Category Archives: PhD reflections

Vive-ing La Viva: How to answer viva questions

So, in January, I passed my viva! Every day since I have had to pinch myself that the PhD is now officially over (apart from walking across the stage in June, where my husband will weep in utter joy that this day has ACTUALLY, FINALLY come, and I can now bring in a pay cheque and help with weekend childcare again). While I have needed a few months distance from my thesis, I am now ready to come back to it, and start thinking about post-PhD publications (who am I kidding, it’s never officially over…). So, as a starter for ten, I thought I’d pick up the blogging to spew out wisely impart any useful advice I can from the viva process to help anyone else going through this daunting journey.

Submitting PhD at university

Submission day!

When it came to prepping for my viva (I submitted in September and my viva wasn’t until January so I had a decent amount of time to prepare/freak out), I found a lot of online viva resources and blog posts that provided helpful lists of likely and possible questions you may be asked, so you can prepare your answers. However, what I found most helpful were the tips from my supervisors[1]during my mock viva (tip 1: have a mock viva with your supervisors). Specifically, they talked about HOW I should answer the examiners’ questions, not necessarily WHAT to answer. Here are some examples:

Sign post your answers: You will undoubtedly be asked, in so many words, ‘What is your original contribution to knowledge?’. As with all replies, keep your answer clear; don’t make things too complicated. Structure the points you want so you can signpost the examiner to your main thesis contributions, just as you would have in your written conclusion. For example, I said ‘My thesis makes three original contributes to knowledge: firstly, a theoretical contribution… secondly a methodological contribution… and thirdly, a pedagogical contribution….’, and kept it to a few sentences for each of the three points.

It’s a stamina game: It is easy at the beginning of the viva to want to just keep talking, through nerves, or a worry that you want to show off everything at once. My viva was only an hour and a half, but I’ve heard of some lasting over five hours – it just depends on the examiners, and what emerges on the day. Have faith that, when answering the first few questions, you don’t have to reel off your whole thesis there and then. Take your time; it is a tiring and exhaustive few hours. I hit the wall after an hour as I’d begun to relax into it, and my adrenaline dropped (I remember doing a few over-loud sighs without realising..) So, pace yourself. If you are worried that you have not answered their question, you can politely ask if they would like you to expand any more.

Although it’s a defence of your thesis, don’t come across as defensive: This is a hugely useful distinction that I was made aware of. The examiners are there to critically pick apart your thesis, probing why you did certain things and not others. Yet this thesis is your baby, and no one but you can say your baby isn’t perfect. So your hackles rise, and perhaps, without realising it, the tone or manner in which you reply could come across as too defensive and it could make the examiners feel defensive too; they’re only human, after all. You can still defend your reasons politely but firmly… ‘That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, but I found, for my study, it was more helpful to look at it this way….’, or similar.

Don’t know the answer? Sometimes they may ask you something that you have not even thought about, let alone prepared for. At this point, have a few stock phrases up your sleeve to give you some time to mull it over:

Well, now that I think about it like that…

I’m only starting to see this now…

That’s a very good point, I’d like to look at this issue in more detail.

Practice speaking your answers aloud to get used to your voice: The best prep I did was with a colleague who had her viva at a similar time to me. We scheduled weekly Skype sessions in the weeks before and practiced asking each other unseen questions. This helped me get used to hearing my own voice, and let me play with how I could verbalise concepts and ideas that I had only, up until then, put into writing.

Prepare your own questions: Like an interview scenario, it looks professional if you have a few prepared questions for the examiners for the ‘any questions?’ part, at the end. For example, you could ask their thoughts on where you could publish future journal articles from your PhD. Or, how a particular concept you developed fits with their own work (brownie points for having read the examiners’ latest papers).

And, finally, two tips from me after having survived:  

Simplify the notes you take in with you: I was allowed to take in as many notes, thesis drafts, books, lucky mascots as I wanted. However, if you are relying too much on your answers coming from reading your notes, the flow of conversation will falter, and you may end up getting into a bit of a sweat. As part of the revision process, I made colourful mind maps that summarised the main points I wanted to make for each potential question. I took these in to the viva and lay them out in front of me, which meant I could flick my eyes to them if I had a mind-blank:

A4 revision and prep cards

A4 revision and prep cards

Enjoy it… or just get through it: Everyone kept saying to me, ‘just enjoy your viva!’ It’s easy to say that once you’re through the other side. So, if you enjoy it, bonus! If not, well-bloody-done for having got to the viva in the first place, and whatever happens, reward yourself big-style at the end:

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[1]Thank you Tara and Terrie-Lynn!

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On another matter…

After my initial tentative approach to blogging, over the last few years I have come to appreciate that personal, individual blogs are a really helpful medium for both the writer and (hopefully) the reader. But there is also immense value in a following (and contributing) to a blog that has regular, multiple and varied contributors who share a range of perspectives on a similar topic. One such blog that I can highly recommend is run by the University of Stirling’s ProPEL group – ProPEL Matters:

ProPEL Matters is the blog for ProPEL (Professional Practice, Education and Learning), a cross-disciplinary network of people interested in researching matters of interest across a wide range of occupational groups that call themselves ‘professions’.

I was recently asked to write a post for this blog on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and my experiences of getting to grips with it. I decided to write about how one of the most enjoyable yet mind-bending challenges during my thesis work has been getting to grips with the powerful terms and vocabulary used in ANT. I’d be honoured if you would check it out at Metaphorically speaking: Word play in Actor Network Theory. Its a wee bit similar to my post If the shoe fits… but has a good go at integrating the use of metaphors in ANT. While you are on the site, please check out the rest of the fantastic posts! Happy browsing.

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Return of the Mac(book)

August 2017. That’s THE deadline. I’m putting it out there as further motivation to get.this.thesis.submitted. I’ve been quiet on the blogging, and working, front for the last 18 months or so due to welcoming my little buddy into the world. But I’m now back writing. The poor chap has already been dragged to supervision meetings. He’s not a fan of theory yet, but is quite happy to help me highlight journals:

J 1

Reading buddy

Having a substantial period of time away from the thesis has been good for perspective, both for seeing my work more clearly, and for appreciating a work/life balance. Also, with my buddy in nursery now for 3 days a week, it puts a different value on my time for writing. It’s tough balancing the sleepless nights, teething and weaning with trying to write a polished final draft, but it only goes to reinforce the realities of doing a PhD: you can’t put your life on hold. And seeing this face at the end of a day writing only makes me want the PhD even more to secure a good job and future for him.  Onwards…

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Two steps forward, one step back…

This is the continuous dance of the PhD and the writing process. There is nothing wrong with this gauche sequence. Some steps are slow and faltering; others resemble a fast quickstep. One step takes you sideways, another forces you back. Throw in a full twirl after the one step back, and there’s the feeling that everything is momentarily thrown off-balance. And then the music rightens you and you take another step. Although the band is there to support you and encourage your steps to follow one after another, this a solo number. One step after the other, what ever direction that may be.

Yesterday I witnessed the best dance sequence of the whole PhD process. Each step taken was calm, proud, determined. Each step was in one coherent direction: forward. Across a stage, in front of a friends, family and teachers. In front of a silenced band. Yesterday I was incredibly proud to watch the graduation dance of my colleague and officedog muse, Dr Maureen Michael, from the School of Education, University of Srirling. We started the PhD process at the same time and know each others weaknesses and strengths better than we do our own. It has been an absolute privilege to see such a close colleague successfully audition for the most important performance of her life. It has provided me with such beautiful proof that this awkward dancing is not in vain. I look forward greatly to following in her steps next year. One step after the other, forward.

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Congratulations Dr Mo! xx

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If the shoe fits…

We have a rule in our house. No recounting your sleep dreams to each other…

So last night I had this crazy dream, I was in Tokyo and I was carrying three talking chipmunks in my backpack, when…

Zippit, my loved one. Not on my time. This dream-event never happened and, in this current dimension, most likely never will. Therefore, this is a selfish monologue of which I want no part. Take it to Russell Grant.

However, for this blog I have decided to break with this rule just once (and for which I duly apologise, but I’ll make the ‘dream’ bit as short as possible).

A few nights ago, I dreamt I took into a shoe repair shop five pairs of patented, high-heeled shoes that needed re-heeling. The cobbler lined them up on the counter and asked,

“Ah, I see these are Latour shoes. Can’t you wear something that is more comfortable? These look very awkward to walk in”.

“No, no”, I replied, “I need to attend all these events this year and I must wear these Latour shoes to look the part. As you can see, they’ve taken a bit of a bashing as I’ve tried to break them in, but they’re getting more comfy.”

“Ok”, she replied, “that will be £55”

“£55!!”, I remember exclaiming – and this is when I realised I have been a student too long – “Do you do student discount?” and brandished my student card.

I got them dream-repaired for £46 – result!

So, this dream sequence stayed with me over the next few day and got me thinking about how we choose the terminologies we work with, or even as we try to shoe horn them in, when analysing and theorising our data. I won’t be the first to admit that learning about ANT has been like learning a whole new language where the wrong subject-object-verb configuration can reveal you as an ANT interloper. Each word has to be carefully picked up, held against the light, and inspected for its suitability and sense-making for an ANT-styled sentence. After all, the description in ANT is the analysis.

However, appropriating terminology adopted, or created, by fellow ANT authors is only affording me to make sense of my data to a point. I am struggling to find the right combination of words to fully express my analytical concepts. At my last supervision, it was suggested that I could start shaping my OWN terminology to help me conceptualise my data!! This is probably the biggest, scariest outcome of my PhD process so far. I now have a RESPONSIBILITY to add to a new language – a new way of describing – that needs to make sense of a very complex ontology. So, I am excited, but nervous, as I start playing around with new configurations of words, verb conjugations and meanings. ‘Playing’, I think, is the key notion here. I am allowing myself some time to play with the words and this can only help my thinking process as I cut, paste, delete, paste, cut, and delete some more. I am hoping in the next few months I can start replacing those dream high-heels with a few pairs of lovely comfy flip flops that won’t make my feet hurt so much….

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Reflections on using a mixed methods approach in education research

I do wonder if I should doff my researcher cap more to statistics. Don’t get me wrong; I have an inherent prejudice of words over numbers when it comes to research. Yet a recent experience working on an education project at Edinburgh Napier University allowed me to realise the value that a statistical analysis can bring when using it alongside qualitative research – known as a mixed methods approach. Mixed methods is defined nicely by John Cresswell (2007) as:

a research design with philosophical assumptions as well as methods of inquiry. As a methodology, it involves philosophical assumptions that guide the direction of the collection and analysis of data and the mixture of qualitative and quantitative approaches in many phases in the research process. As a method, it focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone. (p. 5)

Our small team was interested in investigating novel feedback initiatives for Higher Education students, and our research questions were very much led by our desire to understand what worked (I do wonder if I am a pragmatist at heart…). Our large sample size (710 students) meant it seemed almost rude not to invite statistical analysis into the research design. This, we felt, would help us see a pattern in our results – a trend – while interviews would allow us to probe into the ‘why’s’ behind these patterns.Whilst I and another qualitative researcher geared up the tape recorder for interviews and focus groups galore, the PI for the project flexed his statistical software in anticipation for some serious number crunching. Each of us were relieved the other was doing the ‘hard part’ of the research.

An in-depth explanation of this project and our rationale for choosing to work with a mixed methods approach can be found in our chapter in SAGE Research Methods Case “Mixed-Methods Research in Education: Exploring Students’ Response to a Focused Feedback Initiative“, but in this post I thought it would be useful to summarise some suggestions of what we, as individual researchers, learnt from working together in a mixed methods collaboration.

Working in a mixed methods research group can stimulate intellectual curiosity

It is unusual for a researcher to be ‘methodologically bilingual’: able to work equally comfortably with both quantitative and qualitative methods. Therefore, working on a research project with others who have strengths in different data collection techniques or analysis is a fantastic learning opportunity. For example, I managed to apply my statistical understanding that I had learnt in my MRes stats class to a real-world problem thanks to the PI’s love of explaining ANOVA tests.

Giving time to discuss your different viewpoints before you begin the research

As quantitative and qualitative methods can be argued to stem from different ontological and epistemological standpoints, it is important to discuss upfront how these will affect the study’s design. We made sure we were comfortable sharing our views because it led to a deeper and more equal understanding of each method’s strengths and weaknesses.

Considering publishing and funding opportunities before you start a mixed methods project

Some funders may be particularly keen to fund only quantitative or qualitative work, not a mix of the two. It is useful to be aware of any biases from particular research communities before applying for funding. Furthermore, writing up mixed methods projects for publications can be challenging as you have basically collected two different sets of data for one project and these need to be succinctly yet thoroughly represented within a strict word count. Therefore, it’s worth not only checking the word count required by different journals, but also making sure that the journal is ‘open’ to reviewing mixed methods research.

I would definitely work with mixed methods research again, but I still feel I’d need a statistical ‘expert’ to accompany me on the project. That in itself is a bonus as it’s much more fun working in a group than going solo (especially when the team exemplifies the Thesis Whisperer’s Circle of Niceness!).

References:

Cresswell, J. (2007). Understanding mixed methods research. In J. W. Creswell, & V. L. Plano Clark (Eds.), Designing and conducting mixed methods research (pp. pp. 1–19).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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‘Methods in Action’: a practical resource for teaching research methods

This autumn I had a chance to shake up my academic writing style. I loved it. The piece I wrote wasn’t for a book chapter, a magazine article or a blog post. It was for a new initiative commissioned by SAGE: Cases in Methodology.

Editors at SAGE have been collecting over 500 case studies from researchers around the world, who are working from a range of disciplines and with all number of different research methods, to compile a resource for the teaching of research methods.

This resource aims to provide its readers with succinct descriptions and examples of particular research projects conducted in recent real-world settings, providing a bridge between abstract methodological concepts and the realities of practice. These cases either describe the course of the whole ‘research project’ (with a specific focus on the methodology, any problems encountered and how these were addressed) OR a ‘methods in action case’, which explores how a particular method, say conversation analysis, can be applied to a research project (with an emphasis on the resulting strengths and weaknesses of the method).

Presented to students, these ‘cases’ aim to disrupt the neat, idealistic research methods presented in charts and textbooks, and offer insights into the messier, more fluid and emergent reality of conducting research in the ‘real world’.

What I particularly enjoyed about writing for this publication was that the driving objective of openness encouraged a different style of writing.  This meant letting go of the often distanced, formal style of journal writing and engaging in a more personal, reflective and honest narrative.  Working with two colleagues, I compiled a ‘methods in action case’, that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of using a mixed methods approach in a Higher Education research project that explored feedback initiatives. So ingrained were all of our writing styles to fit with ‘typical’ journal publications that we had to rewrite the piece a number of times to break out of our habits. Drafts were all peer-reviewed and critically appraised for quality, interest and accessibility, yet the ‘typical’ journal formatting and style was turned on its head. For example, we were encouraged to include:

  • lots of bullet points and subheadings
  • first person pronouns
  • limited citations, jargon and references
  • practical conclusions, learning outcomes and discussion questions
  • a ‘further reading’ list

Furthermore, the reflective and open writing style of this case collection demonstrates that – be it for a student or a professor – every research project provides an opportunity for the researcher to learn more about research methods. How can we not keep learning, when each real-word research situation is open to so much variation and uncertainty?

For me, the mixed methods project we presented in our case was a huge learning experience, not least because I had a limited understanding of statistical analysis. To share my thoughts, mistakes and insights about using a mixed methods approach with other students through this ‘methods in action case’ I think will equal, and even surpass, the value and usefulness we would gain from publishing the project findings.

In a future blog, I will share some of my learning outcomes, strengths and weaknesses from using a mixed methods approach. For now, SAGE Cases in Methodology will be available in libraries shortly so look out for it!

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