the Oxford system, it seems both a long way to the Viva, and a terrifying short journey. The prospect, however, of milestones between here and there makes it feel a little bit less like I am lost in a blizzard like the one blowing outside my library window.