Almost Unavoidable

You only need to transpose one pair of letters in one sentence on one page in your thesis and you have a miskate mistake. A reference could be wrong or a diagram might need redrawing. Its likely you’ll have typos somewhere in your thesis. You could have words around switched switched around or paragraphs that need another edit.

You don’t do any of these on purpose, you want your thesis to be the best it can be. So do your examiners. Corrections aren’t a punishment or “just another part of the process”. Corrections are your examiners helping you find things to make your thesis even better. Perfect is a nice ideal, but better is the real goal.

Mistakes are almost unavoidable in the tens of thousands of words you’ll put in your thesis. Aiming for perfect won’t work. Aim for great, and after the viva you’ll get some help aiming for grater greater.

Noting Your Mistakes

They’re there, in your thesis. It’s “when” rather than “if” you see them. When you find mistakes after submission there’s not much you need to do. Correction time will come.

Highlight mistakes if you want to, underline them or make a list if that’s helpful. All of these approaches could be useful so long as they’re not a focus for your preparation or a distraction from the viva.

Personally, I like lists: a list of changes gives you a starting point for correction time. Your examiners may end the viva by giving you a list of what changes they think will help; share yours then if you like, but don’t start your viva by showing your list!

Saying, “Here are all the things I know I need to change,” while honest, may not be the best opening for the discussion…

You Get Corrections Because…

…your thesis isn’t perfect. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.

You get corrections because you’ve probably never written a book before. The thesis you submit for your viva is the very best draft you could write.

Typos creep in. Style choices don’t quite work. You miss a reference or a full stop, a comma or the numbering of a figure.

You get corrections because you tried your very best, not because somehow you failed. Corrections aren’t failing. Corrections are part of the process.

Corrections are your examiners saying, “Here, take a look, this is how you could make this better.”

But never perfect. “Perfect is the enemy of done.” You can’t make it perfect. You can make it done.

You get corrections to get to done.

Aiming For Minor Corrections

Most candidates pass with minor corrections as a result of their thesis submission and viva examination. I’ve often been asked about whether or not there is anything specific that a candidate could do to “aim” at getting only minor corrections. It’s a tricky question, because most of the things I can think of seem obvious:

  • Submit a good thesis, and make sure you’ve run spellcheck and proofread it.
  • Take time to be well prepared for the viva.
  • Engage in a good discussion with your examiners, listening to their questions and comments.

Most candidates get minor corrections. This tells me that most candidates are doing a lot of things right (regardless of whether or not they know they are or how they feel about things!). The people who ask me about aiming for minor corrections at least have taken something else onboard during their PhD: it’s impossible to write a perfect thesis.

Aim to write a good thesis, aim to be prepared, aim to engage with your examiners – and in doing all that you’re probably going to hit near the target for minor corrections too.

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.

Expect Corrections

Most people have to do some. They’re not a punishment. They’re your examiners saying, “Here, you missed this,” or “This is good, but if you try this it will be better.”

Or occasionally, “That’s not how you spell that!”

You can’t predict exactly what you’ll be asked to do. Most PhD candidates will get minor corrections. Some don’t get any. Some are asked to do major corrections or resubmit. Check with your institution’s regulations about what different outcomes could mean for you. Be sure so you can plan ahead.

Expect that you’ll have some corrections to do, but expect that your thesis – and you – will be pretty good by the time your viva comes around.

A Really Cool Post-Viva Idea

Last month I came across a lovely idea by Dr Kay Guccione: Corrections Club!

I love the idea of a dedicated space and time in a university’s calendar that says, “Come here and get it finished!”

Even if you’ve got more to do than will fit in a couple of hours, this will help along the way. If you’re not at the University of Sheffield like Kay, see if you can set something going at your own institution. It only takes a couple of people to start something awesome.

Turn up, get to work and celebrate with others that you’ve all almost passed the final finish line for your PhD!

Synonyms for Corrections

There are lots of words we could use.

Revisions. Amendments. Tweaks. Updates.

All nouns, the thing itself, but you’re doing something when make your corrections. Often it’s framed as a final hurdle, grumble grumble, a bit more work from the examiners and the PhD process. I think the best word to focus on is “improvements” – your examiners have spotted some ways that you can make your thesis better.

Of course, ten years ago, when I started my corrections I did not think of them as improvements. I gritted my teeth and got to work, but felt frustrated. “Why do I have to do this now? Weren’t the last three and a half years enough?”

No. They weren’t. A few more weeks was all it took and my thesis was better as a result, and that’s the point of corrections. Your examiners want to help you make your thesis the best presentation of your research that it can be.

You might not feel that way when you get your list of corrections (or revisions, improvements and so on) but I hope you will by the end.

Ten years later I feel grateful my examiners gave me the opportunity to help my thesis be better.

The Flipside of Blame

Outside of the usual typos and copyediting, my biggest corrections were to rewrite two chapters. They followed a similar flow, two case studies using a process I’d developed. My examiners were happy with the result, but not with how it was set out. It took me several weeks to re-arrange the model I had in my head. Thankfully, the second chapter was much easier to write once the first had been done.

Last year, sharing this story with a PhD candidate they asked, “So who was to blame? Your supervisor? They should have caught it, right?”

Wrong. My supervisor was responsible for giving me feedback, and he did. He told me that those chapters explained the process that I had developed, which they did.

“Well, your examiners then, they were just being harsh.”

No, they were doing their jobs. They fulfilled their roles perfectly. They asked for corrections to help make my thesis the best it could be.

I was to blame for my corrections…

…and the flipside of blame is responsibility.

I was responsible for writing my thesis, and I was responsible for ensuring it was the best it could be for submission. No-one else. The chapters needed something. I could have spotted that. I could have seen that my descriptions, while accurate, were missing a lot of the terminology and rigour that was appropriate. It was hidden in the background, when I needed to bring it front and centre.

Blame and responsibility are shadows of the same thing. It depends where you position yourself to look at the situation. You’re responsible for your corrections…

…and you’re to blame for how good your research is overall.

This And That

My viva was done, and I was celebrating. There were a lot of people from my department in Bistro Jacques, and most of them had the same three things to say to me: “Congratulations!” – “How was it?” – “What corrections did you get?”

To which I replied: “Thanks!” – “It was fine!” –

-and on the last question I evaded: “Oh… This and that…”

I felt almost ashamed.

I had to re-structure and re-write two chapters, but that felt fine. I felt terrible about the typos! Particularly all of the places where I had transposed words or written “the the”. My spellcheck and proofreading hadn’t picked them up. They were silly, pointless mistakes that I should have found. Missing minus signs! How?! What was wrong with me?!?!

(I could, on occasion, be a bit overly dramatic in my youth…)

Perspective time: most people get corrections after the viva and for many they really could be described as “this and that”.

Mostly they’re cosmetic fixes to clear up typos and clunky sentences. Whatever scale of corrections you get they take time and work to do – but sometimes not much of either. You can feel bad about them, however small or large they are, but the point is that they help you make your thesis be the best possible representation of your work.

Most people get corrections. Go to your viva knowing you’ve done your best, but expecting to do a little more. You’re human.