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I submitted my thesis nearly two weeks ago now.

And as clichéd as it may sound, it feels like an absolute eternity.

For several days afterwards, as I posted about in my previous post, it felt like I had emerged from a massive, never-ending nightmare where I was constantly on the go and constantly, narrowly, blindly obsessing about this central, all-consuming thing in my life: My thesis. Well, it’s gone now. The light-headedness has faded away. The shock has subsided. I feel like maybe I have returned to a degree of normality in my life, even though, at this point, I concede I am not all too sure what normality is supposed to feel like.

There are still things going on that have been keeping me occupied. I am due to give some talks over the next few weeks so there have been presentations to prepare. I’ve been worrying about whether my thesis has reached my examiners safely. I’ve managed to ascertain, through my supervisor, that my internal examiner and chair have their copies, but am still waiting for confirmation from the external. That’s a real worrying point for me. I’ve been having horrible thoughts of the grad school posting it out to the wrong address or the package getting lost in the post or the postal services going on strike. I’ve been trying to block these out but don’t think they will go away until I know the thesis has arrived safely. And going on two weeks now, I really would have expected it to have arrived. To block these thoughts out, I’ve also taken on some paper-grading work, which I finished just yesterday well ahead of the deadline.

Then there’s my life in general…but I’m really not up for talking about that at any length right now.

My viva has been provisionally scheduled for July 29th. I am apprehensive about it to say the least, and for all my hoarding of viva advice from across the breadth of the internet, my nerves still aren’t settled. I feel jumpy, uncertain, and restless about my viva. I don’t know what anything’s going to be like. I have no idea what the examiners are going to think about my thesis or whether they are going to go easy on me or eat me alive, or whether some horrific untoward event is going to happen that cancels my viva altogether, leading to a massive anti-climax.

Thinking about it too much makes me nauseous.

I feel blank, like I don’t know what to do or what to focus my energy and attention on. I feel blank like after having emerged from such an intense, sustained period of disciplined work I am at a loss as to how to spend my time or what to do with myself that will yield something productive and worthwhile.

I spent 5 consecutive days at home last week and realised late last night that I was slowly going mad. So here I am, at my office, doing things more like a human being than a writing-crazed zombie, like checking emails and writing this post.

I am 2 chapters down at the moment and am halfway through a third. I have until March 4th, at the latest, to have a full working draft of my thesis done, and I’m feeling upbeat and hopeful about meeting my target.

That said though, it is HARD work. The paradox is that at the time when you need to be churning out words and sentences productively and producing logical, tangible volumes of writing, your mind goes blank. You spend hours just staring at the page, looking over your chapter plan, over the papers you have to cite. You know what you want to say but you can’t put it into words. Or if you can, it sounds cumbersome or illogical.

I’m supposed to be submitting in May and I still can’t write a sentence. Well, I can. I’ve written thousands of them already, and I will keep doing so until the job is done. But exactly how great my writing will convey my ideas, I have no clue.

On top of which I found out over the weekend my internal examiner has declined to examine me due to a clash in his schedule. So that’s great. I’ll be chasing after my supervisor today to see if we can have a chat about moving our viva date around a bit to make this work, because I really, really don’t fancy changing examiners at this late stage.

I just want them to stay alive and safe, not to have heart attacks or schedule clashes.

Everything’s all over the place again. This is supposed to be a peaceful time, I’m supposed to be sitting quietly at a desk in a peaceful room, turning all my research into a sensible narrative, all comfortably in time for my submission deadline. Instead, I am writing madly in the midst of examiner melodrama and trying fruitlessly to hold on to my sanity.

I’ve dragged myself to my office today to type up what I have of another chapter. Normally I don’t type until I’ve written the whole thing on paper, but today I just felt like I had to get out of the house. I go mad when I’m cooped up in four walls for days on end.

One thing I’ve noticed about my write-up over the last few weeks is that I feel less uncomfortable about it than I ever did about countless drafts I’ve tried to write in years gone by. I would spend evenings pushing myself to write up draft chapters, outlines, papers for my thesis. But they would all make me frustrated. I would feel as if what I was writing wasn’t good enough, like I was trying too hard to make it perfect yet the writing itself was painful to read. It read like it was ‘constipated’ – like it was trying to get a message across smoothly and concisely but nothing worthwhile was coming out. Like beating around the bush and not being able to say what you mean, try as you might. But now, these drafts I’m writing – I feel more at ease about them than I ever have. The things I write don’t stick in my mind and keep me awake at night, or make me wonder if I couldn’t have found a better way to write them. I feel like my writing really reflects what I want to say, and I don’t have the annoying feeling that my work is crap.

Maybe I’m kidding myself.

Or not.  I just don’t know. I have no idea if what I’m writing is any good, if my argument is persuasive enough, if I know my subject area in enough detail, or if my research is substantial enough or even tells an interesting enough story. Enough for what, I don’t know. Maybe enough to persuade my examiners that I’m good enough. But good enough for what? Surely all this isn’t just to be good enough to be awarded a PhD. Surely there  must be something more I’m working towards. But what?

I have no idea what’s going on.

I think I’ll go and keep writing now.

Along with other obsessive quantification crazes I continuously encounter in the academic world (number of publications, number of citations, number of high impact factor journals, number of examiner appointments, number of PhD completions…you get the picture), I’ve recently begun to notice the more qualifications an academic has after their name, the sillier they seem to be.

Flicking though a promotional booklet on my department’s research activities last week, I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the sheer number of postnominals some professors (and even many pre-tenure staff) have accumulated and, remarkably,  how many of them I tend to find annoying. The more they have, the more intent they seem to be to obsess about details, promote themselves, and just generally be a pain to work with.

I appreciate this is only my opinion and that there are many academics with countless postnominals who are lovely.

Just not in my department. We seem to have all the incredulous manic-depressives here.

Take our Head, for example. He has the obligatory BSc-MSc-PhD combination, followed by at least 4 fellowships/charterships of various learned societies, which total up to a good two lines of abbreviations under his name. And, between you, me, and cyberspace, he is the most annoying man ever. He turns up to meetings late, is never in his office when you need to get a form signed, and obsesses about things that aren’t his responsibility. This isn’t just my opinion either – two of my supervisors and at least two professors in the department have all told me, independently and unsolicited, how much of a pain he is! But I don’t want to turn this into a rant.

One of my supervisors, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Master’s degree, and she’s the loveliest person I’ve ever met in the university. She completely lacks any of the obsession with quantification that I’ve observed in other academics – she doesn’t fuss over self-promotion, doesn’t make me feel like I have to publish paper upon paper as if I’m manufacturing some sort of commodity. I’m not saying she gives me a free ride. She has expectations and she expects good quality work. But she’s really nice about it and I never feel like I’m being domineered.

This apparent pattern worries me sometimes. When I finish my PhD I’ll have four academic postnominals after my name, plus two learned society memberships. I don’t like to actually print them on documents if I can help it (I hesitate to even put ‘Ms’ as a title on forms – I prefer no title), though I know that in academia as it’s evolving today, research departments where I might work in the future will be hanging out waiting for me to get my next postnominals so they can print it in their research promotion booklets to show the world how intelligent stupid I am.

Because it’s true. The more qualified you become, the more stupid you realise you are. Or sometimes, you become stupid without really realising it. Even in the 6 years I’ve been at university, it has continuously struck me how stupid I was when I was younger, and as I become more experienced in research, academia, and life, I know that I must be getting even more stupid.

I am really stupid!

I suppose, in some ways, a PhD is really a consolation prize for making peace with the sheer insignificance of your own knowledge compared to the inconceivably large quantum multiverse we live in.

Don’t you just love Monday mornings? I’ve been in the office for over an hour and a half already and have only just finished wading through a swamp of weekend emails. Now I have to blog some of the chaos in my head before moving on to some light data collection.

I’ve been worrying about writing my thesis. Although about half of it’s drafted, I still worry about it because it’s, well, a draft. There are so many imperfections in the drafts that I’ve forgotten about, and I know that when I some across them in the editing stage they’re just going to make me flip. I’ve been battling this perfectionism for years and still it seems stronger than ever. Then there’s the half that’s still, gasp, undrafted. Unwritten. Thin air. Non-existent. Where on earth is that going to come from? How am I ever going to write all that? When the hell am I going to graduate?

Thinking back over the last couple of weeks, the main thing that’s changed drastically is my perspective on my thesis. Two weeks ago my thesis seemed like something an obscure suit-clad academic would read and interrogate me about over the tops of his wire-rimmed spectacles. Now, he is gone and instead I have two jolly old sweet-tempered professors (hopefully) coming to examine me. I have a concrete idea of who is going to read my thesis. The pressure is officially on to impress them!

Suddenly my ability to graduate at the time scheduled in my work plan seems to be almost completely dependent on me submitting my absolutely perfect hurriedly written and edited thesis on time, my examiners reading it in a timely fashion, and all of us meeting up in July to have the viva without having caught on fire, been taken hostage, or accidentally fallen down a bottomless hole whilst following a plump white rabbit. Why do there have to be so many things that could go wrong?!

I’m going to go and collect some data now.

*Danish for “I want to graduate”…at least according to Google Translate.

In a recent post I discussed the absurdity of having to cyberstalk potential thesis examiners to investigate their quirks prior to one’s viva (my preferred external, for example, apparently likes Bob Dylan, cosmology, and intelligent science fiction…and I still don’t know what to do with that information). Well, yesterday I found out that I have apparently, by way of a paper presenting my argument for a particular examiner, persuaded the (normally stern and unsympathetic) head of school to approve expenses of nearly a thousand pounds to engage this guy.

Wow.

And now, much more than my impending viva, to which I really, really hope my preferred external will agree to come, I am petrified by the task of writing my thesis argument, and wonder constantly whether I could ever manage to argue a case so ‘persuasively’ again. I thought this only happens once in your career! Like getting something accepted without corrections! And I’ve already had both of those things!

This is absurd!

 

I appreciate that the systems that exist for examining PhD theses differ from place to place. In the US, candidates go through (what seems to me, at least) a very strange system of ‘quals’, research, defense, and thesis submission, and that’s only what I’ve learnt implicitly from reading PhD Comics. Then in Australia the examination is by reading only, meaning candidates never have a face-to-face oral examination (what you’d call a ‘viva’) and their thesis is read and graded on its own merits. This has both pros and cons, because although you never have the stress (and terror and anxiety and nervous breakdowns and jelly-like knees) that comes with experiencing an oral examination, you might have an equally uncomfortable time trying to perfect your thesis to the finest detail because you won’t get a chance to clarify or discuss anything in a meeting.

In the UK, PhD theses are examined by both reading and questioning. After thesis submission, usually in about 4 to 6 weeks, the examiners read and write independent preliminary reports on the thesis, and a date for a viva is then arranged. On the day of the viva, the candidate, the internal examiner and external examiner, and, depending on the regulations of the university, sometimes also the supervisor(s) and the Chair of examiners attend the meeting and both of the examiners question the candidate about different aspects of the thesis. Depending on how the examiners jointly evaluate both the thesis and the candidate’s performance at the viva, they then make a recommendation for the outcome of the examination (for example, for the candidate to pass, to pass with corrections, to be awarded an MPhil, or to fail). The university then approves the recommendation.

Because the examination panel most usually consists of one internal and one external examiner, this sets the candidate and supervisors the delightful task of locating, researching and successfully engaging an appropriate external examiner, given that the external examiner traditionally takes the ‘lead’ in the viva and has a bit more leverage in the final recommendation.

Establishing an external examiner isn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. Thinking in a straightforward way, you would simply find the person whose qualifications and theoretical expertise mostly closely matched your thesis and have them examine you, and the viva would be a straightforward, standardised procedure of observing whether you can explain and justify the points made in the thesis.

But of course, in the real world, it just doesn’t work like that. Finding examiners in the real world is an absurd, bordering-on-clinically-insane process involving intense background research, personality checks, cyberstalking, gossiping with former students, and attempting to approach them anonymously at conferences and other professional meetings to get an idea of their character. Yes, apparently many academics who are perfectly sane and normal in everyday life become savage, rabid thesis-gobbling monsters when put into a room opposite a cowering PhD candidate.

Cute.

So now that I’ve got a few names on my list of externals, I’m in the process of doing intense background research for each of them, which is a professional way of saying I am cyberstalking them in every conceivable corner of the Internet to gain some picture of their likes and dislikes, and what strikes their fancy.

I am not insane. Postgraduate forums across the web report countless horror stories of candidates being eaten alive by overly harsh examiners, often because they and their supervisors just chose the wrong person.

Really, I am not mad.

So far, I have found out that my first choice for external likes Bob Dylan, cosmology, and intelligent science fiction. I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do with this information, since my thesis has nothing to do with Bob Dylan, cosmology, or intelligent science fiction (unless the research itself could be classed as intelligent science fiction, though personally I don’t think it’s that intelligent). So, I’m just going to note it all down and tell my supervisors about it and see what we come up with.

And I won’t even get started on the absurdity of the internal examiner. They sound like someone you’d expect to see in a gynaecologist’s office.

I’m rejoicing in the mania of Monday morning today. It’s another wet one! As with last weekend, the rain started on Sunday (though in the evening this time) and it rained steadily through the night, and it’s now been drizzling steadily all morning.

I took a walk out of the office mid-morning to buy a money order from the post office (another one of those rudimentary errands I have to run in order to accomplish something intellectually greater – namely, membership of a certain rather overpriced learned society). Despite having lived here for about 5 years I am still occasionally wonderstruck by British terminology and colloquialisms – today, this happened at the wonder of calling a money order a ‘postal order’. “Can I buy a money order for £66 please?” I said. “A what, sorry?” “A money order for £66,” I repeated. “You mean a postal order?” The teller seemed confused. I was then forced to launch into a brief definition of a money order to clarify my meaning for fear of ending up buying something I didn’t want. It makes sense, though I think ‘postal order’ sounds more like a type of delivery option for a parcel. Still, the post office was rather busy, as it is on Monday mornings, so the teller did not have time to stare with bewilderment at my culturally inappropriate choice of words.

I have had my fair share of bewildered looks, though. I was reminded of two in particular from some years ago on a backpacking trip in Europe. These were, 1) the bewildered look I got from a waiter in a hotel in Amsterdam upon ordering tea (not coffee) for breakfast; and 2) the equally bewildered look I received from a bureau de change cashier in Frankfurt upon handing him a wad of Australian banknotes with which to buy Deutschmarks (yellow fifty-dollar bills? Plastic? What?).

Anyway, my application for membership of the British Psychological Society is now complete. This just leaves me with another trek to the post office tomorrow to post the thing to them in Leicester. Oh, the joy of walking in the rain!

I spent a half hour this morning noting down things I need to draft out for my thesis tonight. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be helpful, because I usually get home in the evening exhausted from a day spent running errands and staring at the computer screen and then I just crash. Even if I sit down to write something for my thesis, I usually just stare at the chapter outline without any idea of where to start or how to word it. If I sit down to write with some prepared notes about what I want to say, then it might help me draft the section. Strangely, I’m actually looking forward to writing.

So, what next on manic Monday?

I’m off now to start my last (fingers crossed, touch wood) round of data collection, followed by some more research on potential thesis examiners. Riveting stuff.

Now that he’s spoken, I’m reminded that I am, actually, trying to finish my PhD, and that I should probably get on with it.

So what’s happened in the fortnight since I returned to the office?

I had resolved to begin drafting out chapters and collecting my last bit of data immediately, but for a few different reasons, I haven’t been moving as quickly as I’d hoped. Firstly, I confess there’s been some procrastination. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by all the different things that need my attention that I can’t decide which one I should start with and how I should go about finishing. So all of them stay unattended to, and I wallow in the misery of feeling inefficient and incapable.

Secondly, I’ve realised it’s meaningless to start collecting data immediately, because since university students comprise my target population, I’d be wasting my time in searching for them when the semester has only just started. Undergraduates are milling around everywhere at the moment, like headless chickens, trying to find lecture theatres, working out timetabling abbreviations (“What does ‘TBA’ mean? What does ‘TBA’ mean??” one was screeching yesterday) and getting frustrated upon finding out they actually need to reach into their pocket, extract their student card, and swipe it on the card reader before the automatic door will open for them. What a drag. So I’m waiting till next week before I start my hopefully-not-much-longer-than-6-weeks surveying.

Another reason I can’t seem to move faster with my work is this feeling of not being ready. Chatting with a resident postdoc yesterday, I suddenly realised how unaccustomed I am to talking about my ‘thesis’, my ‘examiners’, my ‘viva’, and my ‘career’. These are things that happen towards the tail end of PhDs. I’ve become so used to being at the beginning and in the middle of my PhD, I can’t get my head around the end of it. What’s it like to actually have a fully written, edited, proofed and bound thesis? What’s it like to come face to face with your examiners? And have a viva? And, God forbid, what about my career? I’ve been a full time student since the age of four – I don’t know a thing about careers! I guess this is what causes many a PhD student nearing completion to dilly-dally and drag their feet, feeling comfortable with the way things are and needing a little more time to consider what they want to do next.

But we just don’t live in a world like that any more. We don’t have time to dilly-dally. While we’re dilly-dallying, other PhD go-getters, who aren’t necessarily smarter than us, but just more ambitious, are already out there, throwing themselves into competitive jobs, publishing, presenting, networking, globetrotting and getting promoted.

What a drag.

And then there’s this talk of postdocs. I always thought I’d take up a lectureship at the end of my PhD, and live happily ever after. Now I’m not so sure. I like research, and there are continuations of my PhD research that I’d like to do after I finish. And with all respect to lecturers, at least the ones I’ve seen, they work long hours for average pay and spend so much time managing ‘unskilled’ research methods courses they hardly have a moment to do research or even teach on specialist courses. I’m not sure I want that – I don’t want to have done all this research I’m really interested in, only to spend the next 3 to 6 years of my life teaching undergrads what a variable is. I respect that someone’s got to do it. I just don’t want it to be me.

Oh, woe to us on the brink of thesis submission. There is just so much confusion.

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!