Monday, 18 May 2009

Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life: Elrena Evans, Caroline Grant: Books Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life: Elrena Evans, Caroline Grant: Books

"Mama PhD offers a series of lively personal essays from women who share varied experiences of being both mothers and academics, from struggling to keep down morning sickness while lecturing to a room full of students, to writing a dissertation while caring for a child with special needs, to negotiating viable maternity and family leave policies. Honest, funny, frustrated, provocative, and, yes, in love with their work, these writers don't claim that their experience in the academy is more difficult than any other working mother's."

Product Details

* Paperback: 288 pages
* Publisher: Rutgers University Press (July 30, 2008)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0813543185
* ISBN-13: 978-0813543185
* Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Final Hurdle: Preparation for the Final PhD Examination

Source: The Final Hurdle: Preparation for the Final PhD Examination

The viva examination is the culmination of the PhD process. However, it is important to prepare carefully for this final and important hurdle. In this paper, Barbara Jack looks at the different stages of the viva examination, which include undertaking a careful and systematic preparation. This preparation involves gaining a comprehensive awareness of the university procedure for the viva, researching examiners, and considering the value of having a mock viva. The paper explores the actual viva and makes suggestions to deal effectively with questioning from the examiners. Finally,
the results of the viva and steps needed to address corrections are discussed

Your viva -

Your viva - Your viva

Once you have submitted your thesis you will be invited to defend the work at a ‘viva voce' (Latin for ‘by live voice'). The viva is a daunting prospect, but the fact that you are about to face it means that your doctorate is almost complete. Many people really enjoy this experience of discussing their research with genuinely interested experts. Remember that it is also a potentially important networking opportunity.

Take the preparation for your viva seriously and devote a substantial amount of time to it. Use our viva preparation checklist to help you to prepare.
Things you may wish to take into the viva

* your thesis - marked with post-its if you wish
* a list of questions that you might be asked and your planned responses
* any questions that you want to ask your examiners
* additional notes which you have made during your revision.

During the viva

Your study will have strengths and weaknesses: it is essential that you are prepared to discuss both. You could think of any weaknesses as an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal. Examiners will seek to find and discuss weaknesses in all theses. Do not interpret criticism as indication of a possible negative outcome.

Examiners have different personalities, styles and levels of experience. Sometimes a candidate may feel that a challenge is made in a confrontational way. Experienced, effective examiners will not be inappropriately confrontational, but some will. Do not take offence. A relaxed, thoughtful, and non-confrontational response from you will help re-balance the discussion.

During the viva:

* ask for clarification of ambiguous questions or ask for the question to be repeated if necessary
* take time to think before answering
* be prepared to ask questions and enter into a dialogue with your examiners
* be ready to admit if you don't know the answer to a question
* be prepared to express opinions of your own.

You are not expected to have perfect recall of your thesis and everything that you have read and done. If you get flustered, or need to refer to notes your examiners will understand. They have been in your situation themselves!
After your viva

You thought it was all over... but we have compiled what happens after your viva:

* Possible outcomes
* Corrections

Preparing for the viva

preparing for the viva

Preparing for the Viva and what to expect
(Advice from Socrel list members)

After a request was posted on the mailing list for some hints and advice regarding the PhD viva examination, numerous points were made by list members, and it was decided to compile them together in the form of a dedicated page on the Socrel website. So here are some general tips regarding what to do (and equally, what not to do!) during the viva.

Before the Viva

* Read your thesis over and over again so you know it inside out
* Does your University run a viva preparation course? If so, get on it.
* Write out what you think the main contributions of your thesis are
* Compile a list of key themes, and consider how they relate to each other
* Write out chapter summaries of each chapter so that you're clear on what each chapter achieves, what its central arguments are, and so on.
* Prepare example answers and take your notes in with you.
* Get fellow students to ask you the questions you dread, and have a mock viva with your supervisor.
* Use post-it notes to flag significant pages in your thesis (and make sure you take the thesis in with you!).
* Make sure you understand your University's regulations about procedures for corrections (minor or major).

During the Viva
* Remember that this is one exam where you'll know more about the subject than your examiners.
* The examiners will probably start out by asking you what your thesis is about. Don't let this throw you - it doesn't mean they haven't read it but rather that they are required to ascertain whether or not you wrote it.
* Know what you have to defend and what you can let go. It's OK to disagree with your examiners' reading of your work and their own position vis-à-vis what you propose. But you need to know where to draw the line and to concede the point.
* Bear in mind that it is unlikely that your examiners will have read every single thing you've written in your thesis and will therefore more likely confine discussion to the broad themes, and the broad implications of your thesis - you can cleverly guide them to this by making sure that your thesis is well signposted with good clear introductions and conclusions to each chapter.
* Examiners may ask you about 'fuzzy' terminology - terms like postmodernism etc. can be quite woolly and the examiners may wish to clarify their usage with you to be sure you are aware of debates surrounding such terms.
* It's important to remember that what examiners are really trying to assess is your competence in the wider field in which you're situated and so you should try and link what you've done to some of the big debates in your field. Be clear about what you bring to the table and what it contributes to other work in a similar area.
* Use examples and evidence from the thesis in your discussion with the examiners and don't rush your answers.
* Don't worry if some of the questions seem a little aggressive or unsympathetic. You are not being personally attacked and so you should try to relish the chance to defend what you've worked so hard on for so long.
* Produce a list of typos etc. so that you can present them to the examiners if appropriate (this can help to avoid being given corrections).
* Try to relax and enjoy it - A viva is the first (and probably the last) chance where you'll have the undivided attention of two people interested in your work

After the viva
Make sure that after your viva you go out and let your hair down with some friends. It's a chance to celebrate your success but also to thank your friends for putting up with you for the last however long!

Books and resources list members have found useful:

Cryer, Pat. (2006) The Research Student's Guide to Success, Open University Press.
Joseph Levine's
Murray, Rowena. (2003) How to Survive Your Viva, Open University Press.
Phillips, E. M. and D.S. Pugh. (2000) How to Get a PhD, Open University Press.
Rugg, Gordon and Marian Petire. (2004) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Success, Open University Press.

The Good Viva Guide, (video) Angel productions (

Surviving your Viva

Surviving your Viva
What is a viva?
Quick links

* What is a viva?
* Preparation
* The viva itself
* Review

In some countries, such as the UK, it is usual for a degree based on research (notably the PhD and MPhil) to be examined orally before the final award is given. The purpose is to allow the student to meet with examiners, who should be scholars of some standing in the field, and discuss their research with a view to explaining why they approached it the way that they did. It is called viva from the Latin viva voce, meaning living voice.

The viva causes much anxiety to research students, partly because having to talk about one’s research work in an examination situation is scary enough anyway and partly because of lack of common practice causes confusion as to what is expected. However, as with other stressful situations, you can make things easier for yourself if you take control and prepare as much as you can.

Conventions vary from country to country: the oral examination for a research degree (and in some cases, the research component for a taught degree) is pretty universal in the UK, but in Australia only occurs in borderline cases, while in Europe a public defence against an ‘adversary’ is more common, and the thesis may be in the form of a small volume of published papers.

In the UK, open defences are less common (although there has been some call for vivas to be made public), and while the exact procedure varies from institution to institution, the following practices are common:

* Appointment of internal (from the home institution) and external (from another institution) examiners.
* The examiners read the thesis, and decide whether it is ready to be examined (if it’s not of sufficient standard, the viva should not take place).
* If it is ready to be examined, the student’s supervisor agrees the date with all concerned, and makes sure that a room is available, with refreshments etc.

Duration varies but normally two to two and a half hours is felt to be sufficient. The student can ask for a break. In addition to the internal and external examiner and the candidate, the supervisor may be present as a ‘silent witness’, to be a ‘friendly face’ for the candidate and to witness to any required amendments; the Head of Department and a representative of a funding body may also attend.

Your preparation for your viva should start when you start to work for your degree, as you familiarize yourself with your institution’s criteria for awarding a PhD/MPhil.

Around the time of submission

The trigger for the examination process is your actual submission of the thesis; the ensuing viva will take place after about three months. Before you submit, you should know who your external examiner is likely to be (your supervisor may have discussed names with you before you submit, giving you a chance to make sure you incorporate any key works in your thesis). At the stage of submission, you should find out

* Who the external and internal examiners will be, and as much about the former as you can: what research has he/she done in your area and is the viewpoint different? Any personal quirks?
* What form the viva will take.

In the month before the viva

This is the time when you need to concentrate on your most important preparation: rereading the thesis itself, working through each chapter. Make sure you know:

* What were the steps you took in the research: why did you decide on your research design, and use the methodologies, data collection methods and samples that you did?
* What are the major strengths and weakness of the thesis? You need to make sure that you highlight the former in your viva, but also that you are aware of the latter. Are there any omissions? Is there anything that is unclear? Your weaknesses will not necessarily fail you: no research is perfect. However, awareness of them gives the message that you are a reflective scholar, able to criticize and see all points of view.

One strategy for reading a thesis critically (Phillips and Pugh, 2000, p. 153) is to get a couple of sides of feint-ruled A4 paper, and draw a column in the middle of each, so that you have two columns each with 35 lines. Put a page number on each line, followed by a brief summary of the idea contained on that page.

As you read through your thesis, you will notice minor errors such as typos and incomplete references. Make a list of these and see that the examiners have a copy.

You should also try and prepare in your mind the sorts of questions you are likely to be asked. Remember to word questions in different ways, so that you are not thrown if the examiner does so. Candidates are often asked to provide summaries of their thesis as an opening question, so prepare longer and shorter versions. You should also prepare some questions for the examiners, for example you could ask their advice on getting published.

It is a good idea to prepare yourself more formally by having a mock viva with others acting as examiners: you should prepare for this as carefully as you would for the real thing, and should receive feedback. Those who ‘examine’ you should be familiar with the subject and should know the usual practices.

Finally, make sure that you are aware of new developments in the literature in the period between submission of your thesis and your viva.

The days before the viva

As the viva approaches, if you have followed the above advice you should be thoroughly mentally prepared. Now is the time to prepare yourself physically as you would before any major life event: make sure that you have enough rest; eat properly; avoid excess drugs and alcohol; be positive and spend time with positive people.

Don’t leave decisions about what you will wear to the last moment: you don’t want to wake up on the day and find that that suit at the back of the wardrobe has got stains down the front. Decide a week beforehand what you will wear: this should normally be smart, unless you are in a part of academia where grunge is the norm, in which case you will not want to upstage the examiner!
The viva itself

Immediately beforehand

Equip yourself with what you need, which should be:

* A copy of your thesis
* Pen and paper, to make notes of the questions and your responses
* Food and water
* Handkerchiefs

Decide where you are going to wait: in the general administrative office, or will you prefer to be somewhere private?

Once in the room, make sure you are seated comfortably in the centre of your chair, that you have time to set down and arrange your pen, paper and thesis, and have water to hand.


The precise form of vivas vary however certain conventions are common:

* After panel members have been introduced, you will be asked some easy, ‘social’ questions designed to put you at your ease, for example how have you enjoyed studying at that particular university. Thereafter, questions will divide into:
* General questions, for example:
+ A request to summarize your thesis
+ Why did you choose this particular subject?
+ Questions about your conceptual framework
* Specific questions, possibly on a very particular part of the thesis in which case examiners should provide page references and give you time to look up the reference. These will commonly be on:
* The literature review – the examiners will want to know that you have a broad understanding of the research in the field.
* The methodology –
+ Why did you choose that particular design and what are its limitations?
+ How did you ensure against bias?
+ What is the link with your research questions?
+ How did you ensure validity and reliability?
+ Detailed questions about your sample, method of analysis etc.
* Broader issues: how does your research contribute to the field?

Broadly speaking, the examiners are concerned to establish that your thesis is adequate for the type of award concerned. For a PhD, the thesis should make a distinct contribution to knowledge and be original. There have been a number of attempts to define the criteria for PhD research and one is given below (Sharp and Howard, 1996, p. 218).

1. Evidence of original investigation or the testing of ideas.
2. Competence in independent work or experimentation.
3. An understanding of the appropriate techniques.
4. Ability to make critical use of published work and source materials.
5. Appreciation of the relationship of the special theme to the wider field of knowledge.
6. Worthy, in part, of publication.
7. Originality as shown by the topic researched or the methodology employed.
8. Distinct contribution to knowledge.

Take your time answering questions: make notes of the questions and of your response, and look up the relevant part of the thesis. If you are not clear about what the examiners mean, ask for clarification. Talk about your research in the past tense.

We have already stressed the importance of being thoroughly familiar with your thesis; however your attitude is important and the wrong attitude may cost you the viva. Here are some common pitfalls:

* Being over defensive. You are defending your thesis in a scholarly sense, not in a court of law! It is common in this context to talk about the ‘define-defend’ approach, in other words you are explaining what you did and why, but acknowledging that there are alternatives.
* Confidence, over or under. Showing too much confidence is not a good thing; better to be modest. On the other hand, lack of confidence is not good either: you worked hard for your thesis, and prepared well for your viva, so you have every reason to feel in control.
* Finding it difficult to talk about your thesis, perhaps because you feel bored with it, or you are not used to talking about your own work. These are inhibitions you need to overcome, by focusing on your work’s strengths, and also by looking at it as objectively as possible.
* Being over anxious. It is natural to feel nervous, but nerves can hamper your performance if not controlled. A good way of combating stress is to control what you can, which you can best do by practicing answers and making sure you are thoroughly familiar with your thesis.


After the viva is complete, the examiners will ask you to leave the room whilst they deliberate. There are a number of possible outcomes:

* Immediate award of the thesis, without any revision (rare).
* Minor revisions required.
* Major revisions required.
* Downgrade to MPhil.
* Outright fail.

Of these possible outcomes, clearly only the first two are desirable, while the third is becoming more common now that people are being encouraged by the Research Councils to complete theses in a shorter time span. You should bear in mind, however, that a decision to award the degree will be based partly on the quality of the thesis itself and partly on the performance in the viva. You can greatly enhance your performance in the latter by careful preparation.
References and further reading

* Murray, R. (2003), How to Survive your Viva , Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
* Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D.S. (2000), How to get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors , 3rd edition, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK
* Sharp, J.A. and Howard, K. (1996), The Management of a Student Research Project , 2nd edition, Gower Publishing, Aldershot, UK
* Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004), The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Printed from:
on Sunday May 17th, 2009

Saturday, 9 May 2009

How to write a thesis - Google Book Search

How to write a thesis - Google Book Search:

The Ulitimate Guide to Thesis Writing

In How to Write a Thesis, you will find practical, easy-to-follow advice for mastering this challenge, from getting started to revising.

More details

How to write a thesis
By Rowena Murray
Edition: 2, revised
Published by McGraw-Hill International, 2006
ISBN 0335219683, 9780335219681
320 pages

Monday, 4 May 2009

I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t … |

I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t … |

I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t …


Vanessa Paxton
Photo: Vanessa Paxton

I find myself blurting out I don’t know as an instant answer to questions I don’t have immediate answers for. Lately, I’ve been noting how these simple words made me feel, and I’m starting to take notice that on some level, these casual words are effecting my emotions and self-esteem.

Saying I don’t know, I’m sorry, I can’t and “I don’t want to but have to” are slowly changing my mindset. Through my observations, I’ve noticed how common it is to use these popular phrases without giving them a second thought.

Do you find yourself saying the words I’m sorry or I don’t know often? Did you know that this over-sighted language pattern is actually limiting our potential to happiness and ultimately getting what we want?

Let’s have a closer look at each one and notice their effect in our internal mental space. Let’s, also, consider some alternative phrases we can use in their place, which are more conducive to our personal growth.

Before diving in, let’s point out a few things about our unconscious mind.

Our Hidden Gold Mine: The Unconscious Mind

We function as a result of the beautiful harmony between our conscious and unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is the master mind hidden away from our awareness. It is a powerhouse of unlimited potential. Our unconscious mind stores the majority of information in our brains, and can process much more data simultaneously (about 2 billion times more) than the conscious mind.

We believe that our conscious mind controls everything, because it is the only brain we are acutely aware of. And we commonly associate our conscious mind as “me”.

If our conscious mind is indeed “in control” as we believe, then why do we sign up for gym memberships after new years and never go? Why it is that even after we’ve decided on something we really want (like a new hobby), we fail to take action on it?

While our conscious mind is the captain of our ship, our unconscious mind is the guys in the engine room, making the ship run. The ship moves because of the work done by these engine room guys. They listen to the commands from the captain, without question. They are exceptional at taking commands and executing them.

Since the conscious mind has limited capacity and can only become aware of a very limited set of information, our unconscious mind only surfaces what we consider important. How does the unconscious mind know what’s important? It doesn’t. The unconscious mind determines this based on the frequency of commands it receives of the same topic from the conscious mind.

Each time we have a conscious thought, or we verbalize words aloud, or see a scene in our imagination, it gets fed into our unconscious mind. Like a command from the captain, whether it is our intention or not, the command gets executed in some form; it leaves an impression on the unconscious mind.

This explains why when we are shopping for a particular type of car, we start to notice it everywhere. We have given this car repeated conscious attention. Our unconscious mind noted it as being important and begins to surface this information whenever possible.

In summary, what we say gets noted by our unconscious mind, all the time. It then shows you more evidence to back up those thoughts. This is true for both thoughts which are conducive and un-conducive to our wellbeing.

Okay, let’s dive in!

I’m Sorry

We’re all familiar with and have casually used this in our daily communications. Here are some variations:

  • I’m Sorry but…
  • I’m Sorry
  • Sorry about that

When we reply to an email two days after receiving it, many of us insist on starting the email with I’m sorry. Now consider this: have we done something wrong? Do we really feel sorry? Or are we just repeating a popular saying? What are we gaining as a result of saying this?

Try this: close your eyes. Repeat the words “I’m sorry” in your imagination. You can even say it out aloud. Now, observe your feelings. Do you feel a tightness subtly bunching up in the pit of your stomach? Or a light pull along your inner throat? Do you sense feelings of guilt?

Now imagine that this feeling of guilt is triggered in us each time we say the words “I’m sorry”, even when casually used. Remember how our unconscious mind takes orders of what we say? If we repeatedly tell it that we are sorry for trivial things, then it will note down that we have done something wrong, thus polluting our internal space, unnecessarily.

Additionally, we’ve created an association between that feeling and the action taken. So, if we repeatedly say I’m sorry each time we reply to emails after 2 days, then we’ve programmed ourselves to feel guilt whenever we do not respond to emails immediately.

Lastly, the more we repeat these words, the more we dilute their meaning. People are incredibly sensitive creatures, and can sense when we don’t genuinely feel sorry. This may come off as insincere to them. So we’re better off by not saying it. I recommend we reserve the words I’m sorry to situations when we really mean it, and need it to express our genuine feelings.

Suggested Action Items:

  • Observe yourself in your daily life and see how often you want to say “I’m sorry”.
  • Each time you type “I’m sorry” in an email or catch yourself saying it, ask yourself, “Do I really feel sorry? Or am I just saying it?” If the answer is “I’m just staying it to sound good”, erase it from the email.
  • Try to reduce the frequency of saying I’m sorry. Reserve it for when you really mean it. Reserve it for when you truly feel sorry for something you have done that may have hurt another.

I Don’t Know [Part 1]

When it comes to making a decision, we are often caught saying I don’t know. It’s a popular answer because we get lazy and we have conditioned ourselves to the habit of saying it. Here are some variations:

  • I don’t know where it is
  • I don’t know what to do
  • I don’t know which to choose
  • I can’t decide
  • I don’t know

Kara Pecknold Bored Bordom Table Woman Sitting
Photo by Kara Pecknold

There is a difference between truly not knowing something and believing that you don’t know something. There’s also the connotation that you do not have the ability to decide or to learn something new. These words are repeated so causally that we start to rely on them out of laziness and habit.

At times, even for the smallest decision, we would shrug and say “I dunno”. Why? Because it’s an easy answer. We don’t have to think.

Trivial decisions like, “Which type of pasta should I order for lunch?”, “Which color should I get?” I have personally been caught saying I don’t know during similar scenarios. You’re not alone.

While saying this is the easy way out, it is also conditioning us that indecision is okay. We end up leaving decisions open, while it consumes our mental energy, unnecessarily.

Often times, we have the answer, but we are hesitant to repeat it out of fear that it might be the wrong decision. So instead, we say “I don’t know”.

Each time we use this casually, we are telling our unconscious mind that “I am an indecisive person. I am not very intelligent, because I cannot even decide on the simplest of choices. I am not capable of making a decision on important issues. I am not important.”

I am exaggerating here, but you get the point.

What we repeatedly do becomes our habits. And if we make a habit out of indecisiveness on small decisions, how will we react when we need to make important decisions in life, in business, or in relationships?

Being indecisive sends a similar message to the people around you. We tend to trust and rely on people who are decisive. It is a character strength; especially in business.

Suggested Action Items:

  • Replace “I don’t know” when making a decision with an alternative phrase. Come up with a list of such alternatives. Here are some ideas:
    • “Give me a moment, I have not decided yet.”
    • “Let me think about it.”
    • “I am evaluating my options.”
    • “Hmmm. Let me see…”
    • Action: List out the options and their pros and cons.
  • Practice repeating alternative phrases, so that we can internalize them and say them when appropriate in place of I don’t know.
  • Instead of wanting to fill space and silences with “I don’t know” when being asked a question, practice not saying anything immediately. Pause a moment before speaking.

I Don’t Know [Part 2]

The other type of I Don’t Knows, tend to imply our inability to do something. Here are some variations:

  • I don’t know how to …
  • I don’t see …
  • I don’t remember …

Again, we say this, because it’s easy. We throw our hands up in the air and simply declare that we don’t know. Often, we have given up before we even try.

Consider the following scenario:

Person A: “Where is the salt?”

Person B: “On the kitchen shelf.”

Person A: “I don’t see it.”

Person B walks to where person A is standing, reaches over where person A is looking, and pulls out the salt bottle. It was right in front of person A.

Have you been in such a scenario? I certainly have. Did person A truly not see the salt? Or did person A believe that she did not see the salt? Bingo!

Remember that our unconscious mind takes commands directly from our words? When we tell ourselves that we do not see something, we are passing the message to our unconscious mind in the form of a command. It proceeds accordingly and makes a note to stop passing anymore messages to the conscious mind when salt bottles are seen. Isn’t that funny?

Similarly, when we say “I can’t remember”, we are telling our unconscious mind to not let us know the answer, even though the unconscious mind remembers. So, while we have the memories stored in our unconscious mind, we have deliberately sent the command to not bring the memory to our awareness.

Suggested Action Items:

  • Practice rephrasing common non-conducive phrases to wordings that suggest possibilities. Here are some examples:
    • When you hear yourself saying , “I don’t see the salt anywhere on the shelf”, rephrase and ask yourself, “If I could see the salt, where would it be?”
    • When you want to say “I don’t remember where I put the keys?”, rephrase the question to “If I could remember, what would they be?”
    • Instead of saying “I don’t know how to.”, rephrase to “I have not learned how to do that yet, but I can learn.
    • Instead of saying “I can’t open this” rephrase to “If I could open this, how would I open it? Let me keep trying. I know I can do this!”
  • Practice repeating alternative phrases, and use them when appropriate. Turn the alternative phrasing into a habit.

I Can’t

This is such a common phrase that I too catch myself saying it, and it seems to slip out automatically before I even realize consciously. Here are some variations:

  • I can’t find it
  • I can’t do it
  • I can’t get it working
  • I can’t make it today
  • I can’t remember
  • I don’t have time …

Kara Pecknold Focus Shoes Red
Photo by Kara Pecknold

When we say I can’t do something, we’ve just declared impossibility as a definite answer. We are telling ourselves that we will never be able to do it, because we lack the necessary capabilities.

Similar to I don’t know, there is a difference between not being physically capable to do something, and mentally believing that we do not have what it takes to do it.

By saying we can’t do something, we are suggesting that we do not have the ability to learn, that we have given up, that we lack the potential that other gifted humans possess. Also, by saying things like “I can’t do it” or “I can’t find it” or “I can’t get it working”, we are denying ourselves of possibilities and solutions. We blind sight ourselves.

By saying we don’t have the time, we are impressing upon ourselves that we are very busy, making us feel important. It is an illusion. Yes, we may have a very full schedule, but when we say we don’t have time, it usually means that we just don’t want to do it. Not having enough time is an excuse. If it was important enough, we’d find the time. Besides, if we counted the total time we spent browsing the web, checking email, and watching TV, we would have more than enough time to fit in those things we just didn’t have time for.

One of my favorite quotes is, “If I can’t, then I must.” Try it, you’ll find that what you used to consider impossible suddenly becomes probably and very accessible.

Suggested Action Items:

  • Come up with alternative phrasings to popular I can’t phrases. Here are some examples:
    • Instead of saying “I can’t find it”, say “I have not seen it yet, l will keep looking.” or “If I could find it, where would it be?”
    • Instead of saying “I can’t get it working”, consider saying “It is not working yet, but I will keep trying until it works.” Or “I am still working on this. If you have a sec, will you help me?”
    • Instead of saying “I can’t make it today because…”, consider skipping out the excuses and give a firm but honest answer, “I am going to pass on it now, maybe next time? Thank you for inviting me. It means a lot.”
  • Stop telling others they can’t do something. Alternatives to “You can’t do that” are “I prefer you not to do that” or “I don’t recommend doing that because …” or “I tried it last time and it did not work for me, maybe it will work for you.”

I Have To

Saying I have to suggests that we do not have a choice, and that we are not in control of our lives. Here are some variations:

  • I have to finish this
  • I have to go to this event

For starters, you don’t have to do anything! You know that. The world will not come to an end if you don’t do something (in most cases). We feel like we have to for one of two reasons:

  1. It brings you pleasure/benefit. ie. Something you enjoy doing.
  2. It reduces pain. ie. Losing a job or friendship, or an excuse not to do something else.

Similar to I’m sorry, by suggesting that we have no choice but to do something, we introduce guilt in our inner space. For example, we don’t want to go to a party, but we feel pressure to do so, and if we do not go, we feel guilty. This guilt is really unnecessary.

We are in control of our lives, and instead of saying I have to, replace it with I want to, or I am doing something because here are the benefits it brings me. Maybe you don’t want to go to your friend’s baby shower, but you go to it, because it will make your friend very happy for her special occasion. Your attendance benefits you because it makes you feel good that you’ve made someone else happy.

If we have decided to do something that we would rather not be doing, instead of treating it like a chore or dragging it on with unpleasant thoughts, why not shift our perspective so that we can enjoy it? What benefit will it bring us by prolonging the unhappy thoughts and using the “I have to do this” excuse?

Suggested Action Items:

  • Instead of saying “I have to do this“, say “I want to do this” or “I am doing this because (insert benefits to you)”
  • If you don’t want to do something, instead of giving people excuses starting with “I’d love to but, I have to…“, just gracefully say “Thanks for the invite, but I am resting at home tonight.” Or “Thank you. I have plans tonight. Maybe next time.” (Note: a date with yourself at home count as plans.) You don’t owe anything to anybody. Be honest and do so with your head held high.

Parting Words

The language we use is incredibly powerful. It is a direct command into our unconscious mind. Whether we realize it or not, or it was spoken casually or not, our unconscious mind is listening. Your unconscious mind takes notes even when you’re not paying attention.

While this article focused specifically on language, the same principle is applicable to other sensory inputs. Inputs such as the movies we watch, the clothes we wear, the thoughts we repeatedly iterate in our minds, the day dreams we have, the types of books and blogs we’re reading. They all get fed into our unconscious mind as input and treated as commands.

“Your beliefs don’t simply reflect your reality, they create your reality.”

Our unconscious mind is a magnificent tool, and learning to take advantage of its functions can help us achieve our goals and to live the life that we desire. As fluffy as that may sound, it is true. These are all examples from my own life, and I hope you find these (possibly new) ideas useful in your own life. Adapt them, give them your own twist, live it and pass it on.

What are some alternative phrases you can suggest to I don’t know, I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to? Any other thoughts you want to share with us? Talk to us below in the comments! See you there!

If you enjoyed this article, please vote for it on Digg, share it on StumbleUpon or bookmark it on I appreciate your support. :)

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Sunday, 3 May 2009

6 Surviving Oral Exams

6 Surviving Oral Exams

6 Surviving Oral Exams

©1996,1999 Dianne Prost O'Leary

Last modified May 19, 1999 .

To do well on an oral exam requires a rather different set of skills than those called for on a written exam. You still need mastery of the material, of course, but you need to access and articulate the material in a different way.

Most people find oral exams harder than written, but some really enjoy them!

In a well-designed written exam, the examiner has decided in advance what set of knowledge and skills is to be tested. Problems are designed to be completed within the given time limit, but some false starts and backtracking is expected. Each problem has a known correct answer.

The oral exam differs in each of these characteristics. Although the scope of the exam is given in advance, the examiner usually chooses questions dynamically, based on how the student answers the previous questions. Problems are designed to test the limits of the student's knowledge: often, an examiner will continue to ask questions in a particular area until a student no longer responds correctly. Examiners design problems (or give hints) that elicit the correct approach on the first try, without backtracking. And often the questions are open ended, asking for opinions or ideas for future work or aspects of the research area that the student has not yet considered.

Because of these factors, preparation for an oral exam requires a new approach, even for seasoned veterans of written exams.

You need to think on your feet. This is great if you have the skill. Otherwise, you can only compensate by great preparation.

Some previous experience is helpful: teaching, debating, oral presentations tutoring, class participation, recitals, science fairs, etc.

6.1 Preparing for the exam

The exam is usually tailored to the interests of the particular student. In this case, it is important to have a clear meeting of the minds between student and examiners on what material it included in the exam. Usually this is done by preparation of a written syllabus by the student, with the advice and consent of the examiners.

  • Read and understand the department's rules for the exam. If you have procedural questions, ask them well before the exam.
  • If exams are open to other students, sit in on one to get a feeling for the scope and format. Ask more advanced students for their experiences and advice. Ask your advisor.
  • Choose your syllabus carefully, if you set it yourself. Make sure that it is limited enough to be a coherent body of information that you are able to master and that your committee is comfortable with it. If the syllabus is set by others, make sure you understand its scope clearly and are prepared for all of it.
  • If you can choose your examiners, consider your options carefully. Choose people you are comfortable with, and avoid putting two people on the committee if they cannot get along with each other.
  • Set up a study plan--when you will study, and in what order you will work through the material.
  • Read and understand each item on the reading list, but also understand the relations among the items. Was x influenced by y? What does x think about the work of y? What common tools do x and y use? What is the contribution of x?
  • Be prepared to lecture on the material--present the ideas clearly, give examples, work examples provided to you, prove theorems, compare different approaches, say what's `new' about results in a given paper, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of an approach.
  • Practice in front of a board. Even better, practice with other students who are taking the exam at roughly the same time. Get more advanced students to ask you questions. Check that your voice is loud enough. Aim for a logical presentation of ideas. Make sure that your English is understandable, even if it is not your native language.
  • Ask your advisor to give you a few practice questions and critique your performance.
  • If you provide any written material for the committee (proposal, thesis, etc.), check in with each member during the week before the exam, asking for any questions or suggestions. Some examiners don't read the package in advance, but others may appreciate the chance to clear up some issues, and this can prevent unpleasant surprises at the oral exam.
  • The exam is often easier if it begins with a presentation by you--e.g., what you have done so far in beginning research, what your next steps will be, what work you are building upon, etc. Prepare carefully, and practice it until you are confident of your presentation.

6.2 In the Exam

Sometimes the exam begins with a presentation by the student of initial research results or background material for a given research area. This talk should be carefully prepared, usually using transparencies and an overhead projector. The presentation should be clear, well-rehearsed, and succinct. Your transparencies or other visual aids should be carefully organized and easy for you to find. Give some indication of what the problem is, why it is important, what you have accomplished, and what you hope to accomplish in the future. Sympathetic colleagues or your advisor can give very helpful advice if given a chance to listen to a rehearsal.

The rest of the exam is less structured. The examiners rotate, asking questions in turn. Sometimes one examiner will ask an entire set of questions in a row; other times the examiners interleave their questions with others.

Listen carefully to questions and make sure you understand exactly what is being asked. Follow instructions exactly - if a short answer is requested, keep it short. If more detail is desired, give a longer response.

Don't interrupt a questioner. Wait until he/she finishes the question before you start to answer.

Good examiners will ask you questions on a given topic until they tire of it or until you answer incorrectly. It is all right to be wrong--the purpose of the exam is to discover the limits of your knowledge, and it is all right to have finite limits! Students pass even if they don't know everything asked!

An important rule is to pause briefly after each question is asked. Take just a moment to compose your thoughts, decide what notation is necessary and appropriate, and organize your answer. If you do not understand the question, ask the questioner to rephrase it, or give your interpretation and ask if that is what is meant.

If you are sure you cannot answer the question, it is best to admit that and go on, rather than wasting time and focusing the examiner's attention on what you don't know rather than what you do.

If you are confident about a question, answer as directly as you can, but feel free to make comments about the relevance of this result to your work, etc.

Remember that each new question is a fresh start. Let the old one go. Don't get flustered--remember that the examiners expect you to be unable to answer some questions--that's how they explore the limits of your knowledge.

If you do find yourself losing your composure, ask the examiners for a brief break to get a drink of water or to sit down for a minute. You may be reluctant to delay them this way, but it saves time in the long run to get an accurate assessment of your abilities the first time.

Remember that an oral exam is an exhausting experience--comparable to running a marathon. Pass or fail, try to give yourself a break on other activities immediately before and after the exam.

6.3 If Things Go Wrong...

If you believe that the question covers an area not on the syllabus, it is best to state that directly and non-belligerently, but then answer the question if you can. If it does make the difference between a pass and fail, then you are on record as objecting to the question before failing the exam, and this lends credibility to the objection.

Occasionally, you may find committee members more intent on impressing or belittling each other than they are on exploring the extent of your knowledge. There is not much you can do about this other than staying strictly neutral and trying to avoid assembling the same group for any subsequent exam.

Bias can also be a factor in your exam performance. If you believe that an examiner was predisposed to fail you, try to document how that person's examination of you differed from his/her examination of some other student. Consider trying to get the person excluded from your next exam.

If you fail the exam, make an honest assessment of your weak areas and any weaknesses in your presentation style. Practice. Study. Ask advice from your advisor. Try again.