The Confirmation Process – Three Errors to Avoid

A few months back I wrote a blog post about getting ready for my confirmation. Now that I’ve had the results through I thought it would be time to write a follow up post. To tell the truth, I got the results back a couple of months ago but hadn’t got round to writing a post until now.

All PhD students go through the confirmation process. The process can be different depending on what country you study in or what institution you study at, but it generally occurs 12 months in to a full time PhD, or (as in my case) 24 months into a part-time course. Normally, it consists of a presentation where you are judged by some other researchers in your field on whether you should continue your study or not. The University I study at describes The Confirmation of Status as:

‘a useful exercise to get external opinions (from your assessors) on your project, and as a time to take stock of where you are in your research and how you are going to complete your research degree on time.’ 

Nicely put.

The Confirmation also enables students to gain feedback on your approach to your research problem; ensure students still have the motivation to carry on with their projects; to provide students with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their projects.

While I was preparing for mine, I had nightmares of a Dragons Den/ The Apprentice style grilling in which I crumple into a sobbing ball of shame, while my examiners tell me I’m fired, or they’re out, or something like that, much to the disgust of supervisors. Fortunately the actual events weren’t quite as dramatic.

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from doing this PhD so far, it’s that if you try and blag something you don’t know about, you will be found out. You cannot afford to blag your way through a viva. You are setting yourself up for disaster and humiliation. Therefore, I scrupulously traced through everything I had written and submitted to make sure if I was asked a question about it, I knew all about it. Now, although this process came about through fear of humiliation and being denounced as a fraud, it actually helped me know my study far more than I had prior to the Confirmation. Every reference, I went back and re-read; every chapter, I had the page number and colour coded sticky note, ready at the palm of my hand; every method, I had the justification on the tip of my tongue.

I was prepared.

However, even with all my preparation, I made three errors that I wish to share, in some hope that it may help other future PhD students avoid making the same errors. (N.B I’m sure I made a lot more than 3 errors, but for the purpose of a good structure for a blog, we will focus on 3).

Before the confirmation viva, I had to submit my documents to my examiners. I had two examiners, one internal from my university, and one external. A month before the viva I sent off my documents, which included my entire literature review, a copy of the systematic review that was being peer-reviewed by a journal at the time, and the protocol for my study. Unfortunately, I had not paid close attention to the handbook which gave guidelines as to what the appropriate documents to submit were (as was pointed out to me during my viva). Instead of a document of ‘approximately 30 pages’, I handed in a whopping great big 150+ page mammoth. So my first piece of advice would be to make sure your handing in exactly what has been asked of you and read your faculty/school/department handbook, should they have one. Error one.

My second error was that I provided more of a research protocol than a proposal. I had used the SPIRIT statement guidelines as the structure of my proposal (http://www.spirit-statement.org), which provides a definition for an evidence-based set of items to address in a protocol. Where as this helps to explicitly set out what you are going to do, I had missed out the justification of why I had chosen such methods or designs.

This would have been easily cleared up during the viva, if it weren’t for error three. Error three is an error that I expect plagues most PhD students during their vivas, and to be fair,  it isn’t really an error. I was nervous. I didn’t explain myself as well as I knew I could have. I had prepared a lot, and my examiners weren’t being intimidating or trying to catch me out. But the pressure of the whole situation just meant that I didn’t perform as well as I knew I could have done. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a bumbling, stuttering wreck, I just wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, I probably talked too much, and I didn’t explain myself as well as I could do in normal circumstances. It doesn’t help that I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I was always going to give myself a hard time in this respect.

However, despite the three errors (and probably countless more), I some how managed to pass the viva!

The viva did actually go ok and was no where near as scary as I had made it out to be in my head. My examiners were really helpful and gave some great feedback which has really helped improve my study. In retrospect, I was my own worse enemy and had psyched myself out.

At my university, there are 3 outcomes after your Confirmation, you can pass straight away; you can pass but have to re-submit some work/re-sit the viva; or you can fail. I passed, but had to re-submit my documents to be more in line with the document asked for in our faculty handbook, including more of a justification of my methods chosen, which I did easily enough, re-submitted and passed!

I learnt a lot from my Confirmation. It forced me to know my project inside out. I knew the existing literature like the back of my hand, I got to grips with certain methodologies I hadn’t quite grasped before, and I had an answer to justify my choice of design and methods, other than ‘because my supervisors told me to’. And although I got nervous, I passed, which did massively boost my confidence and made me think that I can actually go on and finish this thing!

Thank God they only make you go through a viva once!*

If you have gone through or are about to go through the confirmation process and have any stories to tell, or errors to share, I would love to hear from you!

Here is another blog from The Thesis Whisperer I found useful while preparing for my confirmation:

Confirmation – not as big a deal as you think it is?

*This is a joke

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