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MONTHLY BLOG 98, HOW SHOULD YOU APPROACH THE PhD VIVA?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Asked by a friend about my extensive experience
of helping candidates through PhD vivas,
I’ve distilled my advice as follows:

Anticipation
Participation
Progression

1: Anticipation

I won’t call this preparation, since everything that you have researched, debated and written about during the entire research period has been preparation for the thesis and viva. But it’s worth undertaking a thoughtful process of anticipation. After a break from the research, return to the thesis and reread it. Then prepare a short statement about your thesis aims and conclusions.

Examiners often invite candidates to start the proceedings with such a succinct statement. If they don’t in your case, then keep it up your sleeve. It’s bound to be useful at a later point in the discussions.

As you reread the thesis, note (as judiciously as you can) the good points within your thesis – and also consider where criticisms and challenges might be made. Some authors love everything that they have written; others detest their own prose. Try to keep a balance.

Having noted areas for criticism and challenge, then think carefully and be ready with answers. It’s not invariably true that authors are their own best critics. Nonetheless, they can often tell where the shoe pinches. Your supervisor will also help with this process.

In the British academic system, the viva is a serious hurdle. So don’t assemble your friends and family to wait outside the examination room. Whatever the outcome, you will need some time for quiet reflection immediately afterwards. It’s important to absorb the prior debate, alongside the examiners’ verdict. And either then or not long afterwards, you need a quick debriefing with your supervisor; and a timetable for corrections and revisions (if any). However, it’s fine to keep friends and family on hold for a celebration later in the day. By the way, in some other academic systems, e.g. in France, the critical vetting takes place before and the viva is a public confirmation of success. That’s a different process, hence processed very differently.

Either way, the viva is a big, big hurdle. Anticipate with care and relish.

2: Participation

Once in the appointed examination venue, treat the viva as a high-powered research consultancy. You are coming to talk with fellow scholars, so don’t be obsequious and deferential. On the other hand, it is your work that is under the spot-light, so don’t display either too much swagger (off-putting) or fear (disappointing).

These days, vivas are approached by all parties in a thoroughly professional way. They are intense affairs; and candidates often don’t remember much detail afterwards. So if you have the option of inviting in your supervisor (not all Universities allow this), then do so. S/he does not intervene at all – often sitting at the back of the room – but can keep useful notes on the discussion.

After a short opening statement from the candidate (depending on the decision of the examiners), a prolonged and detailed discussion ensues. It covers points both small and large, in something of a barrage. The candidate’s task is to assess the examiner’s input and take an instant decision. If the points raised are crucial to your core message, then you must hold your ground, courteously but firmly, and defend your position. The examiners are testing you. If, on the other hand, the criticisms are well made and are not absolutely central, then it’s fine to give way graciously and promise to amend either in the revised thesis or in a subsequent publication.

Every moment requires a quick assessment and a suitable response. You are on the spot throughout, which is why vivas are commonly experienced as both exciting and tiring.

Either at the very start (less common these days) or at the very end (becoming the usual practice), the examiners give you their verdict. As the discussion unfolds, do not try to second-guess the examiners’ intentions. Some will be stony-faced. Some will nod and smile continually. But their facial expressions may not reflect their private thoughts. Furthermore, the examiners have not been asked whether they like you; or even whether they agree with your argument and conclusions. Their task in a History viva is to assess whether you have made an original contribution to historical knowledge, which is well argued, well substantiated, and presented to a publishable standard. No more, and no less.

Your task therefore is not to study the examiners but to concentrate upon fielding their comments/questions and to keep the ball in play (essential advice for all interviews, incidentally).
The options for final assessments by the examiners vary, depending upon the specific regulations of each University. The main categories, however, are pretty standardised, as follows:

  • Pass, with no changes required. (Excellent.)
  • Pass, with minor corrections.(Good. The most common result. Make changes swiftly, exactly as required.)
  • Reference back, with considerable corrections required. (Initially a disappointing verdict; but, viewed in the right light, it gives chance for revisions to make the required improvements and to head off criticisms before the thesis becomes public.)
  • Offer to award degree at lower academic level: usually M.Phil. rather than PhD. (Certainly disappointing. Candidate may be given chance to decide whether to accept this award or not. If accepting, then be pleased to have gained a good research qualification, even if not at the level initially desired. If deciding against acceptance, then, depending upon University regulations, it may be possible to resubmit after major improvements. In which case, give it a serious go. But check very carefully before deciding.)
  • Fail outright, without chance of resubmitting. (This outcome should not happen, as internal Departmental or Faculty review mechanisms should have halted the candidacy before getting to the viva. In the rare event of outright failure, the candidate, in consultation with the supervisor, should reassess and consider what alternative outcomes, including publications, can be made of the research material.)

Whatever the verdict, accept it with good grace. The outcome may well require talking things over with your supervisor, after the meeting. In extremis, you may even wish to challenge the verdict on procedural grounds. But that can’t be done during the meeting.
By the way, challenges to PhD vivas are very rare; and rarely successful, unless a University has seriously failed to follow its own procedures. These days, all examinations are done carefully, by the book. Much of the solemnity of a viva thus comes from its finality. It is the ‘live’ encapsulation of everything that you have worked for during your long years of research.

3: Progression

Passing the viva is a real rite de passage. You are no longer a research apprentice but have submitted your master-work. Once your thesis is passed, perhaps after revisions, you have joined the community of accredited scholars. After all, a doctorate is a known qualification which is sincerely admired by academics world-wide as well as generally respected by the wider public.

Clio, the Muse of History, in a Victorian print.

The examiners will give you a full report, which you should discuss with your supervisor. If s/he has been in attendance, s/he will also have notes and suggestions for you. The examiners may also have made specific suggestions for publication, though they are not required to do so.

Once having passed the viva, take a deep breath; enjoy to the full; and commit to proceeding to at least one publication arising from the thesis. You have produced an original contribution to historical knowledge. That’s the definitional criterion of a History doctorate. It will be consulted by many specialists over the years.

Yet there is one further step which is mightily to be encouraged. The viva is not an ending but a moment of progression. After your many years of work, you should draw from your doctorate to achieve at least one publication. The step into print will give you an additional and well deserved public badge of scholarly honour. It allows you to contact a wider readership. And it may launch you into further publications, once having broken your duck.

So … there we are. You’ve undertaken a long, long haul. You’ve experienced an intellectual adventure as well as episodes of boredom, uncertainty, and angst. Passing the viva, after finally completing and if necessary correcting a doctoral thesis, is a great, unrepeatable moment. Bravo!

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MONTHLY BLOG 5, STUDYING HISTORY FOR LOVE AND USEFULNESS COMBINED

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

History as a University subject will have to fight harder for its custom – and why not? It has strong arguments for its cause. But they do need to be made loudly and clearly.

From 2012 onwards the success or failure of subjects will depend upon student choice under the new tuition fees regime (outside the protected ring-fence of state funding for Science; Technology; Engineering; and Mathematics). For good or ill, that sudden policy change creates a competitive market. It will be based on the choices of eighteen-year-olds, for all teaching (and hence research) in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

For History (meaning History as a subject for study), there is a risk. Not that interest in the endless ramifications of the subject will die. An interest in the human past is very pervasive among humans who live in and through time. It may take the form of ancestor worship. Or maybe swapping anecdotes about past sporting heroes. Or watching history programmes on TV. Or a myriad of other ways. In sum, a generalised interest in the human past is completely safe from the vagaries of fashion.

The risk, however, applies to the academic study of History. It may be marginalised by a stampede to take courses which seem more immediately ‘useful’ and/or more likely to lead to lucrative employment. Law, business management, and – for the numerate – economics might seem like the hot choices.

In fact, however, studying History is a good career choice. It focuses upon a great subject – the living and collective human past. Nothing could be more wide-ranging and fascinating. It is open and endless in its scope. And simultaneously it inculcates an impressive range of skills, which are individually and socially useful.

For that reason, History graduates go on to have careers in an impressive variety of fields. They experience relatively low levels of graduate unemployment. And they find mid-career changes much less difficult than do many others.

Forget old moans about ‘History is bunk’. Henry Ford who is credited with this pithy dictum (in fact, it may have been polished by a journalist) came to regret it deeply. It took a lot of accumulated human history to be able to manufacture a motor car. [For more on Henry Ford and the motor car, see P.J. Corfield’s Discussion-Piece pdf/1 All People are Living Histories: Which is Why History Matters – within this website section What is History?]

Forget too easy comments such as ‘History is dead’. In fact, the human past is a complicated mixture of things that have departed and things that survive. Like human DNA for a start: individuals come and go but, as long as the species survives, so does human DNA as a collective inheritance. The same applies to human languages. Some do disappear, with the communities who spoke them. Some mutate into different but related forms, like Latin into Italian. And most languages evolve slowly over many centuries, with all sorts of transfusions and minglings on the way: like English. The incredibly complex human past is far from over. It lives as long as humans as a species live.

The point is that History should be studied both for love of the subject AND for its individual and collective usefulness. It is not an either/or choice. But a rational choice to get BOTH.

People have many times listed the benefits to be gained from studying History, in terms of its high-level synthesis of both Knowledge and Skills. So the following list is not unique. These are the points that occur to me (Feb. 2011) and I look forward to learning of others.

THE STUDY OF HISTORY AT UNIVERSITY:

  • teaches students about their own society and its past
  • teaches also about other countries in the same part of the world
  • also takes a world-wide perspective and teaches about far distant places
  • enables students to switch their analytical focus as appropriate between close-focus studies AND broad surveys
  • teaches about periods of history that are close in time and also far distant in time
  • therefore encourages students to think through time and about time; and
  • allows extensive choice of specific periods, countries and/or themes for study, drawing upon the huge documented range of human experience
  • trains students simultaneously to analyse a magnificent array of sources, from words to numbers to pictures to sounds to physical objects – and even, in some cases, the smells of the past
  • teaches students to detect fraudulent use of sources
  • trains students to search for and use appropriate sources for their independent studies
  • requires the continuous weighing and assessing of disparate, imperfect and often contradictory evidence to formulate reasoned conclusions
  • inculcates the expression of cogent argument both in writing and in communal debate
  • also trains students to read and to assess critically a huge quantity of writings by expert authorities, who often disagree
  • trains students to use historical websites and databases both adeptly and critically
  • encourages students to think cogently about the links (and disjunctures) between the past and present
  • studies the meanings and often conflicting interpretations attached to the past
  • trains people to help with dispute resolution through historical understanding (‘where people are coming from’) and through empathy even for causes which are not endorsed personally
  • teaches the distinction between sympathy (personal support) and empathy (contextual understanding without necessarily endorsing)
  • allows students to distinguish between history as propaganda and history as reasoned (though still often disputed) analysis
  • allows students to analyse and debate the nature of studying the past; and
  • above all, inculcates an understanding of the human past within a historical perspective.

In sum, studying History at University can be undertaken for love and usefulness combined. It offers access to a huge, fascinating and endless subject, drawing upon the entire range of human experience and requiring a high synthesis of skills and knowledge.

No wonder that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) long ago praised an understanding of the human past simply as: ‘Histories make men [humans] wise’.

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MONTHLY BLOG 2, WHY IS THE FORMIDABLE POWER OF CONTINUITY SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2010)

My discussion-points aim to alternate between big themes relating to Education and big themes relating to Interpreting History. So, since the October debate highlighted the current mania for wrongly prizing Skills over Knowledge (instead the two go integrally together), this November discussion-point takes a different tack, in order to ask Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?

One central point of definition needs to be made immediately. ‘Continuity’ is not the same as ‘Conservatism’ as a political philosophy. It is true that the latter ideology does gain much support by appealing to many people’s desire for the former. But it is equally clear that Conservatives in power may also have their own highly interventionist programmes.

To take a current example, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Coalition has launched radical cuts in welfare spending as well as drastic institutional reorganisations, in order to ‘roll back the state’. But government is not an ‘intruder’ from an alien world. Its mechanisms have been developed (or, to its critics, overdeveloped) over many years by many governments. So the state and society are closely meshed – not only via institutions, laws and tax systems but also via people’s daily expectations, customary routines and a range of differing vested interests.

As a result – interestingly – one of many factors ranged against the current government’s plans will be the force of Continuity, also known as tradition or, unkindly, ‘inertia’. Its power may appear in many guises, from outright resistance to more-or-less concealed foot-dragging.

Furthermore, Continuity also works unexpectedly by twisting apparent innovations back into ‘more of the same’. An awareness of such slipperiness prompted a famous snappy dictum from a French journalist, named Alphonse Karr (see below). He viewed the string of abortive revolutions across Europe in 1848 and concluded pensively that ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. [Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose].
Alphonse_KarrOf course, Karr was not completely right. Changes undoubtedly do happen, both gradually and dramatically. But they are always tempered by the power of Continuity. In fact, innovations may fail or prove to be counterproductive – either because opponents consciously strive to circumvent change – or because the innovations are imperfectly planned and/or implemented – or because the innovations have anyway little intrinsic chance of success.

An example was the policy of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol eventually failed. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933). On the other hand, controls or even bans on disputed drugs can work when public opinion is broadly supportive. The gradual demise of cigarette smoking in many Western countries is a counter-example to the case of alcohol.

Where do the forces of Continuity come from? Some are embedded within from time-invariant features of the universe, like the laws of physics, which are constants. These features hold the world together stably from moment to moment. Even within the turbulence of quantum physics, there is one tiny invariant facture, known as Plank’s Constant, which operates as a marker, against which other changes can be measured. But other elements of Continuity come from human societies, in the form of traditions, customs, and habitual expectations. These also can and do change. But much persists, as it would be too exhausting and confusing if everyone altered everything in their lives from moment to moment.

So, lastly, why are the forces of Continuity so strangely overlooked? The answer is that Continuity acts as the universe’s ‘default system’, which is simply taken for granted. It is so constant and so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible. Next time that you do something automatically, without thinking about it, you are enacting Continuity. It’s not the only force in the world – and it’s by no means all-powerful. But it’s more important than is often realised – and it operates not only throughout the wider world but also within you.

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