PhD supervisors

I haven’t written on here for forever – life has moved on quite a bit since I shared my PhD viva experience but I’m still passionate about making sure PhD students have a good experience.

I won’t name names on this blog, but I do want to highlight how important it is that you get on with your PhD supervisors. I don’t mean go-down-the-pub-together-be-best-friends-with get on, I mean in a professional sense of the word. When I signed up to do my PhD, I didn’t get a chance to meet my supervisor before I actually started the thing. This was a big mistake that had big repercussions for me later on (see my PhD viva story). So here are my top tips for selecting PhD supervisors:

  1. Research the University staff before you apply – look at their bios, Google them, see if they’ve got any social media profiles, do as much snooping as you can. Find out as much as you can about the potential staff in your Faculty. Of course, you need to read their research as well, but academic writing and presentation is very different from the way people present themselves day to day.
  2. Email the contact name on the advert and ask to have a phone call/face to face meeting before you apply. There is absolutely no substitute for actually talking to someone. Yes, I know it’s awkward and embarrassing etc. etc., but you will have to do far more daunting things during the course of your PhD so really, it’s not a big deal.
  3. Go to the open day. Even if you know the University/City/Town really well, go to the open day and talk to staff there. I was unlucky that none of my supervisors to be were at the open day, but I did get to meet some of the other staff that I would be working with/alongside.  This is especially important if you didn’t get to talk to the person in question as per point 2 above.
  4. Read the person’s research and see if you agree/disagree with the way they think. This is INCREDIBLY important and will again have huge repercussions if you are vastly different in the way you think.
  5. Remember that you do have a choice – and if the relationship isn’t working, you can ask to change to someone different. You aren’t stuck with this person. One of the key mistakes we make as PhD students is not realising that we do have a certain amount of agency and power – at the end of the day, this is your research and you will have to live with whatever the outcome of your PhD studies becomes, therefore don’t put up with a bad situation that may have a bad outcome for you. Approach your pastoral lead/Head of School/Postgrad office and ask for advice if you and your supervisor aren’t clicking.

I left it way too late in the process to change and really suffered as a result. I actually had quite a reasonable relationship with my Director of Studies to start with, but various life events happened (I fell out with my housemate and had to move back home which was about an hour away from Uni, met the man who is now my husband and then moved elsewhere with him) which meant that suddenly she and I didn’t quite see eye to eye. This was then exacerbated by my extremely poor relationship with my second supervisor who appeared to have a rather misogynistic viewpoint. He actually asked me how I was going to manage to write my PhD thesis whilst looking after a small child when he found out my partner had a son from a previous relationship. A child incidentally who didn’t even live with us! My third supervisor was the most reasonable, and most objective of the three, and in the end he became my main supervisor with the other 2 taking more of a back seat.

I ended up submitting my thesis without my supervisor’s consent (which you should never do!) and ended up with major corrections (basically revise and re-submit, although luckily I didn’t have to do my viva again). I believe this was all down to having a supervisor that I couldn’t relate to, and couldn’t get on with. So please, if you’re having doubts about your relationship with your supervisor, talk to someone. It is so difficult to have these conversations, but it will be worth it in the end. You only really get one go at a PhD, so why make it harder than it needs to be?



My PhD Viva

After 5 years of hard work, tears and a fair bit of worrying I finally received the news in March of this year that I’d gained my PhD.

I’ve deliberately put off writing anything about my PhD until now, mainly because I didn’t think I’d ever get it, but what’s a better way to start this blog than write about my PhD viva?

Right from the beginning of my PhD studies I devoured every post I could find about other people’s vivas. There isn’t a great deal of official information out there, and the process itself is shrouded in mystery, so it’s only from other people that you ever really find out anything at all. I think for me, the mystique around the viva was what made me most nervous – the fear of the unknown.

My viva was set up by the Head of School via the postgraduate office and I was quite lucky in the respect that I was able to “choose” my examiners. Obviously I couldn’t pick my husband or mum but I was able to influence the decision over who to approach. I was nervous of picking anybody too high profile – what if they didn’t like my thesis and failed it straight off – but equally I wanted to be examined by professionals who had experience of research in the same area. In the end, I ended up with one of the most high profile examiners I think I could have imagined, but this actually turned out to be a good thing.

The postgraduate office at my university kept me up to date throughout the whole liaising and setting a date process, and the date was set for February 5th, 2014. In total, I had about 6 months between submission and my viva, and then 3 months to prepare for the viva itself. I was working full time by this point, so I booked a week off work to study up. There are loads of helpful resources out there but I think the most useful advice came from Tara Brabazon’s 10 tips for Phd viva – if you do nothing else before your viva listen to this woman!

We’d started approaching examiners just before I handed in, so I’d had a good length of warning of who my examiners would be. Both of my examiners were external and therefore I also had an Independent Chair, who acts as a secretary, and ensures the viva is conducted in line with the university’s standards. They aren’t there to examine you.

I spent a good deal of time looking at my examiner’s publications and ensuring that I wouldn’t be caught out if they asked me any questions about their own research. However, the greatest amount of time spent was reading my own thesis, after all, this was what I was really being examined on and it’s absolutely critical that you know your own research inside out. I put tab marks on pages that contained information I thought would be important come the examination, and I literally filled the front cover with post it notes highlighting key information from the thesis. I’d been sent some “frequently asked questions” from my university which were very high level, but I made sure I would be able to answer these should they come up. My husband tested me on these questions mid way through the week which gave me time to go back and brush up on any areas I felt were a bit weak.

On the very last day before my viva I tried not to do too much – I’d read plenty of other experiences by this point and the general consensus was to do something non viva. I had a light dinner, ironed my clothes, put all the documents I’d need together and tried to get some sleep.

The day of the viva arrived and to be honest, I wasn’t actually that nervous to start with. My viva was booked for 1pm and it took about an hour to drive up there, so I had the whole morning to get ready, watch one last King’s Fund video and then hit the road. My husband drove me up to the university and we arrived with about 30 minutes to spare. The moment I realised how nervous I felt was getting out of the car – my legs suddenly felt numb and standing up was challenging! However I made it to the postgraduate office where I was greeted by one of the registrars who talked me through the likely outcomes from the day:

  • Pass
  • Pass with minor corrections
  • Revise and resubmit
  • Fail

Yep, not many pass options there!

I was then escorted to the room where my viva was held. In the end this was a room just down the hallway from where my office had previously been. This was quite nice really, as it was a familiar location and automatically made me feel at ease.

Entering the room had been one of the moments I had dreaded in all those months leading up to it. I’m sure everyone must feel this but I was massively suffering from “Imposter Syndrome” and I was sure I’d just be laughed out of the room.

As it happens, I entered the room and was introduced to everyone by the registrar who then left, we all sat down and straight away I felt comfortable. My examiners sat either side of me, and the Independent Chair sat in front of me. I think this style of seating was best as it wasn’t so formal as I’d imagined. In my head I’d imagined a long line of examiners all sitting Board style behind a huge table and me on my lonesome in a single chair in the middle of the room! It was nothing like that at all.

The questions started as I’m sure all vivas must with the obligatory “please summarise your thesis including the context and the main findings”. I always found this really hard to do without over complicating things, but on hindsight this was pretty telling about the state of my thesis at this point. Incidentally I now have this nailed to a T, so if you can’t summarise your thesis go back and look at it again!

From there, we talked around the study, but the main focus was on me and my experiences in the field. I think this will really vary from viva to viva and thesis to thesis. I wasn’t asked about my methodology in particular (another question I’d dreaded) apart from how my personal experience in the field might have affected the outcome of the thesis.

In total, my viva wasn’t very long at all. We talked for just under an hour and then I was asked to leave the room. I distinctly remember looking at the clock and thinking, was that it? All that prep and it’s over?? I was asked to wait in a small room across the hall so I took the opportunity to use the bathroom and then waited for about 20 minutes. I was on my own at this point and I literally paced the room for the entire time. Finally I was asked to go back into the room and this was when the atmosphere changed. The two examiners and Independent Chair sat across the table from me and I was given the verdict.

As outlined above, there was no “pass with major corrections” category but I think this most accurately describes the outcome I was given. I was told I’d passed the viva but they could not pass the thesis in its current form. The examiners highlighted that they thought mine was a really important piece of research and they’d enjoyed reading it, but they didn’t like the way the thesis had been organised. As such I was given 1 year to re-arrange the content and then re-submit. I did not have to re-do the viva.

I thanked the examiners and left the room, and called my husband (who’d been patiently waiting in a coffee shop in town). At this point I felt numb again – I didn’t really feel anything apart from relief that it was over. Having said that though, I did actually enjoy the whole viva a lot more than I had expected to. It was so nice to be able to talk to people who were genuinely interested in your research, and one of my examiners told me that my research was “gold dust” (I still haven’t gotten over that yet – he’s kind of big deal and he loved my research!).

I’ll talk about the “after” and corrections in a future post, but for now, here’s my top tips for a successful viva:

  1. Know your thesis inside out. Read, read and read again and write any key points down. As stated above, I highlighted key sections on post it notes. I didn’t actually look at these once (in fact, we didn’t even open the thesis!) but they’re good to look at as revision.
  2. Pick your examiners carefully and make sure they have the knowledge and skills required to do your thesis justice. Don’t be afraid of high profile or illustrious examiners. At the end of the day most people want you to pass and it looks good on your CV. It also helps if they’ve examined PhDs before – they’ll know the process inside out which helps everything to run more smoothly.
  3. Take care of yourself in the run up. Eat and sleep well and make sure you take plenty of breaks whilst studying for the exam. You aren’t going to perform well if you’re stressed out and exhausted.
  4. Read as many posts like this as you can find. For my part, I’d joined the Postgraduate Forum – I hate the new layout but it really helped to know I wasn’t alone throughout the process and there’s so much content on this site you’re almost certain to find someone who has been through something similar to you.
  5. Get someone to test you before the day. Yes I know it’s cringeworthy and embarrassing but honestly, it helps you to identify any weaknesses before the day so you can work on these before the viva and not afterwards. Even better, ask if you can have a mock viva. There’s no better preparation than going through it as a test. I didn’t get one but I will explain why in a future post.
  6. Following on from the previous point, talk to your postgraduate office and see if they’ve got a “frequently asked questions” document that you can use to prepare. I found it invaluable.
  7. Dress smartly. I don’t understand how/why people would treat the viva as anything different to a job interview. Suit/smart will make you feel more professional and will help the examiners to form a good first impression of you.
  8. Breathe! Learn how to do yogic breathing – it always helps me to calm down when I’m nervous or stressed.

Most of all though, you should remember to enjoy the experience. Not many people get to have this experience, and you should be proud that you’ve made it to this point. It really does take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get there so make the most of every minute.

I graduate in July and I feel so honoured to be able to do this. I genuinely never thought I’d get there so it’s extra special to me.