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Australian PhD completion: Not with a bang, but a whimper

Today, I am hosting Dr. Deborah Netolicky for the “PhD defenses around the world.” Deborah is an educator, school leader, cognitive coach and researcher with 16 years of experience in teaching and school leadership roles in Australia and the UK. Her PhD explored the ways in which professional identities and school cultures can be transformed by professional learning and effective leading of teacher learning. You can find her tweeting as @debsnet and blogging at the édu flâneuse.

My great land Down Under suffers and benefits from the tyranny of distance. For PhD candidates, this means that, despite the modern-day wonders of air travel and Skype, there is no viva or oral defense. No public moment of defending the PhD. No nail-biting preparation for answering questions while pouring wine and pouring over viva cards. No way to look deep into your examiners’ faces to see their response to your work. Somehow, our neighbouring New Zealand manages to fly examiners in for an oral examination, but we do not.

As an Australian candidate, once my PhD thesis was ready for submission for examination, it was printed, spiral-bound and posted to one Australian examiner (at a different university to my own) and two international examiners. I had not met any of my examiners, although I knew them through their work. A pdf copy was also emailed. These people would never meet to discuss my dissertation, but would examine it in their own time and place, write an examiner’s report with commentary and a recommendation, and email the report back. The three reports would come from their various destinations and converge back at my university.

The options of examiners in the Australian system are to recommend:

  1. the PhD be awarded with no revisions to the thesis;
  2. the PhD be awarded subject to the insertion of minor revisions;
  3. the PhD be awarded subject to the insertion of major revisions;
  4. the thesis be heavily revised for re-examination, which might include rewriting or collection of new data;
  5. the PhD degree not be awarded, but the thesis be revised and re-submitted for an MPhil; or
  6. no degree be awarded.

Category 1 means that the thesis can go straight to the university library, and the university can then go through appropriate processes to award the PhD. Categories 2 and 3 mean that the thesis needs revision, with all examiners’ recommendations addressed. This does not mean that all recommendations need to be made, but all need to be considered and responded to. Like the peer-review process, the author may choose to articulate why a particular change has not been made. Category 2 and 3 changes are signed off by the primary supervisor. Then, a report outlining the revisions is sent to a Dean for sighting and sign-off, before the candidate is ready to be moved through to degree conferral. Category 4 means the revisions are more cumbersome, and the thesis goes for examination again. Again, the wait of many months for the reports to return. More uncertainty about the result (although apparently few candidates fail on their second attempt at examination). Categories 5 and 6 are every candidate’s worst nightmare: a fail with either a Masters or nothing to show for years of work.

And the wait is both liberating and excruciating. Liberating because control is out of the candidate’s hands, and nothing can be done until the result is known. Excruciating because so much is riding on the interpretations of three individuals.

The time between submitting an Australian thesis and getting the examiners’ reports back is about four to six months, even though examiners are asked to return their reports within six weeks (and some do). For my own PhD, I submitted in October and received the examiners’ reports in February.
My thesis required amendments without re-examination. While in some ways I had hoped for a Category 1 pass (no revisions! what a perfect specimen of a thesis!), on reflection I realised that having the opportunity to make corrections made my final product better. While it took some time to tease out the three somewhat differing reports, the feedback of three experienced and generous academics allowed me to strengthen and clarify my thesis before it found its final form for posterity.

My corrections took me about two weeks of obsessing over, dreaming about, and working hard at them (in between my almost-full-time job and parenting my young children). There were two supervisory meetings in this time; one to clarify and agree upon my approach to the corrections, and one to tweak and sign off the work done. Microsoft Word’s ‘Compare’ feature was invaluable for checking where and what corrections had been made between the submitted and the amended copies.

After supervisory sign-off, the amendments report was sent to a Dean on a Friday. The Dean signed off my amendments on the Monday. That was a lovely moment, when I knew that the work was done, and what was left to do was just process and waiting.

I was then told that I could print my final copies of the thesis for hard binding, with buckram cloth and gold lettering, and submit an electronic copy to library. I did so, and the thesis was soon online, a reference with my name on it and a downloadable document.

The official conferral happened at a university council meeting in April, and I have already received information about graduation in September.

My Australian experience shows how the PhD here sputters to its fuzzy conclusion with a whimper, rather than ends with a bang. I submitted in October, three years after enrolling. Yet that was not near the end of the doctoral journey. In February I received the examiners’ reports and made my amendments. In March the final copy was signed off and submitted. In April the degree was  conferred, after which I was able to call myself ‘Doctor’. And the graduation ceremony, complete with Tudor bonnet, will not be until September.

So, while my Australian geography has saved me from the stress of an oral defense, part of me longed for the opportunity to hear my examiners articulate their thoughts and ask their questions, to discuss and defend my work. As an Australian candidate there are many small milestones which can be celebrated, but no one glorious moment when the doctorate seems complete.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. Interesting! My PhD defense was in Belgium and I had the honour of inviting my wife, my brother, his wife, and a close friend to Brussels where we spent several days touring around after the event. It was an opportunity for these 'intimates' to see a side of me that had consumed much of my time, and which otherwise would have been spent with them.

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