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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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One thing is that the viva is quite a lot like fencing practice. The session is used to assess your fencing skills, so you are expected to defend yourself in a way which shows your skill in fencing. You are neither expected to let your opponent hit you every time, nor to attempt to kick your opponent in the groin and then pummel them to death. What matters is how you answer the questions, rather than whether you happen to know a correct answer. At this level, there often aren’t any unambiguously correct answers.

Another thing to remember is that you don’t need to reply instantly. You can buy yourself some thinking time by using tactics such as raising an eyebrow, saying ‘Hmmm’ in a thoughtful way, or saying ‘That’s an interesting question; I’ll need to think about that for a moment’. There’s also nothing wrong with asking the examiner to clarify something in the question (as long as you don’t ask something silly, like the meaning of a term which is a central part of your discipline). When you’ve given your answer, there’s nothing wrong with checking whether it’s answering the question which they intended.

After the viva After the viva, make sure that you don’t vanish off the face of the earth;

it’s a good idea to borrow a friend’s office to retire to, but a bad idea not to let anyone know that you’re in there, so that the examiners have to scour the corridors looking for you. If you’ve failed, take the news calmly, be polite and read our section on what to do if things go wrong after giving a presentation (see p. 142) (in brief, go away and feel sorry for yourself for the rest of the day, then do some sensible advice-gathering and planning the next day – a fail is not the end of the world). Statistically speaking, though, you will probably be passed subject to some changes to the thesis. There is no point in arguing about the changes at this stage – argument would only show that you don’t understand the way things work on a PhD. Instead, be grateful that you’ve passed subject to changes, thank the examiners and your supervisor politely and go off to celebrate. Don’t worry about remembering all the changes; you should have arranged with your supervisor beforehand that they will make sure there is a clear written list which you can collect from them the next day.

If you’ve passed without changes, then be sure to thank your supervisor – they will have earned it. You can now go out and have that large drink, or whatever form of celebration takes your fancy.


Handling revisions

The day after the viva, possibly nursing a hangover, you need to present yourself at your supervisor’s door and work out precisely what needs to be done and by when. A surprising proportion of candidates give up at this stage.

Doing corrections is not much fun, but it’s a lot better than failing. Work out a clear timetable, with some contingency time, and get cracking on the corrections. If you want to have a break first, that’s up to you, but don’t put the corrections off; do them at the earliest possible opportunity and make sure your supervisor okays them. Write a covering letter detailing where you have made which changes and how – that makes it a lot easier for the examiners to check that you have done everything required. In most institutions, minor changes will only need to go back to the main examiner, but major changes will need to be approved by the whole examination team, and a covering letter makes life easier for everyone involved in such situations.

During or after the viva, you need to get the examiners to be very specific about the changes they want. Which chapter, which section of the chapter, which paragraph in the section need to be changed? Can they give you an example of the change they mean? How is this different from what was addressed in section X of the dissertation? You need to show judgement and discretion – if they say something like ‘This whole chapter is unclear’ then there’s a limit to how much precision anyone can give.

You also need to check that you know the date by which the corrections are due. Do not aim to have everything ready five minutes before the deadline;

you will need to liaise with your supervisor about the revisions and give your supervisor a reasonable amount of time to check the revisions before you hand them in. This is particularly important if you’re near the end of your time as a registered PhD student. The last thing you want to do is to miss the deadline for the revisions because (a) your printer broke down at the last minute or (b) because your supervisor spotted a fatal flaw requiring days of work on your revisions when you finally handed them over for inspection the day before the deadline.

Doing the revisions can produce surprising feelings of revulsion for some students – it’s a bit like washing up greasy plates in cold water the morning after a wild party when you have a massive hangover, or so we are reliably informed by friends who attend wild parties. It’s worth knowing about this so that if you find yourself engaged in displacement activities rather than doing the corrections, then you can spot this and do something about it.

The standard motivation techniques, plus strong support from friends, are helpful here.

Once the changes have been approved, you can plan for graduation. Most institutions allow you to have two guests at the ceremony, which normally means that the candidate’s partner and one parent attend while the other THE VIVA 175 parent remains in outer darkness – a source of potential annoyance, and one which it’s wise to address as early as possible. Many candidates end up wishing they had better photos of themselves in the formal gowns; it’s worth thinking about hiring the gown for a week instead of just a day, and then arranging some decent photos somewhere scenic (especially if you graduate in winter and it’s chucking down rain outside on the day of the ceremony).

After all of this, you will probably never want to see your thesis again, and will be seriously tempted to burn it to ashes. Don’t do that: the thesis is like a mask: where you see only the inside with all its imperfections, the rest of the world sees the glittering, burnished exterior. Yes, that’s a somewhat over the top metaphor, but you’ve earned a bit of praise by the time you reach this stage.

The viva: hints, lists and things to remember

Despite the reputation of the viva, the truth is that, by the time you get there, you’ve already done the hard part. Remember: a viva is pass–fail. Most examiners are looking for a reason to pass the candidate. Your job is to make it easy for them. Perfection is not required. Competence is.

What you’re doing in a viva

• Showing respect for the academic system and discipline

• Showing general mastery of the domain and its intellectual tools

• Demonstrating intellectual independence

• Joining the academic discourse

• Undergoing a rite of passage How to fail a viva

• Assume that the viva doesn’t matter

• Answer any question about what you did with, ‘My supervisor made me do it’

• Stick to one-word answers

• Display intransigence

• Display rampant cynicism

• Display flippancy

• Display a lack of interest

• Persist in an inability to describe your own work

• Persist in an inability to define fundamental terms

• Persist in an inability to talk about the papers you cite

• Call the examiner rude names 176 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH These are tried and true methods; we’ve seen students fail using them.

Also, don’t waste time second-guessing the examiners. A professor in our acquaintance tells the story of a brilliant student who, having seen him write ‘fail’ in his notes, decided that he had made a decision and ‘died’ through the latter half of her viva. He couldn’t understand the dramatic change in her previously flawless performance and asked about it afterwards. When she explained, he was horrified; he’d actually just been making a note to follow up on an interesting idea in one of her answers.

How to impress your examiners

• Come prepared

• Listen; comprehend the questions and address them directly

• Make eye-contact

• Show enthusiasm for your work

• See your work in the bigger picture

• Be able to refer directly to your text (highlight key passages) in answering questions

• Be able to refer directly to seminal texts by author and with accuracy

• Be able to articulate the nature and scale of your contribution

• Think forward – think beyond the research to further work and implications

• Be reflective – be able to articulate both what was good about your work and what could be improved and how These are tried and true methods as well. Students who show command of their material – both their own research and the prior work that frames and contributes to it – and who engage in the examination dialogue with knowledge, interest and courtesy are able to impress their examiners, even though they may also make some errors or sometimes answer falteringly.

Examiners like lively and interesting examinations.

Preparing Obviously, the best preparation for a viva is an excellent dissertation.

• Mark up your dissertation. Put tabs (Post-it notes or similar) on the pages you’re most likely to want to refer to.

• Decide if there’s any supporting documentation (e.g. key papers, design notes, data examples) not included in your dissertation that you want to have along. You’ll almost certainly never refer to any of it, but it might make you feel safer.

• Go through the ‘generic viva questions’ and think up answers.

• Make a list of the questions that frighten you most and compose answers to them.


• Get experienced people to do a mock viva and to debrief you afterwards about what they liked and what they thought could be improved.

(Understand that mock vivas are often much tougher than real vivas; mock examiners often play extreme roles so that you’ll know you can withstand the worst.)

• Skim through your five key references. If you don’t already have adequate

notes in your annotated bibliography, then make notes on the key papers:

what they did, why they are important, how your work relates to them, implications they have for your work. Be able to refer to the papers by the names of their authors.

• Skim through a couple of papers by your examiners, noting their topic area, approach and style.

• Prepare a publication plan for the material in your dissertation (which material, parcelled how, for which venue).

• Having done your preparation in good time, do something utterly relaxing and diverting the day before: sports, a walk along the coast, your favourite classic film, a full-body massage, whatever. This does not include drinking binges, extreme sports or anything else which might leave you feeling bad the next day.

• Get a good night’s sleep.

Fending off panic

• Pause: you’re allowed time to think.

• Breathe deeply: three deep, ‘centering’ breaths, making sure that you exhale slowly, usually help.

• Take a drink: there’s usually water on the table.

• Make quick notes to yourself, especially if you have more than one point to make.

If you don’t understand the question or don’t know the answer:

• Ask the examiner to repeat the question (chances are, they’ll simplify it as they do so). This is best when you simply didn’t take the question in.

• Rephrase the question back to the examiner: ‘I think you’re asking me about X’ – and then answer it.

• Offer alternative interpretations: ‘I’m not sure if you mean X or Y. Could you clarify?’

• It’s much better to offer an interpretation of the question than to say ‘I don’t understand’, but once or twice you can do that too.

Keep it simple, stupid. When you hear yourself saying the same thing for the third time, just stop and smile, or say, ‘Sorry, I’m repeating myself’. We all get nervous. Once (certainly never more than once) in a viva, if you really can’t help yourself, you’re allowed to relax the stiff upper lip entirely and say 178 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m feeling very nervous, I just need a moment...’ The examiners are likely to back off a bit and ask you a warm-up question before carrying on in earnest.

Questions examiners ask

• Warm-up questions to calm you down. Often of the form, ‘So how did you come to research this subject?’ Or, ‘Can you summarize your core thesis for us?’

• Confirmatory questions to let you demonstrate your knowledge. Often of the form of asking you to reiterate or define something in your dissertation.

• Deep confirmatory questions to let you demonstrate that your knowledge is more than skin deep. These are usually follow-ups to confirmatory questions that take up some point in your answer. Just keep your head and continue to address the questions.

• Calibration questions to help the examiner check their own understanding of your work.

• Scholarship questions to let you demonstrate that you know the field as well as your own research.

• Salvaging questions, when you’ve written something badly, to let you show you do know what you’re talking about after all.

• Pushing the envelope questions to see how far your knowledge goes.

• ‘This is neat’ questions to give the examiner a chance to discuss your interesting ideas.

• Redemptive, ‘lesson learned’ questions to give you a chance to admit some awful blunder in your work so that the examiner can ‘let you off’ without worrying that you’ll make it again. A typical example is, ‘Would you take this approach again if you were pursuing this issue?’ when a student has applied an inappropriate method that yielded little.

• ‘This is a good student; how good?’ questions – a little ‘sparring’ to let you really show your stuff.

• ‘Give me a reason to pass you’ questions – often, if the examiners continue asking about the same topic, it’s because they’re interested; if so, then cooperate actively with them, rather than trying to change the topic.

–  –  –

Killer questions and how to survive them In this section, Q = question, A = suggested answer, C = our comments on the question and/or answer.

Q: How does your work relate to Jim Bloggs’ recent paper? (when you’ve never heard of Bloggs) A: ‘I’m not familiar with that paper. Does he take an X approach or a Y approach?’ C: Show something you do know that’s relevant; then, when the examiner offers a précis: ‘Ah, so it’s like so-and-so’s work?’ Q: Isn’t this obvious?

A: Well, it may appear that way with hindsight, but there was surprisingly little work on this topic in the literature, and the question needed to be properly answered.

C: Many dissertations codify what people think they already know but which has never been properly established. ‘Obvious’ can be good; it can make a contribution. Marian’s external examiner asked her this and, fortunately, her internal examiner answered him that it was only obvious because he’d read her dissertation. You might try a modestly phrased version of this answer yourself if nobody offers it for you.

Q: Isn’t this just like Brown’s work?

A: It differs from Brown’s work because...

C: Everyone worries that someone else is going to ‘gazump’ them and publish exactly their work just before they do. Forget it. There will be something – a difference of approach, of technique, of sample – that distinguishes your work and protects your contribution. If you know Brown’s work already, then you should have already identified how it differs from yours; if you don’t, ask about Brown’s work until the answers reveal a difference.

Q: You use the term X in two different ways in Chapters 4 and 6. What do you mean?

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