Corrections

I finished my corrections, finally, last Friday and submitted the most revised and final version of my PhD dissertation that there will ever be. It was a very anti-climactic moment, actually. No beautiful hardcover leather bound version with gold lettering being ceremoniously handed to a librarian. No pomp or circumstance. Just an email, with a PDF attachment to be downloaded onto a USB stick and handed to the library for their digital repository and a loose-leaf copy for an archive. I will have my own beautiful hardbound version made, of course, but this was not how I imagined this process ending. I imagined… more. More relief, more triumph, more pomp, I guess.

I think, looking back, the biggest triumph was handing in the first full draft. That was when I really believed I would finish my dissertation. It was such a struggle to get it finished, and it represented so much work and thinking and writing and just hours and days of my life. I felt like I had climbed a mountain with no sherpas or surfed a 6ft wave with a barrel! Handing in the version for examination was also a triumph, but a smaller one somehow, and this most final version has been smaller again. I have been busy thinking about and doing my corrections for the last week or so, and I wonder if perhaps that, combined with my present illness and exhaustion which has crashed down on me now that this process is finally at an end and I will be graduating this week, has dampened the triumphant feelings I was expecting to feel at this final hand-in.

Corrections are a bit of a pain. I received three reports –  in most PhD examinations there seem to be at least three examiners, whether they examine you in person in a Viva Voce or on paper as with most South African universities. So three different people, with three different sets of specialisation (although all specialists in your field in some way) read and judge your thesis. You hope they do this on its own merits, but this doesn’t always happen. In  South Africa, examiners are asked to choose from one of four options: to reject the thesis, to recommend extensive revisions and resubmission; to accept with minor corrections completed to supervisor’s satisfaction; and to accept as is.

My examiners were all very warm and complimentary about the work I did. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, and although they made recommendations and suggestions for corrections and revisions that went beyond the thesis (very useful but also quite daunting) most of their suggestions were aimed at making my present thesis stronger and better. However, they ranged quite a bit in terms of their sense of how much work I still needed to do. One thought it was fine as is (which was nice but I wondered if she didn’t miss things); one thought it should be subjected to minor corrections (my favourite report); and one thought it needed some re-analysis and rethinking of quite a bit of the data (hmph!). The overall decision was ‘accept pending corrections to be done to the supervisor’s satisfaction’. So, this was good. A bit confusing and quite overwhelming, but good.

It was confusing because I needed to read all the reports, and mostly on my own – although my supervisor did offer advice and guidance (it has never been her way to tell me what to do :-)) – I had to decide which corrections to make, which to respond to but not make and which to leave, and then explain to her what I did and why. So, I asked myself: Do I do everything? Can I do everything? Should I do everything that the examiners recommended? This last question became the key one. In commenting on the thesis itself, and also commenting beyond the thesis on things I need to think about and stretch myself to, they offered both a set of corrections for now and a set of recommendations and suggestions for later. I needed to work out which was which. Even if I could have done every correction recommended, it was not clear that I really needed to. Some of the suggestions would have resulted in additions and corrections that may have confused rather than clarified certain parts of my thesis, and may have made some of my arguments or explanations unnecessarily dense and obscure, rather than clear and easier to follow. So, part of the work I had to do was separating the ‘must do – this will make it better’  from the ‘could do – might improve it’ and the ‘not for now – this is beyond what I was trying to do’.

This took a few days of reading and re-reading the reports, muttering to myself, and mulling things over before I was ready to make myself sit down and do the necessary work. This is what I have learned, thus far, about doing corrections:

1. Read, re-read (or listen very carefully) to the feedback: examiners are supposed to (and do) evaluate your thesis on it’s own merits but they also have their own take on methods, theory and data analysis. Read carefully for what they have written about your thesis and what you could do to make it better, and read very carefully for where they are asking you to work on a different thesis, or worse, their thesis. There is an important distinction between suggestions that will improve what you have written, and suggestions that will take you into new territory and possible undo what you have written in some way.

2. Take time to think, mutter and scribble. Talk to your supervisor, especially if they are the ones that need to be satisfied or if your thesis has to go back for re-examination. You need their advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it is your work. Your heart and soul. Take enough time to take in the comments, think about them, think about your own aims and goals in writing the thesis, and then work out what you need to do to take the thesis to its final library-copy version. Don’t rush to do everything. Try not to rush at all.

3. Take a day or two off work to do the corrections. It’s better not to try and do them at work when you have so many other competing demands on your time, and noise and interruptions. I took a day off, had a quiet house with kids at school, and I managed to get them all in done in one day (not counting the thinking time). This quiet and space for tea breaks and a walk with the dog to do some more mulling really helped me to get the corrections done and to feel they were carefully done and not rushed. It was also nice to write in my PJs again – thesis and me back together for the last time in this form.

If you are working on corrections, all the best. You are so very nearly there, and I wish you all the pomp and circumstance your heart desires!

 

 

Responding to examiners’ feedback

I finally got my three examiners’ reports on my thesis this week, after just over 3 long months of waiting. I have been joking that I have been through something like the 5 stages of grief waiting an extra 5 weeks because examiner 3 was late with her report. At first there was a kind of denial (this can’t actually be happening – the report can’t really be taking so long. Maybe this is all some sort of weird email mix-up). Then there was anger (how could she do this to me? Doesn’t she know how hard I have worked?). After a couple of weeks of being really cross, I moved quite quickly through bargaining (if it comes this week, I will do all my corrections, I won’t procrastinate, I’ll be nice to everyone and walk the dog every day), to depression (I’m not going to graduate. The report will not come in time), and finally to acceptance (well, it will come in time for me to graduate or it won’t, but ranting won’t make it happen faster).

I think,  in hindsight, that the additional few weeks of waiting for the last report was a good thing although it drove me crazy at the time. I think it was a good thing because of the way it influenced my attitude towards my 3 reports when they did finally arrive. I was just so grateful to get them and to finally know, good or bad, what the examiners thought of my work and what additional work I needed to do in order to graduate that I think I took the critique better than I might otherwise have done.

Kate Chanock has these 7 stages of resentment about getting feedback on your work from reviewers, which can be adapted for how a PhD student might respond to examiners, whether the reports are written or oral in the form of a Viva (although I am aware that an oral exam in quite different to receiving written reports).

I think I can revise this list, personally, thus:

1. Relief – thank god the feedback is here

2. Anxiety and nerves – but what do the examiners say? What if it’s bad news?

3. Suck it up and read – you’ve been waiting for ages!

4. Wow – what lovely comments 🙂

5. What!? That’s not fair – I covered that in my discussion! I explained why I did that/left that out/showed that data and not the rest. Didn’t they read it carefully?

6. Hm, okay, fair point. I could probably make that a bit clearer. I suppose. Maybe.

7. Well, these are really good reports. I think they mostly got what I was trying to do. Phew! And actually, the corrections they want could make the thesis much better. Time to get going on them!

At first I read the reports, and called my husband and read bits to him, and told my mum, and my best friends and my Facebook people – they were all thrilled, as was my uber-supervisor – and I just basked in all of that for a day. Then I had a conversation with my supervisor about the corrections I will need to make (the final recommendation was that I make corrections to my supervisor’s satisfaction), and the reality started to set in. It’s not quite finished yet, and the corrections are not just typos. They require rethinking, reflection, rewriting, adding, clarifying, refining. It’s more than an afternoon with the ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ functions, or fiddling with formatting. I wandered back into post-submission blues territory, and I’m still there, being a bit petulant and procrastinating because I just don’t really want to rethink and rewrite and revise. I just want to be finished now.

But, and there is always a but isn’t there, I really do have to engage with these reports and the comments and suggestions for changes precisely because they are not small, take-or-leave-them changes. In beginning with examiner 1’s report, I can see that a lot of what she is commenting on is vagueness in some of my definitions, explanations and discussion – partly because the literature itself is vague, and partly because I did not make my writing and thinking as clear as I could have. Examiner 2 has concerns about my analysis – he thinks I have made things a little to easy for myself – is he right? If so, what do I do to respond to his thoughtful and also probably somewhat accurate critique? Examiner 3 doesn’t think I need to make any changes, but she poses a couple of questions about my methodology I think I should respond to.

I do not have to do all of the corrections and follow-up on all the suggestions. I can decide which changes need to be made now to improve on my thesis, and which comments and suggestions need rather to be taken into account later, when I am writing up parts of my argument for publication. Examiners should and do go beyond the thesis to comment on other things you can think about and do post-PhD; they comment on the theory and how your have used it, on methodology more generally and on how you have realised yours, on the strength of your analysis and on things you could have done differently, and might want to do differently in future studies. A student’s work, then, in reading or taking in their critique is to work out what is for now and what can be for later (although not all students have a choice).

Hopefully, examiners will judge your thesis on its own merits, whether they agree with you or not, and will not make suggestions that have you writing their thesis into your corrections and revisions rather than your own. If you do have a choice, think very carefully about what they have said – they are experts in your field, and if you can open yourself up to the critique as well as the praise, I think you will find much food for thought. I certainly have. Of course, now I just have to work out what to do with all of it…