Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a PhD viva from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Today, I am hosting the experience of Erin Dyer Saxon in the "Defenses around the world" series. Erin is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution at Endicott College, Beverly, MA (USA). She read for her PhD at Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), and sat her viva in December 2011. Erin’s doctoral research was comparative research on mediation practices in the US and Palestine, including field research in Bethlehem, West Bank. In particular, Erin’s research interests focus on transformative mediation, Palestinian sulha, culture and conflict resolution, nonviolence, and the nature of dispute resolution processes in conflict areas.

I had the good fortune of having a genuinely strong and positive relationship with my doctoral supervisor. I had already developed a research proposal and timetable when I applied for the degree, and my supervisor used this template to guide me through the stages of developing my work. I started writing on day one, and my supervisor began providing feedback shortly thereafter. As the time wore on that part of the process was never daunting, and I learned early on that the PhD is not just solitary work; a PhD is a conversation that starts long before the viva.

Before the defense
After the first year of the degree, I had an internal defense with two examiners from our department (the Irish School of Ecumenics). The purpose of this “transfer viva” is to consider the proposal for the research degree and to examine a small body of work. In my case, I had developed my research proposal following an intense literature review, and submitted a chapter that I had prepared for the examiners. The examiners ask about the literature review, the methodology for the field research, and the goals for the thesis. When successfully completed, the student transfers from being student on the M.Litt (research Masters) register, to formally being a PhD candidate.

Planning the viva
Before submitting the thesis in draft form to the Graduate Studies Office, I was able to give my opinions for the make up of the committee and prospective dates. My supervisor submitted the requests for the internal and external examiners, and I was fortunate that after submitting on October 1, my viva was scheduled for the morning of December 20. I combed through my thesis to find any typographical errors and major points that I wanted to make, so that on December 20, I had a color-coded master document to work from.

The day of the viva

My defense was very intimate and, thankfully, a closed affair. It was not open to the public, faculty, other candidates, etc. My committee was made up of my internal examiner familiar with Palestinian culture and a specialist on ecumenics, peacebuilding, and religion, and my external examiner who was a specialist on international conflict resolution. Another internal faculty member chaired the viva but was not part of the assessment. My supervisor was present for moral support but did not provide any commentary.

The viva itself
My examiners had met before we arrived to discuss their questions and expected results based on the print copy. When I entered the room, the chair provided an overview of the meeting and what to expect. My supervisor and I had already been through this a week before my viva in a “mock viva” so I felt calm and prepared for this moment. I was asked to provide a summary of my thesis. After this stage, the examiners asked me a range of questions on my thesis and my findings. Despite having a thesis with color-coded post-its to guide me, I did not need to refer to the document once. The questions the examiners asked had little to do with an argument on a random page and everything to do with the new knowledge I had to share. The viva was, truly, an enjoyable and gratifying experience where I could converse with highly respected scholars on my research and its implications. Whatever stress I had going into the viva, I was propelled through it by a deep sense of community and inquiry.

Accepted as it stands
When the examiners questions were finished, my supervisor and I were asked to leave the room so that the examiners could confer with one another. We hadn’t even made our cups of tea before we were called back in! My examiners congratulated me: "We are pleased to recommend that your thesis is accepted as it stands." This meant that I did not need to make any amendments to my thesis to submit it as a final bound copy to the Graduate Studies Office – the examiners were satisfied with the product that I defended that day. This result took me by surprise – but my supervisor had clearly anticipated it! The committee, my supervisor, and I enjoyed freshly corked champagne before heading to a celebratory lunch. Here, I was called Dr. Erin Dyer for the first time and no longer considered a student, but a colleague.

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