YOU MAY PASS… WITH CORRECTIONS

Today I had my long-awaited End-of-Year-One progression viva. And when I say long-awaited, I mean that it took me three years to get here. I study part-time, I have a demanding full-time job, I’ve been seriously ill, and there was a death in my family. Oh, and I also volunteer for a local charity, I’m working towards Chartered Engineer status, and I’m attempting to purchase a house. So three years isn’t bad going, really. The plan is that I complete the next two years by 2020, so let’s hope life doesn’t throw too much more at me in the intervening period. Anyway, I’ve not yet received the formal nod, but I can proceed to Year Two subject to some amendments. I basically need to better define my research question, filter out a ton of irrelevant sections, and rein my enthusiasm in a little.

My report had the following problems to be fixed:

The Research Question had changed.

The title now bore little resemblance to what my report was about.  The project had begun with the general subject area of “ventilation in hot climates”, with many of the researchers in my study group looking at ventilation solutions for the Middle East.  However, no-one in my department was looking at the effects of hot weather on British homes, and we know that things are going to heat up a little with projected climate change, so I saw my niche and jumped right in.  And ended up studying something completely detached from what I’d originally signed up for.  So I changed the title of my thesis; I suppose it’s a good thing that I did it now rather than at final submission time…

What the hell am I doing here?

The aims, objectives and central question were vague, but what I presented in the viva voce exam was clear and focussed enough to convince the examiners that I deserved a chance.  My literature review was somewhat meandering, and because my new specialism was still an incredibly broad subject, I’d read up on just about everything.  There was no stone unturned, but all I had was a lot of stones.  When presenting at conferences, I ended up in discussions with people from just about every discipline (I am not joking, I’m talking Archaeology right through to Sociology, with a bit of Medicine and Architectural History thrown in.  Did I mention that I’m doing an Engineering degree?).  And I thought at the time, “wow, my research is so relevant, what a blessing to be studying an interdisciplinary subject”.  The only problem is that a Ph.D is about depth, not breadth.  The idea is that you create new knowledge in your very specialised topic, so that you become an expert on that one thing.  I was in a position where I’d developed a reasonable level of understanding of many, many, interconnected things, but my supervisors needed to be sure that I was ready to specialise and produce work that was still relevant and useful to society, but had a clear focus.

The Curse Of Boundless Enthusiasm

I am far too excited about my research. Ok, this may seem like a contradiction – Ph.D candidates need to have enthusiasm for their subject to the point of obsession, right? Well, yes, but I took this to a whole new level. As well as an extensive and expansive literature review, I also had Grand Plans For The Future.  I wanted to do everything, basically.  One of the examiners said that I had planned a project large enough to employ a post-doc with a team of 5 research students.  So I needed to scale it down a little, and focus on an initial project to get me through my Ph.D.  It is a bit strange that I’ve already thought ahead to the “Further Work” section of my thesis already, but at least I can envisage my future in academia.  Only problem is that I might have seen another intellectual butterfly to chase by that time.

How did I get through unscathed?

The entire point of the oral exam is to demonstrate to the examiners that you know your subject, have researched it in depth, and that you have a credible plan for the next two years’ worth of study.  Your research must be original, and bring something new to the table.  While you’re unlikely to make a ground-breaking new discovery during your Ph.D years (but you never know!), you will still be contributing something to the overall body of knowledge.  And your research will go far further than just your lab – it will cross borders, be cited by others, and lay the foundations for someone else’s Ph.D.  And my job was to prove that I was capable of all that.

The leading paragraphs may have seemed like a catalogue of failings, but this is par for the course as a research student.  Yes, you can’t be the best at everything.  Yes, you will get knocked back.  But you will also gain valuable experience and produce work that challenges the existing knowledge and challenges you.  You can list out all your failures as an academic, but they are part of a process.  Part of doing a Ph.D is learning how to do a Ph.D – how to learn, analyse and produce work of a high academic standard.  It prepares you for more – for a career in academia, which is essentially a method for filtering good information.  Papers get rejected, new ideas replace what we thought was immovable, people change their research focus.  It happens and you have to get used to it; the worst thing you can do is pretend you’re perfect.  Take these setbacks in your stride, they will inform your future work and career development.

And so, I acknowledged the areas in which I needed to improve, and came up with a plan for success during the Q&A:

Be Specific.

I narrowed down my research question to a rather long-winded, yet single, sentence that actually reflected what I am studying, rather than the all-encompassing “ventilation in hot climates”, which could be spun to cover just about anything.  My subject is still an interdisciplinary one, but it’s a far more specific and manageable one, too!

Make it testable.

It was made clear during the exam that I had studied a lot of literature in a lot of depth, but it wasn’t so clear what I wanted to use this knowledge for, or how I would demonstrate an answer to the question.  So I need to come up with a testable hypothesis that my research could use to channel its direction.  It’s a single sentence, but it is a question that will take a lot of time and resources to investigate thoroughly.  About one thesis’s worth, happily.

At this juncture, we also spoke about the possibility of the hypothesis being found to be false – what would I do then?  Turns out it’s ok.  As long as my method is sound, and the results are valid, they still matter.  We’ll know something that we didn’t know before.

Ask Questions.

The viva voce exam is a time for you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your subject.  But a major part of the exam is the Q&A after the presentation.  And it’s not a one-way street.  I wanted to know from the examiners: what do you expect to see in a good thesis submission?  Obviously, it’s different if it’s an interim review like mine – it’s a bit late to be asking this in your final Ph.D defence (unless you are expecting a serious amount of corrections)!

An interesting debate opened up when one of the external examiners revealed a difference of opinion with my supervisor over referencing styles.  I know how fastidious the examining board can be, so I will make sure I have this one sorted prior to final submission (I do not want to have to go through 90,000 words changing my references from Vancouver to Harvard style!)

PHD Comics: The Thesis Committee
This was how my viva was, except without the cookies.

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