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How to deal with post-viva PhD thesis corrections

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We like to think that the viva is the end of the doctoral process; the final step in the long journey to a PhD. However, for most, it isn’t the final hurdle. The outcome of the viva in most cases is another three to sixth months work to deal with corrections (which may range from correcting typos, to rewriting or adding entire chapters). This means you need to preserve some energy and be prepared to exert some considerable post-viva brainpower. 

In this guide, I offer advice on how to work on your revisions. The revisions that your examiners ask of you are the roadmap to a complete thesis. They’ll form the basis of the discussion that you have in the viva, and will be detailed in a report they will send to you afterwards. For some, it is hard to deal with the emotional and mental toll of having to spend yet more time working on the thesis. If you're one of them, I hope that this guide can make your post-viva life a little easier.

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Wait for the committee’s report


You’ll leave your viva with a good understanding of what revisions you’re going to be required, and, no doubt, many, many notes summarising the main discussion points and areas for improvement. However, as tempting as it may be to start picking apart particular sections or chapters, wait until your examination committee send over their report, which will be the formal record of the revisions that they recommend. 

Read through it carefully several times. I left mine for a day or so and then came back to it to reread it. I found this an effective way to pick up on some of the more nuanced aspects of their suggestions.

When you first receive it, you may be alarmed at its length and the detail that the examiner has gone into. Try not to be disheartened; in some ways, having detailed feedback on each suggested revision can help you, as it is providing you with clear (hopefully) instructions on how to proceed. 


Try not to be disheartened


Either way, you may feel disheartened. It’s hard to have someone critique our work, especially when we’ve put so much energy into it in the first place. However, critique is part of the academic process. It is not intended to shame you for any real or perceived shortcomings, but instead to make your work as effective and academically rigorous as it can be.

There are two things to bear in mind. First, through engaging with such critique and making the necessary changes (or refuting them, where appropriate) you are developing not just the quality of your study, but also your critical thinking skills. The process of receiving, digesting and responding to reviewer critique in this way is a valuable skill and, in some ways, a necessary part of the doctoral journey. 

The challenge you will have is in understanding which of the reviewer’s comments are practical, appropriate and based in an accurate reading of the thesis and the wider discipline, and which are refutable or that you don’t agree with. When you submit your revised thesis, you are within your rights to exclude a particular revision, but you need to very carefully and convincingly justify your decision to do so. Perhaps your examiner has misunderstood something or has failed to take something into consideration that renders their suggestion mute. Point this out diplomatically, drawing on your own text and the wider literature to back up your response. 


How to deal with unhelpful feedback


Sometimes though you may have more serious grievances with the nature of the examiner’s comments and you may feel unfairly treated. In these instances, it is vital that you talk to your supervisory committee and department leads. They will be able to offer you advice tailored to your context and institution. 

The fantastic ’Thesis Whisperer’ blog has written a useful post on how to deal with unhelpful or conflicting feedback. You can find it here


Only do what the examiners ask for


When you sit down to work on your revisions, it is easy to spot additional problems and flaws with your thesis. As you approach completion, your critical thinking skills are very well developed, so it is only natural that you will be critiquing your own work. It is tempting to change things that aren’t listed in the examiner’s report in our ongoing quest for perfection. Do not do this. Only do what the examiner asked for. 

Why? Two reasons. First, you may be limited for time. Two, you may be created additional problems. 

You’ll have plenty of time to iron out any additional changes in a post-doc.
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Your PhD Thesis. 
On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.



Don’t freak out


Just because you get major corrections, isn’t the end of the world. Examiners have subjective views on what classes as each type of correction. Some may think that problems with page numbering or typos constitute minor corrections, some may turn a blind eye. While most universities have guidelines on what should be classed as, say, a major or minor correction, often the lines can be blurred. I have known students be told they have minor corrections to make to then be presented with twenty pages of suggested revision. Conversely, I have seen students successfully address major corrections in less than one week. 

I’ve also seen outstanding PhDs be awarded major corrections just because the examiner wanted to push the student to turn a brilliant piece of research into something world-class. 

I’ve also seen weaker PhDs awarded minor or even no corrections. 

Every examiner is different, and some will be expecting more of students than others. This is particularly the case if your examiner has particular expertise in a particular approach your thesis is taking (of course, examiners will be subject-experts, but in some cases, they may be leading experts on, say, a particular theoretical approach too, or your methodology). In these cases, they might be more liable to call you out on things that the other examiner may have missed or not realised the significance of. 

One upside of this is that a strict examiner can push your research to a higher level. This is useful if you plan on turning it into a book, or carry on research in a post-doc. 


Create a matrix


You should list all of the suggested revisions in a spreadsheet, together with your notes. This will allow you to create an audit trail as you work through them.

To start, create a spreadsheet with three columns. In column one, you list each revision listed in the report on a separate row. In column two, you can write your notes or, where relevant, the final text that will make it into your revised thesis. In the third column, note the priority that that particular revision has (more on this below). 
This serves four purposes. First, you can easily see every single step required and track your progress, making sure you don’t miss anything out. Second, it lets you break down longer, more detailed comments into manageable chunks. Third, you can create an order of priority, so you know what to focus on first. Fourth, you can use the table to write up your response to the examiners (more on this below).

When you have finished your revisions, you can use the matrix to double check that you have dealt with everything listed in the report. 


Get started quickly


Decide which amendments you have to do, and which you won’t. You may not agree with a particular suggestion, or you may be able to explain any misunderstanding. In these cases, you shouldn’t just change things to satisfy your examiners. Instead, you need to stand your ground when you think it necessary but, importantly, you need to argue your case. Like a Doctor. Tell the examiner exactly why you have chosen not to make a suggested revision, in as much detail as possible and with reference to both the existing thesis and, if necessary, the wider literature. 

However, there may be comments that you don’t understand. If that’s the case, you should talk to your advisory committee or department administrators to see what the protocol is for contacting the examiners to seek further clarification. 


Check the paperwork 


There may be a lot of final paperwork that you need to submit alongside your corrected draft. Check what your institution requires well in advance of resubmission. 

Read through the entire thesis


Once you have finished your revisions, read through the entire thesis one final time. When you do, try not to focus on the revisions you have just made, but instead on how the document reads. 
This serves two purposes: first, you can make sure the flow has been maintained after your changes, and that you have avoided repetition. Second, it’s a chance to deal with any stray typos. If you struggle to proofread your work, reading it out loud may help.


Create a cover letter


It is likely that your institution will require you to prepare a cover letter to submit alongside the revised thesis. This document summarises your response to every comment, detailing what changes you made and, importantly, which of the suggestions you haven’t taken on board, and why. 

Make sure to maintain a polite tone, even if you disagree with some of their suggestions. You should thank them for their hard work, and respond thoroughly to each suggestion that they made. It isn’t enough to simply say, ‘I made change number 1 on page 50’. Instead, you should spend some time talking about the nature of the change, and offer any other comments or thoughts you have. 

If you can, summarise the changes you made in a table, complete with page numbers. This will make the examiners life easier by allowing you to quickly show how you responded to each comment and where exactly the changes are in the thesis. The may not have time to read through the entire thesis again, so providing them with an easy-reference guide to where each change can be found can speed the whole review process up considerably. 

When creating this cover letter, use the matrix we discussed above to keep track of your revisions. 


Conclusion


The corrections your examiner suggests are not a personal attack; they are instead a reflection of the process of peer review that characterises modern academia. Yet, academia is also characterised by ongoing debate. That means you are within your rights to contest particular suggestions, but in a rigorous, logical and, where appropriate, evidence-based way. You have pushed the frontiers of knowledge in your PhD and now have authority to speak as an expert.

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Dr. Max Lemprière is the founder of The PhD Proofreaders. He is an expert in presenting PhD research in the best possible way and maximising students' chances of success.