Tried and Tested: Memorable moments at the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference

This August Abi’odun Oyewole, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education, went to the annual Life beyond the PhD conference at Cumberland Lodge. In this blog post she details her experiences and insights from her time spent at this interdisciplinary, knowledge-sharing and collaborative weekend. 

It was an absolutely lovely experience to travel to Cumberland lodge, Windsor for the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference. I am using this blog to share some of my memorable moments at the conference to encourage whoever may want to attend the conference next year.

1. A celebration of doctoral students
The welcome session struck a note when Owen, the programme director at Cumberland lodge and our host, described the conference as a celebration of doctoral students. According to Owen, doctoral students forget to celebrate themselves and we were about to be celebrated by people who appreciate what we do and how much we have sacrificed to that cause. Did I feel celebrated after three days? I think the amazing scenery, beautiful accommodation, engaging customer service, barbecues and delicious menus, did justice to Owen’s hopes. The day before the programme ended, I was wondering how much I would miss the dreamlike package.

2. Getting vital information on career development
The conference included useful sessions on experiences of applying for a job, and working inside and outside the academia. It was really helpful to hear personal experiences of failure and mistakes and what we can do to avoid some of these experiences. Also, the common factor to all shared experiences was the fact that the speakers achieved their aims after sometime, with effort and dedication. I absolutely enjoyed listening to the dramatic journey of a chief inspector of police who had once studied a PhD in Bio-chemistry. I also enjoyed listening Professor Graham Smith who spoke about expectations for and the realities of working inside academia. His advice is to take some time off work to refresh – all doctoral students must keep this in mind!! The workshop on successful applications by Dr Steve Joy and Katie Hewitt offered valuable insight into the job application process. It was enlightening to understand the standpoint of the recruiters and the qualities they are ‘really’ looking for in a prospective employee.

3. Learning how to communicate research to a different audience
On the second day of the conference we had a session with Dr Geraint Wyn Story, on public speaking or in better terms ‘how to avoid speaking Greek to a non-Greek audience’. I must admit that I wondered if his ‘dramatic’ techniques of getting the message across would help doctoral students. However, there was an amazing difference between the speech given by a few doctoral students at the beginning of the session and at the end of the session. The next day I found myself using some of those dramatic tips to present my research to a group with different disciplines. It was a truly beneficial session.

4. Working on an interdisciplinary project


Okay, I admit that this was my best moment at the conference and for a very obvious reason – my team won. Yayy!!! The background detail to this event was that we were split into groups and told to come up with an interdisciplinary research proposal. Imagine yourself working with researchers from a totally different field. I looked through the abstracts of my teammates the morning before the activity and got a headache. I just couldn’t see how our interests and skills would come together. However, my team mates quickly proved me wrong, it wasn’t about sole accomplishments but what the group could create and contribute to. In less than two hours, we came up with a project, the aims, rationale, research question, and schedule. We also had to present our proposal to other colleagues and the alleged sponsors, to compete for ‘funding’. I would say it was a tough competition but I’m really proud that my team got the chocolate box at the end of it all. We took a picture to celebrate. Haha!

5. Listening to experiences of the viva
On the final day of the conference, we listened to personal experiences of the viva voce and this was quite helpful. The speakers provided a balanced view of good and bad experiences of the examination. It was helpful to note mistakes to avoid at the viva, and understand the viewpoint of the examiners. The speakers also talked about experiences of selecting examiners. I liked the suggestion that we should not reject examiners that we disagree with, they might actually provide a more constructive critique of our research. Dr. Rachel Smillie also advised that we avoid assumptions about the examiners’ feedback.

Final words: Thanks to Cumberland lodge for organising this worthwhile experience and thanks to the Bristol Doctoral College for providing the opportunity to partake in it.

Closure: the thesis and the viva

University of BristolJames Hickey recently completed his PhD in the School of Earth Sciences. His research focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

It’s been a long and winding road, but I’ve reached the final hurdle – minor post-viva corrections. So while everything is still fresh (or permanently etched into my mind!) I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the thesis write-up and viva process.

I didn’t have a long write-up period at the end of my studies – I started writing in my first year, and continued to write throughout in the form of a series of papers. I think this helped keep me slightly saner at the end of the 3.5 years, but don’t get me wrong; the last few months still weren’t easy!

My supervisor was very proactive from the start at getting me to think of my work in terms of publications, and this soon bore fruition. I managed to publish 3 papers before I started writing my thesis proper, with my fourth and final science chapter/study now currently in prep for publication.

When it came to the piecing together of my actual thesis I made sure I was being as efficient as possible with my time. As I still had a few models to run for my final science chapter, I used this time to simultaneously start formatting my thesis. I used LaTeX for this, which has numerous advantages over something like Microsoft Word – this could be a blog post in itself, so I won’t go into it here. But if you are thinking of using LaTeX I’ve made my thesis template freely available online, and it meets all of the University of Bristol rules and regulations (as far as I’m aware).

In the end, my thesis consisted of three science chapters from my papers, plus one additional science chapter. To me, I think this is roughly where the end line should be drawn. I feel like the additional chapters (introduction, methods, conclusions, etc.) are mostly unnecessary. Each science chapter usually has its own introductions, methods, and conclusions – so why the need to repeat? At the end of the day, maybe 5 people maximum are going to read the full thesis (the student, maybe two supervisors, and two examiners), while (hopefully) many more people will read the science chapters when they’re published. I feel it would make much more sense to be able to simply submit 3 or 4 solid science chapters, with maybe a couple pages each for some pre- and post-amble that ties things together in view of an overall bigger picture. No waffle – just good, original, science. (N.B. I can’t speak for the process in faculties other than science, where concepts, logistics and PhD theses may be vastly different.)

My viva came a month and a half after my thesis hand-in. A few days before I got ‘the fear’ – something I’ve not felt since I sat my (somewhat underprepared) undergraduate exams. I had spent most of my time trying to write a paper that my viva crept up on me, leaving me with just two days either side of a wedding weekend to ‘prepare’. Naturally I googled ‘viva prep’, which mostly suggested a week or so of going through potential questions and preparing answers. I instead used my time to read through my entire thesis, and think about it in a critical way; assessing where it could be improved and how it fits into the broader scientific picture I was addressing.

Going into my viva I was hoping that the 3 published papers in my thesis would be mostly free from the examiners onslaught. I was wrong.

My two examiners went through my thesis from cover to cover and picked everything apart: “why did you do this?”, “why did you choose this value?”, “why didn’t you do this?”, “I don’t really like this”, “you could have done this”, “why didn’t you do this?” (again). It’s like they don’t know that we’re mostly scrambling to get the thesis finished in as close to the 3 or 3.5 years of funding we are afforded (with 4 being more like the normal PhD timeframe in my department these days). I know some people say they enjoy their viva, but I was unfortunately not one of them – 2.5 hours with next to no positive comments for the amount of work put in was somewhat demoralising (and also slightly off-putting of a future career in academia).

I did stand my ground, however. On more than one occasion I even had to interrupt the examiners and ask to speak as I had the rebuttal on the tip of my tongue but was struggling to squeeze a word in. In other cases, it was only after my viva that I thought of the most scientifically appropriate comeback. You win some, you lose some. I guess it is a defence of your work at the end of the day…

Maybe this would have been a better approach. Image credit: XKCD.

I eventually emerged victorious (yay!), to bountiful cheese, wine, olives and Jagermeister – subject to minor revisions that is. If only the post-viva period was like a paper review and I could write back with my rebuttal arguments for the points where I couldn’t think of them during the viva. Oh well. I was also asked to lengthen my conclusions and methods chapters (boo!). I still don’t understand why, and I probably never will, especially as only the internal examiner and myself will ever see them.

Regardless, I’ll look back on my PhD journey as a positive one. I have improved myself in many ways, met some amazing people, and travelled to some incredible places. I will also be able to address myself as Dr if I so please.

To anyone nearing the end – hang in there. It may not seem like it right now, but it will all be worth it.

Viva celebration
A good viva celebration makes it all worthwhile. Image credit: Fabian Wadsworth.

So long, farewell, and thanks for all the cake

University of BristolRebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.

Avid followers of Chemistry’s ‘Friday Good News’ might know that it has been a rather busy week for the Bristol Laser Group, with three PhD vivas in two days. Apparently, the book of Guinness World Records doesn’t have an entry for ‘most PhD vivas completed in a week,’ but I suspect we’d be in the running for the record.

Vivas mark the end of the huge amount of work involved in a PhD and are strange times for everyone involved. For the candidates, there is the whole gamut of emotions, from the terrifying pre-viva wait to the exhausted relief when it is all over. For the older PhD students, it is an uncomfortable reminder of data that has yet to be collected and experiments that are yet to work. As well as being a celebratory time, it is often a sad goodbye to colleagues.

A post-viva Steph modelling a stylish ‘I <3 Lasers’ hat – coming soon to all good designer boutiques near you

Sometimes academia can feel a bit like a revolving door of new colleagues and contacts. New students roll through the doors in September, the Master’s students disappear in May and throughout the year, both PhDs and postdocs move onto pastures new. Both friends and collaborators tend to live at the opposite end of the country (if you’re lucky) or even on different continents.

The obligatory three-tier celebratory cake left in the presence of PhD students for five minutes

As part of a PhD, you will end up meeting an overwhelming number of people and it quickly becomes impractical to keep in contact with most of them. I’ve met so many people over the last 18 months that I’m surprised I can remember half their names. To avoid this, a lot of networking courses recommend keeping a ‘Stalker Book’ (not the phrase they use). You use this to keep note of everyone you meet on the conference circuit, as well as various details about them. To me, this sounds rather creepy but the idea of this circumvents the embarrassing situation where you meet someone who knows you and your research well but you have no idea who they are, which has thankfully only happened to me once.

Email is a wonderful thing for keeping in touch in the modern era of mobility and conferences will become a great time for catching up with others in your field. Generally I find most people in academia understand that a quarterly email and biennial visit is the foundation of a solid friendship. Don’t be surprised, though, if any social correspondence continually ends up being prefaced with ‘I’m sorry for the late reply but…’ though do be warned, these tactics may not work so well on family members.

Congratulations to our three new doctors!

Facing up to the big V

StamperCharly Stamper, an ex-experimental petrologist from the School of Earth Sciences, originally wrote this entry on the Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog. Charly used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy.

The nights are getting shorter, the air is getting fresher and here in Bristol it seems like viva season is in full swing. Enough time has elapsed since my own viva that I thought I would share my thoughts about what to expect on the big day.

PhD comic
Credit: PhD comics/Jorge Cham

Whilst everybody’s experience is different, from talking to fellow alumni there do seem to be some common themes:

Your examiners are human. The main thing to remember is that the examiners really just want to have a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion, followed by a trip to the pub. It’s also true to say that never again will somebody be so interested in your thesis (in fact, the examiners will probably the only two people to read the thing cover to cover), so try to make the most of it.

Make chit-chat. The literal translation of a viva voce is “with living voice” – i.e., you’re there to talk! Most vivas begin with an initial 10 – 20 minute chat about the overall project. At this point the examiners will have read your thesis but may not know anything about you or about how you have approached your research, so expect overarching questions and to give a summary of your entire project. Although it’s not easy to think so broadly about work that you’ve lived and breathed every minute of, the few weeks of R&R since hand-in should give you the space you need. Some examples might include:

  • What big question were you trying to answer?
  • What was your initial hypothesis?
  • How did you test this hypothesis?
  • Describe your conclusions in a few sentences
  • What went wrong?
  • What would you do differently if you could start again now?

Know your work. After the initial openings, the examiners will move on to scrutinising your thesis chapter by chapter. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find that re-reading your thesis after hand-in will be a fairly torturous experience; however, the number one answer guaranteed to rile your examiners is “I can’t remember”.  As well as being well-versed in your own research, make sure you’re familiar with any underlying concepts, equations and principles that you’ve used.

Be prepared to justify your methods. You can rest assured that if your examiners agree with everything you’ve done, they will be playing the part of devil’s advocate in the viva. Alternatively, it’s not uncommon to have contradicted or even explicitly criticised at least one of your examiners’ work in the course of your thesis! Either way, expect some uncomfortably probing questioning on the more controversial parts of your research. You’ll need to demonstrate logic and reasoning behind your decision-making and back that up with evidence.

Be passionate! Even if it’s just for those few hours. It’s fair to say that most people feel a little jaded with at least some aspect of their research by the end of the PhD, but try not to let it show. If you can channel the eager and twinkly-eyed optimism you had at the beginning of the project, then the experience will be more of a two-way discourse than an excruciatingly cringe-worthy inquisition.

Be honest. If something didn’t work during the project (or you’ve since spotted a mistake) then there’s no point trying to skirt around the issue. Explain what you would do now, with the benefit of hindsight, and bear in mind that the examiners may ask you to incorporate some corrections into your final thesis. That’s not to say you should bring these things to your examiners’ attention, but sadly most of them seem to be pretty eagle-eyed!

Enjoy it. Nothing can beat the feeling of relief when you’re done. Just don’t forget to update your social media status – if you’re lost for words then “Dr :)” is a pretty safe bet.

PhD cake
No viva party would be complete without cheese, wine and a themed cake (in Charly’s case the Lesser Antilles in Victoria sponge). Photo credit: Charly Stamper. Cake credit: Kate Hibbert, KT Cooper, Elspeth Robertson.

Reposted with permission from Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog.