I was given a handy sheet of paper when I started my PhD. Entitled Milestones – Cule, it sets out the dates by which I must complete a number of administrative steps. After agreeing on a supervisor, subsequent milestones included submitting a proposal. My examination in order to upgrade my initial registration as an MPhil student to PhD student status took place yesterday.
Each milestone presents its own challenges, and there is that odd phenomenon by which each seems to loom more important than the last. Whilst preparing for my upgrade examination (which consists of a presentation followed by a mini-viva) I was anxious. I was not so worried that I would not pass, but more concerned that my examiners were going to see all too easily the gaps in my knowledge and that I would look a fool.
I sought advice from the blogosphere, which you can read here. My peers in First Life were supportive too, empathising
Oh, I think I made a big drama out of [the upgrade] at the time, but with hindsight it was fine.
On seeing how nervous I was at the first rehersal of my presentation, it was suggested that I
have a shot of vodka before you give the presentation,
an idea which I filed alongside the suggestion that I wear a bowtie. Instead of vodka I went for practise, practise, practise and received helpful feedback on the structure of my talk and the slides. My upgrade was the first presentation I have written consisting, for the most part, of mathematical and statistical concepts. I discovered that equations are much more difficult than figures to make visually interesting,
After giving the presentation, the student has a mini-viva conducted by two examiners. Once I had the presentation down pat, I was most nervous about this. In the event, the mini-viva was more useful than terrifying. One of my examiners pointed out some notational errors in my expression of mathematics, but remarked that he was not surprised to find these given that I do not have a mathematics background. There were some points in my written report that require clarification and others that could be expanded. The examiners did find some gaps in my knowledge, but instead of listing these as failures they suggested references I should read and concepts I should look into.
I passed (phew!) but, as Bob tweeted, this could be something of a mixed blessing. I am not so worried about slaving away for a couple more years, but it dawned on me during the weeks before my upgrade that this is the last exam I have before, well, before the viva after I have submitted my thesis.
Before I started the PhD, an experienced supervisor advised me that one of the challenges of a doctoral thesis is knowing when to finish. A PhD student might struggle to know whether what they have done will be “enough” in the eyes of their examiners. Imperial College does keep an eye on its students’ progress during the years of PhD study, but I am not due any further formal assessment until Submission and The Viva two or more years from now. The prospect of being left to my own devices seems almost more daunting than the treadmill of examinations that featured heavily in my first years at University. Now, it seems all the more important to look for other places my work can be assessed, at a conference or in publication. That way, alongside the rest of the scientific community, I can expect to receive the feedback that, as I learnt from my upgrade mini-viva, can be so useful in suggesting improvements to work completed and further ideas to explore.