This blog comes from Dr Fae Heaselgrave, a Communications scholar and lecturer from the University of South Australia, who recently undertook an oral defense of her PhD. Here she explains how she used writing to rehearse – both to prepare what she wanted to say, but also to prepare herself mentally for the task ahead.
I recently engaged in a viva, the oral component of a PhD examination, where I met my examiners via Zoom link and received their recommendation for award.
You may be wondering what an oral examination has to do with a blog about doctoral writing! Well, working through examiners’ reports in preparation for an oral defense is not an easy feat, but it does engage many of the skills learnt during the course of a PhD, namely critical thinking, analysis and interpretation, and effective and persuasive writing.
Three weeks prior to my viva, I had received interim written examination reports containing various comments, observations and questions about aspects of my thesis that I was expected to address in the viva. These two very different sets of feedback made the work of deciphering their individual concerns rather challenging. I was unsure how to collect and collate my thoughts and attend to the main issues raised by both examiners.
I availed myself of the online resources offered by the university to prepare candidates for a viva and consulted lots of blogsites for strategies about preparation. I discovered creative suggestions such as writing ‘a very bossy memo to the examiners telling them what to look for in your thesis’ and found possible questions an examiner may ask, but the problem of how to interpret examiners’ reports and compose an effective oral response to them continued to elude me.
The strategy that worked for me in the end involved a 4-step process of writing, each beginning with the letter R: Reacting, Reflecting, Researching and Responding.
Over the next week or so I revisited my reports and began to write free-style thoughts and memos in-text where I thought each examiner had made a key point. My initial reaction to comments that challenged the theory or literature, the findings or data collection methods was to defend and rationalise my decisions. I felt compelled to refute such criticism, this was an oral defense we were talking about after all!
But by allowing time in between readings to reflect on and internalise some of the feedback in those reports, I noticed new inferences in the examiners’ comments. Somehow, my perspective and stance had shifted, and I could see, with some objectivity, how differently they may have interpreted my research.
To collect my thoughts, I created a new document and started to copy and paste chunks of text from each report on separate pages, labelling each section under a heading that reflected a particular theme. Under each section of text, I wrote a reply that addressed a particular point, but I framed my answer within a broader research context to show that I had not only considered the implications of their feedback for my thesis, but also how some of those issues related to my new research focus. Instead of being defensive, I acknowledged that my research project was a small component of a bigger problem that needed addressing and demonstrated how their insights and theoretical suggestions had helped crystallise the issue. This stage of writing required going back to the relevant literature and reviewing theories and conceptual ideas to inform my response and to show my understanding of other possible research avenues.
The final phase in writing for the viva was to organise each of the separate replies I had compiled in my Word document into a cohesive and thematic response. I wanted to address the concerns of each examiner whilst also acknowledging where their individual feedback converged around similar issues. Showing these connections demonstrated reflexivity and critical thinking about the limitations of my research, and prompted discussion of how I could enhance my work for future publication opportunities.
I decided that a script would help to retain my focus, convey my professionalism and curb the nerves I knew I would have when facing highly esteemed scholars in my field. It took about 4 days to edit my rough document of individual responses into a narrative. I wanted to allocate an equal measure of time to address each examiner, which required editing my presentation down to 5 minutes for each address. I had written a lot more, about 6 pages in total, notes that were used as reference points for discussion with the examiners and that provided prompts for answers to their questions.
It took the whole 3 weeks to prepare for that viva, but it yielded a fantastic result. The iterative writing process we go through as PhD candidates can be exhausting, but it engages our cognition and enhances our communication skills as researchers. It is a process that is learned over the course of our candidature and is practised and refined every time we write. But, much like a PhD thesis, writing and thinking iteratively is not done in isolation, it is aided by the conversations we have with supervisors, research colleagues and other doctoral students.
I wasn’t sure how to read my reports at first and so I turned to my peers, mentors and supervisors to seek their expert opinion and insights. Their input and advice helped me collect and collate the various thoughts I had developed about my examiners’ feedback and gave me the confidence to write myself into the final oral response.