Passed, with minor corrections

I am very pleased and extremely relieved to be able to (finally!) announce that I have passed my PhD viva – and with only minor corrections! This good news comes after more than five years of hard work and emotional turmoil, and I am just so thankful that my PhD Dreams are almost a reality.

The preamble:

I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of October. At the time, I had hoped that my viva (oral examination/defence) would be just before Christmas. However, there was a slight glitch that meant everything was delayed. But the outcome is such that I will still make the July graduation ceremony, so it all worked out in the end!

Because of the delay, I mostly ignored my thesis for nearly three months after submission. (Part of that was due to a post-submission illness.) It wasn’t really until the start of February that I started to really prepare for The Big Day, as blogged about here.

On the day of my viva, I woke up at 5am (after a slightly disrupted sleep). I showered, put on a suitable dress for the occasion, and painted my nails. I arrived at my office just before 8am and unpacked my bag, then I headed down to the canteen for a full breakfast (with extra bacon!). Then, I waited nervously for my 10.30am start time.

My thesis was examined by Sheila Webber, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield iSchool (external examiner) and Dr Laura Muir, Associate Professor at the Edinburgh Napier University School of Computing (internal examiner). My Panel Chair (viva moderator) was Professor Ben Paechter, Director of Research in the School of Computing.

My Director of Studies, Professor Hazel Hall, also joined me at the viva to take notes. She sat behind me so that I would not be tempted to look towards her for input, but also so that any facial expressions she might have made didn’t throw me off.

I went into the room prepared with my trusty water bottle (my medication makes this a necessity!), two pens, several sheets of blank paper for notes, a handkerchief (in case of tears), and my thesis. I also brought with me a tummy full of butterflies and a mixture of fear, excitement, worry, and hope.

The gritty details:

At the start of the viva, the plan for the examination was explained. The plan was to go through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, with questions alternating between the examiners (for the most part). As the questions were lobbed at me, I found myself examining the motivations behind them. Is this a question about clarifying a confusing sentence? Is it because they were trying to tease out the finer details about my methods? Is the question meant to challenge something that the examiners held different views about? Or is it because they want to see how (clearly) I can defend my position?

Some questions were easy for me to understand (assume) these motivations. Especially when in the process of answering it was clear that my response was “the right” response. But the motivation of others was a little harder to pin down, especially when it because clear(ish) that the examiners were coming at the thesis from a different perspective to my own.

Throughout the process, I found myself gauging how well the viva was going. I felt that I was heading towards a “pass, with corrections” but I couldn’t quite pin down if that would be minor corrections or major corrections.

It all felt quite positive and I felt (mostly) confident when answering questions and defending my work. I even felt that I stayed (mostly) on point and didn’t go off into a rambling tangent, something that I sometimes do when I am nervous.

And then I was blindsided by a bus! One of the examiners started down a path of inquiry that I was absolutely unprepared for. There was a back-and-forth that lasted what felt like about 5 minutes at the end of the viva that made my heart sink into the pit of my stomach. From that point on, I was no longer able to control my fragile emotional state and the tears started to fall (good thing I had that hankie, right?). I was certain that this was the thing that was going to take me from a pass with corrections to a resubmit (with or without a new viva). It was a horrible feeling and was, by far, the worst moment of my viva.

[Note: This isn’t to say that I think the questions were unfair or unwarranted. The examiners were fair, kind, and encouraging throughout the entire experience.]

At the end of that line of questioning, there was a very short (1-2 minutes) wrap-up chat where I was asked if there was anything I would like to add about my thesis as a whole. This was my opportunity to give my work a final sales pitch. But by that time, I was too emotional and felt too defeated to say anything more.

With that, I was asked to leave (along with my Director of Studies) so that the examiners could chat with the moderator to confirm the outcome. During that time, I sat in Hazel’s office, unable to stop the tears because I was certain I would be resubmitting my work based on the “bus” questions. Hazel, however, felt that I was still in the passing lane. She walked me through some of the (many, and high quality!) notes that she took during the viva and shared her own interpretation of the outcome. That helped to dry my tears a bit, although I wasn’t as convinced as she was.

The wait in Hazel’s office felt quite short. It might have been about 10 minutes – 15 at the very most. We were then invited back to the examination room by the chair. I was feeling a little more positive by that time (thanks, Hazel!) but I was still quite sure it wouldn’t be the result I was hoping for.

However, when I walked in the room I was greeted with smiles, a “congratulations”, and the words “passed, with minor corrections”. I was extremely surprised at that outcome, given the bus that had knocked me over just a few minutes earlier. But a short conversation followed about the “bus” incident and it was made clearer to me what the examiner was hoping for from that specific line of questioning.

The conversation to follow was about the general next steps in the process. The first of these steps is that the examiners will write a formal letter outlining the corrections that need to be made. That letter will be sent to the research office at my university before a copy is sent to me. It is at that time that my official corrections time will begin.

With minor corrections, I will have two months to complete the changes before sending an electronic version of the amended thesis on for my examiners to sign off on. After that, I will have my final thesis bound for submission before graduation – which should be in July, barring any hiccups along the way. My Panel Chair reassured me that we could revisit my current non-PhD workload to ensure that I have time to make my corrections. (Although I don’t think that there should be an issue, I felt very supported to have been told this help is available.)

Once the viva was officially over, I was invited out to lunch with my examiners and Hazel. We enjoyed a wee toast with some lovely prosecco followed by a nice conversation about a wide range of topics not related to my PhD. (Which was nice!) After lunch, I made my way home as I was completely exhausted.

The personal reflection:

In a nutshell, my viva was not a fun experience. I know that isn’t what people want to hear, but for me, that is the truth. Although, I do acknowledge that my reflections might have been more positive without the aforementioned “bus” incident! (Also, it wasn’t a completely horrible experience.)

In the lead-up to the Big Day, I knew that my viva might be an emotional and exhausting experience. Like many of life’s big moments, I had invested my heart and soul into this. Thankfully, I know myself well enough that I knew I would be shattered from the experience. And that means that I didn’t make any plans to celebrate the day.

And I was right! The experience was so draining that I couldn’t truly be happy on the day. In fact, when I got home, I donned my pyjamas and cried a bit. I then had another glass of prosecco and called my parents to share the good news with them. Then I shared the news on Facebook (Twitter was saved until the following morning). That was the limit to my celebrations. (But not the limit to my tears!)

The following day I returned to the office and politely thanked everyone who congratulated me. But I still couldn’t celebrate because I was still too dazed from the experience. And now, three days later, I am still a bit “meh” about it all.

Maybe these feelings of apathy are because I know that there is still much work to be done before I graduate. Or maybe they’re because I am too busy worrying about what my next steps will be after graduation (there are so many questions about jobs, post-docs, and locations!). Of course, maybe these feelings are simply a bit of exhaustion.

But, ultimately, I have passed my PhD (subject to minor corrections) and that does make me happy – even if I can’t quite celebrate that happiness just yet.

Thank you, again, to all of my lovely cheerleaders who’ve encouraged me along the way. My PhD Dreams aren’t over quite realised yet, but they are almost a reality!

My thesis: The viva version

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about my thesis. In fact, I haven’t done so since I submitted last October. At the time, I expected that I would be blogging about my viva before the Christmas holidays, but there was a glitch in the process that meant everything was postponed.

That glitch means that I didn’t return to my thesis until the end of January. (I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or not. I’ll make that decision post-viva!) I am now in full-on viva-prep mode, and I am dreading looking forward to a constructive examination.

I got a bit geeky and had my viva version bound with a light-weight, coloured cardstock in between each chapter. That allowed me to add sturdy tabs to each chapter so that I can easily flip to the section I want. (I even colour-coded the tabs so that all “like” chapters are the same colour.)

In addition to the main chapter tabs, I used writable Post-it tabs to mark out pages that are more likely to be referred to during the viva: my research questions, theoretical framework, study design flowchart, and participant details. These were placed on the top of the pages so that they did not add clutter to the main navigation tabs.

Small, narrow Post-It flags were also used to mark pages that need minor edits (for example, there is a missing colon on one page). These are also located at the top of the pages as to not interfere with the navigational tabs.

The rest of my thesis mark-up and notes are all hidden within the pages. Here, I have used different sized Post-Its to note minor edits or to clarify a point that might be a bit confusing the way I have it written. I have used larger edits to write down additional thoughts or to summarise more challenging or “technical” sections. This way, if I am asked about them during the viva I will be able to refer to my own notes about these things. Of course, that also assumes that I will only be asked about the things I’ve specifically prepared for. (I wonder what the odds are… ?)

My viva version thesis does not include any writing on the pages. There are no highlighted sections; no scribbles in the margins. Everything is done with notes on Post-Its. I just can’t bring myself to make any permanent marks on something that I worked so hard on creating. Although I am sad to say that the act of carrying “my baby” around with me has meant that the edges are starting to show a bit of wear and tear.

Anyhow, there are only two more thesis posts after this: One will be sharing the process of corrections and the other will be sharing the final product. It’s hard to believe that I am that close! In fact, my viva is so close now that my next post here will be about that. And, hopefully, it will be about passing my viva. So… stay tuned!

My thesis: Submitted!

And with that, I have submitted my PhD thesis for examination and thesis season is over!

The last few days have been spent finishing up my thesis, all with an aim submitting on Halloween (success!). That included finishing my conclusion chapter and writing my acknowledgements page. These final days were also spent making sure that all of my references were accurate and that the fiddly little things like automatic bookmarks were rendering properly.

Once the document was finalised, I set everything up for printing. I intentionally planned it so that I was printing after office hours so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hogging the printers. After all, a thesis is a fairly long document and I needed four copies: Two for my viva examiners, one for my mock viva examiner, and one for me.

To save time, I sent the thesis to print as two separate print jobs, each with two copies. That way, I would take advantage of the two printers in the print room. It took about 30 minutes to print the four copies, and another few minutes to straighten the pages and (meticulously) fold a couple of double-sized pages for the appendices. I also included coloured cardstock in between each chapter for my own copy of the thesis. This way, I can add section tabs to the cardstock so that I can easily flip to the correct chapter when I am revising or during the viva itself.

After I finished printing, I carefully wrapped each copy in paper and called my taxi-driving landlord for a lift home, cradling my “babies” the entire way.

The next morning, I woke early and got the bus out to my university’s print shop. There, Gordon bound the documents whilst I waited. And then I took another bus to my campus where I panicked a bit (and got a bit teary) before heading upstairs to the research office to officially submit my thesis.

To be honest, submitting my thesis was quite an emotional and self-doubting experience. Although, to be honest, the entire PhD process was more emotional and self-doubting than I had expected! I won’t get into all of that today though, as I plan to share a series of posts (over time) that reflect on my experiences with the PhD process.

But yes, my thesis is done for now; it has been submitted. And that really is something to celebrate!

Of course, submitting my thesis is not the end of the PhD journey. No, there are still a few steps remaining before my PhD Dreams are realised. The first of these steps is my viva (oral defence). After that, I will be asked to make amendments to the thesis before I submit my final, hard-bound thesis. And then, finally, I will graduate.

Thesis season: September update

As thesis season continues, I am starting to feel more and more confident that I will manage to complete my thesis without (too terribly much) stress. And as September begins, I am excited (and nervous) about the next 61 days. (Yikes! Only 61 days to finish writing. How scary!)

My progress in August was steady, though slow. I worked on my three findings chapters and my methods and literature review chapters. Sadly, none of those chapters are completely completed, but they are fully drafted and are just seeking edits at this time.

The highlights for August were getting all of the main content for my findings chapters completed and knocking out a near-final version of my literature review. I also enjoyed a successful (final!) research progress review at the end of the month.

However, August wasn’t as amazing as I wanted it to be. I didn’t manage to complete the visualisation of the data and I didn’t manage to complete my literature review and methods chapters. Although I am pleased to say that they are all in fairly decent shape and only need a bit of editing. Thankfully, I know what I need to do for each of those chapters and will add that work to my “easy work” list. That list is a variety of tasks that I can do in the evenings when my brain needs a rest, but my motivation levels are still pushing me to get something done.

My plans for September are fairly ambitious, but I am confident that I will manage them without too much agony. I am including a few late nights in my work plans, which will include taxis home as my local bus stops running at 6.30pm. However, I will be doing some teaching again this term which will give me the extra money to pay for the taxis. (Yay!)

Here’s my plan for September:

  • Create a full “primary draft” of my discussion chapter. This means that I will have that chapter written to completion (based on content), but the draft will (likely) need further edits for language and grammar.
  • Complete all visualisations for my three findings chapters. This work will happen in dribs and drabs as my brain needs a break from the “extreme” thinking that is needed for the discussion chapter.
  • Complete all edits for my literature review and methods chapters. As above, this work will largely take place as a break from the discussion chapter.
  • Finish all appendices needed for my literature review and methods chapters. These are largely complete at this time, but I need to do some formatting. As with the other edits, this will be done as and when my brain needs a break.
  • Draw up a final completion plan for October. Yikes! That document might be a bit scary, especially if September doesn’t go as planned. But if all goes well, the plan will be largely focused on writing up my introduction and conclusion chapters and making edits to my discussion chapter. I will also give myself plenty of time to do all the fiddly little things like formatting the full document.

 

Yes, September is going to be crazy! But I am feeling quite confident about it and I am sure that it will be a productive month.

Thesis season: August update

With August now upon us, I am aware that there are only three months remaining for “thesis season”. And that is a scary realisation when I stop to think about how much work I have yet to do. And so, the next three months will be spent writing, writing, writing… and writing a bit more.

I am pleased to say that my July thesis goals were (largely) met. And that means that I have now (mostly) completed drafts of five chapters. These are the methods chapter, three separate findings chapters, and my literature review (submitted to my supervisors for their comments last night).

Today and the first half of Friday will be dedicated to making updates to my findings chapters, ahead of Friday afternoon’s meeting with my supervisors to go over my literature review. Then the rest of August will be spent making edits to the chapters I already have drafted whilst making notes to develop the structural outline for my discussion chapter. I expect that to be a very challenging chapter to write and will dedicate much of September to completing it.

So, what do my thesis plans look like for August?

In a nutshell, it looks like a lot of time in front of computer screens and very little time enjoying the great outdoors! More specifically, August will be spent making edits and notes for September’s work.

In August, I will:

  • Make updates to my literature review. This will include incorporating edits, comments, and suggestions from my supervisors as well as adding new literature sources where relevant.
  • Review my findings chapters. This will be done with consideration to my literature review so that I can ensure that I have not missed out on literature that should have been included.
  • Make notes for my discussion chapter. This will be done in conjunction with the review of my findings chapters. These notes will help to form the narrative structure for my discussion chapter, which I will write in September.
  • Prepare for my next (and final!) progress review meeting. This should be fairly straightforward and will include sharing an update on the progress of each of my thesis chapters and a plan for completion. (There will be about two months left to submit by this time.)
  • Work on updates to my methods chapter and appendices. This work is fairly simple (as compared to the literature review, at least). Because of that, it will be done in between other work as a “treat” when my brain needs a bit of a break.

 

And, as always, I will be attempting to take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health. This will include my (sometimes faltering) healthy eating habits, regular 5K runs, a minimum daily step goal, and a bit of “me” time each week. (All easier said than done!)

There is much work to do, but I am feeling quite confident about it. (For now.) Stay tuned for a September thesis season update!