Thesis Boot Camp: The view from ‘the other side’

This past week I had the privilege to help facilitate the first ‘solo’ Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) event on campus. For those of you who don’t know, it’s essentially 2 ½ days of no-holds-barred, intensive writing event intended for final-stage PhD students to get as many words down on paper as possible. Last year we had the brilliant Dr Peta Freestone, award winning writer and creator of TBC, lead the very first event.  From that experience we decided to try our hand to run it again this year.

tbc-bricksFrom a ‘former-PhD-student-now-facilitator’ perspective it was fascinating to observe this group of students rise to the challenge of writing their thesis. As I spoke to the participants I found I could really empathise with their struggles. The anxiety and self-doubt seem to grow during the final-stages of the PhD and I remember, quite vividly, the effort it took to ‘just write’. These memories made me all the more determined to find ways to keep the group positive and motivated.

Everyone needs cheerleaders, and during this event it’s a fine balance between what I call ‘pat and push’. Yes, it’s also known as ‘carrot and stick’ but I prefer my version. Less ‘you’re a horse being lead’ kind of visual and more sports orientated (?). Anyhow, knowing when to be reassuring and knowing when to issue an challenge wasn’t easy, especially towards final few hours when we’re all losing steam. Being ‘on the other side’gave me some insight into the process they were currently undergoing. This made it a little easier to know when to lend a hand and when to lend a listening ear!

It’s sometimes hard to know what to say, and I wondered if my words sounded ’empty’ because they seem so cliché (e.g. You can do it! Keep going! etc.). Then I remembered being on the receiving end of this kind of encouragement, and feeling quite relieved to hear these sorts of messages. So I hoped, in some way, what I said was useful to this group!

We’ve got another TBC coming up later this year so, fingers crossed, it’ll be just as productive as this one!

Image my own, taken before boot camp (duh)!

Thesis corrections submitted (whew)

I had my viva several weeks ago but since then it’s been full steam ahead! I was so focussed on preparing for my viva that I put off preparing for my lectures until the weekend before teaching started. Basically, I’ve been on catch up mode ever since!

This post is a short one on my experiences completing thesis corrections. In the UK PhDs have different categories based on the number/type of corrections requested by the examiners. The time allocated to carry out the corrections is calculated by the examiners according to how much they think you can do in a certain amount of time. It’s not an exact science so there’s a range of interpretations.

I was given four weeks to complete my corrections. What I found out was that four weeks did NOT mean that I had a full four weeks to work on my corrections. In actual fact I had three weeks, with one week for the external examiners to read and approve my corrections, then send it back so that I can submit the final version of my thesis.

You’d think this would be a huge motivator to get my corrections done asap, but the fact was that I left the bulk of the work to do during the third week. I can’t really pin point why. I could say I was busy with other responsibilities, but I think after my viva I was feeling tired. Like deep-down tired. So I took a week off. Did nothing thesis related. Week two I started on the more straightforward corrections: fix these typos, check this reference, change this word etc.

My third and final week was when the panic settled in, and I went in hard, completing the main bulk of my corrections. I finally submitted the revised version of my thesis to my examiners by 5pm on the day they were due. I know it wasn’t the best use of my time, but strangely don’t feel guilty about putting off doing the work. Anyhow, I should hear the outcome from my examiners sometime next week so, fingers crossed, it’ll be enough.

Image my own. Supervisors notes from viva.

Viva preparation underway

This month it’s my turn in the viva spotlight. In Nov and Dec was a unusually busy season for vivas taking place with fellow PhD students from my year. Now, it’s my turn. Next Tuesday, 20th January will be my day of reckoning.

In many ways I’ve been fortunate to be one of the ones to go last out of my group because I’ve been able to learn a lot from their recent experiences. I’d like to share a few with you:

Know your thesis well.

There’s a dizzying array of advice out there about how to prepare for yur viva. For me, it really came down to knowing my thesis. This point seems rather obvious, but I didn’t really understand how important it was until I was asked questions about it. What was most interesting, for me, was realising that I actually knew my own work more than I gave myself credit for. It wasn’t a matter or memorising chunks of text, but rather knowing where I wrote what. I was able to turn to specific pages find what I needed to answer particular questions. Being able to do this was a huge confidence boost and helped dispel some of my anxieties.

Practically, I read my thesis through twice. The first time was to re-aquaint myself with the content. I noted down passages that didn’t seem very clear (conceptually and grammatically), placed coloured tabs on important pages (e.g. research questions, summary of theoretical framework, etc.) and made a list of typos and errors. The second time I read my thesis through after my mock viva (see below) as a way to consolidate some of the advice and observations made by my supervisors.

Practice answering different questions out loud to different people.

There is something to be said about recording yourself answering viva questions, but it’s another experience entirely to articulate your thoughts to a live audience. Viva ready thesisI was very fortunate to have several opportunities to practice answering viva questions, first with Mariam Attia, an academic friend who invited me to her viva several years ago. We met via Skype and over the course of two hours she asked me several questions. Some were more general (e.g. Can you summarise your thesis?), others were regarding specific sections of my thesis. She had kindly read my thesis (!!!) in preparation for our meeting and so came prepared with a list of questions that were tailored to my study.

The second opportunity to practice answering viva questions was with my partner. Building upon my experiences with Mariam, I wrote down a list of questions I wanted to practice answering and he asked me them, one by one. It was a good opportunity to practice making my answers more specific rather than rambling on.

Mock vivas – simultaneously nerve wracking and reassuring.

The final opportunity was during a mock viva with both my supervisors and another staff member. With a panel of three academics it was an interesting experience applying the practical advice I’d been given by my friends, such as:

  • Writing down tough questions, word for word. This gave me the space to calm my nerves and allowed me time to think.
  • Instead of answering right away, I tried writing down the points I wanted to make in order to answer the question in a focussed manner. Key words/phrases were enough.
  • Referring to specific pages of my thesis, and then waiting for everyone to turn to that page gave me time to gather my thoughts.
  • Allowing for silence. I’m very comfortable doing this when I teach, so why not during my own viva?

It was about two hours in total, with one hour in “viva exam mode” and the last hour discussing my performance, clarifying what will happen on the day, and providing useful performance-related advice.

Um…what was the question?

Despite writing down tough questions there were times that I found myself offering different answers in hopes that one of them addressed the question ask. This situation usually arose when the examiner either made a statement with a question implied and/or asked several questions at once. In my haste to look competent I tried to talk my way into an answer, adapting my rambling according to their facial expressions.

The problem with this approach, as pointed out by my mock viva panel, was that a) I didn’t answer the question b) it was obvious I didn’t understand what was being asked and c) the answers I gave could potentially open doors to areas of the thesis I didn’t really want to discuss. If anything, they suggested that I must understand what is being asked before answering. They suggested that I shouldn’t ask the examiners to repeat the question because I may come across as incompetent, but instead try paraphrasing the question in my own words (e.g. “Do you mean to ask me about…? / Just to clarify, are you asking me about…?”).

Preparing for my viva has been a learning curve which has helped demystify what a viva actually entails. I feel more confident yet am still on edge because, at the end of it all, I still have no idea what will happen on the day. I feel I’ve done what I can, and hope that it’ll be enough.