So another special occasion passes with Covid-19 and the lockdown combining to preclude appropriate celebration. This time it isn’t a birthday but a one-off: my daughter, Sarah, passed the viva for her Sheffield Ph.D with flying colours via an online platform. I was tempted to jump into the car and zoom the 45-odd miles down to Sheffield to toast her success with a socially distanced glass of something in their garden, but the something couldn’t have been celebratory champagne because we would have had to drive back up the M1 to York afterwards as we couldn’t stay the night. I had to remind myself that there had been tens of thousands of other people in recent months who, also because of the lockdown, hadn’t been able to come together to console one another at the funerals of their loved ones. We are, all too obviously, the very lucky ones, but, stark as that realization was, frustration at not being able to be with Sarah at this very proud moment outdid by a significant margin any sense of how lucky we were.
Talking of luck, we had gone through the ritual of wishing her luck beforehand, while I assured her that I didn’t think it was a question of ‘luck’. What on earth, one might wonder, has ‘luck’ got to do with the outcome of the examination of what had in this instance been four very intensive years of ‘part-time’ work? It was either the product of good original research, well written-up, or it wasn’t. But it isn’t entirely unknown for academics to be idiosyncratic, some have been known to ride hobby-horses into the ground, and there can undoubtedly be an element of luck in whom universities hit on to be the two, sometimes three, examiners on whom so much depends. The top choices might be ill or unavailable, others might be too busy, it is not unknown for those doing the choosing to have to cast the net pretty wide. Where career academics are concerned, it isn’t just the past five, or six, or seven or more years of hard work, sacrifice and stress that are at stake, it can also be an entire future career that hangs on the judgement of the examiners, who will all too often be overworked and stressed themselves. If the topic is remotely contentious there is no guarantee that the examiners will necessarily agree with the line being taken.
Sarah’s thesis incorporated two published articles, one in a very high impact journal, which extended the number of people involved in making judgements about her research to some extent, as the articles had been reviewed by authorities in the field and been deemed publishable, which is one of the key criteria for success. I had read the articles, and proofread other chapters, and although I am not a social scientist, the thesis looked to me to be very accomplished. But its topic, research into the use of NHS paediatric Accident and Emergency Departments by immigrant parents for their children, was not uncontentious. And my own D.Phil experience in the early 1980s was enough to leave a residual nervousness. My dissertation was on the fiction written about the ‘Mau Mau’ movement in Kenya in the 1950s, was very quickly picked up and published by Zed Books once completed, and has recently been published in a second edition for Zed’s African Cultural Archive. When I went into the viva it very quickly became painfully apparent that one of the two external examiners had failed it outright having barely bothered to read it, to the evident embarrassment of the other external examiner. Failing the outcome of five years spent getting to my office at 4am every day to work on it, rather than simply refusing to examine it, was his contribution to the boycott of South African academics at the time. Fortunately the other external examiner was one of the world’s leading authorities on East African history and, although the history of the movement was a relatively minor component of the dissertation, he was happy to pass it, and he won the day. That particular, almost certainly career-determining, choice of examiner was as lucky as the choice of the other examiner was unlucky. So my wishing Sarah luck for her viva was not just ritualistic. In the event I was right: it wasn’t a question of luck.