On 14 June 22, I attended a CPD session about helping students through their doctoral studies. I attended this session since I support a couple of doctoral students; one through a PhD programme, and another through the EdD programme. More information about the EdD programme that if offered through the Well-being Education and Language Studies (WELS) faculty are be available through this blog.
This session was facilitated by Dr Sara Spencer (Head of Research Degrees, Graduate School) and Dr Sarah Sherlock (School of Physical Sciences, chair of research degrees committee). It seemed to be a relatively popular event, with 23 delegates.
The key headings for the event were: the thesis, mock viva, and post-viva support. I noted down the words, “at this session we will look at common concerns that student’s voice about thesis submission and the viva voce examination and consider possible strategies for overcoming these concerns.”
From the event description, the session had the following objectives:
- To explore students’ expectations and concerns about completing their doctoral thesis and how they will perform during their viva voce examination
- To share ideas and practices that can be used to support students during the writing-up phase
- To share ideas and practices that can support students to prepare for their viva
- To identify sources of help and support offered by the Graduate School Network and the OU Library that can support students during the writing-up phase
‘Write up’ is a HESA status as well as a university status; a status that applies for one year only, which is available to students during their fourth year of study. This means that students pay a lower fee during a ‘write up’ year. If they go over the write up year, they may be liable for full fees. An important difference is that students on Professional Doctorates (such as the EdD programme) are not eligible for writing-up fees.
During the session, I made a few notes from some of the slides. A key point was that the thesis must meet the requirements of the research degree regulations. Interestingly, things have changed since I submitted my own thesis. Students no longer need to submit a paper copy; it can be submitted electronically. (I remember having to get mine bound by a book binder who worked in the town of Chichester!)
A key point is that a thesis is a monograph. In other words, it presents a single coherent narrative. Also, students can make their own decision about whether they wish to submit. A student doesn’t have to expressly seek permission from the supervisor (but, it is probably a good idea to check with them, just to make sure they think that a student is likely to make a worthy submission). Another important point is that if a student is funded to carry out their research, and to write their thesis, a student will no longer receive a stipend when they make their submission.
One interesting point that I did learn (which was something that I already probably implicitly knew about, but didn’t really know what it was called, since I haven’t needed to think about it) was that a thesis can also include a ‘non-book’ component. In addition to submitting a textual monograph, a student may send in other forms of material to accompany a piece of research. In computing, this might be a software artifact. In design or engineering, this might be some architectural drawings. In the arts, this might even be a video of a performance.
The assessment of a thesis was described as taking place in three phases: 1) a preliminary assessment, 2) defence of the thesis at the viva, 3) re-examination of the thesis following revision. Some students have the opportunity to take part in a mock viva which is set up by the supervision team.
The aim of the mock is, of course, to enable students to be as prepared as they can be to be robustly questioned when they defend their work. Since the viva can be a stressful exercise, a mock can help a student get a sense of what happens in the real thing. I remember when I participated in one: the different supervisors took on different roles. One asked question about the big picture, and the other supervisor asked very specific questions about the details of the text.
An important point was made, which was that examiners can get nervous too! Mocks are also helpful for the supervisors as they are for students.
Exam Panel Nomination
A request was shared to all delegates: please think about the exam panel to ensure that nominations are submitted in good time. This suggested reminded me of something. Whilst my student was carrying out their literature review, I remember saying the following: “do look for people who are doing similar research to what you are doing; they might well become potential examiners”.
The exam panel must be approved by the research degrees committee. It was also said that allocating examiners is one of the most important things that the university does (in terms of the doctoral research process). It was noted that there needs to be a minimum of two examiners. Usually, this should be one internal, and the other should be external (in some cases, they can be both external, if there isn’t the internal knowledge within the school or department). The make-up of the whole panel is important. The experience should be distributed across the panel.
Something that I didn’t (formally) know is that a doctoral examiner works according to a contract; there needs to be an offer, this needed to be accepted, and there needs to be consideration (which means that they are paid for their work). The contract is there to avoid ambiguities, and to enable a route to resolve difficulties if they were to arise.
When an exam panel has been chosen, a good tip (for a student who is going to be examined) is to read the papers that have been written by the examiner. This may give a student some insight about what perspective they might be coming from. For example, they might prefer one set of methods over another.
The viva begins with a pre-viva meeting with the chair and the examiners. Observers may only be asked to the pre-viva meeting if there is a specific question that the examiners may wish to ask. In the meeting, the examiners may have a discussion about what the approach is going to be, and what questions to ask.
During the viva, some candidates may be encouraged to give a short presentation of the work to the chair, the examiners, and the observers. The viva may, generally, last between 2 and 3 hours, but will depend on the subject that is being examined. A viva will go on for as long as is needed. Breaks can be requested via the chair. Different examiners may take different approaches. Some may go through a thesis a line at a time; others may take a different approach, asking more broad questions.
A bit of advice I once gained from a colleague in terms of examining a viva was, obviously, to look to the research questions, and then look to the methodology to learn how a student had tackled a question, and justify their choices.
A comment made during this part of the event was: questions to students might explore their knowledge from across the discipline of study, not just the very specific detail of the text that is being the focus of the exam.
The next step is the post-viva meeting, which takes place between the chair and the examiners. This is where the student has to be left on their own whilst the deliberations take place. If this meeting takes a while, this may not necessarily mean a bad outcome. There is also a bit of administration to complete, such as, the completion of forms, which also includes the agreeing of corrections, and what the panel needs the student to do to pass. All this admin can take a bit of time.
The outcome from the panel is a recommendation that goes to a committee. It is also important to note that a recommendation is different from an outcome.
There are a range of outcomes from a viva (which are based on the quality of a submission) ranging from student being awarded the degree, resubmission, and re-examination, getting an alternative award (such as an MPhil), through to a student not being awarded the degree and not being able to resubmit (and a couple of other options in between).
Extensions to the correction period are not possible, and students who do not submit by the deadline will fail, unless there are clear mitigating circumstances. To repeat, students are not allowed extensions, as otherwise they will fail. Corrections have to be done on time.
Having been through this process from beginning until the end, a lot that was presented within this session that was familiar to me. I was familiar with the various phases, but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the finer detail, such as the roles of the committees, and what observers can and cannot do. Although I think I had once heard that students are not permitted to submit their corrections late, it was good to be reminded of this!
During the discussions at the end of the session, a really helpful comment was “it [the thesis] doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough”. This has reminded me of another bit of advice that I was given about doctoral study. I once thought a PhD was gained by uncovering ground-breaking new bits of knowledge, but this was a misunderstanding about how knowledge generation works. The aim of doctoral research is to add to the sum of human knowledge in some form, and it is certainly okay if a contribution is a small one. Contributions are built on.
Another perspective is that doctoral study represents an extended form of academic apprenticeship. It demonstrates that you can do research, and that you are capable of creating something that is original. Reflecting the above comment, research also builds on the work of others.
Very many of these words have been summarised from comments from Sara and Sarah, and the slides that they shared during their really helpful CPD session.