Sunday, 30 November 2014

Winding up the PhD stagger

Last week I did two PhD vivas. PhD vivas are the rite of passage that PhD students undergo at the end of their PhD. After 3 to 4 years work, researching a particular question they undergo an oral examination to test their knowledge about their research field. Hopefully these are usually enjoyable occasions - an opportunity to talk about what they have been doing for the last 3 or 4 years but my recollection from my own viva (almost exactly 20 years ago today) is that they can be somewhat stressful occasions as well with the candidate wondering precisely what flaw in the thesis each question is designed to expose (in reality the answer is usually none, the examiners are on the candidates side and just give the candidates as many opportunities as possible to demonstrate ownership of the thesis!).

I did 2 vivas last week. On Wednesday I was the external examiner (i.e. the examiner who comes from a different institution) for Gbotemi Adediran at Edinburgh University School for GeoScience (why the capital "S"? Drives me nuts) ably assisted by the internal examiner Saran Sohi. Gbotemi defended his work well and hopefully learnt stuff as well, his supervisors were Bryne Ngwenya (who was a postdoc. at Edinburgh when I was doing my PhD) and Kate Heal with assistance from, amongst others Fred Mosselmans from the Diamond light source. The thesis contained some excellent work, notably the visualisation methods for looking at the co-location of metals and bacteria in phytoremediating plants and tying this in with synchrotron analysis to look at metal speciation.

Then on Friday, I was the internal examiner for Sujung Park, supervised by Alistair Boxall. Dr Iseult Lynch from Birmingham did the honours as external examiner and again, all was well. Sujung has done some really informative research on nanoparticles, highlighting potential issues with standardised methods of assessing their environmental behaviour and toxicity.

Alice Johnston, my PhD student modelling earthworm populations with Richard Sibly at Reading was vivaed a week last Friday as well (by Volker Grimm, the god father of population modelling) and passed with no corrections.

So all told lots of PhD vivas.

This got me thinking about two things.

1. what is the collective name for a bunch of PhD vivas - possibly a graduation of vivas?

2. typically PhD students start in October and then progress at their own speed. Some have funding for 3 years, some for 3.5 years and some for 4. The organised / lucky PhD students finish when their funding ends, others have to plough on a bit tidying up loose ends, though the end of Year 4 is the normal cut-off. In many running races you have a staggered start and as the race progresses the stagger unwinds. In theory, if everyone ran at the same speed my understanding is that they would all cross the line together. For PhDs (despite the 3 vivas above all happening at the same time) there is a tendency for everyone to start together and get somewhat spreadout towards the end so that they all finish at different times. In running people talk about a stagger unwinding. There seems something rather appropriate about the progression and end of a PhD being a gradual process of staggering occurring towards the end!