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July 23, 2012

Choosing your PhD examiners – by Anna

So, I'll be submitting my thesis really REALLY soon now. In about 2-3 weeks. Gulp! Over the past few weeks, my supervisor and I have been discussing whom to approach for my thesis examiners, and I've picked up a few surprising facts that I thought I would share with all you lovely people.

First the basics: You must have two examiners - one internal and one external (i.e. one from Warwick and one from another university). These two examiners read your thesis and then come to your viva, where they tell you whether you passed, give you feedback, ask for any necessary changes, and (hopefully) give you advice on future directions, where to publish etc.

So far so good, but it actually turns out there are a few surprises here, most of which are actually pretty cool and make the viva sound a lot less scary!

The first surprising fact is that your supervisor is not even present during your viva. This kind of blew my mind actually: it means that your supervisor - the person you've spent the past 3-4 years trying to please - actually has NO SAY in whether or not you pass your PhD. It's all down to your examiners.

Which might sound a bit scary in itself, except for the fact that you get to choose your examiners. Yes, you did read that correctly! You get to CHOOSE academics who are likely to be sympathetic to your topic, approach and methods. Unlike, say, your upgrade panel back in your first year, your viva will NOT involve someone who may have been randomly assigned to you and who may totally disagree with the entire basis of your project (which did sort of happen to me....but that's another story).

So, what are the most important criteria for choosing your examiners?

One is, obviously, that they know about your area of research. This sounds simple but actually turns out to be sort of complicated, because if you're like me then your thesis probably combines several different research areas. My thesis, for example, involves not only classical Hollywood cinema (my nominal research field) but also postcolonial studies, film aesthetics, gender studies, gaze theory, textual analysis, postwar history, etc etc. No one person is going to be conversant in all these things, so choosing examiners involves compromising and striking a balance, aiming to cover at least a couple of the most important areas that you refer to.

You might ask why it is to your advantage to have relatively broad coverage, rather than just choosing any two people who will likely pass you without too much hassle. The reason is because the viva is actually intended to improve your work! I.e. if one of your examiners has an issue with something you wrote, then other readers likely will too so it's useful to have it read and criticised from as many angles as possible. (This kind of blew my mind too - that the viva is actually supposed to be useful!)

Another criterion is seniority. I've heard it said several times now, by people who would know, that younger/less experienced thesis examiners are more likely to have a particular agenda to push. Lecturers tend to need a lot of experience, apparently, before they are able to see the bigger picture and pass a well-supported thesis even when they disagree with it. (I would hope that this isn't universally true, but like I say, I have heard it a few times now.)

Reputation and renown are also important factors. Your examiners, particularly your external, will become key contacts for you as you enter the job market and seek publishing opportunities. They would normally expect to serve as a reference on your job applications, in fact. They also, hopefully, will be able to give advice on where to publish and put you in contact with other key researchers in your field. So it's important that they know lots of people - and that lots of people know them.

However, it's better not to have an examiner who is retired or close to retirement. You want them to stick around for awhile to help you along!

Finally, you can often get a feel for someone's personality, even if you haven't met them, by asking around a little. Some researchers who fulfill all the above criteria will have a reputation for a sympathetic, helpful attitude towards their younger colleagues. Even when they disagree with you, you might expect these researchers to do it in a constructive way. Others, not so much. This is probably less important than the other factors but it can still mean the difference between a pleasant viva (yes, they do exist!) and a miserable one.

Does anyone else have any experiences to share about choosing examiners?

July 09, 2012

Print the Document! – by Anna

Well folks, after 6 weeks sitting at home obsessing over it, I can now finally announce that the Document Formerly Known as My Thesis (I've started hating this word so much that it's been banished from my household) is now a complete document. It's not submitted-submitted yet, but I did have to print up a complete copy on Wednesday to give to my supervisor for final feedback.

Folks have been congratulating me on this but to be honest the accomplishment of it hasn't really sunk in. It doesn't feel like an accomplishment because all I can think about is everything that's still wrong with it and that I still need to try and fix.

Or in some cases, not bother to fix, because frankly the Document can't be everything to all people. All it can do is make a clear and cogent argument. Or so I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to share what I've learned in the past few weeks about how one's Document should look, how to print it etc., so that's what this post is actually about!

First of all, here is an easy-to-read description of what your Document should include and how it should look, according to our good friends at the Graduate School (who, by the way, are the Deciders of Such Things). They also describe it in more detail on a PDF, which you can view here (worth looking at, too, if you are wondering about the process of choosing examiners, having a viva etc.)

Both of these can tell you about all the things that need to go at the front (title page, abstract, word count, etc....), how wide the margins should be, required length, etc etc. After I had gotten fed up with writing each day during my self-imposed exile, I would work on all these formatting issues. This turned out to be fairly time-consuming but it was also nice to have a break from writing while still feeling productive.

Finally it came time to print. I had been working 14-hour days for the week or so before the deadline (my supervisor's, not the university's) and was even still finishing my conclusion the night before. Whew.

Here's what I've learned about printing big documents, specifically about the cheapest and easiest options. Bear in mind that I haven't had to deal with bindings yet at this stage, so that might be a completely different ballgame (which I may well write about when I come to it).

Anyway, so far as I figure it there are 3 options for Warwick postgrads (assuming you don't own a printer, although even if you do, it's probably easier to get such a big document done elsewhere).

(1) Print it 'manually' using printer credits and a Library printer

(2) Use Warwick Print (the university's print shop, located in Westwood campus)

(3) Use an independent company

My Document as it stands is 233 pages (which is shorter than it will be once I adjust the margins for a final draft; I was just trying to save some paper/money), so that's how I'll calculate it here.

When I did the math, Option 1 (using a Library printer) came to £13.98 (at £.06 per page). That didn't seem too bad but I was a little worried about the printer running out of paper or ink in the middle of the job and then it being a huge hassle (and possibly costing more money). Also I was feeling so exhausted and fed up that the idea of having to deal with this kind of problem made me want to cry.

Option 2 (using Warwick Print) was £23, which seemed pretty steep. Plus it would take them up to 4 hours (or overnight if you send it to them late in the day).

As to Option 3, I called up my local Mail Boxes Etc. in Leamington Spa to inquire. They said they could do it immediately - as soon as I emailed them the file - and that it would cost £.10 per double-sided page (again, I was trying to save some paper/money; you have to print single-sided for the final draft). So this came out to £11.65. Obviously I was sold. They were fantastic and I would totally recommend them if you live in Leam (website here), or another independent print shop if you're somewhere else.

Does anyone else have any experiences to share about this?

May 08, 2012

On bullshit – by Anna

I spent the day on Friday attending 'Othering Academia: A (B)ull/shit Conference' put on by three postgraduates in the English department. I was expecting a day of laughs and lightheartedness about academia and the sometimes obscure or silly ways we talk about things - which I definitely got. But underneath it all, as we discussed in a roundtable at the end, it was actually a serious interrogation of what academic bullshit is, and how it functions within the academy.

Highlights of the day included Virginie Sauzon and Claire Trevien's paper 'A la recherche du Tesco perdu: The unbearable lightness/otherness of capitalism in Rimbaud', which was a hilarious sendup involving a supposed sexual liaison between Arthur Rimbaud and the founder of Tesco. Another favourite was Anirudh Tagat's 'Mine is faster than yours: Analysing speed of speaking from an economic perspective', in which Tagat completely made up his evidence and conclusions for our edification. Andrea Selleri's 'Vibrating subjects: Motorhead and the cunnilinguistics of the Other' also stood out as the day's most straight-faced piece of pure unadulterated bullshit. Well done, everyone!

However, all this came with a serious set of questions, which coincidentally have been coming up for me in the past few days anyhow. In the US there has been a bit of a furore this week amongst academics over a blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Naomi Shaeffer Riley which dismissed and ridiculed the work of four young Black Studies scholars as irrelevant 'hackery'. What's interesting is that she essentially accuses these scholars of bullshit - of looking at topics irrelevant to the wider culture, and of doing so in a way that is based on left-wing ideology and is impossible to understand (although she has not taken the trouble to read the dissertations).

This highlights, to me, the complicated thing role that bullshit seems to play in the academy. As philosopher H.G. Frankfurt's now-classic essay On Bullshit suggests, bullshit is not the same as a lie - rather it's a statement that is made without regard to truth; the bullshitter, he contends, is more interested in gaining power for himself (and it is often a male-gendered thing, though not always) than in stating the truth.

Here are some possible uses of or contexts for bullshit, according to ideas that came out at the conference on Friday:

  • Impressing funding bodies in applications
  • Making what you're saying sound complicated or intelligent (although this might not always be done at the conscious level)
  • Taking a simple pleasure in obscure language, or in the feeling of mastering it
  • Lubricating social interactions amongst academics
  • Applying a potentially complicated theory to a particular set of texts or artifacts
  • Showing that you have achieved fluency in academic language (for. e.g. PhD students)

This last point seems especially relevant to the Black Studies case, because Schaefer Riley is essentially (beyond the obviously racist comments she makes, which have been eloquently discussed elsewhere) accusing these doctoral students of taking the language of academia too seriously. Yet, as someone pointed out today, the overuse of technical academic language often relaxes after an academic has tenure; bullshit contains an aspect of proving that you belong within the academic 'priesthood'. So in this sense, her picking on PhD students, which seems very unfair, is actually quite telling of the ideological structures of academic bullshit.

April 18, 2012

Homesickness and culture clashes – by Anna

Does anybody else besides me ever get homesick? Is this an international student thing or does it happen to people from other parts of Britain too?

I have been mega-super-ultra-homesick recently. As you may know, I'm from America. Well really I'm from California. Actually no, I'm from San Francisco. (This is very important is first San Francisco and secondly California that I miss. I don't really miss America that much per se.) It's weird because I've lived in the UK for a total of nearly 6 years, which is long enough to start thinking of it as 'home' in many ways. If I go somewhere else, when I return to Leamington I say I'm going 'home' - even if I've been in the US. Although I also say I'm going 'home' when I'm flying to San that's sort of confusing.

Also, when I'm in America half the people think I'm British because of my accent. Can you believe it? I know. It kind of feels like I belong in neither and in both places. I guess this is what people mean when they talk about being 'transnational'?

Anyway, despite all this, the homesickness still comes in waves. Every few months I'll have a big proper bout of it. I think it has something to do with the weather, as it always seems to be worst in the late fall when it's getting cold and we're settling in for another miserable winter, and in spring when it's SUPPOSED to be nice weather but isn't. San Francisco is not the warmest place on earth - most of the reputation for endless California sunshine applies more to southern California than to the northern bits - but it is mild and very often warm and sunny, and has long, dry summers which I miss like crazy (it stays cool in the city itself but the surrounding areas get very hot).

Growing up in California, the natural state of things was to have a tan - even a bit in winter. It never completely went away. After living in the UK for 2 years I reached what I fondly call Absolute White - the point at which my skin can't get any lighter. You know, the colour your @$$ is because it never sees any sunlight at all? When my whole body turned that colour, I pretty much despaired. (Not really, but a little.)

Yet despite all this, I still sometimes see or hear British things that surprise me. I consider myself more or less totally conversant in British English now - my supervisor has insisted all along that I use British spellings etc in my thesis, for example. Yet I still occasionally hear a Britishism I hadn't heard before. 'Nesh' is one I heard recently - apparently it means 'sensitive to cold', which totally describes me!

Here is my all-time favourite resource for how to 'translate' what British people say:

What British people say...

So true! :)

Does anyone else have any homesickness or 'culture clash' stories to tell?

February 14, 2012

Housing foibles – by Anna

We've been discussing disruptions to PhD work a lot this week, so I thought I'd take a slightly different tack and narrate to you some of the foibles I've faced over housing in the course of my PhD. I'm now a fourth year PhD student and housing has pretty much been the bane of my life for the last 3.5 years, continuing to today!

Or really yesterday, as I just yesterday moved to a new place for what had REALLY BETTER BE the final time before I finish my thesis.

ANYWAY. Here goes:

First year:

I was moving here from the US. I had been at Warwick previously to do a Masters but had since moved back home for a couple of years, so I was literally arriving with a suitcase to move into a place I had never seen. The room given to me by Warwick Accommodation was a dark, tiny basement room in a dingy house on Kenilworth Road - with heavy traffic wizzing by at all hours.

If you know me then you know I'm susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (getting sad in the winter), so being in a dark basement room was really hard during the colder months! I would wile away hours feeling oppressed by the four walls, the short ceiling...also the walls were a hideous baby blue, which really should not have made me as upset as it did. It was hard to work. I would make up excuses to leave by having coffee dates with friends. Which was nice, but it was bad news for my thesis.

Then I made a big mistake: I started dating someone who lived in the same house. The relationship was volatile and short-lived, but it made things even more difficult because I never felt at peace in my own house. Ugh.

Second year:

I moved to a different room in the same house. The boy moved out (at the time we were still dating, on-again-off-again, but it soon petered out). The new room was above ground, lighter and brighter and larger than the old one - not to mention, it was at the back of the house, so traffic noise was minimal. Before long I invested in an extra-large, super pimpin' king size bed that I could spread out on, in my newfound singlehood, and happily wile away the hours reading.

But bad news: in my zealousness to save money (and run things too - I always seem to want to run things I have no business running!), I took on a role as Warden of the property. The first few months of this were fun - helping people get settled in, organising pub trips and the like - but then the reality set in that I had a couple of difficult housemates who pissed everyone off, and I was supposed to mediate all the drama. Also at one point, the landlord decided to completely overhaul the heating system in the middle of the year - creating daily disruptions in terms of noise and having workers trudging through the house at all hours for several weeks! Argh.

Third year:

Somewhat reluctantly - no, let's face it, I knew this was a terrible idea - I agreed to be Warden of the same house for another year. I didn't want to give up the rent discount, basically. Smart move, Anna.

It was more of the same, basically - disruption after disruption. More difficult housemates, more house repairs, plus a load of house repairs that kept not getting done (the house was old and needed a lot of repairs...). Also there was an incident involving racist comments made by one housemate to another, so that was fun.

Fourth year:

I finally wised up and moved out of that house. I picked a quiet room as lodger in a house with a very nice older couple who paid the bills and dealt with repairs and everything, so I wouldn't have to think about anything.


A few months ago, my landlady found out her sister had cancer. Terminal cancer. The sister lived alone so she moved in with us, which was not a problem in itself, except that soon there were doctors, nurses, relatives, friends coming in and out at all hours. Not to mention, my landlord and landlady were super stressed out all the time! It was hard to be around, although it was totally not anyone's fault and I felt bad that I wanted to be away from it. But I was trying to finish my thesis and keep up with my part-time job at the same time, so there wasn't a lot of extra time for dealing with others' emotions about dying (not to mention my own).

So, finally, I have moved again. This time, I've moved in with my partner of 2 years. This is a big gamble, in a way, but hopefully before it all comes crashing to the ground (ha) I will have finished my thesis at least....

February 10, 2012

Our birthday party + awards ceremony – by Anna

Follow-up to TODAY – It's our birthday! First annual blogger/reader meetup – by Anna from PhD Life: a blog about the PhD student experience

Tuesday night was our fantastic, lovely birthday party and first annual awards ceremony!

After a more businessy meeting in the Research Exchange, we headed over to the Dirty Duck for drinks. The atmosphere was great - there were about 16 of us and we were all very merry as we pulled tables and chairs together. It was so nice seeing everyone and celebrating our fantastic blog!

And now, the awards! Drumroll please.....

Most Original Post: Lauren Thompson

For her fantastic post You're no fun anymore.

lauren award

Peer Support Award: Ceren Kaya

For her great attitude, willingness to get involved, and always being the first to put comments and supportive feedback on others' posts!

Ceren wasn't there, so here is my extremely sophisticated photographic representation of what it would have looked like:

ceren award

Most Interactive Blogger: Faisal Azhar

For always writing posts that get loads of comments and discussion!

faisal award

And finally:

Blogger of the Year: Bernie Divall

For all her dedication and fantastic writing! She was the popular winner too, as bloggers voted on this award.

Bernie award

Big round of applause for our award winners, and all of our fantastic bloggers!

Love to you all. xxxx

February 07, 2012

TODAY – It's our birthday! First annual blogger/reader meetup – by Anna

Happy birthday PhD Life! Today's the day!!!!

To celebrate, we'll have our first annual BIRTHDAY BLOGGER-READER MEETUP - TODAY at 5:30PM at the Dirty Duck. All are invited, and we sincerely hope you can make it!

Some history of the blog:

Last January, we started the PhD Life blog as a way to create a sense of community amongst PhD students at Warwick - one that would go across all disciplines and departments. We all have a lot in common as budding researchers, yet it seemed like there was no way to talk about the stuff we all share and can help each other with - stuff like how to manage your time or how to deal with a difficult supervisor.

We count 3 February as our birthday (OK, it was actually last week), though, because on exactly this day was published the first entry that I didn't write myself! Pete Kirwan, who hung around the Rex a lot, graciously offered to start blogging with me, and our community blog was born. (He has since moved on to a faculty position at Nottingham.)

The PhD Life blog over the past year has turned into a great forum for sharing our experiences of this PhD Life of ours, and I love, love, LOVE having the privilege to be the editor. Thanks so much to all our bloggers and readers for making this blog the great resource it is! Keep those posts and comments coming.

Finally, just to make today extra special, here's some R-Patt for y'all:


January 30, 2012

Which window should I throw you from? – by Anna

My supervisor and I are having a, erm, disagreement about the formality of the language in my thesis. She seems to think it has to be extremely formal at all times, even to the point where she strikes through phrases like 'cutting down the task at hand' or 'straining at the seams' as too colloquial.

A particular bugbear of hers is when I end a sentence with a preposition. I'm perfectly aware that there is supposedly a grammatical rule against this! I disagree with it because I think the acrobatics a writer has to go through to avoid it are totally pointless and don't achieve anything other than pleasing some grammar freaks somewhere. Yet every time I get a chapter back from her, she painstakingly takes me through every one of my grammatical 'errors'. Better use of time, please?!

This is really starting to get on my nerves. One problem is that I don't write (or think) formally. I struggle enough with just getting the words on the page in the first place, without having this additional devil on my shoulder about whether it's formal enough to satisfy some arbitrary rules!

And for another thing, I'm really unclear on what purpose such formality would serve. Replacing an expression everyone knows with some longer words that mean basically the same thing doesn't create more clarity; if anything the opposite is true.

The supervisor seems to see it as a basic requirement of writing a thesis, like having footnotes or a bibliography, but I really don't see it that way and it feels like this is just an unexamined assumption on her part.

Besides which, it doesn't seem like this is universal belief even within academia. Many of the most famous academics are often the least formal in their language. I think using slightly less formal turns-of-phrase makes you sound as though you've mastered the material.

Maybe y'all can help me out on this one though? Is this a problem anyone else has encountered?

By the way, my favourite ever response to correcting a grammatical mistake is in With Honors, this cheesy film from the early 1990s starring Brendan Fraser as a Harvard student and Joe Pesci as a homeless guy, who strike up an unlikely friendship. Fraser takes Pesci to one of his lectures, where he starts an argument with a snooty professor. Finally, fed up, Pesci says:

Pesci: 'Which door do I leave from?'

Professor: 'At Harvard, we don't end our sentences with a preposition.'

Pesci: 'Fine. Which door do I leave from, asshole?'

(Immortal movie moment, in my opinion.)

January 27, 2012

Meetup reminder

Reminder: Our first annual bloggers/readers meet-up will be held on Tuesday 7 February at 5:30pm in the Dirty Duck! This will be an informal event for our bloggers and our readers (that means you!) to come down to the pub and chat over drinks about doing a PhD, blogging, or any other topic.

If you're interested in blogging with us, this would also be a great opportunity to meet the team and register your interest. We're always taking new writers so don't be shy! (You do need to be a PhD student at Warwick.)

See you all there! Remember: Tuesday 7 Feb, 5:30pm, The Duck.

January 18, 2012

Blog anniversary meet–up!

Happy birthday to us!

To celebrate, we'll be holding an informal meet-up for our readers on 7 Feb.

Meet the Bloggers event

What: An informal meet-up for readers and bloggers to greet and chat over drinks.

When: Tuesday 7 February, 5:30pm

Where: The Dirty Duck

Who: All are welcome!

Why: Because we are the best PhD blog ever! Also because we love our readers.

Hope to see you all there!

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