09 Preparation - Stage One

09 Preparation - Stage One

Stage one of your preparation is understanding your thesis, and I mean thoroughly understanding it. As I said earlier on, you need to be able to approach your thesis from lots of different angles. The document itself is written in a linear way, but your examiners are going to be approaching it differently. They've got their own questions, their own perspectives that they're going to bring to it.

[00:00:23] Here's what you need to do. Reread the entire thesis. Work on any problem areas. Refamiliarise yourself with the key literature. Check the latest literature, and explore your examiners' work. I'll go through each of these steps in more detail now.

[00:00:41] Rereading the entire thesis, you need to start at the beginning and work all the way through to the end, chapter by chapter. This is exactly how your examiners are going to approach it. So don't jump around or focus on your favourite bits. You need to understand it all systematically and be aware of all those tricky areas.

[00:01:05] If you do spot a problem area, make a note of it and then move on. Don't become fixated with that problem at the moment. Your task here is to effectively audit your thesis and work out what you need to do. Keep a list of any mistakes or typos. And yes, this is horrible. It's excruciating. You don't want to have to look at it again.

[00:01:26] But one of the main gripes from PhD examiners is that sometimes the candidates don't have a strong enough knowledge of their own work, so you do have to read it all the way through. This is the absolute basics of viva preparation. Once you've done your audit, go back and familiarise yourself thoroughly with those problem areas.

[00:01:46] And depending on the extent, you're going to need to schedule extra time for dealing with them. Think about answers that you can give for explaining any mistakes or omissions. The examiners are unlikely to fail you because there's a mistake, but they might fail you if you haven't actually reflected on it, or you're unaware of that mistake.

[00:02:04] If necessary or possible, identify some supporting literature so you can use that to back up your reason. And here's another quote from Professor Woodhouse. 'I can assure you that a good examiner will skim briskly over the parts of the thesis where you demonstrate a real command of the subject and instead will dig deep in the places you are weakest'.

[00:02:25] This is why it's vital that you focus on those problem areas. That's probably going to form the basis of the viva. And a few words about mistakes. There are always mistakes. There's no such thing as a perfect thesis. Even one that passes with no corrections. So accept that there will be mistakes. Don't beat yourself up about it. Your viva is the opportunity to correct or clarify them. This is why the viva can be so pivotal. Your examiners might have concerns about your thesis beforehand, but then you can reassure them during the viva that you understand what you're doing and how you could have done it better. Examiners like humility as well.

[00:03:02] There's no need to overdo it and say, Oh yes, it's all terrible, but you can acknowledge that there are some limitations. You reflected and here's how you could have done it better.

[00:03:11] Refamiliarise yourself with key literature. Don't try to reread everything that you've cited because that will take you months. Look back at your notes. Hopefully you've been organized with taking notes, doing your critical reading. That could help refresh your memory, and it's a lot faster than having to reread an entire journal article. Pay close attention to your literature review. This is often the basis of a viva. Because it's your literature review that establishes your contribution to knowledge.

[00:03:39] If there are key journal articles that form the basis of your literature review, definitely reread those and go through any particular points with which you engage. If you're highlighting a gap in someone else's research, make sure that you understand that gap thoroughly. And consider taking with you any material that forms the basis of your argument so that you can refer back to it.

[00:04:01] As I'll be saying later on in the course, you can take other materials with you into the viva room. It's not a memory test. You might consider creating a short bibliography of the most important sources, no more than 10%. You can take this with you to the viva and that will jog your memory about all of the names and article titles. Although you've been writing about these people for the last few years, if your mind goes blank, it will be really helpful to have a note of who they are in front of you.

[00:04:31] You also need to check the latest literature. Annoyingly, people will keep publishing papers even after you've submitted. The literature review never really ends. Make sure you've identified the most important literature that's been published since you submitted and consider how it impacts upon your results and findings. Of course, it'd be unreasonable for examiners to complain that you haven't accounted for a paper that's only just been published, but it's reasonable for them to expect you to know how that paper might impact upon what you've said in your thesis.

[00:05:03] It's fine if there's an overlap or contradiction. You just need to be able to talk about it. Often PhD candidates are paranoid that someone else is going to get there before them. It's impossible though, to come up with completely original research these days, and inevitably there will be lots of people all around the world working on similar studies. Even if there is an overlap, it's very unlikely that someone has taken exactly the same approach to exactly the same topic as you have.

[00:05:30] You want to spend some time exploring your examiners' work, but not to go overboard with this. Don't try to read everything they've ever written. If they're a very eminent professor, they might have dozens of publications. It's more about being familiar with their interests and their approach because their interests and approach are probably going to inform the types of questions that they ask you. Look out for any areas on which you converge. So this might be a methodology, theoretical approach, for instance. And more importantly, the points on which you diverge.

[00:06:04] If they have a completely different methodology or they've been critical of your methodology in the past, then that's likely to be something that comes up. Again, it doesn't mean that you have to share their methodology, but they will probably ask you questions about why you've adopted your own approach.

[00:06:21] It's usually not worth reading your examiners' theses because they could be from 20-30 years ago, and they're not necessarily representative of the current research your examiner is doing. Also, they might be a bit embarrassed if you quote their thesis. The thesis is very much the starting point for an academic career. It's what allows you to go on and publish other work.

[00:06:41] A frequently asked question is, do I need to cite my examiners? This is a complicated question, but the broad answer is only cite your examiners if it's relevant. Don't cite your examiner to try and give them a favourable impression of you. Some examiners will be quite egotistical and expect to see their names in your thesis. Hopefully you've eliminated those during your selection process that we covered earlier. Reasonable examiners will get annoyed if you've just cited them for the sake of it, so don't attempt to shoehorn them into your thesis. But definitely cite them if it's appropriate and be prepared to discuss their work.

[00:07:22] To summarise, you need to understand your thesis inside out and back to front. Remember, you need that ability to approach it from lots of different angles. Think about how your examiners are going to approach it. They're coming to this document for the first time. Remember that your field might have shifted since you've submitted, so you need to be aware of any developments and how they impact upon your research.

[00:07:47] If you think of your field as a jigsaw puzzle and that little orange character is you with your jigsaw piece, that's your research and you're trying to fit it into the field. And all the time you're working on your PhD, that jigsaw puzzle is shifting around. That's what makes it so exciting! Make sure you understand what that jigsaw puzzle looks like before your viva because it might have changed since you submitted.