The final viva voce examination

Under the spotlight

Under the spotlight

As a follow on to the workshop on writing up the thesis, I ran a session on the final examination process for the research degree at UWE.

What I try to do with these sessions is two-fold:-

  1. Knowledge is power – much of the process is organised by others but if the doctoral candidate knows who is supposed to be doing what and when it makes it easier for them to keep things on track (i.e. nudge their supervisors..)
  2. Reduce anxiety – there is a lot of uncertainty around the viva, most people will never have had experience of an oral examination so I try and say as much as I can about how it will be conducted

The workshop slides I used are below and the first half sets out how it is done at UWE (it may be slightly different at other HEIs) with the second half being dominated with as much advice as I could muster about preparing for and surviving (!) the viva. More recently, a scholar who writes about the doctoral journey, Professor Gina Wisker, presented some of her work to research students in the Department of Arts. Some interesting observations about What Doctoral Examiners look for.

The basic hints and tips are these:-

  • know your field
  • know your thesis
  • be clear about your ‘significant contribution’
  • be enthusiastic!

A question that often comes up is “what questions will be asked?”. Unfortunately I don’t have the power of prediction and every viva is different, however the opening exchange will always be around giving you, the candidate, the opportunity to summarise your thesis. This is something you can prepare for by talking to people about your work as an overview, what’s the big idea, what excites you about it, what are the key things that have come out of it etc.

Again there are some great hints and tips out there to draw upon, here’s a few…

Some final thoughts:-

Although the viva is a hurdle to overcome, try to think of it as a golden opportunity to have a good natter about your research. It is unlikely that you will ever have this much attention from other scholars who are interested in your work! Many fruitful collaborations begin after a viva exam, it could take your research down a new avenue.

I also think it is important to try to stay cool (I know that’s easier said than done) and to ask for clarification on questions you don’t understand by saying things like “I’m not sure if I’ve understood, are you asking…?” Don’t be tempted to launch into an answer to a question that wasn’t asked!

If you are a UWE researcher, then have a look at the research degrees webpages and read the document that is given to independent chairs (at UWE we have an independent chair to facilitate the exam process to ensure that candidates are given fair treatment) as it sets out exactly how the examination will be conducted from a practical point of view.

Last words:- Be confident, you wrote the thesis and you know more about it than anyone else. So demonstrate confidence with authority, you’ve earned it!

Writing up a PhD – The final straight?

Hand typing at a keyboard

Tapping away

This week I ran a workshop for research students on the topic or writing up the thesis. I remember my own journey well and how exhausting it all seemed. I, probably like many other research students, did not relish the prospect of turning my research into a well crafted piece of writing so I procrastinated.. a lot! Much of my written work was completed in a matter of weeks right at the end only because I was given an immovable deadline, just what the doctor ordered for a classic last minute type of person.

I set out to try and help research students understand that it doesn’t (and probably never will) feel comfortable to approach such a seemingly daunting task as producing a thesis and I set about imparting as much wisdom, hints, and tips on writing as I could. This has led to this particular workshop being quite content heavy as it has been added to over the years (so any thoughts on streamlining the content will be appreciated!) incorporating bits and pieces from the Vitae Resources repository as well as nuggets collected from far and wide.

Two things I think are important about writing a thesis:-

  1. Writing should be thought of as being integral to the research, not as a add on activity
  2. The purpose of the written thesis is to convince the examiners that you meet the criteria for the award of doctorate – so clarity is important!

Here’s the slides.

Further resources

Throughout the session I made reference to a number of blog posts which I think are worth highlighting here:

The Thesis Whisperer – Edited by Dr Inger Mewburn; this is an excellent resource for folks navigating their way through a doctorate).


Patter – Professor Pat Thomson‘s blog – This has to be one of the best places to read up on the many challenges of academic writing.

There are some great hints and tips in the postgrad researcher section of the Vitae website on the topic of completing your doctorate that are well worth the time to read.
Finally, if you have any comments or advice about writing up then I’d love to hear them.

Research Data Management Best Practice

Under lock and key: keeping your data safe

Under lock and key: keeping your data safe

Last updated 12 November 2015

This week UWE put on a workshop on the topic of data management, something that is becoming much more important in contemporary research environments. Indeed JISC have been funding a number of projects on producing best practice in this area.

I was lucky enough to be able to invite the UWE research and knowledge exchange librarians,  Jenni Crossley to facilitate this session. We started out the session with a small quiz asking where the researchers were with their current practice of data management. The slides they used in the workshop are embedded below.

During the session, the researchers were asked to look through the template below to help them think about their data management plans.

There was also a short humourous take on data management…

The remainder of the session was used to explore the excellent resources that the the Library services have

Further resources

UWE guidance for researchers on data management

UWE guidance on secure storage of research data

Guide on Research Data Management from JISC

Informed Researcher booklet (need to register with Vitae)

Social Media for Researcher Developers: What’s in it for me? #vitaewiifm14

Social media on electronic displayThis week I delivered a session on behalf of the Vitae London Hub aimed at staff supporting researchers (colloqially researcher developers) on the topic of using social media. I have talked about this topic before, at the national Vitae conference and at a South West and Wales regional good practice event.

Both of those events have been face to face workshops but this session was delivered as a webinar which means I have had to think quite hard about how to keep the content and discussion moving in this format. This was the first time I had used a webinar application in this way so was new for me. There was a minor glitch at the beginning but I think we managed to circumvent the problem and deliver the material pretty much as intended!

Here is the link to the information about the webinar:-

Webinar: Social Media What is in it for me?

The slides I used to support this session are included below.

I started out by providing a bit of context around social media use and wanted to emphasise that although there are a myriad of different tools out there, the process is still about people sharing things with others. I also posited that we have little choice about engaging with social media which I summed up with a quote from Erik Qualman

“We don’t have a choice whether we do social media, only how well we do it”

In setting the context around social media use in academia, I talked a little about the Vitae project on Digital Literacy that was undertaken as part of the larger Jisc Developing Digital Literacies Programme. This survey was undertaken to establish a baseline of understanding about how researchers and that staff who support them are using social media tools in their social and professional lives.

We then moved onto what concerns or fears people have when it comes to engaging with social media tools – here’s a selection of comments.

  • It comes down to a personal cost-benefit analysis (of my time and overall reach)…and the little I have delved into social media, hasn’t really produced enough interaction to make the time it takes to spread the message online worthwhile
  • Using team twitter accounts – how do you make sure it is the right message when several people are using it?
  • Finding time to do it during the day
  • Finding the target audience
  • I think it’s best to keep personal (e.g. Twitter) separate from professional. what do others think?

Whenever I ask this question, the answers can usually be put into three categories

  1. Information overload – the fear that engaging in social media would be too much information to keep track of
  2. Digital Identity – concern over what to share about oneself, privacy issues and the blurring of private versus professional
  3. Data/intellectual property concerns – what happens if I share something that someone else exploits/stealing of ideas

Managing information overload

We had a look at portals and aggregators to help manage information streams. For example I use Tweetdeck to manage 3 twitter accounts -This makes it easier to separate out different elements of twitter, to send scheduled tweets, to monitor hashtags etc. For me, it also provides a much easier way to track news items or professional activities of interest in one place which is a time saving rather than investment.

In response to the question raised about several contributors to a single twitter account, Anna Price from the Vitae London Hub offered up this advice from Tseen Khoo

Digital Identity

We spent some time discussing online identity, how to balance the “personal me” vs the “professional me”, how different tools lend themselves to different purposes and how actively managing information about yourself is a good thing to do.


I wanted to focus a little bit of time on the use of blogs by researcher developers. We, collectively, are in the business of training and development and, in my experience at least, there are few of us who don’t re-purpose, borrow, adapt materials from other sources. There is no point reinventing the wheel as the saying goes. Networks like Vitae give us the opportunity to share practice although most of this is face to face.

I covered a couple of themes with this; partly about dealing with the finding the time question; when I write a blog post I write primarily for me – it is a way of reflecting on the workshops that I deliver, thinking about how they went, thinking about how they can be adapted in the future. This has a secondary function – it provides context and resources for the participants. So I do this instead of writing handouts as supplementary material.

A further outcome is that it is not just participants of my workshops who can read and access the materials – other researcher developers can and do. This helps continue the sharing of practice beyond the infrequent face to face networking meetings.

And speaking of networking, part of the reason why I engage with twitter is that (by and large) the people I follow are chosen because they share things that are interesting and useful. There is a theory about all this works but we didn’t have time to get into it in an hour long session but here is a short video from Dr. Zella King that summarises that.


I talked a little about this and I try to live by a simple rule when posting on twitter; “If I wouldn’t say it to your face, I won’t post it online”. This is especially good to remember if you’ve had a drink (or three) and engaging on twitter.

Further Resources

Digital Professionalism – what not to share

Social Media – A Guide for Researchers

Vitae/Open University Handbook of Social Media

Vitae Digital Literacies survey report (2012)

The Thesis Whisperer blog

Patter – Prof. Pat Thomson’s blog

Goodbye from Helen – and welcome back Paul!



As today is officially the last day of my secondment to the UWE Researcher Development Manager role, I just wanted to say goodbye and to thank everyone – not least Paul – for all your help, support (and patience!) over the last six months, and for making this such an amazing experience. Thankyou so much for your participation, enthuisasm and generosity in sharing your experiences with one another and me – it really has been a delight to work with you all, I’ve learned a lot, and wish you all the very best for the future wherever life takes you.

One of my final tasks was planning next year’s workshop schedule, which is now live on the UWE Research Events webpage: there are a couple of small changes to last year’s programme, so do please take a look and book your places. So Paul – over to you now ….


Getting to grips with your research career

Getting to grips with career

Getting to grips with career

Recently we held our twice-yearly UWE research staff development event, this time on the theme of “getting to grips with your research career.” As the title suggests the event was a space for researchers from across UWE to get together and reflect on where they’re at in their career, where they might want to go, and how to get there.

Since the University is about to review the researcher role grading process, it seemed opportune to get some’ feedback via a short questionnaire, about how researchers themselves perceive the step up from Associate to Fellow – both the difference between these roles, and the application process itself. Pam has kindly collated the feedback (see separate document) for you to look at.

We then heard from three senior researchers, who had been asked to offer advice as if to their younger, less experienced researcher selves. Richard, Glenn and Darren were all very generous and honest with their insights, and you can see their presentations via the UWE Research Support webpages.

After “Dear Less Experienced Self”, it was time for “Dear Future Me”: for this, the group used prompt cards articulated to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to identify a skill or attribute they could do to work on in order to help their career progression – and, because we like to keep things positive, two things they’re already good at and would like do even better.

To help make the RDF feel a bit more concrete and ‘lived’ (and get us up and moving a bit!), each small group stood in a circle and threw a ball to one another: the idea being that when you get the ball, you have to say what card/skill you chose, why, and how good you are at it already – with examples if possible!

While one usually goes away from these events with genuinely good intentions, life – in fact, just the sort of the things w talked about in part 1 – does have a habit of getting in the way. So, to try and keep the good intentions alive, everyone was invited to complete a ‘postcard to self’ listing up to 3 small, practical things to do in the next couple of months to help them move forward on the skills identified in part 2.

Many thanks to all – the presenters, Glenn and the rest of the Planning Group and, most of all, to everyone who came along on the day, for joining in with such enthusiasm – I do hope you found it a worthwhile and fun morning, and we look forward to seeing you again at the next (whole day) event on 1 December 2014.

Summer Sessions 2014

gradschool sceneLast week was Summer Sessions 2014 – a four-day long festival of all the fantastic work being done by UWE PGRs, their supervisors and all the other folks who support them in various ways.

Monday saw the UWE round of the national 3 minute thesis competition, and we wish Davina the very best of luck as she represents us at the semi final in York on the 14th.

The next day we reprised three of our most popular skills development workshops: Progression Exam, Perfect Posters and Writing up. We had a good crowd for all the workshops, and I was inspired all over again by our postgrad researchers who are all, in their different ways, out there pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.

Then, on Wednesday, we were delighted to host mathematician-turned-viva-survivor Dr Nathan Ryder, for a thoughtful and positive set of workshops on preparing for and surviving your final viva. Nathan gave us lots of helpful hints and tips from his own personal experience, as well as his ongoing research on “how to survive your viva”.

Our final day saw contributions from current students, showcasing some of the amazing research which is going on within the UWE faculties. We also welcomed several of our recent alumni back to share their “best three things about doing a PhD”, aided and abetted by our very own Dr Paul Spencer, whose witty, yet profound reflections on “the secret diary of a postgraduate researcher” provided a fitting end to a successful Summer Sessions 2014.

Something happened to me yesterday…

…that I’d like to share with you, because it illustrates the importance of having your ‘research story’ prepared and ready to go at the drop of a hat. Out of the blue, I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a researcher working on a BBC Radio 4 documentary about something to do with funerals. Apparantly they were googling some keywords, my name came up and they thought I was worth a phone call.

Story about your research?

Story about your research?


Now, I’m not sharing this in order to show off – well, okay, maybe just a little bit… nor do I have any idea what, if anything, will come of this conversation. But the point is, I had a few sentences ready to go about what I research (Victorian funerals), and why it matters (because we’re all going to die, but the Victorians were better at it that we are). And I had the online presence to be findable in the first place.

So I think the lesson from this is, as the old Boy Scout motto goes, to “Be Prepared.”

Personal Development Planning for researchers

RDF Planner  Do you PDP…?

There was a time – not all that long ago – when an academic research career was often something that kind of happened: you did okay at your Bachelors degree, a bit better at your Masters, then by this time you were ‘into’ a particular topic so the PhD (or DPhil or Professional Doctorate) seemed like a good way of exploring that some more, then your supervisor suggested you should apply for this Postdoc that happened to be going… and so it went.
However those days are pretty much gone now so, whether you’re a doctoral candidate wishing to pursue a career in academic research, or an early career researcher looking to further establish yourself, it’s up to you to take charge of your research career, and this is where Personal Development Planning (PDP) comes in.
Here at UWE we encourage our doctoral and early career researchers to use the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) as a PDP tool, because we think this is a particularly helpful way of visualising what makes a good all-round researcher, and identifying your personal strengths and development needs.
Recently Jen Reynolds from Vitae came in to run a workshop for us on getting the best out of the RDF, especially the new online, interactive version to which UWE subscribes. The RDF has no less than 64 descriptors of what makes the ideal researcher, which can make it feel a bit overwhelming, so Jen first showed us ways to identify and prioritise your own personal development needs at any given time.
Having each identified a personal development need, we then did some detailed benchmarking against the levels within each descriptor and made action plans for moving up to the next level. This is also a really good way of creating some ready-made examples for job applications!
Of course you can do all this with a pencil and paper; but the advantage of using the RDF Planner is that you build up an online, confidential bank of material, you can create reports and – perhaps most importantly of all – review progress and remind yourself just how far you’ve come in your development as a professional researcher.
Our thanks to Jen for a really interesting and valuable session: here are her slides

If you’re a UWE researcher at any level (including postgraduate researchers) and would like further information about the RDF, please do contact

Project Management in a Nutshell

PM in a nutshell

It's a nutshell

It’s a nutshell

Recently we ran our regular half-day workshop for researchers on “Project Management in a Nutshell”. The purpose of this workshop is to de-mystify some of the jargon which surrounds project management, and to consider some practical ideas for managing your project, be it a PhD or other research project. The discussion was very wide-ranging, so I’ll just summarise what I think were the key points:

Know who your stakeholders (the people and organisations who have some kind of interest in your project) are, and be aware of their expectations. We talked a lot about what happens when there’s conflict between the interests of different stakeholders, and between stakeholders’ expectations and how the project is actually developing. While there are no easy answers here, early recognition and honest communication are invariably key to resolving any issues.

The importance of planning. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start.

Project constraints. In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited money, time, academic freedom etc. But realistically there will be some constraints, so be aware of them and plan your project accordingly

Breaking it down into manageable, measureable chunks.

Risk awareness. What might stop you from completing your project? What’s your Plan B?

Project planning tools. Most of us are (too?) familiar with the ubiquitous GANTT chart, but there are lots of other planning tools out there. We particularly talked about PERT charts, which factor in time and allow you to identify your critical task pathways. It really doesn’t matter how high or low-tech your planning tool is – a simple list on a piece of paper can be just as effective – whatever works for you.

Review progress as you go along, keep your plan updated and your stakeholders in the loop as things develop.

Most of all, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders about how the project is going.

On this final point, we talked about the fact that ‘honesty’ is socially and culturally constructed, which can be a particular challenge for international colleagues who find themselves baffled by the nuances of British work-culture. In particular, the fact that direct challenges are generally taboo and that weasel word “nice” which can mean pretty much anything. I can recommend no better reading on this subject than Kate Fox’s funny, astute book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005).

Here are the slides: