Tag Archives: viva

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.

I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’  A few days later I received their formal report which stated,

‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’

It wasn’t a dream.  I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.

In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.

I read, and re-read the thesis.

I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).

I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:

  • The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
  • A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
  • What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
  • How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
  • The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
  • Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
  • The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them

Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation?   If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).

I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.

I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.

I wrote a blog post on ‘defining original contribution to knowledge’, which helped me think through the ‘value added’ aspects of my own work.

I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine.   Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.

I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).

I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.

At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.

Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.

Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.

What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?

Confident, not corporate
Confident, not corporate


Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155

Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138


Defining original contribution to knowledge

Defining original contribution to knowledge

Having submitted my PhD thesis on 28th July, I planned to take a well-earned break.  Much as I love writing, the marathon effort involved in completing a 100,000-word thesis was exhausting and I needed to re-charge my batteries.  As it turned out, I didn’t actually get that break, for reasons explained below, and I’m now preparing for my viva, scheduled for 27th November.

A good way to begin that prep, I thought, was to read the thesis.  My first reaction on picking up this weighty tome was to wonder who had written it.  It looks far too good for someone who failed the 11plus back in ’72 and who always had to work doubly hard to make the grade.  But then, it’s surprising how good a script can look when printed and bound. It can still, of course, be crap.

No matter (I tell myself). My enthusiasm for the topic was quickly rekindled, boosted by a recent positive exchange with the Senior Commissioning Editor of Palgrave Macmillan about a possible book publication based on the thesis.  I had already decided that I wanted to make a statement with my research and a book seems the ideal way to do it.  All well and good but now I must press the pause button on the book plans and focus on the prep for November.

If I want to make a statement (in whatever format), I must demonstrate that I have something original to say.  It may be useful, therefore, to consider the notion of originality, as in ‘original contribution to knowledge’, the doctoral requisite that strikes fear into the hearts (and minds) of all postgraduate researchers as they lurch or limp towards the final hurdle.  It is of course sensible to check what is stipulated in the guidelines for examiners (don’t want to trip up by not understanding the question). The University of East Anglia requires,

‘the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.’ (Guidelines for Examiners)

Dunleavy, who imparts indispensible advice on doing doctoral research, stresses the importance of grounding your originality in your research.  He warns against, ‘value-added’ artificiality and observes that coining new concepts or terminology that are not really needed is not being genuinely original. (Dunleavy 2003 p110)

In my own case, I declare that my newly devised ‘Infinity Model’ of academic community provides a cohesive framework for critically appraising academic community, by balancing extrinsic (value) and intrinsic (values) elements, taking us beyond the notion in its most limited form (the form that is dominant today).

In order to avoid an accusation of artificiality, or to be ready with a convincing repost if I do stand accused, I must explain my approach to constructing the research object (the idea and experience of academic community) and to engaging with the literature and the data. Doing so in a way that clearly demonstrates how the act of construction was necessary (it was a problem that needed addressing) and how it has brought about new knowledge.  At the very least, I plan to demonstrate that I’ve made a connection between ‘previously unrelated facts’ about the topic.

Dunleavy believes that originality is a cumulative achievement, that new ideas,

‘most often reflect the patient accumulation of layers of small insights and intuitions that only taken together allow an alternative view of a problem to crystallise.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)

Whilst many of those layers are set out in a fine-grained analysis, no thesis can truly impart the extent and depth of the incremental cognitive activity that doctoral research entails; how, as a researcher (and a human being), you never totally switch off the cogitation, no matter what you’re doing or how long it takes (nearly seven years, part-time in my case). Perhaps the viva is an opportunity to communicate some of that as a way of demonstrating originality.   However, best not to bleat about the protraction.  And it wasn’t really that bad.  Tony Judt, in his exquisite memoir, ‘The Memory Chalet’, describes how he did much of his doctoral reading whilst working in the kitchens at the Blue Boar Hotel in Cambridge,

‘Once mastered, short-order cooking does more than allow for the life of the mind; it facilitates it.’ (Judt p133)

I can’t imagine the mundane travails of doing doctoral research would be of any interest to the examiners. It comes with the territory.

I mentioned that I didn’t take a break after submitting the thesis.  Instead, I went about setting up our new small publishing venture called ‘Gottahavebooks’, including pre-selling our first publication and assisting Trevor with preparing a 124,000 word manuscript for press.  The publication is a compilation of first-hand accounts of ‘60s Rolling Stones concerts, told in the words of those who were there, gathered by Richard Houghton.  It’s a great read.  The stories are original and the book contains previously unpublished images of the band.  By bringing the fans accounts together in this format, Richard has helped to shed a new light on the social history of the period, on the Rolling Stones and on the fans themselves.

This in itself is new knowledge but it is different from the sort of knowledge created through doctoral research.  For example, Dunleavy tells us to focus on ‘added value’, to keep a critical eye on the extent to which you have transformed or enhanced or differentiated the starting materials of your analysis (Dunleavy 2003 p31).

Whilst the fans’ accounts may be viewed as starting (or primary) materials and whilst they’ve been through a transcription, editorial and publishing process, they’ve not been analysed or interpreted – not in an academic sense.  That wasn’t the intention.  As I understand it, Richard’s intention was to retain as much as possible the authenticity of the fans’ voices.  I too, in my research, wanted authenticity; the title of my thesis is, ‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’.  But the similarity ends there.

The accounts that I had gathered through conversations and focus groups with academics were also transcribed but then subject to a detailed and extensive heuristic analysis.  The object of my research (the idea and experience of community) is interpreted and (re)constructed in a way that blends its disparate elements, as revealed through the research itself.  The approach to my analysis is briefly explained in my blog post published 28th February 2015 –


Dunleavy says that doing genuinely new theory at PhD level is now very difficult in all of the humanities and social science disciplines,

‘The large empty spaces and opportunities for making major intellectual advances available earlier on have tended to be colonized.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p38) He says,

‘being original in the modern social sciences and humanities is rarely about coming up with an entirely new way of looking at things… it is mostly a more moderate activity… originality involves encountering an established idea or viewpoint or method in one part of your discipline (or in a neighbouring discipline) and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else, applying it in a different context or for a different purpose.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)

It is true that much has been written on the topic of academic community.  The tone of that literature implies a sense of something that may have been lost but is on the brink of being found, if only we knew where to look.  That’s where the contribution of my thesis comes into play, by setting out where to look and by developing a framework that helps us to do so; a framework that leads to a fresh insight and a new model.  Yes, I have utilised established constructs, such as the infinity symbol, for the purpose of describing and understanding the relations of the homology that is the idea and experience of academic community.  The model is an outcome of the research and it is to be taken forward.  It has significant potential as a conceptual framework for exploring, through research and through dialogue, the conditions that create, define, sustain or destroy community inside the academy.

This is the key message for my examiners.

Does it sound convincing?


Dunleavy, P (2003) Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Palgrave Macmillan

Judt, T (2011) The Memory Chalet Vintage Books