Thursday, 20 November 2014

Experiencing HIV and AIDS information: a phenomenological study of serodiscordant couples in Malawi - by K. Wella

In the absence of an HIV vaccine, information has played a pivotal role in influencing behaviour change in people. The ability to design successful HIV and AIDS information campaigns is highly dependent on knowledge of  people’s information behaviour. Accordingly, there is a need for a clear understanding of the information behaviour of groups of people affected and infected by HIV.  
Serodiscordant couples are couples where only one partner is HIV positive. My PhD project aims to investigate how such couples experience HIV and AIDS information in Malawi.
Data were collected between September and October 2013. Twenty four interviews were conducted in two districts of Malawi and I am currently in the later stages of analysing the transcribed data. I am using Van Manen’s phenomenological approach to help generate descriptions and interpretations of the experiences of HIV and AIDS information. Phenomenology is a research approach that seeks to understand how people experience phenomena.
Although policy makers and practitioners in Malawi are aware that HIV information is an indispensable component of the fight against the HIV pandemic, their focus seems to be more on getting information to the people than on understanding the information related dynamics that drive behavioural change. According to the National AIDS Commission (Malawi), Eighty percent of new HIV infections occur among serodiscordant couples. A better understanding how such couples experience HIV and AIDS information would therefore be of considerable valuable in helping to combat the HIV pandemic.
This study is significant for two main reasons. Firstly, HIV and AIDS have an impact on the development of Malawi and Africa. Therefore, it is important to develop knowledge of how to control their spread. Secondly, to the best of the researcher’s knowledge, there has not been any study of HIV and AIDS related information behaviour conducted in Malawi. This study therefore, contributes not only to our understanding of the information behaviour of serodiscordant couples but also, more generally, to our knowledge and understanding of the information behaviour of people living with HIV.
Emerging results of the study suggest that the life-world is the overarching framework in which HIV and AIDS information is experienced. In addition, the experiencing of HIV and AIDS information is found to occur at four levels: while anticipating, interacting with, acting on, and reflecting on the information. The results of the study also indicate that, at all these levels, HIV and AIDS information is experienced with emotions.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

How to write a bad thesis and to spend years of misery doing so

The discussion group took a break in August and I've only just got round to blogging about the July session.  Shame on me!

Duration of a PhD

Elaine Toms volunteered to be interrogated on the subject of theses and began by referring us to an article from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.  The article "Caught in Thesis Purgatory" described the trials of a Canadian Masters student trapped in a cycle of revisions and rewrites.  The system in Canada is clearly different from the UK, but one thing was clearly the same: writing a thesis usually takes longer than expected.  According to most UK universities, a full-time PhD normally takes three years.  Prof Toms observed that this is very much an exception - a point reinforced by the fact that HEFCE assesses PhD completion rates by the percentage of students who finish within seven years and the percentage who finish within 25 years!

The University Handbook

This offers some generic guidelines about PhD theses, and departmental student handbooks offer more specific guidelines (such as on formatting and thesis length) but these are often out of date and should be verified.  Elaine also gave a reference to an article on How to write consistently boring scientific literature, to aid the surprisingly few academics who aren't naturally gifted in this field.

Doctoral Development Programme

The DDP offers courses to help students develop the skills needed to complete a PhD, and to equip them for the job market.  However, Elaine noted courses should be selected strategically.  Students should not go for "every spice in the cupboard".  Also - although a long list of training is offered, not all courses are available all the time.

Upgrade Report vs Final Thesis

Upgrade reports are now called Confirmation reports. They should answer the questions "Is it likely that the student is good enough?"  "Is the research idea good enough?"

In other words, they should shows promise, which isnot the same as saying that the ideas are fixed and crystallized.  Another question that a confirmation report should answer is "Why is this problem important?".  In answering that question, it show demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem and a grasp of the literature.

Methodology and Methods

Methodology - What is the research philosophy?  How and why were the methods chosen? 
Methods - A good methods chapter is like a recipe -  it should be follow-able.  eg, Why is focus group more appropriate than interviews?  What questions will be asked?
(Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.)

Research questions

A good research question should be concise, answerable, focussed.  More specifically it should be:

  • Pragmatic, so it can be answered in the time available;
  • Novel (so literature must be well covered in order to demonstrate novelty). 
  • Appliable - Will it help to discover things not already known?  Does it have practical implications?
  • Answerable - Eg, it must be ethical and it should be practical (eg no problems with privacy or security).

Objectives and Research Quetions

A Thesis should have 3-5 aims with a set of RQs for each one.  Answers to RQs should be clearly mapped onto Objectives.

Results and Discussion

Give data in a results chapter and interpretation in the discussion  This allows the reader to draw conclusions, then compare them with the author's.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Post-viva questionnaire - responses from Alexander Schauer (part 2: the viva)

What is the title of your thesis?
Developing a holistic framework of key categories of influences that shape knowledge sharing from an individual perspective.

Can you provide an abstract (for inclusion in this blog)?
Despite a large volume of literature in regards to knowledge sharing, the field has not yet arrived at a consensus as to the key categories of influences, defined at a high level, that shape individuals’ knowledge sharing perceptions. Yet incrementally moving toward consensus is important in order to create a shared understanding (Smylie, 2011, p. 182) so a rigorous debate (Beesley & Cooper, 2008, p. 50) about the phenomenon can occur and guidance for knowledge sharing practices can be created (Wickramasinghe & Widyaratne, 2012, p. 216). In addition, studies to date have either omitted how context can influence key categories or focused on categories within a single context. However exploring contextual differences is important so synergies (West & King 1996) and divergences as well as different knowledge sharing situations can be mapped out (Chow, Deng & Ho, 2000). To explore this, a qualitative case study strategy was executed. Empirical data were gathered from a total of 24 interviewees that were based in four different country branches (i.e. China, the Netherlands, the UK and the US) of a single IT services organisation.

Using constant comparison, findings point towards a holistic framework that depicts four key categories of influences that shape knowledge sharing from an individual perspective. The first key influence revolves around institutions which act as a united entity .The second key influence fundamentally different in nature concentrates on relations between individuals. The third key influence focuses on the individuals themselves (called sharers) and how their attitudes and characteristics can shape their knowledge sharing perceptions. The fourth and final key influence centres on knowledge itself. In addition, findings suggest that the four key influences not only shape knowledge sharing independently but that all four key influences are intertwined and together form a holistic framework. Furthermore, and based on the findings, the institution, sharer and knowledge key categories are not influenced by varying contexts while the relations key category is susceptible to contextual differences.

How long did you spend preparing for your viva?
I’ve been keeping a daily diary since starting my PhD so I can say that I’ve prepared for exactly 76 hours. That may sound a lot but this was over a two months period.

How long did your viva take?
It felt really fast. In fact it was one hour and 45 minutes.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
To be honest no. I’ve listened to Angharad’s advice in a previous blog post and only focused on the most likely questions.

Did the examiners concentrate on any particular section of your thesis? If so, which?
They went through it methodically from page 1 to 199. We discussed the literature review in more detail and then spent most of the time on the methodology chapter. Surprisingly we had a good 30 minute discussion on philosophy (i.e. epistemology, ontology and rhetoric) and how I viewed it versus my supervisors versus my interviewees. The findings chapter was covered with a single question and the discussion and conclusion with another couple.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were pleased with your performance?
The first question, where I was asked on why I was interested in this topic.

What was it you did that pleased you?
I was prepared for this question so I gave both a pragmatic and theoretical answer. For the latter I reiterated key statements of authors and their respective years they said that. This demonstrated that I could reiterate specific authors and their key messages and I think that set a good tone for the rest of the viva.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were dissatisfied with your performance?
I couldn't recall my interview guide and the questions I asked within it. That made me look a bit silly.

Please give an example of a question that you found hard.
I managed to weave my way through most of the philosophical questions but for that one I had to have a good think: You write that you've taken on an interpretive epistemological world view yet your analysis points towards a post-positivist one. Would you say that you've given your interviewees an interpretive world view but yourself a more post-positivist one?

Why was it hard?
Because I had to convince my examiners that I had in fact taken on an interpretive worldview. In the end though they were satisfied with my answer.

What was the outcome of your viva?
Passed subject to minor corrections.

Please give some examples of the sort of corrections you need to make (if any).
This is the list I’ve received:
- Literature sub headings: These need to be changed from author to the topic of their research
- Methodology: Please add more detail around how you selected the organisations (stock market, 1000 employees etc), selected the employees and the potential bias in this method. Please also specify that you always intended to select one company and the reasoning behind this. Please add the timelines between interviews and the process you went through in between.
- Section 4.5 - please add a few more pages to this section where you present the (holistic) framework (to include a graphic representation).
- Limitations: Please add further detail to show to the reader that you are referring to the literature review and not the documentation within the organisations.
- Please go through all the tables in the thesis and re-work them so they don't have vast areas with blank space e.g. by removing sharer this would remove the vast blank area. Then sharer could be put in the caption.
- Consider giving the reader an idea of the scale/effort involved in the analysis e.g. by mentioning the number of codes (concepts/categories) that led to the 4 key categories.

Do you have any tips for looking and feeling confident in front of the examiners?
When I met them I both gave them a solid handshake and smile. Once settled I kept an open body language. I memorised the most important authors and years they published that piece of work in question to illustrate I can not only discuss my own thesis but also that of other authors.

Can you think of any good advice that you would give to students who are preparing for their viva?
I did the following and it worked for me:
1.       I watched the videos relating to vivas on the Virtual Graduate School and wrote down any potential questions they covered
2.       I went to a seminar called ‘preparing for viva’ and wrote down any potential questions covered there
3.       Then I read through my thesis answering the questions obtained in Steps 1 and 2. At the same time I highlighted terms I’ve used and should be able to define and give examples of e.g. knowledge management, knowledge sharing, axiology, validity, reliability. Simultaneously, I highlighted important authors that have shaped my thesis and memorised their key statements, name of the authors and year the document was published
4.       Following this I researched the examiners, their background, study focus and articles related to my thesis
5.       The day before the viva I skim read my thesis again and revised the potential questions and my answers
My list of potential questions can be found here (no guarantee given that they will be asked of course by your examiners).

After the viva
Me being me I had a 15 minute lunch, then five minute discussion with my supervisors and then went to the Information Common (library) for 3.5 hours to video and audio record a PowerPoint presentation of my thesis (part 1 and part 2).

Then I went for a four day holiday to celebrate the outcome.

Post viva questionnaire - responses from Alex Schauer (pt 1 - Viva preparation and potential questions)

"Hi Andrew,

Having been a keen reader of the previous post viva questionnaires on your blog-post, I’ve decided to return something to the community by adding my own...."

Alex Schauer emailed me a couple of weeks ago after he successfully defended his thesis and kindly provided some inputs based on his experiences of defending his thesis.  The delay in posting them is entirely my fault!  Apologies Alex, and congratulations once again.

Viva preparation and potential questionsBackground

  • To test the candidate's knowledge of his/her research and subject area;
  • To allow examiners to clarify any queries that may have arisen when reading the dissertation
  • To judge whether the candidate has developed research skills appropriate to doctoral level
  • To give the candidate the opportunity to defend their dissertation in person
  • To establish whether candidates fully understands the implications of their work
  • To test if the thesis in whole/parts can be published

Key purposes of the Viva (usually set out in University regulations) include:

During the viva

This is mainly taken from a podcast by Tara Brabazon:
  • Breathe, speak slowly, concentrate, drink water.
  • Most importantly, listen to the opening remarks in the Viva because they can give you clear insights into what that examiners feel about your thesis.
  • Listen to the real question (don't turn it into a question you want to hear).
  • Consider writing down the question, so you don’t forget it and it gives you time to think.
  • Pause before answering the question (5-20 sec is OK).  Breathe, smile, look at the examiners, and consider your answer.
  • If done appropriately, admitting weaknesses can show that you’re able to critique your piece of work and thus be a good academic.
  • Re-phrase your answers with an emphasis on the word "focus" rather than "weakness"
  • Formatting your answer: intro, body, conclusion picking up on question
  • The written thesis should act as the foundation and source of your oral answers (Murray, 2003, page 89) so you should have it to hand and look for your answers ‘therein’.
  • Don't think of your thesis as earth shattering; rather you might lay claim to a ‘fresh approach’ or a 'new perspective'.
  • Think about your viva as a first experience in engaging with the academic community and locating your ideas amongst this community
  • Don’t say ‘Well I’ve written that’ as examiners can’t read everything.
  • Ask for a break if needed (5 min).
  • If anything weird happens, log it!  Occasionally examiners do strange or unfair things.  A record can help you to defend yourself if necessary.

Potential questions


What made you do this piece of research?
Why did you choose this topic?
Why did this topic interest you?
What drew you to this study?
Why this topic?
What led you to this particular study?
Why do think it is important?
What surprised you most in doing this study?
Tell us about your thesis, tell us about what you have done here.
Please could you summarise your thesis?
How would you explain to someone not involved in academia what your thesis is about?
Is there anything that you wish you could added or delete from your thesis?
Is there anything in it that you wish to comment on?
Have you enjoyed your PhD?
Has the thesis contributed to your professional life in any way?
What would you say has been an important learning experience for you in undertaking this work?
What did you learn from doing it?
Would you do anything differently next time?
Can you give one example of your thesis contribution to the development of knowledge and understanding in this area?
What original contribution to knowledge do you feel that you have made?
If  somebody from this field read your thesis, what would they learn that they don’t already know?
What does your study propose that is different from other studies in this area?
What is your own position (professional or personal) in relation to this field and these research questions?
What is your positionality in relation to the research project?
What prior conceptions and / or experiences did you bring to this study?
How did your own position/ background/ bias affect your data collection and your data analysis?
What are the main findings of your research?
Tell me what you think the most important findings are from your particular study?
Which elements of your work do you feel are worthy of publication and/or presentation at a conference?
What plans do you have for publication and dissemination?
Have you been thinking about publishing any of your PhD? if yes which parts?
Has any of the work been published or presented already?
Is there any reason why you haven’t published a paper yet?
What implications do you think your study has got for future research practice policy?
What is your hypothesis?
Why was your research worth three years of study?

Theories And Theoretical Frameworks

Please talk us through the main research questions that you were trying to address in your work. What was the origin of these questions?
What theories/ theoretical frameworks/ perspectives have you drawn upon in your research?
Which theories did your study illuminate, if any?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vivas - examiners' perspectives

Back in May, we drew up a list of questions to be put to Professor Elaine Toms when she attended the discussion group in June.  By a stroke of good fortune, the iSchool was being visited by Professor Wildemuth, Associate Dean of the iSchool at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  She was able to bring another perspective to the questions

What training is available at the iSchool to help students prepare for their vivas?
Currently the iSchool does not offer formal training, though  there have been discussions about introducing more formal training.

How does an upgrade viva compare with a PhD viva?
The two are very similar and both provide an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of their chosen research topic.

Candidates should provide evidence of systematic study, and.should satisfy examiners that they have made an addition to knowledge.  This is important at both upgrade and PhD level.  

What sort of scene setting is there at the start of a viva?
Both Elaine and Barbara agreed that it was important for students to set the scene by giving the background to their research.  In some places this is done through a formal presentation, though this is not general practice in Sheffield.

To help with scene setting candidates were recommended to take a well labelled copy of the thesis so that they could quickly and easily find parts they wished to refer to.

How long should a viva last?
Recent experiences from Angharad Roberts, Joanne Bates, Rita Wan-chik and Robinah Namuleme all took around two hours, but all of these were relatively trouble free.  If there are serious issues, vivas may last longer.

Who sits on a viva panel? What are their roles?
A PhD viva has an external and an internal examiner on the panel.  Both are vetted by the university.  A key part of their job is to make sure the student is comfortable: they are not there to catch him/her out.  The two examiners should reach agreement, but it is the job of the internal examiner to ensure that university rules are followed.  The supervisor may sit on the panel but should not say anything

An upgrade viva also has a chairman to keep the process on track and to ensure that the student’s knowledge has been properly tested.

What are the possible outcomes of a viva?
PhD viva - Possible results are:
  • No amendments (rare);
  • Minor amendments, no resubmission needed - 3 months;
  • Resubmission without viva - 12 months;
  • Resubmission with viva - 12 months;
  • Re-examination without amendment to the thesis (very rare - only where the thesis is AOK but the performance at viva was unsatisfactory.);
  • Award of MPhil without amendments or re-examination (very rare);
  • Degree not awarded - re-submit for MPhil with/without re-examination;
  • Degree not awarded.
Upgrade viva - Possible results are :
  • Confirmation of PhD status
  • Deferral (6 months to resubmit)
  • 2nd attempt (pass / fail)
How often do people fail their viva?  What sort of things cause them to fail?
Very rarely.  Failure may be for the following reasons:
  • Poor time management
  • Not taking advice from supervisor
  • Not enough evidence of reading
  • Poor organisation of information (eg, bibliography).
Can you give an example of something that impressed you in a viva?
  • Clearly expressed research questions, well explored.
  • Enthusiams
Elaine and Barbara suggested some questions to prepare for:
  • What is your hypothesis?
  • You say your main finding was X.  So what?
  • Why was your research worth the money?
  • Why didn’t you use a particular research method? (Often the examiner's favourite method!)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Ask an expert

Discussions for May and June will be on the subject of vivas and upgrade reports / theses.  In preparation therefore, we gave some thought to the questions we would like to discuss.


  1. What training is available at the iSchool to help students prepare for their vivas?
  2. How does an upgrade viva compare with a PhD viva?
  3. What sort of scene setting is there at the start of a viva?
  4. How long should a viva last?
  5. Who sits on a viva panel?
  6. What are their roles?
  7. What are the possible outcomes of a viva?
  8. How often do people fail their viva?
  9. What sort of things cause students to fail?
  10. What preparation do you look for? 
  11. Can you give an example of something that impressed you in a viva?


  1. What guidelines are available for upgrade reports and theses?
  2. Where are they?
  3. What is the process for upgrades?
  4. What is required in a Doctoral Development Programme portfolio?
  5. How is a transfer report assessed?
  6. What are the possible outcomes?
  7. What is the difference between a transfer report and a thesis?
  8. How long should a thesis be?
  9. What makes a good thesis?
  10. What makes a good Methods chapter?
  11. What difference does it make if a student has already published from her/his thesis?
  12. Can you suggest anything that all disciplines would look for in a thesis?

Monday, 17 March 2014

Back to the iFuture (by J.E.A. Wallace)

Those of you who were around last year may remember iFutures. For those who need a reminder, however, iFutures is a one-day conference for PhD researchers in the information science community, organised by students in the Information School at the University of Sheffield. Last year, the conference was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University’s Information Studies department, but this time around, we’re looking into the theme of "Research into Practice".

The plan is to interpret this theme in two ways. The first is to try and provide an opportunity for students to introduce their work and the ways in which it can potentially impact on society; while the second is to offer a forum for discussions about the practical steps young researchers can take to maximise the impact of their work, and to engage effectively with the world beyond academia.

To support this second strand we plan to run two parallel interactive workshops. 
  1. "Research Beyond Academia" (led by Sheila Webber) - will look at how to engage with industry as part of the research process, with a focus on how to identify research questions that are relevant and interesting to non-academic institutions, how to determine appropriate potential non-academic partners for grant proposals, and how to approach them and "sell" your new research ideas. 
  2. "Disseminating your Research to Maximise Impact" (led by Dr. Paul Clough) - will explore interesting and innovative ways in which "new" researchers can disseminate their research beyond academia, and what strategies we can use to maximise the impact of our research on practice. 
I will be focussing on these workshops in the Researcher’s Discussion Group. Their format has not yet been fully decided, and the committee is interested in your views as to the sort of issues you would like to see covered.

As for the rest of the schedule, the programme will include keynote talks by two distinguished speakers - David Bawden (Professor of Information Science, City University) and Mounia Lalmas (Principal Research Scientist, Yahoo! Labs). There will also be papers presented by PhD students, and a lunchtime poster session. Finally the programme includes a repeat of last year's highly successful Pecha Kucha session. While nerve-wracking for presenters (just ask Dan and Simon), we hope the unconventional format (twenty slides each displayed for twenty seconds) will both entertain and stimulate discussion.
We welcome submissions from doctoral students at any stage of their research, and full details of the submissions process can be found on our site,

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

What do we want? Inductive models! When do we want them? When we have an evidence base!

After a researchers' discussion, I usually adjourn to the pub with others from the group.  Following the last meeting however, I rushed off to a talk by the Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England.

I sat next to a Chinese PhD student who introduced himself and asked my name.  "Andrew" I said. He looked at the ticket he was holding.  "Ah!" he replied, "The same as the speaker.  An important name."

We had come to hear Andrew Haldane in conversation.  The academic conversing with him was introduced as Professor Andrew Gamble.  "No" I observed, "just common".

Andrew Haldane may have a commonplace name, but for someone embedded at the core of the establishment, his views are not commonplace.  He has attracted attention in the past for speaking in favour of the Occupy Movement.  In the course of his conversation with Professor Gamble, he criticized economists' over-reliance on deductive models and expressed the view that greater efforts should be made to develop more pragmatic inductive models.  

Amongst the questions asked by members of the audience was one from an economics student at Sheffield University.  She bemoaned the fact that she was learning the type of model that Haldane had criticized.  What, she asked, should she and her fellow students do about it?  "Protest!" was his succinct response.

Haldane’s objection to many of the standard economic models was that they were devised to evaluate risk rather than to address uncertainties.  The difference, explained Prof Gamble, was the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns.  Risk analysis identifies a spectrum of outcomes and assigns probabilities to each, then uses those probabilities to help prioritise actions. So for example, if an unbiased coin is tossed, probabilities can be assigned to whether it will, on coming to earth, be seen to display heads or tails.  If it falls down a crack in the floor, those calculations become invalid.  

Although the probability of a coin disappearing in this way is small, there are numerous other improbable things that could happen to the coin, each of which could affect knowledge of whether it displays heads or tails (or lands on its edge!).  There is a high probability therefore, that at least one improbable event will occur, with an impact that has not been considered in the risk analysis.

Because deductive models tend to focus on known unknowns, these get over-emphasised.  By contrast, pragmatic models based on rules of thumb, implicitly adjust for the accumulated improbables.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Post-viva questionnaire - responses from Angharad Roberts

What is the title of your thesis?
Conceptualising the library collection for the digital world: a case study of social enterprise

Can you provide an abstract (for inclusion in this blog)?
This collaborative research project, supported by the British Library, used a case study of the library collection for social enterprise to develop a conceptual approach to the library collection in the digital world, exploring stakeholder perceptions of collections, terminology and collection development and management processes. A mixed-methods multiphase case study design was used to address the research questions. Three strands of data collection are described: a case study of the British Library’s collections and content for social enterprise, searches for relevant material on 88 publicly accessible UK library catalogues, and an exploratory sequential study involving stakeholder interviews (19 interviews with 18 people) followed by two surveys of a larger stakeholder population (149 completed responses in total). Findings from each strand are described and three core concepts of collection are identified: “collection-as-thing”, “collection-as-process” and “collection-as-access”. Conventional views of library collections may tend to focus more on the idea of “collection-as-thing”; this research emphasises the importance of taking a more dynamic view of collection. Three models of collection are described: a revised collection development hierarchy which suggests links to different levels of strategic management; a model of interrelationships between the three concepts of collection; and a model which examines how collection adds value to content by providing context. This research demonstrates that the concept of collection remains highly relevant in the digital world, although the onus is on libraries to embrace all dimensions of these three concepts of collection if they wish to add maximum value to the content they identify, select, hold, make accessible and to which they connect.

How long did you spend preparing for your viva?
I re-read my thesis over the course of a week or so before, and dipped into some chapters again (methodology, discussion and conclusion) on my way to the viva. I also met with my supervisor a couple of days before the viva to talk about it, which was very helpful.

How long did your viva take?
2 hours, followed by fifteen minutes waiting for the examiners to call me back in to give their decision.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I spent quite a bit of time in the days and weeks preceding the viva scaring myself by imagining really tough questions! It's useful to think through possible answers to broad general questions which are highly likely to be asked (such as "why this topic?" or "why this methodology?"). However, you can never prepare for every question, and spending time dwelling on very specific and unlikely possible questions can take time away from more useful forms of preparation (such as re-reading the thesis).

Did the examiners concentrate on any particular section of your thesis? If so, which?
We mainly discussed the literature review, methodology and discussion chapters, with some discussion of practical recommendations and recommendations for future research from the conclusion.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were pleased with your performance?
Early on I was asked about whether any of the strands in my methodology were weaker than others. I was candid about the limitations of one of my strands and that was received well by the examiners.

What was it you did that pleased you?
That strongly reinforced the idea that the viva is about being honest, reflective and critical about your own work, rather than being about “dressing things up” or trying to show everything in a positive light.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were dissatisfied with your performance?
I was asked about whether I agreed with a specific quotation which I had included in my literature review. I floundered a bit when trying to answer, and I think my perspective changed quite a bit following the exchange with the examiners.

Please give an example of a question that you found hard.
I was asked about the order of concepts in a revised collection development hierarchy which I had developed.

Why was it hard?
I needed to think about my model in quite an abstract way.

What was the outcome of your viva?
Passed subject to minor corrections.

Please give some examples of the sort of corrections you need to make (if any).
Clarification of my use of the word “for” in the phrase “library collection for social enterprise” from my research aims and objectives.

Minor adjustments to one of my conceptual diagrams.

Corrections to typos, formatting (eg avoiding splitting tables over multiple pages).

Do you have any tips for looking and feeling confident in front of the examiners?
Wear smart comfortable clothes. Try to get a good night’s sleep the day before.

Can you think of any good advice that you would give to students who are preparing for their viva?
  • Try to meet your supervisor in the run up to your viva to talk over any issues and for reassurance.
  • You can ask your supervisor to sit in as an observer. I did and found it helpful to have someone else’s perspective on how things had gone.
  • If you submitted an electronic copy of the thesis on CD, you can go and collect it from Research and Innovation Services straight after the viva.
  • Have something nice to look forward to. I didn’t get a holiday last summer so a long weekend away after the viva was just what I needed.
After the viva
Bear in mind that the viva is only a part of a longer process (although obviously it’s an absolutely vital part of that process!) First you submit the thesis for examination, then you have the viva, then you are likely to need to make corrections and your internal examiner needs to confirm whether the corrections made are acceptable. Finally you submit the library copy of the approved amended thesis and, if you started your course after 2008, upload the final version to White Rose eTheses. Completion of each of these stages inspires varying degrees of euphoria!

The following point doesn’t quite relate to the question above (about preparing for the viva), but prior to submission it is worth thinking about the practicalities of how you will get your thesis printed and bound. It does cost quite a lot to get this all done by Print and Design Solutions. For the initial submission I printed two copies (for the examiners) and only went to Print and Design Solutions to get them bound. For my final submission, I got Print and Design Solutions to print and bind three copies – one for the University Library, one for an organisation which supported my research and one for myself.

It's also useful to be aware that you may not receive any formal communication following the viva - my internal examiner emailed me the list of minor corrections. Once the University Library copy of the final thesis had been submitted, I was sent copies of the more detailed examiners' reports, which were really interesting and helpful to read.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The problem of identifying research with impact

The deadline for submissions to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) from UK higher education institutions passed on 29 November 2013.  Academics around the country breathed a big sigh of relief and returned to normal life (i.e., preparing for the next exercise in research evaluation).

Research evaluations of this sort began in the UK in 1986 and play a major part in the allocation of research funds.  Up until the REF they relied very heavily on citations (eg, Norris & Oppenheim, 2003).  When the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was replaced with REF, the new evaluation attempted to shift the emphasis away from citations to other forms of impact.

The obvious advantage of citation-based measures of impact is that they are relatively simple to calculate and to organise, making comparisons possible.  Amongst the disadvantages is the fact that publications that are highly cited in the few years following their publication are often cited because they are convenient summaries of existing research and say little that is original.  Conversely, truly ground-breaking ideas often have no detectable impact in their first few years because their implications are not understood.

A classic example of such a case is that of Gregor Mendel's paper on hybridisation, which is generally regarded as laying the foundation for genetics.  It was published in 1865 but remained almost uncited throughout the remainder of the century ("about three times" according to Wikipedia 06/01/14, and twice according to Google Scholar).

Boris Belousov suffered similar lack of recognition but took it more to heart.  He tried for several years throughout the 1950s to publish a description of an interesting reaction he had observed, but reviewers considered it to be impossible.  It is now recognised as a discovery which forced "a change of perspective and emphasis". (Winfree, 1984)

Winfree, Arthur T. (1984), The Prehistory of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky Oscillator, Journalof Chemical Education 61(8) 661-663.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Summoning of demons: an inappropriate response to criticism

Life sometimes gets in the way of blogging, so I haven't written anything here for a while.  The last entry (by Mary Anne Kennan) discussed the assumptions that underpin research methodologies.  The group discussion that followed its publication touched on some of the problems that arise when such assumptions are not properly examined.  One example that I proffered was the issue of research undertaken according to one methodology being assessed by reviewers following a different methodology.

A few months ago I published a blog entry in which I included some reviews of a paper that was subsequently published. The research being reported on was interpretivist, but it was reviewed as though it were positivist.  Consequently, the reviews were hostile.

Amongst the things that have got in the way of blogging recently has been Christmas, with its abundance of distractions.  One of the smaller distractions was Mark Gatiss' production of the M.R. James story "The Tractate Middoth".  Much of it took place in a library, and the vital clue to a missing will was an accession number.

As a child, I read quite a few M.R. James stories but did not remember this one.  I set out to discover and rediscover some.  One that I discovered was James' story, Casting of the Runes, which the inspiration for a 1950s horror film called Night of the Demon (renamed 'Curse of the Demon' in the USA).  In the film, the leader of a Satanic cult uses his knowledge of the occult to summon up demons to destroy his enemies.  I had seen the film but not read the story.  I did so and found that, in the original, the occult powers were used in response to bad reviews of the author's work.