March 27 2020 – Viva Voce Date
I am thrilled to announce that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I have *passed my doctoral thesis defence (or viva voce as it is known in the UK)! My research, which explored the experiences of non-binary people and their language usage, was deemed of high academic standard and I am now Dr Cordoba. I have a PhD in psychology!
It was an honour to be examined by Dr Meg-John Barker, one of the leading researchers/activists/writers in non-binary issues in the UK, and Dr Iain Williamson, a critical health psychologist at DMU who has researched health inequalities among marginalised communities (including LBGTQ+ populations). The viva was chaired by Professor Julie Fish, chair in Social Work & Health Inequalities and Director of the Centre for LGBTQ+ Research at DMU. My first supervisor Dr Zowie Davy, who is a leading scholar in trans studies, was also present, providing an enormous amount of emotional support by smiling and nodding.
Because of the current pandemic, my viva was held via Google Hangouts. I actually did not mind this, as I had most of my supervision meetings happened via Skype and I wrote most of my dissertation at home using the same desk, laptop, monitor, pens, etc. that I used during my viva. So I figured that this would actually be beneficial for me in terms of recalling my thesis, as state-dependent learning would play to my favor. It did.
The viva experience itself was much better than I expected. The examiners began by providing me with all of their positive feedback, describing in great detail the parts of the thesis they enjoyed: Its quality, its abundant philosophical underpinnings, its readability despite its complexity, and – most importantly – its clear contribution to knowledge. This of course made me very happy and I couldn’t stop smiling! Yet, this last point (the contribution to knowledge) almost made me cry tears of joy, as this is the whole point of a PhD: To say something novel about a subject matter in terms of theory, methods, findings, and/or practical applications. In some ways, that was the most perfect outcome, as I had struggled with impostor syndrome for most of my PhD, even up to submission.
I held back my tears and began accepting questions. Dr Williamson began by asking me about action research, a term I used in the first few chapters of in my dissertation but did not mention in my discussion. I explained the practical applications of my thesis: Its general importance to the LGBTQ+ community, to service providers, and to policy makers. And my intent to involve my research participants in the research process as much as possible.
He followed this question with my use of the term microaggressions, another concept I used sporadically but did not bring back into the discussion. I explained how the term was applicable to my research findings, particularly as some participants described their experiences of being misgendered using metaphors like receiving “a thousand paper cuts.” I discussed the ways in which language can have the capacity to generate distress and how this language-related distress can accumulate over time, as these microaggressions occur, and as demonstrated by my analysis.
Dr Barker then asked me about insider/outsider research and how this concept played out in my research. I explained that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, it was important for me to disclose my identity to my participants before asking them to do the same. For instance, during the interviews, I acknowledged the power imbalances that existed between me (the researcher) and them (the participants) by being upfront about my privileges: My education, cisgenderness, white-passing privilege, and being a psychologist, a field that many trans and non-binary people distrust due to its complicated history (read: pathologising). But also my insider position as a minority: A gay immigrant from Colombia, as well as low-income student trying to make it in London.
Some other questions were asked, but I honestly don’t recall them all. The viva took 2 hours. I left the Google Hangouts room and chatted with Dr Davy via Skype for about 10 minutes. I was then called back into the Google Hangouts room. The decision was reached almost immediately.
*I passed my viva (with minor corrections)! They decided that my answers were satisfactory and delivered clearly and effectively, as if I knew exactly what they were going to ask me. I didn’t – but I did prepare for weeks! I was asked to write a page or two about the practical applications of my thesis, using some of the aforementioned concepts. Also, of course, to fix some typos (which is normal), as well as noting where some participants’ quotes came from (either interviews or short writings). These were the ‘minor correction’ – easily achievable! 🙂
I celebrated with my supervisor and my partner via Skype right after, and then I told my entire family and closest friends. We laughed and cried, and I was very happy to bring some good news to all of them amid this global crisis. My sister actually wrote a lovely story about my success on her LinkedIn blog (rough translation here).
I’m extremely happy with this outcome and I am honestly so impressed with myself for having completed a dissertation that is not only a contribution to knowledge, but that was written in my second language. There was a time (when I started my PhD) when I had no doubt that this would happen – I was hyped after having finished my MA in CCNY! However, a great deal of doubt emerged during my PhD. And there was a time (around year two) when I didn’t think I was going to be be able to finish. Anxiety kicked in and I felt lost and confused.
I found that these intrusive thoughts were not without reason. I encountered people who planted doubt in me about my abilities – and who projected their own insecurities onto me. For instance, a fellow psychologist told me that my project was merely ‘purporting to be psychological,’ that it was ‘unscientific’ (and motivated by interest), and that it was not impactful. According to them, this was because I was intending to use qualitative research methods, focussing on the social and linguistic elements of my participants’ experiences. This same individual also told me that they “didn’t believe in privilege” after I explained to them what I meant by my insider/outsider position as a researcher. Clearly, they were blinded by their own privilege. Nevertheless, these experiences negatively impacted me – more than they should have. They made me feel uncertain about my position as a psychologist, the value of my research, and my abilities as a researcher. An incredible sense of dread loomed over me for about a year as a result. I sought CBT therapy, which was extremely useful in helping me identify the source of my anxieties and how to tackle them – not by blaming or projecting, but by taking proactive steps to improve and relishing accomplishments.
I read a funny tweet recently about the reasons people get PhDs. It read: “there are many reasons students decide to pursue a PhD degree. one under-explored reason is revenge.” (Or as Beyoncé poetically phrased it, “the best revenge is your paper.”) I feel that. But that’s not the reason I did my mine. I accomplished a PhD because I had something to prove to myself: That despite adversity, self-doubt, unequal playing fields, and all the “–isms” that are currently ruling/ruining the world, one can always become something else – something better – if one wishes to do so. And I am determined. I have once again regained my strength, my conviction, and a sense of faith in myself.
I am a PhD in psychology and you may call me Dr Cordoba. I look forward to sharing my research and continuing to generate, teach, and share knowledge. Watch this space.