“We’re doing a research degree to learn, not to pretend we already know” – My PhD confirmation colloquium experience

On the 21st of May, I had my PhD confirmation colloquium at Deakin University, where I presented my project on learning of evaluative judgement practices in undergraduate physics students. Here, I won’t address the boring-not-boring conceptual and methodological aspects of my presentation. Instead, I will share my experience and, hopefully, give some advice to upcoming doctoral students.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, although the confirmation panel does give a ‘verdict’ about the project, they are also there to provide feedback. Getting approval does not mean that our project is perfect, but that overall it is feasible and demonstrates a sound understanding of theoretical and methodological aspects of research. On the other hand, I understand that Deakin University places the confirmation colloquium early on the candidature to provide a ‘second chance’ to present if the presentation is not satisfactory. As demoralising as an initial rejection could be, the panel will provide valuable feedback that can be used for improving the second presentation. The confirmation is not for defending an already finished project but for presenting a sensible proposal and making it better, which means that the panel may pose some questions that take us by surprise and others that we’re already asking ourselves. It is impossible to anticipate every question, but it is possible to remember that we’re not on trial but at an academic debate.

In my case, I was very confident of my presentation, not only because of the formative aspect of the colloquium, but because it was the result of eight and a half months of work with my supervisors, whose feedback helped me to understand what I needed to improve and what my strengths were. Being confident does not mean feeling invincible, but having a sensible appraisal of your own work and knowing that it will likely fulfil the requirements of the task (in this case, the colloquium), while understanding that there is still a long road ahead.

Quote text: Remember that we are doing a research degree to learn, not to pretend that we already knowMy advice here is to work with your supervisors for your own sake, always respecting their time. For your meetings, don’t be shy, and prepare questions. Remember that we are doing a research degree to learn, not to pretend that we already know. Also, test your ideas: ‘What if…?’ ‘Does it make sense?’ You’ll probably find that many of them won’t take you anywhere, but testing your ideas will give you a sense of what works and will help you to build your confidence before your colloquium (did we end up talking about evaluative judgement here?).

Without going too deeply into the conceptual details, I’m using the Theory of Practice Architectures, of which Professor Stephen Kemmis is one of the main proponents. He also happens to live in Australia. Knowing that the colloquium was an opportunity to receive feedback from people other than my supervisors, and the confidence that I had in my work (again, derived from several months of supervised work), I suggested inviting Stephen as an external member of the panel. Some people have told me that I was being ‘cheeky’, and that may have been the case, but I also thought that this would be an opportunity to get to know and receive direct comments from the person whose work I’ve been reading for months.

As risky as it could have been, it was a wonderful experience to receive good comments and challenging questions from Stephen, as well as the rest of the panel. My advice here? If you’re confident, take sensible risks! A PhD is never an easy trip, but there are risks worth taking. Testing your ideas in front of experts will not only contribute to your immediate research project, but will contribute to your development in your field of expertise. Also, getting to know the lead researchers in your area won’t hurt! Here, I have to highlight that a member of the confirmation panel cannot be an examiner on a final thesis submission. We made the decision of inviting Stephen at this stage because I preferred to have his feedback now rather than at the end.

I have to say that I had a really good time in my colloquium (and that’s why my partner says I’m such a nerd). Of course, being confident of my work reduced a lot of the pressure on the day, but I’ve been working on a project that I find interesting and the work for the presentation was already done. For good or for bad, there was nothing to do but to go there and do my best. This might be an issue of personality, and we may have different approaches, but my advice is to be comfortable with yourself. Besides basic things as having rest the night before, drinking water (but not too much), and so on, do your presentation in a way that feels natural to you. Quote text: my advice is to be comfortable with yourself ... do your presentation in a way that feels natural to youMy recollection of my presentation is that it was plagued with contextually appropriate jokes, but that’s how I go on in everyday life. If you prefer to stick to a serious style, that’s fine as long as you feel comfortable.

Of course, be mindful of the audience; we might be standing, but not doing stand-up comedy! I remember making jokes like being so proud of a conceptual diagram (‘my baby’) that I could disregard my other nine months of work and just keep that, or giving the ‘informal’ reason for some of my decisions before explaining more valid arguments for them (almost remembering Lionel Hutz’s speech about ‘the truth… and the truth’). Also, if it makes you feel more comfortable, invite friends and relatives to attend the public part of the colloquium (or not). It was nice to have my brother there to confirm to my parents that it was worth sending me to school in the first place (you see? I actually made that joke in the room!), to have another doctoral student to see what she will face in a few months (just like I attended other confirmations before mine), and to have another friendly academic who was curious about my work and the theoretical perspective I presented.

I know this is only my perspective, so it may be very different from others’ experiences, and won’t equally apply for the requirements of other institutions. However, I hope this brief post can help upcoming doctoral students to prepare for their confirmation.

For more insights into Juan’s PhD journey, follow him on Twitter: @JuanFischer_

Category list: PhD Students, Reflections

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

back to top