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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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They only have to be good enough, where ‘good enough’ means that you have demonstrated a satisfactory command of the skills required for a professional researcher in your discipline. The level of ‘good enough’ will be high, but that’s different from perfection. Nobody will be expecting your thesis to be perfect 162 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH – in this context, the whole idea of perfection is only meaningful as a convenient shorthand term. By definition, when your work involves new discovery, there is uncertainty and no absolute right answer. Your work will build on previous work and on established techniques; all of these are ultimately derived from approximations, assumptions and consensus in the field, rather than from God-given absolute truths. Part of becoming a mature professional researcher is being able to accept uncertainty, and to deal with it in a way which is appropriate for the situation in hand. Sometimes an uncertainty is the whole point of the research (for instance, ‘Why is this mould growing on my Petri dishes?’), but on other occasions you have to accept that you have to work with an uncertainty which is not likely to be clarified in the foreseeable future (for instance, ‘Why do things so often form Poisson distributions?’) The obverse of this cheering thought is the implication that your thesis will contain questionable things. These provide a starting place for the examiners to do some poking around, to check the extent of your skills. They don’t want nasty surprises. They want to be reassured that your mastery of your field holds up adequately under scrutiny. They do not want to discover that your thesis is brilliant because your supervisor wrote all of it for you under the influence of desperate, unrequited love. They do not want to discover that you didn’t mention an obvious point because you’d never thought of it, rather than because you didn’t think it was worth mentioning because it was so obvious. Two stories illustrate this. We have chosen stories which are probably apocryphal, so as to spare the feelings of those involved in definitely true stories.

Stories of nasty surprises

The mushroom story The mushroom story concerns an agriculture student whose undergraduate dissertation involved looking at growth in farmed mushrooms, a topic of little interest to most of the world, but of considerable importance to mushroom farmers. Much to his surprise, he found that the mushrooms did not grow either continually or in diurnal cycles; instead they grew in cycles of a few hours. This finding was so unexpected that he went on to do a PhD on the topic, producing large amounts of data and analysis. The day of the viva arrived, and went beautifully up to the point where the external examiner asked a gentle, ground-clearing question, namely: ‘I take it that you allowed for the central heating going on and off in the mushroom sheds?’ After some seconds of horrible silence, it was agreed that the viva would be postponed until after the student had done a post-pilot study to check that the effect was THE VIVA 163 not due to the central heating going on and off. The results of the post-pilot were sickeningly predictable: the student had just spent several years of his life measuring, in effect, how often the central heating went on and off in mushroom sheds.

The woodpecker story The woodpecker story is similar. We include it partly on the grounds that it’s wise to be wary of principles which are always illustrated by the same example – this raises the nasty suspicion that there is only one example – and partly on the grounds that one of us used to wear a safety helmet in the course of a previous day job and can personally testify that they come in very handy when someone drops a bucket on your head. The woodpecker story is also useful because it demonstrates a more subtle and far-reaching effect than the mushroom story.

According to the story, the developers of safety helmets decided to look to nature to find inspiration for a new approach to design. One of them wondered whether there were any animals which experienced powerful blows to the head without suffering brain damage. Inspiration struck, in the form of the woodpecker, which spends much of its waking life banging its head against trees with considerable force. The team accordingly read up on the anatomy of the woodpecker and discovered that it had a spongy base to its beak which absorbed the force of the impact. The team used this inspiration to come up with a design for a helmet which was not designed to stop objects from penetrating the helmet (as with First World War military helmets, for instance), but instead was designed to absorb the blow by deforming harmlessly, preventing most of the energy of impact from reaching the wearer’s head (unlike helmets designed to prevent penetration). The designers were proudly demonstrating their concept when, according to the story, a member of the audience asked: ‘How do you know woodpeckers don’t suffer brain damage?’ Painful silence ensued...

In the mushroom story, the student failed to identify a relevant variable (the central heating). In the woodpecker story, the design team had not checked a key assumption (that woodpeckers don’t get brain damage). The woodpecker story in fact had a happy ending; the current design is demonstrably good and the designers were proved right (even though, as far as we know, nobody ever did check on brain damage rates in woodpeckers). In other cases, however, unchecked assumptions have led to years wasted in pointless research, which could have been spent instead in a useful area. This is quite a different proposition from reducing the problem space by eliminating one set of plausible possibilities.

For this reason, external examiners are likely to poke around in the foundations of your research, checking that you have neither missed anything which you should have thought of, nor made an unwarranted assumption.

164 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH An example from popular culture might provide a more cheering return to the plot, namely the comic-book character the Incredible Hulk. According to the story, the Hulk was created when a mild-mannered scientist was trying to find the source of people’s astonishing strength in emergencies, such as the woman who lifted a car off her child after a crash. That story is fiction and obviously silly, because – dramatic pause – people don’t have astonishing strength in emergencies; the story of the woman lifting a car off her child is an urban myth. (Try checking the website www.urbanlegends.com if you’re thinking of applying for a research grant of your own in this area, before you start budgeting for high-stretch shirts and non-rip trousers...) Most students collect horror stories about vivas, using them to nurture their nightmares. In our experience, failure at viva is rare and is almost always

attributable to one of two things:

1 The student didn’t listen to their supervisors, or any other advisers for that matter.

2 The supervisory relationship had broken down and the student hadn’t compensated for it.

Therefore, failure at viva is in principle avoidable, given two protective


1 Listen to your supervisor.

2 Build up an effective personal network and expose your work through seminars and publications in advance of your viva, so that you’ll be alerted to oversights early.

What happens at the viva: the things that go before Anyway, back to the main story. External examiners are there to check that you know how to make cabinets; how do they set about doing it?

The story normally starts before you see them. At some point in your PhD, you and your supervisor need to choose an external. For some PhDs, this is done before you even register for the PhD; for others, it happens after you’ve written up. For most, it’s somewhere in the last year or so. There are various factors in choosing the external. They should not have a conflict of interest – if they’re co-applying with you for a Nobel prize, for instance, then they will have a substantial incentive to pass your thesis, whether you deserve it or not. Similarly, if your last conversation with them started with you saying: ‘Wake up, darling, or we’ll be late for my viva,’ then questions might be asked...

THE VIVA 165 Once the external has been chosen, they will get on with their life until your thesis arrives in the post, accompanied by the appropriate forms and other paperwork. What do they do with it? That depends. Most externals will read the thesis in detail, at least once. Many will read it line by line, making notes page by page. They will look in detail at the references and appendices (the equivalent of hauling the drawers out of a cabinet and checking the joints that were never intended to be seen in normal use). They will check references or assertions which don’t look right. They will probably spot the reference to Young, Gifted and Black (1976) which felt so amusing at the time. And so forth. At the other end of the spectrum, there are persistent stories about externals who read theses on the train, on the way to the viva. Either way, you want their initial reaction to be the same: you want them to feel the nice warm glow that accompanies the thought: ‘Well, this doesn’t look like a fail’.

So, make sure that the pages which they will look at first are all reassuring – all the pages up to and including the second page of the introduction; the references; and the concluding couple of pages.

The examiners will usually read the thesis independently and then contact each other to discuss it. They have a limited set of options about marks, since you either get a PhD or you don’t: you don’t get a percentage mark like you do with a final-year project. However, this apparent simplicity derives from a more complex assessment process. The examiners can pass your thesis without changes (unusual, but far from unknown); they can fail it completely (far from unknown); they can recommend that it be considered for an MPhil instead; or, more commonly, they can accept it subject to specified changes of varying degrees of severity. If they all agree that it looks like a straight pass, a straight fail or an MPhil, then their life is simple; more often, however, there are changes required, which means that the examiners have to discuss what needs to be changed. This can be time-consuming and irritating, especially if the changes are needed because your thesis is vague or otherwise badly written.

After this, they will need to agree on the game plan for the viva itself – who will handle which bits, and how? Note that they don’t simply put together a list of changes ready to give to you. The provisional list will be modified in the light of the viva. If it turns out, for instance, that an apparent problem is simply a matter of your using an unusual name for something instead of a more familiar one, then the change might only involve putting in a parenthesis to explain that your term is the same as the more familiar one. Conversely, if the viva reveals major and inexcusable ignorance on your part, then what initially looked like a minor change can turn into a major one, or even a fail. This shouldn’t normally happen, but it may happen in cases where a student vanishes into the wilderness, does some research, then writes up and insists on submitting against the advice of the supervisor (rare, but unfortunately not unknown).


The day itself: the opening stages

The examiners normally rendezvous in or around the department some time before the viva, and have a pre-viva meeting to confirm their plan of action.

They will usually not show much interest in meeting you at this stage. This is nothing personal: they have a job to do, and they need to concentrate on that. Many vivas are held in the afternoon, to give the examiners time to get to the venue; in these cases, the examiners are normally taken off to lunch by your supervisor before the viva. You probably won’t be invited: this is etiquette, not a snub. (You may be invited to lunch if you had a successful viva with them in the morning, but that’s different.) There are persistent rumours about relationships where the supervisor treats the examiners to a few drinks at lunchtime to get them in a good mood; if true, this is the exception, not the norm.

When they are ready, you will be summoned, and will go into the room, looking and feeling distinctly nervous if you are anything like most other PhD candidates.

Opening gambits Since you are likely to be nervous, most examiners will make an effort to put you at your ease. Since the viva usually takes place in your department, with the external as the visitor, there isn’t much scope for the traditional opening gambit in meetings, namely asking whether you had a good journey.

Similarly, the bit where they introduce themselves will usually go past you in a nameless blur, like the following bit where they say how they are going to conduct the session. There are various other gambits which are more likely to get through to you, most of which are open to being misconstrued by nervous candidates.

An example of this is the external who offers you a couple of sheets of A4 listing the typos they have found. This is easily misconstrued as trivial, petty nit-picking which misses the great philosophical points behind your thesis. Not so. It’s actually a graceful courtesy. For one thing, it shows that the examiner has paid you the compliment of bothering to read every page in such detail that they have found the typo on page 174 which your spell-checker missed. For another thing, it is much preferable to have that list by you when you fix the typos, rather than being told that there are numerous typos which need to be fixed, but not being told where they are.

A third thing is that in some cases the examiners only ask a few token questions and use the list of typos as an indirect way of saying that you’ve done such a good job on the thesis that it only needs very minor alterations (in such cases, the list of typos is an indirect way of saying that they’re not THE VIVA 167 simply going for the minor alterations option because they’re too lazy to do anything else).

Another opening gambit which is widely used is to say something about your thesis along the lines of how interesting or readable it was. This gambit can actually mean several very different things. For some academics, ‘readable’ is a low-grade insult, referring to the sort of thing written by scientists who popularize science (an activity viewed with condescension by many academic researchers). For others, ‘readable’ is a compliment, meaning that it’s possible for a human being to work out what you’re on about, unlike most of the turgid grot perpetrated by people writing in your area. How can you tell which meaning you are encountering? One indicator is the reputation of the examiner. If they’re notoriously sadistic, then you’re probably about to encounter trouble, so don’t let that opening sentence lull you off your guard. If the examiner is known as a considerate soul, then you’re probably being given a gentle start to the session. However, it’s worth remembering that even the most considerate examiner is also a professional academic and likely to take the viva pretty seriously, so don’t presume too much. If you encounter this gambit, a fairly safe response is a dry smile and a ‘thank you’ in a polite tone which implies that you’re no idiot.

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