In the UK system, the majority of PhD students pass their viva ‘with minor corrections’. Your examiners present you with a list of corrections, you go away and implement them. Easy, yes? Well, no, not necessarily.
If you’re lucky, corrections are simply typos, formatting issues etc. So far, so good. Any thesis will inevitably contain some of those, and you’d definitely want to correct them before submitting the final version. Corrections of that nature can legitimately be considered ‘minor’. But corrections of that kind are only a small part of the story. Much more problematic, in my experience, are corrections that, although still considered ‘minor’, involve re-thinking and re-writing. Nobody warns you that you’ll need to re-gather your energy and brainpower to tackle them. That, for me, turned into a struggle for which I was completely unprepared.
Let’s be clear: getting through your viva ‘with minor corrections’ is a great achievement. Your work is definitely of the required standard, but there are still tweaks to be made, perhaps to make connections clearer or to fine-tune an explanation. After all, you and your supervisors have become so close to your work that you may not realise that a particular point is not entirely clear to somebody reading it for the first time. This means that ‘minor’ corrections are entirely legitimate, and indeed should be welcomed as contributing to the quality of your final thesis. So why, when my examiners reeled off their list, did making those corrections seem like another huge mountain to climb? After all, it was the most likely outcome of the viva, so it wasn’t a surprise.
The problem, I think, was that after six years of researching and writing, and (for reasons beyond my control) a long and anxious wait for the viva, I had simply burned out. I had nothing left to give. While my supervisors cracked open a bottle of bubbly after the viva and people started gathering to congratulate me, I found it hard to celebrate. My brain felt completely drained, yet I knew that I somehow had to address those corrections before I could pass the finishing post. To my examiners and supervisors, those corrections were indeed ‘minor’, but to me they seemed bewildering and daunting.
“Do the minimum necessary,” my supervisors advised. For the first few days, all I could do was stare at my thesis. It was if it was carved in stone. It was only painfully slowly that my energy and brainpower returned and I felt able to tackle the typos, the easiest of the corrections. Once that barrier had been broken, the corrections that involved re-thinking and re-writing followed. In the end, I wrote three additional paragraphs at various points in the thesis and expanded my illustrations of an argument at another. Not, after all, a big deal.
Given that there is so little advice around on how to deal with ‘minor’ corrections, perhaps I’m unusual in having experienced this response. Or perhaps people like supervisors, having come out the other side, quickly forget what it’s like to have to re-visit your thesis at the very point when you may have nothing left to give. In case it helps others to avoid a crisis, here’s my advice:
- Although the viva is the key milestone in your PhD journey, try to bear in mind that it may not be the final one. In the UK and similar systems, you may well need to make corrections, so be sure to preserve some energy.
- When tackling corrections, it’s helpful to distance yourself from your thesis. Imagine yourself as an editor looking critically at somebody else’s work. That way, you’ll find it easier to break through that barrier of being unable to see how anything could be changed.
Author Bio: Dr Mary Frank, holds a PhD in Translation Studies from the University of Bristol, England.