PhDiary #5 ‘The First Draft Always Sucks’ – Preparing for the Confirmation Review
As the summer approaches, I’m sure many first year PhD students are starting to think about their confirmation review. But what is it, how does it work and is it as scary as it sounds?
Around this time last year I was staring down the barrel of the gun. This one piece of work would determine whether my project was in good enough condition to confirm me as a doctoral candidate. I had also never done an oral defence before, so it’s fair to say I was nervous. Well, here’s how I handled it.
The point of a confirmation review
You may ask why you even need to do a confirmation review. You got into the programme, right? So why do they need to reassess you?
The answer is simple. Your department doesn’t fully know how viable your project is, or how well you work, until you’re in the thick of it. If you’re currently preparing for the review, look back at your original research proposal. I guarantee your project will have changed. Mine went from a look at weather in the American colonies, to animal encounters during voyages of exploration.
Basically, so far you’ve only told the uni what you plan to do; the confirmation review is their chance to see a bit of what you’ve done.
Each institution will ask for a different piece of work. For me, I had to submit a 7,000-word draft introduction with a detailed breakdown of my chapters. Having mulled ideas over with my supervisor, I had a pretty good idea what kind of structure my thesis would be needing. I had also spent the last six months reading non-stop, so there was plenty for me to talk about.
But fitting it all together is definitely easier said than done.
The infamous first draft
Any person who has ever written a substantial piece of work will tell you that the first draft always sucks, and boy did mine suck. In a whirlwind of nerves and stress I felt like I needed to prove myself. So I crammed as much reading into it as I could.
Unsurprisingly, my work sounded like a jumbled mess. After meeting with my supervisor, I went away with my tail between my legs. The point I had missed was that this wasn’t an assessment of all the work I had put in, this was an assessment of my project. I hadn’t communicated what it was I actually wanted to do or why it was important. The infamous first draft died its death, and I was back to the drawing board.
Edit, edit, edit!
The real take-away here is that if you want to write well you need to learn how to edit. Sometimes you can’t see the trees for the mist, and it takes someone to shine a little light for you to realise you’re in a forest. A forest of good ideas. One bad draft doesn’t make you bad, it just means you need to work on your writing process. So I did. I tore my work to pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. This time, my supervisor was happy. I was ready to submit.
Where did I save that file?
Alongside your piece of writing, you will probably have to submit some other files. My university runs a Doctoral Development Programme (which makes sure you're developing skills for employability, not just completing your PhD), and so twice a year we have to fill out a Training Needs Analysis Form. I also needed a methodology and data management plan. As I’m sure most people do with admin work, I had saved it all in some obscure place on my computer.
Don’t do that. One day you will need it and, for me, it was that day. Luckily, I’m also an email hoarder so was eventually able to locate the files, having sent them to my supervisor at some point. I now have a special folder with my other PhD work labelled admin.
Finally, the time had come to submit. A few clicks here and there and whoosh, the email was sent. I was free (until the defence of course, but I will cover that another time).
If I was only allowed to give one tip for preparing for your confirmation review, it would be to start early. For my June deadline, I began in April. Everybody works differently, and some will write a lot quicker than others.
Starting early will enable you to take breaks from your writing. Even if you take a day or two, it will become easier to spot your mistakes and fix them. You will also have more time to think. It is important to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of your project, which you will be asked about in the review.
Think of it like a process, not like an essay that needs bashing out in the next 24 hours. And once you’re done, make sure to have a good treat lined up, you deserve it!
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