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!

New roles for a New Year

Welcome to 2019! I am very excited about the New Year because it means new roles (and changing roles) in my academic life. It is bound to be a busy year but, hopefully, it is an exciting and energising year as well.

The “changing” role is that of my PhD student status. Whilst I am still a PhD student (I’ve not graduated—yet!) I have submitted my thesis for examination. That means that I am not starting out this year with plans to work on various chapters of my thesis or conducting PhD-related data collection. I am no longer planning long thesis-writing sessions, there are no more “PhD weekends”, and I am feeling a lot less stressed about how my thesis will come together.

Of course, my plans to have my viva out of the way before the end of last year didn’t work out very well. And that means that I have yet to have my PhD examined. But the viva has been scheduled, so things are looking good.

My changing student status means that I am in a sort of PhD Purgatory—that state between submitting my thesis and my PhD being granted. During this purgatory period, I will prepare for my viva whilst looking forward towards my larger academic career.

Excitingly, there is also a new role to celebrate in my academic life. That is the role of Research Assistant on a Carnegie Trust Research Incentive Grant. The research project is called “Social media by proxy: Strategies for managing the online profiles of adults with dementia” and will investigate the lived experiences of people who act as “social media proxies” for adults with dementia in their care. (Read more about the project here.)

This new role is quite exciting because it is my first research role outside of my PhD. The project is only funded for six months, but it is a good opportunity to work on a small project that will (hopefully!) lead to something more substantial. It is also an opportunity for me to work on research other than my thesis, which was starting to wear me down a bit. (Although I am now excited to do more research with the rest of my PhD data. I think I just needed a bit of a break from it all!)

In addition to new and changing roles, I am also continuing my role as an Associate Lecturer here at Edinburgh Napier University. In the new trimester, which starts mid-January, I will be delivering tutorials for a first-year module called Introduction to Human Computer Interaction. There are around 260 students in the module and they are divided into five different tutorial groups, of which I will be running three.

As part of my Associate Lecture role, I will also have a role as a supervisor for several “Group Project” teams. The teams will be working on small projects for a wide range of organisations. My role will be more project oversight than anything else, with quick and targeted 15-minute meetings with each group each week to ensure they are making progress and keeping to schedule. This will be my first time supervising students and I am looking forward to the opportunity. Although my supervisor role isn’t quite as substantial as, say, that of my PhD supervisors.

As I enter into this new phase of my academic life, I am looking for my next bigrole. That means that I will be spending a lot of time applying for academic jobs and post-doctoral fellowships. I will also spend time working on grant applications and investigating other opportunities that will allow me to further my research and build my academic career.

Yes, this New Year is looking quite promising. So “role” on, 2019; role on!

12 tips for a 20×20

Last week I presented at the 8th annual Information Science Doctoral Colloquium (iDocQ). The presentation was in the form of a PechaKucha, also known as a “20×20”. These presentations can be quite fun and exciting, especially if you are a confident and experienced communicator. However, if you are neither of those things, the idea of presenting 20 slides for 20 seconds each (for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds) might be a bit daunting.

This presentation style seems to be quite popular in the academic world—at least here in the UK. However, there seems to be a lot of confusion over what a 20×20 is (as well as what a 20×20 isn’t). And that’s where this post comes in.

OK, then. What is a 20×20? In the original form, they should be delivered as 20 images, on 20 slides, that each run for 20 seconds.

However, it seems that the image part has been overlooked by many in academia. That means that you see a fair amount of 20×20 slides that are filled with text. Lots and lots of text. Of course, that is not always the presenter’s fault. Often times, the person organising the talks doesn’t know what a 20×20 is meant to be (or has decided that they don’t care) so the only instructions presenters have is that they must have 20 slides over the course of a 6-minute, 40-second talk. Some organisers might insist that the slides automatically forward every 20 seconds, and others might not realise that little rule.

Ideally, 20×20 slides should be image-based no text. However, this can be a bit challenging for academics who are accustomed to developing text-heavy presentations. (But don’t do that. Really. Less is more!) Slides should not have any animation or transitions. Slides should also be set to advance automatically.

But why? It’s because the slides should be there to add visual stimulation to your intellectually stimulating words. They should not require your audience to read and should never include information that is vital to your talk. So, skip the detailed graphs and tables. (A 20×20 talk should be able to be presented without slides and still be just as informative.)

Heck, even for those of us who enjoy presentations, the idea of such a restrictive format can be a challenge. And with my habit of ad-libbing and going on wee rambles about a sub-point, it’s even more of a challenge! But I have learned a few tricks to make 20×20 presentations a bit easier to plan, prepare, and present.

Before you start putting slides together, have a think about what you’re going to say.

  • Prepare your spoken words before you prepare your slides (talk it out and time it as close to 6:40 as possible). Think very clearly about the theme of your presentation and start to build out your presentation. Your talk might be a single, descriptive storyline (Mary had a little lamb) or it might be a series of interconnected points (research questions, methods, findings, and conclusion). Either way, you are sharing a narrative that must flow together with ease.
  • Break your spoken words into 20-second segments (based on ideas or themes) then practice those segments. Think of your talk as sections or chapters and put breaks into the talk as those sections come along. Don’t forget to include pauses in each segment. Those pauses will give you time to breathe whilst your audience has time to process the information you’ve just shared with them.
  • Give each point or idea the time it needs! You can use more than 20 seconds for a point, but all points should fit with multiples of 20 seconds. If you need a full minute to make a point, take a full minute! But give some thought to how you’re delivering those 60 seconds so that you can switch-up the slide image to reflect the point every 20 seconds. For example, if your point is about social networking sites, you might change the image to reflect a different aspect such sites every 20 seconds, as it relates to the point. (You cannot use the same slide twice; each slide must be different.)
  • Make a note of non-vital sentences that can be dropped if you start to fall behind. This will allow you to catch up a bit, even if it takes 2-3 slides to get back in synch. A few seconds’ lag-time is hard to avoid for beginners, but it is better to drop sentences in the middle so that you finish on time. That way, you still have time to deliver your punchy, vital concluding sentences—and maybe even take a theatrical bow!

 

Now that you’ve got your talk ready, you can begin to illustrate it. Yes, this is the point when you can start working on your visuals.

  • Think of your talk as a visual storyboard. What one image illustrates each 20-second segment? If you’re talking about Facebook, there are lots of obvious options. But if you’re talking about something a bit vaguer, this is your chance to get creative and whimsical. For example, if you’re talking about the history of modern beer production, you might use a photo of hops growing on a trestle.
  • Find image inspiration on Google or Flickr. If you don’t know how to illustrate a point, enter some of your keywords into a Google image search to see what comes up. This can help you to see how others visualise your concepts, which might also help you to think more creatively about how you present your work in the future.
  • Mind your copyrights! It is easy to just swipe images from the Internet, but be mindful about copyright infringement. Wherever possible, use works that have a Creative Commons copyright (or get really creative and take photos of your own!). Also, pop a wee copyright attribution on the slide. If done correctly, these do not need to detract from the presentation. (You can see examples of how I’ve done copyright attributions on my SlideShare presentations.)
  • Practice, practice, and practice some more! Ideally, you can do this in front of an audience that will provide you with practical, constructive feedback to help you improve your delivery. But if that is not possible, consider recording yourself so that you can see how well you do. Or, ideally, do both! It can be awkward watching yourself present, but it can also be a great tool for improving your presentation skills.

 

Right. Presentation day is here now, and you should be ready to go. Here are four more tips to get you through the day.

  • Dress for success on presentation day! For me, that means I wear smart, professional clothes and shoes that I am comfortable in. (And never a new stuff. I like to test-run my important clothes!) I realise that some research students present in their every-day clothes (which might be tattered jeans and a t-shirt) and that is considered acceptable in modern society. However, I personally feel that presenting your research is also an opportunity to present yourself to potential future colleagues or employers. So, put on your Sunday best (or similar) and strut your stuff! (Yes, I realise that sounds a bit snobby. Sorry.)
  • Remember your pauses and remember that you have specifically built in drop-sentences that you can ditch if you start to get backed up on your 20-second intervals. If you find that you’ve talked faster than your slide changes, just take a big breath and let the slides catch up to you. And if you’ve talked really fast and need more than one big breath, shrug it off and make a joke (practice those ahead of time, too).
  • Step away from the podium. Unless you need to be near the microphone, step away from the podium and stand where your audience can see you. (But don’t block your slides!) You have practiced this talk. You know your subject. And your slides are all images that will automatically advance every 20 seconds. So there is no need for you to stand by the computer. Be brave; come out and engage with the audience!
  • Have fun! Presentations can be quite stressful, especially if you don’t have much experience. However, 20×20 presentations are an opportunity to have fun whilst challenging yourself in a laid-back atmosphere. It’s quick and punchy, and it can be a chance to show that you can have a sense of humour when things go wrong.

 

During my time as a PhD student, I have relaxed my rigid ways so that I can be more in line with how others present 20x20s. That means that I will sometimes use a bit of text (only a bit!). I have also started to use simple diagrams and paired photos on some slides. However, I have decided that I am going to return to the basics with my next 20×20.

Of course, I will also need to revisit my tips above because, as you can see, I didn’t do any planning or practicing for my last go. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great. So, if you want to know what a 20×20 looks like when you haven’t prepared, here you go!

Photo credit: Alicja Pawluczuk and iDocQ
Video production and editing credit: Dr Bruce Ryan (no relation)

Writer’s block? Write, now!

For more than a month now, I have been suffering from severe writer’s block. I haven’t been able to write my thesis. I haven’t been able to update my PhD blog. And I haven’t been able to write on my personal blog. In fact, it has been so bad that I haven’t even been able to reply to personal letters to my family and friends. (Yes, I write “real” letters!) I don’t know exactly what prompted my block, but I think it was caused by a lot of little things working together to become one great big thing.

However, before my block, I signed up for a three-day non-residential writing retreat hosted by my university’s Research and Innovation Office (RIO) that took place last week. The event, Write Now!, was held off campus to allow for a much-needed change of scenery—which I always find helpful.

And, thankfully, on the Friday before the retreat, one of my supervisors came by to check in on my progress. When explained my extreme writer’s block, he helped me to re-work a couple of things and to re-think my mindset. (And he checked back with me later that same day, which helped. A lot!) That chat helped to better set me up for the writing retreat.

When I first signed up for the writing retreat, I told myself that a 1,000-word goal would be achievable each day. However, I had to amend that to 500 because of my block. My reasoning was that if I tried to go from 0 to 1,000 straight out of the gate, I would become even more frustrated. So I chose a more manageable goal so that I could feel a bit of success at the end of the retreat.

In the end, I wrote 1,713 words (daily counts were: 539, 651, and 523).

That doesn’t seem like much for what should have been an intensive writing session. However, it is more than treble the words I managed in the month prior.

We marked our successes each day by hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Small baubles for 500 words, large baubles for 1,000 words, and golden snowflakes for 2,000 words. It was encouraging for me to see more baubles added as the hours and days went by. (Though I wish I could have added more than I did!)

In total, there were about 20 people at the retreat from across the university. And between us, we managed to write 40,000 words. Though it should be noted that some writers were editing documents, rather than bulking them out, which means that some people were working on negative word counts. (Which makes me think we should have had additional ornaments for reaching our daily goals—which would have included editing pages. I think I’ll mention that to the RIO team for next time…)

I am still feeling a bit blocked, but I am pleased to say that the retreat has helped me to see my way forward. It was also a good reminder that when your goal is total words, you can always switch to another section or chapter when you’re feeling blocked. Even if that is not the chapter you were meant to be working on that day. Words are words!

With the Christmas holidays (nearly) upon us, I am aware that I will not be spending full days at my computer—especially as two of my nieces are coming to Scotland to spend the holidays with me! However, I am going to aim for 250 words a day minimum with a stretch goal of 500 per day for my holiday average. (My nieces are 21 and 23, so if I plan to write when they’re Facebooking their friends, I should have plenty of time!)

Anyhow, as my thesis writing time is tick, tick, ticking away, I will need to work really hard at finding my motivation and overcoming this block. But I am confident that I will manage to pull it off. I just need to remember that writing needs to be prioritised and that, when I am blocked, I just need to suck it up and write, now!

Teaching to learn; learning to teach

As my time as a PhD student (hopefully) winds to an end, I am beginning to look towards my career as an academic. My hope is that part of that career includes teaching, which is why I eagerly accepted the opportunity to teach a module at Edinburgh Napier University this term.

More accurately, I accepted the opportunity to co-teach alongside a more established and experienced educator, Professor Hazel Hall.

My official title is Associate Lecturer on a module called Knowledge Management (KM). The module, which is half-way over, is being delivered to a group of 4th-year honours students in the School of Computing.

The module’s content includes lectures and activities related to approaches to KM, knowledge capital, KM infrastructures, and techniques for the creation, capture, classification, exchange, dissemination, and use of knowledge for competitive advantage and corporate growth.

By the end of the term, students will be able to: critically assess the general principles of KM; make effective use of the principles of KM in organisational settings to increase effectiveness; examine KM processes and tools for organisations; develop KM teamwork activities in organisations; and demonstrate sound understanding of theory and practice in KM.

I am sure that the students felt overwhelmed when these learning outcomes were shared on the first day of class. And I cannot imagine how overwhelmed I would have felt if I were teaching the module on my own.

However, whilst my role is one of “teacher”, I am also there as a learner. That is, a learner of teaching through co-teaching.

Some of it is quite easy though. For example, I feel quite confident in the task of speaking in public and sharing knowledge to an audience. I find delivering presentations and workshops to be energising and enjoyable. And I feel that when I deliver learning events, people do learn.

However, delivering a one-off workshop is not the same as delivering a multi-week module to a group of undergraduate students. And that is part of what I am learning from my teaching experience.

Thankfully, I am learning from someone who has a proven ability to deliver the module!

Hazel has taught the module for a few years now and has developed a strong programme of lectures, readings, personal study assignments, and in-class activities. This means that I have been able to see what a well-developed module looks like from beginning to end. Being able to see the entire term’s plan set out in front of me eliminates much of the unknown “fogginess” that I would expect if I were starting from scratch. Instead, Hazel knows what works well (and what doesn’t) and has learned through experience how best to deliver each segment.

From the administrative side, Hazel and I are both well-organised which means that her way of preparing for each class (and the module as a whole) suits my own working style—even though our overall organisational styles are not identical. Seeing how Hazel has organised materials (print and electronic) has given me a lot of ideas for how I can combine her methods with mine to improve on the ways I might have managed things without that insight.

Over the next few weeks, there will be more learning on my side as we near exam time. I am a tad nervous about marking all of those essays, but I imagine the students writing them will be a tad (or more!) nervous, too.

One of the things I’ve learned from teaching so far is that I was right in thinking that I would enjoy it. Although I know that the never-ending planning and administration that goes along with the role will bring a bit of stress and chaos on occasion, I feel that the rewards will far outweigh those (potential) negatives.

So, that’s another feather in my CV-hat (which you can view here).