Last week I submitted my thesis. No hoopla. No fanfare. No round of applause. It was merely a matter of printing four copies, getting them bound, then dropping them off at the reception desk of a University office building. Quite an anticlimax really. In return I was given a pro forma acknowledgement of receipt and the promise that they would be passed on to the relevant department. I needed no more than that, but I can’t help thinking how deflated some people must feel; all that effort and not even a ‘congratulations’ or ‘you must be delighted?’ Perhaps there might be something to be gained from the University rethinking that small but significant aspect of the examination process.
The next formal stage from my perspective will be the viva or oral exam. At the moment, that’s scheduled for mid-December, leaving me with five weeks in which to prepare. Most candidates have a mock exam and I know that will be vital for me too, so preparing for that is my next task. To be fair, I haven’t exactly left viva prep until the last minute. Over the past couple of years I’ve been collecting resources which might help me in this endeavour. I’ve listened to many Viva Survivors podcasts, read through Pat Thomson’s and Inger Mewburn’s viva-related posts, and skimmed a number of books in the Uni library to see which might be most helpful. I’ve also attended a number of doctoral support seminars which have dealt with this topic, so it’s fair to say I have a pretty good idea of what will be required of me. Knowing what I should do and translating that into a solid performance on the day are two different matters however. Interviews have never been one of my strengths; I’m never comfortable answering questions on the hoof, especially complex ones. To address this shortcoming I know that what helps me is thinking through and preparing answers for the questions I’m most likely to be asked, answers which will be sufficiently broad that they can be reconfigured to address most general, rather than specific questions I’m asked. I also need to develop a strategy for dealing with questions I haven’t been able to anticipate.
I spent the last few days well away from the thesis just to provide a little distance and breathing space so I can return to it afresh. Now I’m ready to get stuck in once more and firstly want to set out the different steps I‘ll take over the next couple of weeks. There are two main parts I feel: becoming intimate with the thesis, and developing answers to possible questions.
- I need to re-read the thesis as part of reacquainting myself with what I wrote over the course of a year. But rather than a passive, bland exercise, I’ll firstly be checking for and noting any remaining errors which might have escaped the proof-reading. Different sources of advice recommend making summary notes as you go along, for example using the white space at the top of each page to add a ten-ish word summary of the contents.
- I’ve found the University of Leicester’s viva advice pages particularly useful and think I’ll find it helpful to produce ‘a copy of the List of Contents with plenty of spacing so that you can write a brief summary of the content under each heading.’ I wonder if, as part of this process, I could produce and thread together tweet-length section summaries. Posting them to Twitter might be doubly beneficial: feeding findings back to those who were generous enough to provide the original data (and perhaps even getting reciprocal comments); encouraging me to be as concise as possible in making those section summaries; and maintaining coherence throughout the study where Twitter was the source of inspiration, of participants, of data, and now a means of dissemination.
- Leicester also advocates practising telling the story of your thesis in two minutes and being able to do the same for each chapter. Also sound advice I think. I know I find writing a powerful thinking tool, but practising verbalising those thoughts will be crucial.
- There are likely to be two main kinds of questions I’m asked: general questions which might reasonably directed at any PhD candidate, and specific questions arising from my thesis. The former include examples like the opening question designed to help the candidate to settle, such as ‘What inspired you to come to study this particular topic?’ or ‘Can you give us a brief snapshot of your thesis?’ Then there may be other general questions like ‘How did you choose what to include (and exclude from) your literature review?’, ‘Why did you choose this particular conceptual framework?’ or ‘In what ways is your work original?’ In other words, generic questions about the sections/chapters which conventionally make up a thesis – broadly about theory, methodology, methods, findings, analysis and conclusions.
- The more specific questions are likely to arise where I’ve made particular claims which need further defending, about the unusual or unique methods I’ve chosen (I can’t imagine there’ll be no questions about flanography for example), and about the decisions I’ve taken and choices I’ve made.
Whether general or specific, I know if I was asked those questions right now, I’d struggle. My rationale behind particular decisions was often developed months ago and is now sometimes difficult to recall, or maybe I never articulated it clearly in the first place? Addressing those issues will form part of my work during the next few weeks. Since I’d be drafting answers in text form anyway, it makes sense to launch those thoughts through this blog and see what emerges. When I’ve re-read and summarised my thesis page-by-page, I’ll return back here and share short-post chapter summaries. I’ll then move on to penning posts which answer some of the questions I might get, or which might help me think more closely about how to describe and explain my work.