Annual Reviews in my department are yearly meetings where students discuss their progress with an independent reviewer in the presence of their supervisory team. These are meant to occur at the end of each academic year in order to identify any potential issues that may make progress difficult. Not all Annual Reviews have an independent reviewer. Sometimes it’s just you and your supervisory team. My Annual Review this time around was with an independent reviewer from my department, who was conducting the meeting, and my first supervisor, who there as an observer.
As my supervisor explained, Annual Reviews are more like a yearly check ups to see if you’ve got any bugs in your system that need to be addressed and not an assessment to see if you’re fit to live. Well, since he put it THAT way…I started to view my Annual Review as less of a ‘final exam’ and more of a discussion of my thesis progress to date.
The actual meeting was surprisingly enjoyable! I had worked myself up into a ball of nerves that it didn’t occur to me that this Annual Review could be kind of…fun. It was still challenging and difficult – I was under no allusions this would be easy – but the process was highly constructive. The reviewer was a fresh pair of eyes who would be seeing my research differently and was able to provide useful feedback that would strengthen my thesis. I learned a lot in that meeting, and I’d like to share it with you:
1) Understand the question being asked: This seems obvious (duh) but in practice it’s not always that clear. In order to provide a clear answer you need to understand what is being asked. Sometimes, what is being asked in not always in the form of a question but implied a description or a statement. Not a useful strategy, but it happens. At certain points during this meeting I found myself rambling because I was wasn’t quite sure of the question. In hindsight I should have asked for clarification instead of trying to talk my way into an answer.
2) Answer the question being asked: Another obvious one (duh) yet this actually takes some practice! This meeting taught me that I like to begin my answers with some background context and then (eventually) address the question. In my case this wasn’t a great strategy because by the time I addressed the question I had thrown up a lot of ‘targets’ for the independent reviewer to query. At this point I had to back pedal and answer the new questions in order to address the original question. This was an interesting process because I had to think on my feet and ‘unpick’ my answer in order for it to make sense to the listener whereas I could have saved myself the stress had I directly answered the question in the first place.
3) Identify the ‘feeder’ questions: These type of questions are more prompts that would allow you to expand on a topic that should (ideally) be comfortable to answer. There were points during my review where it was clear that I was struggling and my reviewer was feeding me questions to help ease me into a more straightforward answer but did I realise what she was doing? I did…in one of those out of body experiences, where I was watching myself ramble on and inwardly told myself to stop and address the actual question (see point 2). Had I identified her questioning strategy sooner, I would have (again) saved myself the stress (duh).
The experience taught me that I could use more practice answering questions in this type of situation. It was a good step towards preparing for my viva, where just learning how to understand what is being asked was a worthwhile exercise!