How to survive PhD viva with inadequate thesis?
January 15, 2015 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I submitted an embarrassingly weak PhD thesis, elements of which I don't feel able to defend, and am expecting to be told to revise and resubmit. My viva is in three weeks time. How do I prepare for this?

I'm a PhD candidate in the UK, and have been on my programme for six years. I had major depression for a year from which I am now mostly recovered. After using up 2 extensions, based on my depression, I finally submitted a thesis that my supervisor had no time to read and that I am embarrassed to look back over now. The two final chapters are rushed first drafts with one of the chapters lacking any argument that links up to the rest of the thesis.

My institution does not allow my examiners to outright fail me at this stage -- they can only tell me to resubmit -- which is why my supervisor approved my submitting a thesis that she hadn't had time to read. She thinks I might pass with corrections but that a revise and resubmit outcome would also be something I could manage. I desperately need advice about how to get through the upcoming viva.

First, I don't think that one chapter of the thesis is intellectually defensible in its current form. So what can I plan to say about it? Do I just admit the time pressure element and explain what I would have argued if I had had more time? Do I go in with an exact agenda for how I would revise that chapter? Do I try to extract something positive from the work and say that? Do I just apologise?

Second, how do I physically get myself into the room and talk about this with my examiners? I feel like it will be horribly humiliating to admit that I have written this sub-standard piece of work and I might cry or something, and be too incoherent to defend the parts of the thesis do have merit. I feel like my career will be ruined because these major people in my field will have an awful impression of me based on this piece of work. I know it's too late to pull out now and I have to go through with it but what's the best thing I can do to feel less depressed and tearful when actually in the room?
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should just wait until you get the feedback during the defense. There is no way of knowing what they will want to know until it happens. If you could just be sure to understand what, why and how you did the work, you will be fine. They will likely ask for a lot of revisions from what you say, but you will have a concrete list of items to tackle rather than a huge volume of work condensed into a thesis. Putting a thesis together is tough, what to add and omit are huge decisions and can be overwhelming. Your defense will be immensely helpful for you to get a solid idea of what needs to be done, which will be much, much easier to tackle than what you have done so far. Don't sweat it.
posted by waving at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would not apologize for the work. It is what it is. The fact that you feel that it's substandard indicates that you have a grasp of the information and ideas that you wish you'd conveyed more clearly. If you go in knowing basically what you wish you'd written, then when someone asks you "I don't see the relevance of Chapter 5" then you can say "ah, well, the discussion of X in chapter 5 ties in to the theme Y that appears in Chapter 3 and 7, especially when you consider [statement]." and they say "I see, that wasn't really clear in the writing" and you say "I'll be sure to address that in my revisions."

You don't have to say "oh dear, the relevance of chapter 5, I was afraid this would happen, you see with the time pressure I never got around to finalizing it and I must have missed the bit that really ties it all together, I'll be able to revise won't I?". No panicked promises to fix things, just present a calm plan for the way they'll be fixed, as if that had been your intent all along. The goal is not to apologize for the quality of the paper, the goal is to have the examiners identify you as a competent academic.
posted by aimedwander at 7:43 AM on January 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

I think it is probably not as bad as you think it is, because everyone feels their thesis is terrible, especially those of us who suffer from anxiety or depression. I think you should take your concerns and worries seriously, but at the same time approach this from the position that you have done enough to pass, and leave it up to the committee to decide. Don't fail yourself before you walk in the door, in other words.

The thesis is an imperfect expression of the research and ideas you've developed. Focus on figuring out what those are and how to communicate them, so that you can present a clean, coherent picture and theme. Framing is very important here. The committee wants to know why you chose to do what you do, and that you understand how it fits into the broader field. If you can present a clear conception of the work, it may give the committee the insight into what your thesis was aiming for, and then the decision is likely revise it so it is coherent with that vision.

Also, congratulations. You submitted! Many people never get to this stage. It is infinitely easier to revise a submitted thesis than it is to write one from scratch. You're not done yet, but you're close. Hang in there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:46 AM on January 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

I can answer based on U.S. norms. Don't feel humiliated. Believe me, even if your work isn't up to par yet it's not going to shock anyone. No one else has the same tangled emotional relationship to the entire process as you do. In other words, remember there is absolutely no cause for shame which often plagues many of us when we're not happy with our work, but which doesn't correspond to the reality of the situation. Go in with an open mind; listen to suggestions, discuss your ideas, and just resubmit as they ask you to if that turns out to be the result (which it might or might not). There is no cause for you to apologize for your work, and most likely your committee will also find a lot of positive things to discuss with you, which you should allow yourself to focus on and enjoy. Congratulations on getting this far -- you're almost done!
posted by third rail at 7:49 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

You have most of your thesis written decently. Great job. I would spend the majority of the next three weeks coming up with a more defensible outline of your weak chapter. Your thesis is a work in progress. Don't be ashamed. Do your best to get your thoughts together, say your basic defendable premise, and say you're working on it. And get feedback on the more developed parts. You're not going to fail! You're just getting lots of feedback at once to improve the document.
posted by Kalmya at 7:52 AM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Do not apologise for the work. If it has typos, say you have already begun work on sorting them out. No more.

Basic point: some utter crap gets through the viva with corrections, often minors. Depends on the examiner and their interests what they pick on and what they see as significant, a ropey chapter certainly might be overlooked or they might let it go with corrections on balance of the rest of the work.

Take the same attitude to defending the whole thesis. Do treat it as a whole thing. Have an answer ready for the standard questions.* If they talk about something say what you were trying to achieve, say what you think you have achieved. They will say if they think it needs more, you can agree with them or argue the point. Obviously you might agree with them a bit more on the stuff you don't feel you can support. Don't be afraid to make your points about the value of the things you have done, there must be some though you focus on the negatives a bit in your description. By being able to talk intelligibly and argue your case then you will be able to convince the examiners that you do know what you are talking about, which makes it easier for them to give a result that will require less work. This does require you stay cool and can give reasoned answers. Most examiners should act to put you at ease with the soft first question (see below) and help you out if you get agitated. Typically however, you will find you know a lot once you get asked questions and can dig into that.

A resubmission is not so bad. The UK system can be a bit of a pain in terms of cutting you off and forcing submission so a resub can be a good way of restarting the clock and of getting some further support. If they decide on a resub it will be disheartening I am sure (because even if you think your thesis is subpar you will still be hoping it gets a better result) but start on planning how you will make the changes immediately and set up meetings with your supervisor to carry out the actions with as much support as possible. Figure out what you can get from your supervisor/uni to help you and go from there.

"That is outside the scope of this work" is a good answer to at least one question in many vivas. Don't use it when discussing things that should be (like a weak chapter) but bear it in mind.

*The standard questions:

Tell us about your PhD?

What is your original contribution to knowledge? *V. Important*

What would you do differently if you were starting over again?

They also often ask about any plans for publication, but this is less important.
posted by biffa at 8:20 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I submitted a weak thesis and got through it. It was not as painful as I expected.

When they asked questions that I didn't have a good answer for, I said things along the lines of "I don't know if I have a good answer for that question. Let me try to explain what I meant in that section..." and try to pivot back to something I understood better.

When they criticised things, I usually just said "yes, that's a good point" unless it was something I was really prepared for and then I pushed back a bit. Don't apologize, don't explain your extenuating circumstances.

I also didn't hesitate to say "I don't know, can you clarify the question?" when they asked me tough questions instead of stammering some nonsense. They would usually re-phrase and point me in the right direction.

A good thing to remember is that everyone involved wants you to pass and be done with it. And the absolute worst outcome is you come out of it with a plan for how to fix the thesis and make it stronger for your next submission. Pass or fail this is going to get you closer to graduation.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:04 AM on January 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

If this is the standard UK viva format (one internal, one external examiner), then I suspect that some of the daunt comes from the prospect of sitting down with Expert(s) In Your Field in a small room with the conversation focused on your work.

They were in your shoes once. They've supervised enough PhD students to know exactly how it puts them through the wringer. They want you finished and in one piece at the end of it. So I'd agree with everyone upthread that you don't need to apologise for your work, but you do want to use the viva to form a concrete plan for revisions.

Also, this is a chance for you to talk about your research with people who are interested in it, instead of having that one-sided conversation with the impassive and unrelenting screen and its wall of words. If you're able to dig back into the things that motivated you at the beginning, then that's going to take you a fair distance.
posted by holgate at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2015

Breezing over the other suggestions, they are all very sensible.

Do I go in with an exact agenda for how I would revise that chapter?

This would be an excellent thing to bring with you, a demonstration that you submitted based on a deadline formality and simply kept working on your thesis from there. Show some clear signs of your steps toward improving your conclusions, even if that's as simple as tweaking the writing and organization to more clearly be leading somewhere other than an unsupported claim. It's much easier to acknowledge a weakness when you go one step beyond admitting it and arm yourself with the first steps of your solving the weak points.

Also: breathe. A lot. Breathe deeply. Calm. You have your head so far up your PhD's ass right now that you're bound to be anxious--it's part of the system and it'll pass!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:04 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have time, one thing I found very reassuring in the final stages of my thesis was to read crappy theses other people had written (and passed!) Ask around your friends whether anyone has read a terrible thesis that they think should have failed, and if you get suggestions, take a look. All the better if it's related to your own topic, as you'll likely see the flaws more clearly.

Alternatively, look for scathing reviews of published books that came out of doctoral dissertations. Then flick through the book and note all the bullshit.

I found that I felt much better about my own work after doing this. Not (just) because I could see that it was better than at least some of those, but because even if it wasn't, it showed that what passes and gets published is a bit of a lottery and so even if mine WAS crap, it still had a chance of passing. (And it did, without revisions, and has since sold a whole bunch as a book that has been well reviewed, which shows how badly we can underestimate our own work when we are in the throes of finishing angst.)
posted by lollusc at 4:25 PM on January 15, 2015

I have three very concrete suggestions for you:

(1) Find out as much as you can about your external examiner and try to predict the questions s/he will ask and issues s/he will have with your thesis. Write those down and prepare talking points to help you address these questions and issues. You will be able to use this in the viva, whether s/he asks you about these issues or not. Largely, if you show that you're able to reflect critically on your work, it will help demonstrate that you're able to see its strengths and weaknesses;

(2) Read this article, which I've recommended twice before on the green (as well as to every other friend of mine with an upcoming viva). It's brilliant;

(3) Come to the viva with two lists: one of things you would have done differently if you were to start your research again today, and the second of studies or research that would be interesting or useful follow-ups to your own work.

The fourth, less concrete suggestion is that there's no iron-clad way to predict how your viva will go, so prepare well and be ready to make some changes if you're asked to do so. If the worst they can do is ask for a revision, it's not the end of the world or the end of your thesis. Many very successful people have been turned back for revisions.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:09 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
I had my viva and, thankfully, passed with very doable major corrections (due to be completed in 6 months). All the comments on this thread made an enormous difference -- I read and reread every single one, especially on the morning of the viva, and I think it really helped me to maintain the mindset I needed. I'm very grateful to everyone who replied.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:28 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Mega congrats anon! Well done. Very happy for you.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:07 AM on February 10, 2015

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