Presentation Workshops: Challenges and Opportunities
A number of our Doctoral students in the Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing took the opportunity of talking about their work in progress at a Presentation Workshop organised and hosted by Dr Andy Cramp, and introduced by the Dean of Faculty, Professor Linda Lang, on 1 December. It was an interesting evening, and I was glad to be there.
Talking about your work in front of others is always difficult. Sometimes the work is at an early stage and ideas are not yet fully formed, let alone substantially tested, and confidence in them is in short supply. Sometimes the work is in a disorientating middle stage: the Literature Review signed off and the methodology settled, but the bulk of the actual research still in process, and the way ahead may be obscured, or the incoming results in tension with your main thesis or argument. Or relatively straightforward matters, such as access to archives, interview subjects or sites of research, may be causing unforeseen troubles. And sometimes the work is winding up, and the presenter may not be willing to entertain ideas that may seem to question, or even potentially undermine, the methodological foundations of the study, as set in stone some years before.
Two sessions struck me in particular. Diana Soares (“Biomechanical Analysis of Three Dance Jumping Tasks”) and Sara Smith (“Developing Student Capability”) both boldly outlined their methodologies as the primary focus of their presentations. They both talked us through the thought processes that informed the evolution of their approaches, and how early results invariably led to revisions in their methodological models. As always, the best presenters are those that are speculative – even chatty – and talk of risks and challenges and missteps and mistakes, rather than those that present their data in a matter of fact way, bookended by a narrative about what the researcher intended to do, has now done, and will soon conclude.
Methodologies are often far from perfect, and a wise PhD student will spend time exploring possible methodological limitations early on in their thesis, thus pre-empting and defusing anticipated criticisms. The more typical reaction from the PhD student is to try to dazzle the audience, or Viva Voce panel, with their results… so pushing the methodology discretely to one side, out of harm’s (and discussion’s) way. But in almost every Viva Voce I’ve been at, in a variety of capacities (as Chair, as Examiner, and even as the PhD student myself), the panel almost invariably hone in on the methodology as a, if not the, major point of discussion. This is where the thesis – a copy of which is in front of each examiner – is most marked-up, and with post-it notes plastered across pages, to traumatising effect. Even where the Viva has gone well, and the PhD awarded on that day, there will still be some uncomfortable back-and-forth on the methodology. As I tell PhD students prior to their Vivas: sometimes panels will raise questions in bad faith – playing devil’s advocate by articulating arguments against a given methodological approach even when they feel that the approach is quite satisfactory.
One of the opportunities afforded by our Presentation Workshops then is to talk about your methodology to peers, friends and lecturers, often from a variety of different academic backgrounds. The feedback and responses given can be invaluable in helping you shape and nuance your approach, or in shedding light on aspects that need further thought and additional research. Talking about the methodology is a skill in itself, and the Workshop can be a dry-run for the Viva – as well as conference papers, developing book proposals and responding to questions in job interviews. And, despite all the caution I’m voicing here, the feedback and responses may offer some welcome confirmation that your approach is correct… and so speed you on your way to PhD completion.
Last week a few dozen postgraduate researchers, and staff from the Doctoral College, assembled for our first Doctoral College Symposium. Our theme was methodology. Or, more precisely, some aspects of the development, articulation and defence of methodology. The day included two presentations of methodologies from colleagues currently engaged in their PhD research, before and after lunch, and much time was given over to discussion.
I wanted to begin the day by bringing in a wider context for this consideration of methodology, and so looked to the typical organisation of the PhD thesis, and how this maps onto phases of research, from the first few days to the Viva Voce to its aftermath. For this, it’s tempting to talk of the foundations of a house – that the early endeavours on the foundation are absolutely essential, even if the foundation then seems to be unseen, since any flaws in that foundation will be revealed and magnified, perhaps to the extent of causing irreparable damage, as the building of the house progresses. But this analogy, of methodology to foundation, has too much linearity. The rough fact of the matter – talking across all disciplines, and acknowledging how much each discipline can learn from the other in terms of PhD-writing techniques – is that the foundation / methodology is pretty much constantly being dug up, changed, and bedded back down again. No house builder would do that! And there are right ways to do this unearthing (revising a methodology in the light of the results of a pilot study, or test run, for example), and wrong ways too (surreptitiously patching up a methodology in the light of unexpected results, or results that question the thesis, or results that have gaps).
The methodology is often the first thing to be written and the last thing to be revised. The literature review points to it. The abstract (or even title) identifies it. It is the engine of the field work. It is the generator of the “new knowledge” required. It lends character to the research. It is the basis for the defence of the conclusions drawn from the research. It decides the parameters of the analysis of the field work. It is a point of discussion with supervisors, and with other postgraduates, for the duration of the research. It may live on after your research, if you (or others) continue to apply it to fresh areas of research (in academe, industry, professional practice or elsewhere). And, as I noted in one discussion, the methodology is almost always the first thing that a Vice Voce examiners panel will turn to for a full critical engagement with your work – after a few ice-breaking niceties about how much they enjoyed reading the thesis, or how refreshing this engagement with overlooked subject matter was, or how well presented various diagrams are.
An awful lot then is riding on what is often a limited number of pages. And one of the challenges we collectively encountered was the need to be able to articulate, in a few sentences – and in a few sentences that might make sense to the informed layman – just what each individual’s methodological approach is. The examples given yielded some important things in themselves: those words and phrases that we typically deploy when dealing with abstract or difficult ideas, or that help us to pin down those abstract and difficult ideas. Such a lexicon is useful to all PhD researchers, I thought. And so as I listened, I took note. And here those words and phrases are:
to adopt; explore; monitor; to approach; “in order to”; revealed by; to expand; model; to model; the setting of the study; interrogate, and interrogation; mixed method; quantitative / qualitative; to validate with a case study; evaluation; to create a road map; based on; to create a framework of/for; develop themes; creating a database…; “making a statement into a question”; narrative style; to abstract; utilising; “a study of…”; “with a view to”; to describe; employs the theory of…; the study proposes to use…; emphasis is placed on…; facilitating; to produce a framework; to understand how…
My thanks to those who attended and their contributions.
Words and phrases can be written on the page, but will also need to be said aloud; our next Symposium will consider, among other things, Viva Voce preparedness.
Images and Research Methodologies
I think Wolverhampton may be the first university – at least to the best of my knowledge – to deliver technical training sessions specifically on the use of photography as part of postgraduate research, as relevant to all disciplines. This initiative is tied to our ongoing work around exploring and establishing the importance of blogs and social media for researchers, but there are wider and pressing questions concerning the centrality of images for those who are current postgraduates. My training session last week concerned some basics of photography and editing, and then wider methodological/philosophical considerations of images and research. I wanted to quickly jot down some thoughts on each, for my blog.
Most people will have access to PhotoShop. I tend to ditch this in favour of Picasa, which is free to download and a lot less fussy to use. You can rapidly crop and frame images, change colours (boosting light is especially important), and label and assemble the edited images into discrete files. But typically this would be done with images from a digital camera, which can be downloaded onto Picasa, as installed on a laptop or PC. But even the hardware (camera/PC) and software dichotomy seems a bit dated now: anyone with an iPhone will have a good camera already, and free Instagram apps offer even easier ways of editing. This can all be done on your iPhone, and the image then placed wherever you want it to be (blog, social media, your cloud storage, emailed to yourself to be saved later, etc). These basics, then, really are straightforward.
I took this image in the DJ booth with K-Klass, mid-set, and later used it for a chapter I wrote on DJing for The Oxford University Press Handbook of Music and Virtuality.
But what of photography and methodology? A former PhD student of mine was involved in interviewing newspaper editors and journalists in Nigeria, for a study of editorial policy and civil and state violence. I advised that – if permission is sought and gained from the subjects – an image of each interviewee is taken. Why? It’s not just a matter of illustrating the interview on the page (which, in itself, may be useful if that interview is then repurposed later). And it’s not just filing an image as an aide-memoire. The image is something that can be used when presenting and talking about that research. Which researcher does not use PowerPoint, or equivalents, for conference papers, and PhD assessments? You’re discussing what you were told by the interviewee… let’s see this person too, next to relevant pull-quotes, to enliven the presentation, and to add some definition to the subject. How many PowerPoints have you endured that are just pages of imageless text?
And the image can also be a matter for further analysis, at a later point. Long after the circumstances of the discussion have been forgotten, this image could reveal where and when the discussion was held (home or office, or somewhere else; outside or inside working hours), and perhaps something of the formality or informality of it. In considering subtle elements of bias, or notion of subjects speaking on or off the record, such an image can contextualise the entire interview transcript. For my former PhD student, I suggested that this latter aspect may prove to be essential, and so grabbing a quick image is a way to further capitalise on the field work, to the benefit of a variety of ends. In short: maximise the data that you’re bringing home – as you may not yet know how useful it will prove to be. And it is apparent to everyone involved in harvesting and analysing big data – from the National Security Agency to WikiLeaks – that we may not yet understand how that data will be understood in years to come, by ourselves or by others. We ask questions, and extract the information we need from the answers, but what additional essential elements remain in those answers – things that we may then find we also need to enhance our analysis? Future algorhythms, allied to keywords or connections across multiple interview transcripts, or synchronicities of subjects and timelines, may reveal further information, connected to completely different matters.
Images also allow for a documenting (or indexing) of ongoing research. Shots of the lab before the big experiment, or of the boxes in an archive before the contents are examined, or of the road on the way to the site of the archaeological dig, or of the equipment you’re using to record interviews, or of the queue outside a theatre for a performance by a playwright you’re studying, or screenshots of a Skype discussion, or a lecture you’ve attended by a notable academic in your field, can all be used to communicate something of the mysterious processes of what it means to engage in PhD research. And let’s be pragmatic too: these images are then yours. No copyright permission – formal request letters, contracts, payments – will be needed to utilise them for later writing or publications.
Filming an interview with Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin) and Xavier Mendik, on Italian genre film soundtracks in the 1970s.
And, crucially, shots of yourself are infinitely useful. You’ve conducted research in different environments all around the world? Let’s see that, as part of an online CV. You’ve accessed obscure archives, or unearthed forgotten artefacts? Let’s see you with them, for a conference PowerPoint on those discoveries. You’re exhausted and emotional after a marathon of experiments to secure the final tranche of data? Let’s see that, as part of an Annual Performance Review presentation. You attended a conference and delivered a paper? Let’s see you in action, for a blog entry on that conference.
The norms of PhD research are rapidly changing. Not many years ago, all of the above would have been unheard of: iPhones, PowerPoints, blogs, apps, Picasa, digital cameras, Skype, cloud storage. And these tools have been ushered into PhD research by the PhD researchers themselves. There’s no regulation in Wolverhampton that you’re obliged to use PowerPoint, but few PhD students will go into a Viva Voce without a brief introductory presentation, even if only to break the ice. Those delivering a paper at a conference seem somehow underprepared if that paper isn’t accompanied by a PowerPoint. And this isn’t just about throwing text up on a screen, in addition to having it printed on the page: it is also about incorporating into that text images that speak of how the text came into being – verifying the work that went into it, the travel necessitated by it, the places visited for it, the events organised from it, the laboratories utilised for it, and yourself or your team or your collaborators at the centre.
My starting point is that we now need to use these tools to reimagine and, where useful and appropriate, to expand and enhance our evolving research methodologies, both for PhD writing and beyond.
An image I took of a Slutwalk protest in Manchester, which I later used for a chapter in a book on the legacy of the Suffragettes and contemporary feminist activism, and conferences on the same.
PhD Proposals – but from a University Perspective
Writing a PhD proposal can be a challenge. On the one hand, you’re expressing an academic interest in an area, and indicating how you’re open and receptive to the ways in which the proposed research will allow you to mount an investigation. And one of the reasons for that investigation is that you’re setting out into uncharted territory: no-one else has looked at this proposed area, or looked at it in quite this way, and so the research holds the potential for the generation of new knowledge. Consequently, flexibility is the key – to indicate that you’re able to change or modify or nuance the direction of your research as discoveries are made. And, of course, you don’t yet fully know what you will discover. In a way, then, you’re really presenting a series of questions in your proposal, so that the proposed research is understood to be the process which will deliver the answers.
On the other hand, however, a university will typically expect you to articulate a fairly advanced grasp of the direction of research to come. Since you’ll be seeking to prove A, you’ll follow investigative path B. And if you deliver proof of A – which is a theory or thesis that you suspect to be true, for reasons you’re then going to outline – then the research will be complete. So, in this respect, you’re presenting a series of speculative answers to questions – answers which you then intend to verify. Indeed, you may even be submitting a detailed timeline of the proposed PhD too, structured around the verification of these speculative answers: which six month blocks will be devoted to which activities, from the start date to the end of the study.
So the PhD applicant ends up needing to say that they know, at present, little in fine detail about the specifics of the proposal… and yet they know enough to be able to express with confidence what they intend to do, and why, and how, and what will probably result. And that is the challenge.
We have plenty of guidance available on our website about what we expect in our “Expression of Interest” form, from a PhD applicant. And we provide formative feedback at all stages and we’re always happy to meet up and discuss a developing proposal. But I wanted, for this blog post, to talk about our side of this process. And I hope that this might shed some light on the challenge that I’ve identified above.
When academics look at PhD applications, they’re often looking for elements of reassurance and familiarity. This is not to say that we don’t want to also read about your personal interest in the subject, and to find out about you and your intellectual history, and to encounter the promise of fresh thinking in your research area, or how this proposed work can help society at large. But we do need to know that the PhD is do-able. This might be a matter of considering the area under investigation itself: will that area support PhD research? Is there sufficient scope? Do we have a good body of academic writing already in, or parallel to, this area, that can be drawn on? Is the hypothesis provable? Are the resources available and accessible? What are the potential dangers to the progress of the research if things don’t turn out as expected? Can we assemble a framework for ethical assurance of the research? And this thinking might also include a consideration of your preparedness for study. I don’t want to suggest that the application is some sort of test, with a pass/fail outcome on the other side. Rather, I’m noting that there can be an ethical dilemma for us.
As much as we want to be welcoming and supportive, if we feel that the proposed PhD cannot be done then it is best for us to let you know this at the outset. (And, typically, we’ll do this with some formative feedback, and suggestions for alterations, so that we can accept it). Otherwise, we would be setting applicants up for a bumpy ride – and this would be in no-one’s interest.
So academics face a challenge too. On the one hand we understand that it is vital to regenerate areas of our research via new thinking, new approaches, new data, and breaking into new territories of investigation and analysis. We need to grow the next generations of thinkers and scientists, engineers and artists. And we cannot expect the fledging PhD applicant to necessarily grasp all the particulars of the areas of research with which they want to engage – after all, that engagement is the task for you and your supervisors, across a number of years. But, on the other hand, we need to match any romantic thinking with some pragmatic thinking. We need to know that we’re welcoming people to research with us who are on a path to PhD success, and with certain plans to overcome whatever surprises and revelations that we anticipate (and hope!) the PhD research will throw at them.
PhD Research and Online Networking: Twitter
Not so many years ago the experience of researching for a PhD could be an isolating one. The hours required in the library or laboratory, or in archives or engaged in fieldwork, were typically a solitary matter – especially for that sizeable flock of night owl PhD researchers, working towards impending deadlines. All this isolation, of course, is part of taking responsibility for one’s own research and progression: ultimately, it is the individual who submits their work for the Viva Voce, and who is awarded the degree of PhD. And that individual’s work, even as arising from research embedded within particular research groupings, becomes an individual matter in the final analysis – and so something for individual study, research and writing. Most PhD theses in the UK need to begin with a declaration of originality on the part of the individual submitting it for examination, and a confirmation of that individual’s authorship.
I’ve noticed, in addition, a kind of panic-reflex to slow or unsatisfactory work progression too that can result in ramping up the isolation. Like the monastic scholar, the PGR will tend to lock him or herself away for long hours at this point, hoping to make up lost ground by a heightened devotion to their subject. This can mean that at the point when a bit of external advice (and sociality) is most needed – with a PGR becoming uncertain of progress, and maybe beginning to doubt the viability of the project or their own intellectual abilities – the external world is fully banished, and the PGR embraces an even greater sense of isolation. Frankly – not a healthy situation. And, to be blunt, one that can detract from the quality of the PhD thesis that is to be submitted.
These “not so many years ago” I’m addressing here – I’m really talking about the period before the mid-2000s – were prior to the rise of social media, which gained its first crucial foothold, and indeed foundations, in universities. Before this, access to academic conferences and possibly a limited pool of fellow PGRs and academics at your own institution could represent the limits of connecting with likeminded researchers. And the monthly or quarterly journals that arrived in the library could be the sole messengers of academic developments in your field – often after a substantial time lag.
Students have taught universities that social media can alleviate these concerns, and indeed open up whole new networks of communication. The first step in this – and this is part of the training we offer in the Doctoral College, as particularly aimed at new PhD researchers – is to establish a Twitter account. This can be done in a couple of minutes and, of course, is entirely free. And here’s a bit of a checklist – off the top of my head – of connections that can be made:
- Your own University
- The research grouping in your University to which you belong
- … and any parallel relevant researching groupings
- Your University’s Student Union
- Your University’s library
- For our PGRs (and anyone else who would like to): the Doctoral College via @WLV_DoctoralCol
- Relevant research groupings in other Universities, particularly those geographically close by
- Your fellow PhD researchers at your University
- … and other PhD researchers working in your discipline, around the world (you’ll soon encounter these via Twitter)
- This one’s a bit more hit and miss: the name academics in your area. (Hit and miss since Twitter uptake by esteemed academics can be a bit partial…)
- Academic journals in your areas and disciplines
- The national and international research groupings in your areas, which are often affiliated with those journals
- Relevant Research Councils in the UK and elsewhere
- The relevant journalists in your area – those who are writing about developments in non-academic journals
And there’s of course a useful secondary tier of connections too: restaurants, concert venues, bookshops, hotels in your favourite parts of the world (etc) – often discounts and promotions come via Twitter for those connected to them.
This way, even before you’ve Tweeted anything yourself, you’ll have a substantial newsfeed of events, training opportunities, bidding opportunities, academic developments (and conversations around these), useful connections to further groupings, new writing, calls for papers, handy discounts, social arrangements and much more. You, and your work, is now connected to the day-to-day developments in your field.
One of the considerations that’s raised at Viva Voces is the contemporary nature of your research: does the theses indicate an awareness of new developments and current debates? It’s important to many examiners that the thesis reads as if it was written in the year it was submitted, and reflects the years across which the research was carried out – and the writing is not locked solely into the mindset of academic research of years gone by. It’s difficult to extract that kind of relevancy from periodic journals. And academic conferences, where current debates are aired and explored, can be sporadic and infrequent. However, your Twitter connections will lend you that contemporary understanding.
And what of Tweeting yourself? What’s useful or relevant? Here’s another off-the-cuff checklist:
- Links to online coverage of yourself (news articles, new blog posts)
- Comments on articles you’ve read (link to their author/s!) – ideally if positive or constructive comments!
- … and likewise on conferences you’ve attended (link to the conference, link to the speakers, link to the institutions that held them)
- Questions you want to ask (linking to, for example, @phdforum, so as to request responses from fellow PhD researchers)
- Thanks to and acknowledgements of those who have helped you in your research (archival access in particular)
- Images and videos are always interesting, especially if related to key research moment (the big experiment, field work locations and people, archival documents)
- And, of course , encouragements for your fellow researchers
And, for these, hashtag your comments, so that they’ll connect to the evolving stories on Twitter, and become findable to those reading about these stories. Every academic discipline, from #archaeology to #zoology, will have a lively hashtag presence.
Universities in the UK are increasingly aware of the importance and benefit of ensuring access to their research for the outside world. This importance is beginning to change the entire academic field: publishing has been grappling with it, open online archives of research have been established, research projects need to include strategies around “impact” and public engagement, and research groupings have developed outreach activities. Social networking via Twitter allows you to place yourself, and your work, as part of these developments, and to contribute to the ways in which university research must no longer be just an individual matter.
Thinking About Viva Voce Outcomes
The Viva Voce is considered to be the big “moment of truth” for the PhD researcher – and a moment that will have been many years coming. It’s perhaps one of the most important days in the life of someone who has undertaken a PhD. This is the live encounter, for the verbal defence of the thesis, and will end with the ruling on the PhD – the formal outcome of all that work. No wonder postgraduates get nervous. For UK universities, the ruling will be along the lines of the below outcomes. (And I’m talking here about the UK university sector as a whole, rather than just the University of Wolverhampton).
“Outright pass” (which seems to occur about a 5-10% of the time, but UK universities don’t publish such statistics). This might include some very minor amendments: de-tangling grammar in a few places, correcting a couple of paragraphs or tables, the odd typo / spelling mistake… But this is a spectacular success: you exit the room as a Doctor.
“Minor corrections” (seems to occur about 35-40% of the time in UK universities). This is typically a matter of being given 3 months for corrections that cannot be sorted out in an afternoon. This may be around some presentational matters, plugging some gaps (missing key references), some data checking and reassurance, perhaps updating the thesis with recent developments, and it may be that a chapter or two needs to be redone. But the work that is required here isn’t anything truly substantial. That is: you’re not being asked to make structural adjustments or changes that then may have a knock-on effect across the entire thesis, or re-run experiments, or add substantial new case studies. This is still an outstanding result: you exit the room in the knowledge that, pending successful minor corrections being implemented, you’ll soon by a Doctor – perhaps in less than twenty-four weeks.
“Major corrections” / “Resubmission” / “Fail” (seems to occur about 55% of the time in UK universities). This is one year for corrections, and is necessitated by structural adjustments or changes that then will have a knock-on effect across the entire thesis. This is the category that I’m coming back to below, and that is the focus of this blog entry.
“Award of a lower degree” (occurrence: perhaps, at an estimate, 5% of the time). For this, the Examiners feel that the work cannot, and indeed will not, reach the requisite PhD level. But the work is suitable for an MPhil (higher than a Masters, lower than a PhD), and they may offer that as an outcome – perhaps further to some limited additional work on the submitted thesis. Often the candidate is relieved since, if they were aware that the work submitted was seriously lacking, they’re being offered the chance of an exit with a research degree nonetheless. This is a difficult decision for the Examiners to make, since it is also a “fail” in terms of the PhD being sought, but it is a decision that is informed by pragmatic and ethical concerns. Would it be fair to be generous, and allow the candidate to resubmit, if there is a considered and informed sense that the work could not reach PhD level? In that case, a year of work (and the cost of that for the candidate) would be offered for no good reason.
“Outright failure”. For this, you need to fail to submit your thesis, or submit a thesis that raises serious problems of originality, or that is considered to be so poor that it is below MPhil level. It would not be possible to find the potential, in the work submitted, for improvement to MPhil level.
One of the problems around “resubmission” is that it is, essentially, a first-attempt failure. If it wasn’t, then you wouldn’t be asked to resubmit. But the task of the Examiners is to achieve an understanding of, and sympathy for, what then needs to done to push the thesis to PhD level. So the Examiners at the Viva Voce are often encouraging, and their feedback (verbal and written) typically includes a variant of “this has the potential to be a good PhD”… which is why the candidate can then leave the Viva Voce room somewhat confused. Changes have been requested, compliments have been made, very encouraging sounds have been heard… and yet somehow the work has “failed”. I think of this in MOT terms: your car either passes or it doesn’t. The car can’t pass, and yet then have to come back for a further MOT!
But let’s take a positive view of this outcome. And let’s do that as often the candidate will be frustrated about this resubmission result, and perhaps proportion blame (to themselves, perhaps to the Examiners) – and to those candidates I tend to suggest that they give themselves some time away from research, and come back to it in a month or two when they’re more of a mind of do what needs to be done. Once the emotions of the day have subsided, it may be worth considering that the resubmission outcome has a number of advantages:
One: You have a year, and you’re not rushing through substantial changes in a limited period of time. Pressure is off. And yet –
Two: You don’t need to take that whole year. The calculation, for the Examiners, is typically merely that the corrections suggested need more than three months.
Three: You should have very thorough feedback – a list of what needs to be done, and where and why, and even direct recommendations (look at book X, chapters 2-3, integrate references to Y in your discussion of Z, etc). This is the map to completion and success. Break this written feedback down into a table: requested change / suggested action. Develop this with, and/or have it signed off by, your supervision team. And keep a tally of what you’re doing and where. That way, you can check off each element of the changes, and even provide an index of changes made when you resubmit. If you have met each request, the Examiners cannot but consider the PhD thesis as (pretty much) achieved. They cannot come back with a new raft of recommendations.
Four: What’s more, this work around the feedback can be translated into a new timeline: you can devise, with your supervisors, a timeline going forward – how long will each correction take, and what then is the agreed completion and resubmission date? In this, you can deliver dates to your supervision team to ensure progress is swift: if you’re able to submit redrafted chapter 4 to them on Monday, can you expect to have your feedback on it by the following Monday?
Five: You may hate to admit it, but it may well be that the corrections result in better work. And for those who are then going to publish elements of their research, that research will have been improved by the input of your Examiners. And this corrections-making process also offers the chance for a rare skill to develop: to edit your own work without fear or favour, and to rethink foundational ideas in the light of different positions, is an ability that many esteemed academics many decades into their careers do not have. You’ll have tougher skin on the other side of this, and standard nit-picking editorial comments (further to submitted articles, bids, conference papers and the like) won’t bother you much.
Six: The work remains your own. If you disagree with the corrections requested, you can remove whatever changes are made afterwards – that is, after award, but before you submit the research for publication. Therefore, you can consider that you’re making some additions merely for the benefit for the Examiners; these changes need not be permanently stuck in the middle of your thesis. (For myself, I was asked for a new section on “personal reasons” for my research. Why? I’ve no idea. I prefer a writing style that looks to a clear objective position, but perhaps my Examiners were too easily swayed by modish subjectivity. So I wrote it – which came in at under one page – and then removed that section before I submitted my research for publication).
Seven: Most universities will allow some back-and-forth around corrections, with your supervisor interacting with the Internal Examiner on your behalf. So in the case of any ambiguities around suggested changes, it may be possible to seek and gain clarification, or request further advice.
Eight: You’re still moving towards successful completion. This is why I typically advise a candidate to submit for the first time as soon as they reasonably can – it is better to enter into this process of moving to final completion than spend a write-up year before the first submission worrying about the occasional footnote and adding relatively minor points to the text, only to then find you’re given another year for major corrections.
Since there’s obviously an enormous personal investment in your PhD, and with your PhD you are, in a sense, making an application to be admitted into the top global tier of your academic area, the resubmission outcome can be a bit of a blow. But don’t let this outcome throw you. In the eight respects I’ve outlined above, the first-time failure of a “resubmission” outcome can offer a very clearly focussed way ahead, and with the end firmly in sight.
What Not To Wear: Viva Voce Preparations and Practicalities
There is one question that is almost always asked when I talk to doctoral researchers preparing for their Viva Voces. It used to surprise me, and it seemed a bit irrelevant in the context of talking about strategies for defending your work, limited critiquing of your own methodological approaches (etc)… but it’s in fact a legitimate concern. That question is: what do I wear? This short blog post is a quick collection of nonprescriptive thoughts around this. But I’ll add to this too, in order to think about some more general practicalities around the big day.
Firstly: the outfit. Comfort is the key – but at the same time, a bit of smartness may be important: after all, the External Examiner may have travelled some way for this, and will have spent some time working on your thesis. So I wouldn’t recommend dressing in a way that could seem not to acknowledge the importance of this. If you’re comfortable in a suit, go with the suit. If you prefer something looser, go with that. You’re not being assessed on your appearance.
Secondly: the time. If you’re preparing for the Viva and you’re a morning person — ask for it to be run in the morning. But think about travel too; don’t put yourself through rush hour if you can avoid it. Or request an afternoon if that’s better, but be mindful that the event may take a number of hours, and so can’t reasonably be scheduled to start too late in the afternoon. This arrangement can be complicated, as often it’s a matter of finding a time for two examiners and the Chair, and possibly your supervisor too. But make sure you have your say! The Viva Voce is the examination of the doctoral researcher: they are the ones in the hot seat, and therefore, I feel, should have some autonomy when it comes to issues of comfort.
Thirdly: the room. Again – have your say. If the room provided isn’t good enough (too noisy, too small, lacking ventilation, PC not up to requirements if needed, effectively a green house or a fridge) then request another. If your University suggests a room that will make it difficult for you to be comfortable, see if you can have that changed before arrangements are finalised. And do go and scope the room beforehand if you can, so you can get a feel for it.
Fourthly: the food. Time will determine this, but I would suggest that the ideal would be to go in after having just eaten and not on an empty stomach. You’ll need sustained (rather than sugar high) energy for something that may stretch to a number of hours. My recipe for a Viva Voce meal would involve bananas, yoghurt, nuts and cereal, and (not instant) coffee. Take in some water too. Typically this is provided, but make the provision just in case.
Fifthly: the break. Please do call a break if you want it — and this can be done through the Chair. I would recommend one every hour and a half, at least, rather than trying to power through the whole lot in one go. In addition, a break can be very useful for clearing the air if you and the examiners have reached an impasse. After 10 or 15 minutes, the examiners may be more inclined to move on to the next point rather than continuing to labour the minutiae.
Sixthly: the friend. I would have someone on standby, for the breaks, for the wait while the examiners decide the outcome, and for the point at which it’s all over. This could be your supervisor who, if also attending the viva, may usefully offer a pep talk during any breaks. I’ve occasionally encountered the friend, when I’ve been chairing a Viva, turn up with a camera – perhaps not a bad thing once it’s all over (and if the outcome is successful). You might need to “walk it off later”, to allow the nerves and tension to wind down.
That’s the checklist! Further in this area, I’ll be turning my attention to the use of mock Viva Voces in my next post.
“Intellectual Peace”: Four Lessons from Newman’s The Idea of a University
In this blog post, Dr Benjamin Halligan considers some of the ideas of the Venerable John Henry Newman regarding universities – finding in his writing anticipations of interdisciplinarity, the “two cultures” and “vocational education” debates, and useful guidance for doctoral students in respect to their time at university.
10 Sept 2019
In anticipation of the coming canonisation of the Venerable John Henry Newman (1801-1890), which will occur in Rome on 13 October 2019, I want to turn my attention to his book The Idea of a University, published in 1852. Newman himself is strongly associated with our region, and will be the first English person who has lived since the seventeen century to be officially recognised by the Roman Catholic church as a Saint (which is the outcome of the canonisation process). If you think Viva Voces are difficult – take a look at the process behind getting a “St” in front of your name, rather than “Dr”. (Although I will concede that our doctoral researchers do perform miracles!)
There’s way too much in this book for one blog post, so I want to hone in on just a short section, to address some of the elements of his conception of a university. Newman himself was intimately involved in setting up one university – the Catholic University of Ireland, in Dublin, for which he was the first Rector when it was established in 1854. The Idea of a University, published just prior to this, presents a series of arguments (or, as he refers to them, “discourses”) about the nature of university education, about pedagogies (as he put it: “knowledge viewed in relation to learning”), and the relationship between education and career vocation (which is termed educational “utility”) and between theology and the sciences. And, most interestingly for me, in terms of thinking about our Doctoral College, Newman also considers the nature of interactions between the students themselves, and how universities must enable this. In all this, the book is very much Newman’s manifesto for the modern university.
What does Newman have to say about this interaction? I’m drawing on section one of the chapter entitled “Knowledge Its Own End” (an idea that, in itself, has spooked all recent governments in terms of educational policy). Newman’s starting point is one of total (in contemporary terminology) interdisciplinarity: “all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself”. Newman sees no barriers between arts and sciences. This perceived divide would still be troubling commentators a century later: C. P. Snow in the “Two Cultures” debate of 1959, and then the novelist Anthony Burgess, teaching in US universities in the 1970s (as related in his autobiography, the title of which spoofed another famous Newman book), where he felt that the rigours of scientific research were not being met and matched by arts and humanities disciplines. And indeed, such debates continue today, in terms of arguments over (and educational policies around) the presumed different “utility” potentials of education versus training – and even whether such differences should be considered at all. Paul Gilroy opens his book The Black Atlantic by rethinking the seemingly non-utility of critical theory from a utility perspective, for his disinterested History of Sociology students (during early morning lectures at South Bank Polytechnic), so as “to show these students that the experiences of black people were part of the abstract modernity they found so puzzling.” In this way, utility potential reinvigorates a course otherwise filled with difficult abstract thought.
In the science disciplines, then, Newman sees an “internal sympathy” across all of them, which “must admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment.” Why? Because science disciplines have “multiple bearings on one another”, and that “they complete, correct, [and] balance each other.” This is Lesson One. If you research in one area of the sciences, you need the input (via conversation and company) of researchers from other areas of the sciences, and their guidance, to enhance and bolster your own ideas, as they develop and your thesis progresses. Readers of my blog know that “sympathy” is a key research strategy for me: to be able to present in your doctoral thesis an awareness of other directions and methodologies, and why these may, or may not, be relevant to your own research. As I often say, a quick engagement in this respect – even just in a footnote – pre-empts and so diffuses a very typical (and awkward) line of questioning from Viva Examiners: “Why did you design your experiments in this way, and not other ways?”; “I answer that on page 20. May I outline the arguments I’ve presented on that page concerning why I chose my research methods, and not different ones?” So the Doctoral College works hard to ensure that encounters with other related disciplines are available to you throughout each year, as you research: our twice-yearly Almanac collects all academic events that are running across the university into one place, allowing you access to guest lectures, seminars, symposiums, book launches, social trips (and more), that will afford you these crucial encounters with different but complimentary sets of ideas. Often, for me, that encounter can result in new language: a term or phrase that signals to other areas and different lines of thought, and that you can then work into your own writing.
For Newman, it was important to strike an equal balance, across all disciplinary areas, in the university. One should not, therefore, favour ocean engineering over popular musicology. Without such a balance, the entirety of the education is, itself, distorted. Newman’s clarifies this idea – “let us make use of an illustration”: the final colour produced by mixing different colours results from the quantities of each of the colours that are mixed together. A particular shade of grey needs a particular quantity of white, mixed into black. “And, in like manner,” Newman continues, “the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student.” Too much of one, and not enough of another, for this student, can “contract his [or her] mind” – and Newman furnishes some rather arresting examples. The Classics, in England, worked in “refining the taste”, while the very same books, in France, enabled the “revolutionary” spread of forms of agnosticism. A second example concerns Richard Watson (1737-1816), the Bishop of Llandaff, who felt that mathematics carried with it the danger of prompting atheism – “while others”, Newman notes (I suspect he means himself) see in mathematics “the best parallel, and thereby defence” of Christianity. A complete and harmonious education, free of such distortions, arises from achieving such a balance, via mutually beneficial dialogues across disciplines and therefore, I’d add, groups of researchers. In this, Newman sees the prospect of “intellectual peace” – “to adjust together the claims and relations of […] respective subjects of investigation.” This is a task for the entire university.
Lesson Two is here, then. Newman asks us to “learn to respect, to consult, [and] to aid each other.” At undergraduate levels, this philosophy (which Newman terms a “liberal education”) is often built into course design: first years undergraduates encounter a range of subjects within, or even without, their chosen degree discipline. And that encounter determines their chosen areas of specialisation, as they move into their second year. At doctoral levels? There’s a danger that we already start with a high degree of specialism, perhaps at least three years beyond our first year (that is: year two, then three, then often a Masters year), and so may be turning a blind eye to that range of related subjects. Hence that old joke, that a doctoral student knows more and more about less and less.
From this idea of encountering other subjects, the third lesson that I wish to extract from Newman arises. All these interactions with complimentary disciplines begin to shift the researcher away from the supervisor/supervisee relationship, in terms of the generation of new knowledge. This shift can occur naturally across the course of doctoral research: the percentage of input from supervisors can be at a maximum on the first day, and at a minimum on the last day – at which point, ideally, the researcher has become self-directing, confident, deeply versed in their disciplinary expertise, and indeed made the research that they have generated very uniquely their own. Such interactions lend a distinction to your research: you are not, after all, just reproducing existing research paradigms – you are advancing your field, and for this you need the input of new ideas, which can be found in or sourced from complimentary fields. So in this shift away from maximum supervisory guidance you begin to take direction from a more abstract source. That is, for Newman, that the researcher is ultimately guided by, and so becomes a part of, “an intellectual tradition”. And once the researcher leaves the university, with “Dr” in front of their name, they carry with them this intellectual tradition, in all walks of work and life and interactions with others and the wider world. This is the “special fruit of an education furnished at a University”, and this is the “main purpose” of the university itself. Newman outlines the resultant qualities in this way: the student “apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and shades, its great points and its little”, so that “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”
This sounds like an awful lot, but Newman always saw the best in people – and found such optimism a great virtue in others. In his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman recalled his own education, and remembered his “gentle and encouraging” instructor Dr Richard Whately (1787-1863), later the Archbishop of Dublin. Newman encountered Whately in 1822, when Newman was 21 and “still awkward and timid.” In the Apologia Newman quotes the old Victorian joke: “all his geese were swans”, meaning that, for Whately, every student was especially prized. And in this fond remembrance is lesson four – this time for doctoral supervisors, and doctoral examiners, everywhere.
Burgess, Anthony (1990) You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess. London: Heinemann.
Gilroy, Paul (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.
Newman, John Henry (1947 ) Apologia Pro Vita Sua: Being a History of his Religious Opinions. New York: Longmans, Green
Newman, John Henry (1966 ) The Idea of a University. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Snow, C. P. (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.