The Cook, the Chef and the Thesis

Cooking to a recipe

Following the recipe

In my office there has been a lot of discussion relating to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO for short) – for those who haven’t been exposed to this programme, it features a number of amateur bakers battling it out week by week to impress the judges with their creations.

All this talk of cooking reminds me of an issue that is bugging me in the world of doctoral research that I have been meaning to write about for some time. It’s around the  purpose of a thesis in demonstrating that a candidate has progressed from being an amateur to a competent researcher. This blog post is a work in progress…

In early 2015 the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) published the results of a survey The Role of Publications and Other Artefacts in Submissions for the UK PhD – which looked at the diversity of doctoral theses and what elements go into the assessment of whether the candidate has demonstrated “doctorateness“.

I think this is a fascinating debate because the Arts and Humanities disciplines have long been grappling with how to demonstrate doctoral achievement in practice-based and practice-led research in the submission for examination.

But there are also worrying noises in this debate pertaining to the sciences questioning the need to write a thesis in the traditional sense that was summed up in this article from the Times Higher, PhD: is the doctoral thesis obsolete?

The debate is about inclusion of published papers as part of the thesis. Some scholars want the submission of published papers to constitute the entire thesis – dispensing with “the filler” that is viewed as wasted effort.

Why do I worry?

I think it’s a little too convenient for some supervisors to have doctoral researchers churn out papers rather than focussing on writing a thesis – it does no harm to the volume of research outputs attributable to them. I fear it reduces the researchers’ work to a formulaic approach of reportage of results without any real contextualisation of their work.

I am noticing that more doctoral researchers are being asked to resubmit at viva, and often this because of a lack of breadth in the thesis – the candidates cannot express how their work fits into the bigger picture because they don’t have enough knowledge of the foundations that their work is built upon.

It pushes researchers in the direction of being technically competent but lacking in wider understanding of their work.

I fear it pushes researchers to be like a cook – able to accurately reproduce a recipe as written – instead of a being like a chef who has the foundational knowledge to create recipes from first principles.

I’m still working on the analogy but let me know what you think.

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!