PhDiary #7 “You’re Not Expected to Know Everything” – My Confirmation Review Experience |
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Posted on 5 May '22

PhDiary #7 “You’re Not Expected to Know Everything” – My Confirmation Review Experience

It was around this time a few years ago what I had my confirmation review. It's an important milestone in many PhDs, when you discuss your work so far and check you’re on track. It normally takes place towards the end of your first year.

In my experience, most of that first year is spent drastically improving your research proposal and scoping out the details of a viable project. For me, it also involved a lot (and I mean a lot) of reading. The review is the culmination of all this work.

After submitting a substantial piece of writing I then had to undergo an oral examination. A mini viva of sorts, to assess whether my project was good enough to continue. You'll have to read on to find out whether it was...

Everyone tells you it will be fun…

If you've been following my PhDiary, then you’ll know I had a bit of a bumpy ride preparing for the review.

Whenever I voiced these stresses to people who had already passed the first year, every single one of them told me to relax and that “it’s actually really fun”.

Fun? In what way does sitting across from a couple of academic examiners as they critique your work sound fun? I figured I’d rather get an email than having all my issues pointed out to my face. These people must be crazy. Or so super-humanly smart that nothing bothers them because they know it all already.

It’s safe to say I was Stressed. And yes, the capital 'S' is intentional.

Finding out my examiners

When I got the email telling me who my examiners where, I started to feel a little better. The two academics were famous for being the nicest people in the department. Surely there was no way now that this would end in an academic shaming.

Finding out your examiners is also useful as it gives you a chance to snoop into their research interests. Then, you can take a guess as to which parts of your research they will probably be the most interested in – and will ask you about.

I wasn’t the only one who did this. Me and my supervisor met to go over what I should expect to happen. Turns out he had also done some theorising on what questions I might get, based on his colleagues’ research. This was really helpful as it gave me time to think about my answers.

The big day

Soon enough the day came around. Thankfully, my review was arranged for the late morning. I had enough time to prepare, but not enough time to start freaking out. After one final read through of my submitted work, I was ready. Sitting with the Google Meet link in front of me (yes, mine has at least temporarily become a ‘pandemic PhD’), I counted down the seconds until I clicked ‘join’.

As expected, my examiners were extremely nice and reassured me straight away that I had passed. I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed after hearing the good news. They then went on to praise the quantity and quality of my work given the current circumstances. This was back in the first lockdown when sadly many PhD students’ work suffered. Thankfully, most of my sources were available online, so I wasn’t impacted too much.

I have great sympathy for those who had to start from scratch. While I was one of the lucky ones, I know my university’s department put a lot of effort into helping its PhD students whose research was affected. That’s one of the beautiful things about academia. Your examiners and supervisors have been through the PhD themselves. They know exactly how you’re feeling and when unprecedented circumstances happen, they will rally behind you.

It turns out people were right

As it turned out, those people from before were right. The confirmation review was pretty fun. Once we got into the meat of my work it felt more like an informal discussion than an oral examination. Although we were each sat behind computers in our individual homes, we might have well been in a coffee shop, sharing our ideas and interests.

By the end of the review, I felt renewed. Not only had the positive feedback boosted my confidence but the examiners gave me lots to think about with regards to progressing my project. I was excited to continue.

I know not everyone will have the same confirmation review experience that I did, but I think we can all learn the same lesson. Examiners are not there to catch you out, they’re there to help you. You’re not expected to know everything and showing that you’re open to feedback and suggestions looks better than someone with all the answers.

So, when your time comes, remember to relax and enjoy talking about your research. There are only so many occasions when someone will actually listen!

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Last Updated: 05 May 2022