I’ve been rather quiet on the blog recently; my energies have been focused towards writing the report and designing a seminar to fulfil the requirements for my Confirmation of Candidature (RF2 in local parlance). As I discussed earlier, this is the final hurdle to overcome before you can call yourself a PhD student. Essentially you are providing a panel of assessors with evidence of the progress you have made during your first year, and that your study is of a standard likely to lead to you being able to fulfil the requirements of a PhD.
I submitted the report just over a week ago and delivered my oral presentation yesterday (the slides are above, though may not mean a great deal without the commentary). Rather than the small panel that would usually be involved (your supervisory team plus two ‘rapporteurs’ – academics not associated with your research, but familiar with the field and PhD supervision), I agreed to present a seminar. As it happened, this was the first on this year’s programme of the Institute’s Research Seminar series, so rather than half a dozen people, there were over thirty – academics, PhD students and Masters students. I’m sure some would have found this intimidating, but for me, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Rather than speaking to a small, incredibly intelligent and necessarily critical panel, it felt more like talking to a class and helped me to relax. The audience was not solely those obliged to be there as part of their duties, but was mostly people who were sufficiently motivated to give up some time to come and listen to me talk, based on the title and abstract I had provided.
I freely admit that I spent hours preparing the session, drafting, redrafting and editing, but also in rehearsing the presentation. I find that rehearsing what I want to say mentally isn’t adequate and as soon as I try and speak to my slides, things fall apart. By delivering the presentation to no-one in particular and speaking out loud, I find that after five or six attempts, I’ve usually got to the point where I think it flows well enough. It also provides a sense of timing and meant I that over those repetitions, I was able to trim 15 minutes of ‘fat’ out and get the presentation down to the 30 minutes it needed to be, to leave enough time for 30 minutes Q&A. I never read from a script and use brief notes to remind me of the areas I want to cover, though I go in with the attention of not referring to them – hence the rehearsals. Whenever I can, I always try to make one of those rehearsals in the room where the real event will be taking place. That helps avoid simple stumbling blocks you might not otherwise be aware of; like the software (and add-ons) you need being on the computer driving the projector; knowing where you will stand to be able to meet your audience eye-to-eye and still be able to control the computer; whether your visuals display correctly on the screen.
I wonder why I feel the need to rehearse presentations like this, in a way I never do when I’m teaching? A couple of hours before the seminar, I had my first teaching session with a second year undergraduate group. Having planned my lesson, I felt no need to rehearse, knowing that when the session opened, I would know what to say. Is that because I was in a domain I’ve become familiar with over decades – physics teaching? My research seminar is in an area which, by its very nature, I’m only just becoming acquainted with … but then even when I was just starting out teaching, I don’t remember ever working to a script. Perhaps then it’s a power imbalance? With a group of undergraduates, I’m (possibly) the more knowledgeable and experienced one. When presenting to an academic audience, that balance shifts in the other direction entirely. I think this becomes most apparent during the Q and A, where I’m much less settled. Intellectually demanding questions (as indeed they should be) prove incredibly taxing for my small brain; I need time to process and formulate a response … much more time than in a Q and A. I wonder what the implications that has for my viva?
The outcomes from the seminar were doubly rewarding. The seminar was well received by the audience which came along to learn about the topic, but most importantly, the rapporteurs’ comments during the subsequent feedback session were very positive. Their comments helpfully highlighted areas I might need to tighten or reflect on more deeply – suggestions for consideration, rather than indicative of the need for an overhaul. I hope this is indicative of a successful Confirmation, but need to await the approval of the Faculty Panel and endorsement of the University Research Degrees Sub-Committee. We shall see.