Feedback & Corrections

I was six and had painted my dad. A circle with a crude face, rectangle body, chunky arms and oval legs. I showed it to the teacher, Mrs M., and all she said was, “Does your father have a green face?” Again, I was six: the response crushed me.

It was my first dose of feedback. I remember it thirty years later! Also, thankfully, I have thirty years more life experience. However it’s given, however it is meant, we can choose how we take feedback. Mrs M.’s comment was about the painting, not me. She may have thought I was a bad artist, but she didn’t think I was a bad human.

Doing a PhD, you must have done something to get to the viva. Your research is most likely great. Your examiners may not think all of your thesis is good though. They may have comments. They may have questions. They may say, “I’d have liked to see more of this…” or “You need to change that…” It can hurt to hear it. I was not immediately happy with some of my corrections.

Corrections are feedback. You can either make them about you or about the work. You can think, “Ugh, why do I have to do this?” or you can approach them thinking, “How can I make my thesis as good as it can be?”

It’s you or the work.

The Most Important Exams (Or Not)

It’s GCSE results day in the UK. My wife and I tutored someone this year. At sixteen she was told the GCSEs were the most important exams she would ever take. If she didn’t do well she could not do the courses she wanted to do next. She was told that she would have to retake exams until she passed. She would have fewer options, all of which would be awful.

Of course, all this did was stress her out.

I was told the same thing twenty years ago when I did my GCSEs. And two years later when I did my A Levels. During my undergrad degree I was told that I needed to get a First or else I would have few choices afterwards.

Every step of the way, “This exam is going to define your future!”

At the top of the exam pyramid: the viva. I ask people how they feel about their viva; a common response is stressed, for the same reasons as other exams. Of course, with hindsight, it is much easier to see past the trap of the “most important exams ever” stories. It’s difficult to see things with the right perspective in the moment. Take a step back. See if you can shift attention and energy or change the story. It’s far better to focus on what you can do rather than what might happen.

If your viva is past, what can you do to share a story to help someone? If your viva is coming up, how can you shift your focus back to doing good work?

Game Show

Your starter for ten: is the viva like a game show?

…No! But the questions that people ask about the viva betray some of their ideas about it.

  • How many questions can you get wrong?
  • Do you fail if you say I don’t know too often?
  • How many questions do you have to answer well?

I worry that the viva-as-game-show meme runs deeper. The viva is not built around short, closed questions. It’s not only about factual recall. Take a look at any list of common viva questions or topics. Most are open questions where contestants candidates have to think and discuss rather than produce a fact.

There could be some comfort in the predictable format of a game show but it’s far better that you’re having a conversation about your specialist subject.

Brew

I work from home a lot. When I go to the kitchen and boil the kettle I like to dry any dishes in the rack; it feels like a good way to use the minute or so while the water gets to 100 degrees, and the time after that while the tea brews. It makes an incremental difference, less dishes to do later in the day.

While I think viva prep is best done in meaningful chunks, there are some tasks that can be done in a couple of minutes which can make a difference. Three examples:

  • You can break down why a particular paper in your bibliography is valuable to your research.
  • You can brainstorm keywords for themes in a chapter.
  • You can carefully pick through a page looking for anything that seems vague or unclear.

None of these involve deep thought. None of them will take a long time. All of them can add a little something to how well you’re prepared.

As can staying appropriately caffeinated…

What’s Your Contribution?

Be as grand as you like. The question could finish with many things: what is your contribution…

  • …to your field?
  • …to research?
  • …to knowledge?
  • …to the world?

Turn it around a few times in your mind. Examine your work from a lot of perspectives. The scope of the answer could vary too. It may be that there are a handful of researchers who will really care, and a few dozen more who will be interested. It may be that your research could impact millions.

I have heard from many people who have had to answer a question about their research contribution at some point in their viva. Do you share your contribution in three bullet points? Can you share it that way? Do you start with why? Do you start with how you were inspired?

There are many ways to explore the topic of contribution. You need to find some way to think it through. You need to make opportunities to practise talking about it. When you do you unpick why your research is valuable. You explore why it’s worthwhile. It makes sense that your examiners would bring it up. What’s the best way you can explain your contribution?

Shaking

During my PhD, I used to pray for a lectern whenever I gave a talk. I could hide a bit that way. It’s not that I didn’t want to share my research: I would simply feel too nervous. Feeling nervous felt bad. My knees would knock as I stood up, my cheeks would flush and my voice would quaver. I’m tall; when my knees shake, my whole body shakes. All I could think was, “I hope I’m not nervous, I hope no-one will see.”

I had grown to build up a strong association with important events and nerves: Something big coming up? Feel nervous Nathan!

I wasn’t nervous for my viva, although there was a lot of the same background feelings. I felt prepared for my viva, and perhaps knowing it was a small audience helped to limit my nerves and how I felt.

I’ve kind of reversed it now though: Feeling a bit nervous? It must be important then!

With that connection I can help myself to not feel overcome. It only came from experience and time: I stood up a lot more and paid attention to what happened and how I felt. If your viva is coming up and you feel nervous, there may not be time to change your perspective completely. But maybe you can plant a seed in your mind: “I feel nervous, so this is important.” What are you going to do?

 

The Recipe

I love making bread. Nothing fancy, just a simple mix of flours, yeast, salt and water. Often a little oil. I find it’s difficult to get wrong. I start, and then a few hours later I get to find out if it worked. Even when I’m low on time, it doesn’t take much to make a dough that will produce a nice batch of rolls.

Viva prep is a lot like bread-making. It’s a simple mix. It’s a combination of reading, writing, thinking. I think you need a bit of talking to help it along, in the way that yeast really helps with making bread. It doesn’t have to be a complex process. Even if you’re short of time, there’s lots that you can do to make a difference.

Unlike bread though, you always have all of the materials you need at hand: you did the research, you wrote your thesis, now you can help this material grow even more.

Not-To-Do

I often tell people to do X, Y or Z in order to prepare for the viva, or give some idea of what to do to feel ready. I also like an idea that I first encountered via Tim Ferriss, the “Not-To-Do List“. Tim’s list is aimed at reducing bad habits and improving performance, but the basic idea could be helpful in other areas. I can think of a few things not-to-do when it comes to preparing for and thinking about the viva:

  • Don’t let your examiners be strangers; it’s useful to know who they are and something about them.
  • Don’t listen to horror stories; bad viva experiences are not the norm.
  • Don’t focus on hypothetical questions from examiners; you can’t anticipate everything, so focus on what you can do.
  • Don’t leave prep to the last minute; it takes a couple of weeks to get ready.
  • Don’t obsess about what it could be like; focus on how well you can meet the challenge of your viva.

And don’t forget who the expert is on your research: you!

Snowflakes

Universities have regulations about thesis examination, conditions that they expect. But every viva will be different from every other. Every PhD thesis and every PhD researcher is different from every other. Your viva won’t be like mine: it’ll have the same goals perhaps, but it will be different.

That’s OK.

Every snowflake is different from every other, but we know how to prepare for a blizzard. Your viva is going to be unique, but you can still be ready for the day it comes. Plan a little, prepare a little and you’ll be fine. You’ve come a long way already.