Friday, 10 March 2017

Thesis defence

On the buildup to my thesis oral exam (/viva/defence) I received so much advice and reassurance that I wondered if perhaps I now know how first-time mothers feel. I had previously been told that a) the oral exam isn't scary and b) it's difficult to fail if you know your topic and did the work yourself. So I wasn't really worried. The buildup was unnerving, though - somehow everyone in the department found out when my defence was, and decided to reassure me, and I started to wonder why I should need reassuring so much. I wasn't keen on the fact that they all knew the date, either. The pressure of other people's expectations always grinds me down. I am grateful for the advice I received, though, and it helped me to know how to prepare. Mostly I read my thesis and tried to find all the holes they might ask me about, and think about how to respond.

Nevertheless, the exam was not that bad. It was scary, because I was put on the spot and it was important that I tried to answer questions as well as I could even if there was no real answer. It wasn't an informal chat as someone had claimed - perhaps their defence was, but mine wasn't. But it also wasn't a grilling session. That's the issue, really - everyone giving advice had only ever defended one thesis once. So I will share my experience, and it may help others, but it doesn't mean their defence will go anything like the same way.

I gave a presentation about the most important parts of my thesis, which was redundant for most of the people in the room because they had read it. But the convenor hopefully found it useful to know what we were talking about and that Cantuaria wasn't a fungal infection. Then we had a question and answer session, and the examiner read some questions from my international examiner, and very occasionally my supervisors added points but I don't think they can say much. I tried to be helpful and give as much information as I could, but there was no way I could have pre-empted most of the questions. Many were based on the comments the examiners had made on my thesis, but some weren't, and some were suggestions. Many questions were along the lines of "Why didn't you do this?" to which my answer was "I didn't think of that" or "I wanted to, but didn't have time", and their reply was "Fair enough" or "Well you should have". Those questions were very useful to me and I will probably remember them throughout my academic career. Afterwards I left the room and had to go to my office, but I was only there about a minute before my supervisor came and got me. Nobody told me I had passed so I wondered about it for a bit, but they didn't tell me I had failed either. I think I was meant to gather that I had passed from the body language, but I'm not great at reading body language. Eventually by the way they were talking and my supervisor saying we should celebrate with a coffee I figured I must have passed. We talked about rugby and spiders over coffee and then I drove for six hours into the mountains, which I would thoroughly recommend as a post-defence activity.

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