Experiencing Pushback

Your examiner can not like something in your thesis. Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they believe there was a better approach, or a different way to understand something. They’re allowed to have a different opinion; if they share it with you, you can respond.

Perhaps you’re certain you’re right; maybe you’re sure they’re wrong; possibly your pride is wounded. You could feel you have to say something. And you can.

That doesn’t mean you have to. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a big deal?
  • Are they asking for significant corrections?
  • Are they saying there’s a problem?
  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?

The last question is particularly important to answer. If you don’t know why they think something then you can’t be sure that you can adequately respond to them. You need to know what’s at the root of their comments before you can push against them.

Again, that’s if you feel you really need to. You probably need to acknowledge a critical comment; you don’t necessarily have to spend much time replying to it.

What did they say? How do you feel? Why? Why have they said that? How do you feel about that? What do you need to say? Why?

One, Two, Three

Years ago, my friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared with me one of the most useful rules for receiving feedback I’ve ever come across. There are lots of models and ideas about giving feedback, but not so many concepts for receiving feedback. The model Aimee shared with me is one I’ve found helpful for a long time.

If one person tells you something, that’s their opinion. If two people tell you, that could be coincidence. If three people tell you, you should listen!

One, two, three – opinion, coincidence, listen! This has been really helpful for me; I know it’s helped many more people Aimee has shared it with, particularly when receiving negative feedback (constructive or otherwise). Sometimes a piece of feedback is just one person’s opinion. They didn’t like it, maybe for really valid reasons, but that’s just their opinion.

For the viva, this is useful when considering feedback directly – from your supervisors in advance, from your examiners on the day – but I think we can also connect it to expectations as well. If you hear bad things about the viva, who told you? How many people have told you that they had a bad experience? How many people have told you that their viva was fine? What have people said about the details, the format, the structure?

Pay attention to what people say about viva experiences. One person’s detail is just a single experience. If two people tell you about a certain feeling or question that comes up, that could be coincidence. If three or more people tell you about the same aspect of the viva, then you need to listen.

And maybe you need to do something.

A Little Feedback

After submission there’s a nice opportunity to get a little feedback. Just a little, mind you, not too much.

You know what you know. You know what you think. You probably have some idea of what your supervisor thinks too. You know what others have said at conferences and in seminars and so on.

You don’t need a lot of new feedback at this stage. You have years of it. What you need is just a few thoughts to help you keep thinking in new ways about your research.

Ask for what you need. Ask your supervisor for their thoughts on your strengths, and if there’s anything you could have done differently. You’re not problem hunting, just exploring ideas. Tell friends about your research, and ask what questions they have. Offer to give a seminar if you have time, and listen to questions from that.

A little feedback can go a long way.

A Viva Prep Sandwich

Heard of the feedback sandwich?

It’s when you tell someone something good about their presentation/book/paper/whatever, then offer something constructive or negative, followed by something good. Good-“bad”-good.

A feedback sandwich – it has another name, but this is a polite sort of blog…

This good-“bad”-good construct got me thinking about viva prep, and I wonder if there’s a useful sequence we could follow when getting ready for the viva. As a series of activities, maybe something like the following would be useful.

  • Start with something that digs into something good about your work: say, reflecting on the value of your contribution or exploring ways that you could continue your work.
  • Follow that with something trickier, more difficult or potentially negative: how do you know your methods are valid? What might your examiners or someone else find contentious? What about your work could be “wrong”?
  • And finally consider something else about your work that’s good: take a positive step to annotate your thesis well, ask yourself some more reflective questions or make notes on the papers that support your thesis.

A viva prep sandwich, of sorts.

And perhaps tastier than the feedback sandwich, because you get to decide what it is made of?

Finding Feedback That Helps

After submission and before the viva, feedback is still one of the most useful things you can go looking for as part of your prep.

Make a list of who could really give you useful feedback: your supervisor, your office-mate, a person you met at a conference…

Make a list of topics: the way you answer questions, how clear your thesis is, whether your assumptions about your examiners are useful…

Make a list of questions: is this useful? how could this be better? why does this work well?…

Then go ask.

Go get the support you need.

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.