Tuesday, April 28, 2020

PhD Defenses around the World: a viva at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Yvonne Tse Crepaldi, who shares her insights from the PhD defense. Yvonne Tse Crepaldi obtained her PhD in Linguistics 2017 from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her doctoral research was about how a two-year-old trilingual child responds to caregivers’ requests, using a conversation analytic approach. Currently she is a Research Fellow at the same university, working on projects related to medical communication, while keeping her personal projects on child-adult interactions and multilingualism. When not writing, she plays with her two kids, practises a little ukulele and yoga.

After catching a few breaths from the overwhelming thesis writing, there came the horrifying notice of my Oral Defence (aka 'viva') scheduled 17 days later! Well, I was kind of glad because this came as a result of the examiners' feedback that only minor amendments were needed for my thesis. But on the other hand, I left my thesis at the back of my mind five months ago (which was written with a muddled head anyhow), so where to start?

Like probably what you had or would do, I attended others' defence in my faculty to get a feel and browsed around for tips. After watching a video by Dr. Valerie Balester of Texas A&M University, I felt much assured, because she reminded us that No One fails the Oral Defence! The only failed case among the hundreds that she attended was by a very unprepared student.

Okay, so preparation is the key. The next two week was a lot of hard work:

• First of all, I quickly revised all the minor mistakes as commented by my thesis examiners and sent the improved version to the Oral Defence panel examiners - it's about impression.
• CONTENT:
i. I put together 36 content slides including 8 slides of dividers, cover and thank you, with the clearest examples. (I could only speak for 30 minutes, so clarity is important).
ii. Then, extra 28 slides for anticipated questions and my answers
iii. I added a script in the note section, in case of brain-freeze. Practising with a script also helps me (non-native English speaker) become more fluent, check my timing and revise to make the script more polished. All of these help reduce my nervousness.
• REHEARSAL, REHEARSAL, REHEARSAL:
I. first, I rehearsed with four postgraduate friends in a meeting room almost the same as the one where I will have my oral defence, so I can test my voice projection, laptop and practise body language;
II. then, I rehearsed to a post-doc (I needed someone more senior or who had been there);
III. I also walked through the slides with my supervisor twice for some valuable feedback and potential big questions
IV. then, to my husband (who is distant from academia and my field)
• CHECKLIST:
i. I went through a check list the night before the defence: ironed clothing, shoes, laptop and charger, USB with the slides (insurance!), printouts of the slides (in case of a power-cut :-) ) and my script (insurance!), laser pointer, some snacks to offer the examiners (well that's actually unnecessary), and most importantly, a good sleep!
ii. On the day, I made sure I went to the bathroom beforehand and had my comfort drink ('bubble tea') earlier in the day. In essence, do whatever that relaxes you.

This may be over the top, but that was my way dealing with my tremendous anxiety.

During the preparation, I tried to find out who the panel examiners would be to see how they would perceive my topic, which area may need more clarifications and anticipate the questions. Unfortunately this information could not be shared. So I imagined a mixed batch of examiners - someone from my field (Conversation Analysis), my discipline (Linguistics), from a related discipline (Psychology) and also unrelated area (say Computer Science). That way, I'd have prepared with enough clarity, depth and breadth, and also some out-of-the-blue questions, such as 'how does my study on child-adult interactions situate in the context of AI?', since after all, I am with the Nanyang Technological University.

One pitfall that perhaps many people like myself would commit is spending much time and effort on the nitty gritty of the presentation resulting in a neglect of the "defence". My esteemed supervisor Prof. K. K. Luke reminded me this: just give a gist about your research with 1-2 good examples, focus more on the conclusion, and spend more time on preparing for the questions! Luckily he prompted me a key question "what is new?" during the preparation which helped me answer the first question posed by the chair: "What is the single most important finding?".

Yvonne making use of the prepared Q&A slide to answer examiners’ questions raised at the oral defence

At the defence, my heart pounded as the chair announced a strict 30 minutes to present. I knew that after numerous rehearsal and trimming, I still had a lot. So what saved me was keeping an eye on the clock, having a plan in mind (I knew that I had to get to slide X halfway and leave 7 minutes for conclusion) and having the script. Script does not mean you have to memorize word by word, but simply the points and the flow. It helps minimise wasting time due to word search with fillers (uhm, well, I mean), rambling on, or slip-of-tongue type of errors.

In the end, I was really grateful for the defence. The preparation process helped me think through the essence of my thesis, align the aims, findings and conclusion, making them into a clear thread. I had the defence recorded too, so when I was revising my thesis afterwards, I could include the questions and comments raised. While some of these points may only be relevant for my university or my case, but a good preparation can only do good.

(Thanks to Prof Luke and everyone who has helped me through this process.)

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