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Missed Deadline for Monthly Review at University of Birmingham


It's interesting they have a formal monthly review system - this is unusual. Normally, PhD progress is evaluated internally on an annual basis.

A PhD is - to use the cliche - a PhD. It doesn't have grading; it doesn't track what happened along the way. It just is.

As a consequence, the only way internal reviews will impact it, is if the outcome is the University refuses to allow you to continue to study. It is not in the University's best interests to do this as they lose the fees and prospect of a completion; it's generally done on an ethical basis that there is no realistic prospect of you completing, and therefore it's wrong to allow you to continue.

I would think you can rest easy that unless your research itself is way off-track (as judged by your supervisory team), failing to file paperwork will not be a deal-breaker. Many students also worry about training-credit style systems, or other hurdles the Uni implements. Ultimately if you're doing good research and can complete, they will let you do so.

It is still preferable to file paperwork where you can, as admin-types will get pent up about it, but I've never seen someone fail a PhD on the basis of a missed monthly meeting or training exercise.

Some updates after my last despairing post

That's great to hear. Whilst a PhD (or research in general) has always been a bit of an isolating experience for most people, it was hard to really appreciate the water-cooler/shared office conversations that reminded you everyone has problems until Covid took them away.

In research, you generally only get to see the peer-reviewed, multiple-times corrected, polished successes; you rarely see the rejections, problems, and struggles that it took to get them unless you're there first-hand.

Wishing you every success with the PhD, it sounds deserved.

Confusion after UK Humanities Viva - RnR given but sounds like a pass?

I've chaired and examined quite a bit over the years, and I've seen many ways RnR in this form gets decided and interpreted.

I've had students walk out of a majors or RnR and hug me, overwhelmed with their success. I've had others walk out of majors or RnR completely dejected. Appreciate it the way the first group do, because it's a major life achievement.

Behind the scenes, examiners sometimes kill with kindness. It's a commonly held perspective that a PhD is a PhD - it doesn't matter how long it took to correct it. Sometimes examiners think, because of that, it's better to give someone *up to* 12 months rather than 3-6 to get it perfect, to reduce the stress on them and to fulfill the potential they see. They then ask the chair if they can give 12 months for minors, and are told, no, the only way we can give 12 months is an RnR or majors, without external re-examination. Often the candidate interprets this as though they just got a 'D' when they wanted at least a 'B'.

You can legitimately say you were successful at viva and have corrections, which is the outcome for the vast majority of candidates that make it that far. There will be nothing stopping you submitting your corrections faster, if you want to put the work in, but you also have breathing room if you're busy and it takes longer. It will not hold you back in your academic career. I've never seen someone with a PhD asked at job interview 'what type of corrections did you get', but I have seen them asked with virtual inevitability 'what did you publish from it', and if this gives you space to get that book chapter out, that will also be a good thing.

Horrible external examiner-viva ruined my life

Your approach to an appeal is best focused on process and procedure, not academic judgement. If she cut off the viva early without warning, that's a clear grounds for appeal, because it's a breach of process. If any comments can objectively be put before a committee and argued as personal, biased, etc., that's also grounds, but you need to be careful of coming across as arguing that her opinion is wrong. Not that it's right, but it's often much, much easier to get a re-viva on the grounds some bit of paperwork was missed, than it is to try to argue the examiner was wrong with complex theory X, and you'll always be on the back foot doing so since you'll be perceived as the novice and they the expert. The problem in general with attempting to academically argue someone was wrong post-viva, is Universities will be keen to shut that down, since if it becomes common practice, everyone that gets an undesirable outcome will start wanting a drawn out, abstract theoretical debate they'll only walk away from when they win. A procedural failing is often unarguable, though, and a solicitor can help with that.

She may not fail you, though. Some academics are incredibly bad at interpersonal skills, but more rational and reasonable on the page. Nobody ever really gets meaningful training on how to examine a PhD (I got a sum total of 30 minutes for the first one I chaired, and 0 for the ones I examined before that). Most of us draw from our own personal experience, which for most people is very cordial, a bit scary, but ultimately fulfilling, but for some - like yourself - is sadly horrendous. Some examiners are of the perspective it's in the students' best interests to completely shred them, then accept the corrections, because it helps the student in the long run (after all, it did seem she made you make lots of effort!). This is changing as there's a more appreciation of mental health these days, but, particularly if she was an older examiner - or an inexperienced one - she may have approached it with this mindset.

Wait for the result. If it's a fail, look procedurally at the viva, consulting a solicitor if helpful. I can say, it's rare these days examiners behave like this, and highly likely you'll have a much better experience should you have to do another with a different examiner. This doesn't mean it won't be rigorous, though, and there's no 'pass by appeal' for a PhD - a successful complaint will not let you avoid a future viva.

[Edit - why do edits remove paragraph spacing! :( ]

Advice for my PhD advisor relationship

Probably you're asking your supervisor something they genuinely don't know. If you're 'confronting' them with this, you're effectively pressuring them. If you pressure them, they will likely get defensive.

It is completely reasonable for your supervisor to not know everything you will need to know to complete the PhD, because if they did, they wouldn't have needed you. The general concept is you should know more than your supervisor about what you're doing, because if you don't, it's an undergrad dissertation. This is not just the theory, but the practice of how to code in X language / operate Y device, etc.

I'm not sure why this is hitting you emotionally. If it's because you think they don't care or want to help - that's very unlikely, it's probably that they genuinely don't know and are trying to point you to someone who might. If you're thinking they're inept because they don't know how to solve every problem you hit - that's not something you should expect from supervision. A supervisor is there to look at the big picture in terms of whether your research is on track towards a PhD, not debug your code - or even know how to code.

Prospective supervisor removing name from first-author in grant proposal

Yeah, I'd agree. It's basically a reasonable thing that a group lead/supervisor/whatever PI's a grant on the basis they have the best (longest) track record, and therefore it benefits the success chance of the grant in highly competitive environment.

That said, there are people out there that unreasonably exploit this. However, I'd have take the salary-cut thing as the big indication this institution/group is on the wrong track, not the authorship thing. It is not unusual for postdocs and PhDs to do a lot of work for a PI for minimal academic credit, when the successful grant results in posts for them. It is highly unusual for a pay cut in whatever circumstances, as pretty much every university has a system where this isn't a thing.

On that basis, you're 100% right to get out asap, since they're either institutionally mismanaged or horrendously broke.

Revise and resubmit a PhD thesis: can be done in three months?

Honestly (as an examiner/chair) - yes.

This does not mean they will not be objective. The presumption you need to address when sending a written document noting the corrections/actions taken, is that you rushed them. Usually, when a panel issues majors (which would be typical, if you have 12 months) is that the conclusion is that there is a significant problem but it can be fixed within the timeframe stipulated, based on a normal working pattern.

The long and short of it is, you should be very confident you've addressed the points raised in the R&R fully, and with careful consideration. The vast majority of PhD examiners have no interest in failing a student, but if they suggested a 12 month correction period would be suitable, and you claim to have done it in 3, it will naturally attract more attention to whether you've genuinely addressed the problems or glossed over them.

Advice needed: External Funding for a UK PhD (Cambridge University)

Unfortunately what external funding means in the UK from a student perspective is a bank loan on a self-funded PhD.

The problem (and it is a problem) in the UK, is that PhD funding goes to established PIs, who are then expected to recruit students. Which they do on jobs.ac.uk, and often attach many strings, using the PhD as an RA, because they had to put in the work to get the funding.

Other countries, e.g. Canada, have a system whereby a prospective PhD get can funding, then 'shop around' the best Unis to see which can give them the best offer to deliver on it. Which imo is a vastly better system. The problem is the UK and other countries are stuck in that rut of having funding decided by councils that are swayed by established researchers who want the funding to go to them for CV/employment/prestige purpose.

It is, in some rare cases, possible to connect up with a professor and assist them with a grant on the premise that, if successful, you'll apply for and (theoretically) assume the resulting role. But this is rare and prone to failure (~5% of grant applications succeed).

The reality with 'find external funding', is they expect you to either, to use the vernacular, pony up, or find a mythical industry sponsor to write them a blank cheque.

Choosing between PhD offers

It's hard to think 3 years ahead, but the best question fundamentally to ask is what position will they be in to help you into a career at the end of the PhD.

This partly depends on what you want to do - stay in academia, or move to industry. I'd think if it's the latter, Program 2 seems a bit of a no-brainer, but I'm thinking it's probably the former?

If it's academia, #1 seems better, but there are risks in a new supervisor with new lab. This can sometimes mean someone landed a big grant, but lightning does not necessarily strike twice. They may be about to launch a sparkling career; they may also not get any further grants and be living on borrowed time until the funding runs out. If funding runs out, then you may find the lab dissolved and you get shuffled into a faculty to finish the PhD, as Unis these days can be quite brutal with this. If #2 is well established, there might be a realistic prospect of a postdoc within the group, or at a connected institution, which is something to consider (the best way to check this, is to see/ask where their graduates ended up. Getting a PhD successfully is not as good a measure as whether they got a job afterwards).

The one thing I wouldn't factor so much is whether their interest/knowledge aligns particularly with what you want to study. In general you should expect a supervisor to provide general academic guidance on how to do a PhD, but not so much tell you what you should do (or know), as the theory is if things are working ok you should know more about that than the supervisor. A supervisor that does just tell you what to do by the numbers is potentially using you as a cheap lab assistant, which imo is best avoided, as you can end up running their experiments for them with little to show for it as they publish your data and give you little opportunity to learn.

Unfair/Confusing Viva Voce Experience

I'm confused a bit, as a typical viva has an internal and external examiner. To be honest if this was an actual viva (i.e. would award the PhD - or not) it seems like a procedural failing if there was nobody external. Of course, I can't speak for all systems, but to have an entirely internal process seems odd.

If it was more a progression review (which I'm thinking it was, if you didn't want to make a big deal out of it, since you probably should make a big deal of it if you just failed a PhD outright!), then you may find in some cases examiners are extremely harsh if the stakes are lower, on the belief it's in the best interests of the student to shred their work so they can improve it prior to viva. This is almost longstanding tradition, and at many places a panel review or mock viva can be much rougher than the actual viva, since the outcome is often meant to alert the student to any weaknesses, rather than assess them, unless it's an extreme condition where it would be a waste of their time and money to continue. Bear in mind an examiner saying - or indicating - they do not comprehend the thesis or theory may be them suggesting your thesis and argument was, well, hard to follow, and if this was done in the spirit of a panel that you can amend/respond to, then I'd listen to that rather than writing them off immediately.

I'd think they possibly had a heated discussion if one examiner was convinced on ones, and the other responded by giving the maximum grade to 'balance out' the score. This could have gone many ways on this; perhaps the critical examiner was annoyed by the incredibly positive assessment of the other, so deliberately dropped their assessment so the average was where they wanted it to be. Ultimately the numbers don't really matter, it's more the actual feedback/outcome you want to consider. If it was a viva, did you pass/fail/corrections?

Online Masters constant anxiety

I'm not sure if this will be a help, but...

I've been teaching quite extensively online at BSc and MSc level, due to Covid. One of the more unexpected problems I've seen is that students communicate less with their peers. The result of this is they don't realise their peers are also struggling, and assume the bar is way higher than it is. This is coupled with the fact that, as a tutor, on-site I could chat to students and (hopefully) either help with the problem or reduce their level of anxiety by explaining the assessment is meant to be difficult and to remember 70%, not 100%, is a 1st, and a pass is only 40%. Online, this is much less easy, and only a handful of students will ever contact me one-to-one.

I would definitely encourage you to reach out to your tutor, and ask to chat. It's a bit of a myth (though like any myth, sadly grounded in reality in some cases), that tutors hate students and don't want to talk to them if it's avoidable. In my experience, the one thing that frustrates tutors more than anything is the students that suffer in silence, and that when marking their work you're thinking 'if only they asked...', since it's in our best interests too for students to succeed.

Failing that, reaching out to peers will help, as you'll very like find them in the same boat.

All that said, be aware that whilst some degree anxiety is normal, if it's interfering with your daily life, it's not healthy, and I'd encourage you to speak with a GP - it can be treated, and whilst there's no magic pill, you shouldn't accept regular panic attacks as something you should have to deal with without any support.

How many exams do Master's Degrees have on average?

Typically, a taught masters (there are also MRes type research masters, which are generally much more centered on a thesis/project), will have 3 modules per semester for 2 semesters, and a project-type element towards the end. The problem in answering the question directly is it will depend on how these 6 modules are assessed; it could be an exam, coursework, viva, combination, or something else.

The University you're apply to should make these details available to you, and if not, request it. I'm not an HR expert, but I'd envisage it will probably be one exam per module (so 6 exams), and a dissertation. This is a ballpark average, as you asked for, but the best way to check is to simply ask the University (or Universities) you're applying to. It's been increasingly important across the sector to publish this information clearly (so students don't sue), so you should find them forthcoming on it.

Help! First months of study and really confused

I'd try and put yourself in the supervisor's shoes and think what they've seen in experience.

Some students like yourself will legitimately work on it but struggle to coherently write until things start to click.

Others will play Fortnite and scribble a few words when sufficiently threatened.

I'd always advise against showing nothing and saying you were struggling. Any academic has heard that BS from countless students that have put no actual effort in. Just whack the stack of reading notes on their desk and say you've been taking notes but struggling to consolidate them. They should be able to help with that. At the early stage it is more about proving yourself in the sense you're engaged with the subject and working on it, and any experienced supervisor will know tangible written evidence of that is more important than waffle in a monthly meeting. They will also know that written stuff will likely end up in the bin ultimately, as you learn and shape the PhD, but it's the evidenced effort that matters.

I would, as an important note, agree you should take sickness leave if you are sick. Too many PhD students think they will be viewed more favorably if they soldier on; the reality it's administrative and to have been sick for 6 months will (in most systems) guarantee you the leeway to submit 6 months later; having been ill and struggling instead, unreported, will not. There is nothing stopping you working whilst off sick and submitting early, but there might be considerable barriers if you have no recorded absence and try to argue down the line an unreported illness affected your work.

PostDoc Interview Baiting

The general dilemma with job applications is that they will select the 'best' candidate, which is something you can't plan for. And this could well be someone connected to the PI.

This is a big contrast to a PhD, where you pass or fail on (what you'd hope to be fair) academic judgment. You could be judged completely capable of doing a job, but are simply not the 'best' candidate.

This is coupled with university HR policies that tend to indicate the recruiter should interview a range of candidates, but don't actually do anything to prevent bias, so often 5-6 candidates are called in to interview for a job that will almost inevitably be assigned to the professor's former student. It makes it look more impartial, even though it's not, if they interview a bunch of people then decide on their favoured candidate, than if they discard everyone else at the CV stage.

This might be all doom and gloom, but the big positive is that you're in the candidates getting called for interview, so are appointable. Make sure you claim expenses. In the short term, it's about persistence, since there will also be vacancies without a favoured candidate, and if you're routinely getting to the interview stage it's likely you will, ultimately, get offers.

In the long term to fix this broken system, you'll need to become a professor, and appoint a postdoc yourself. Immediately a PhD student that's worked ridiculously hard for you for 4 years will tell you they're interested. At that point, you'll see the unfortunate other side of this system.

Phd entry requirements

In my experience it's very rare for funders to stipulate requirements; typically they fund the PI and it's the PI's job to find a suitable candidate.

It's really HR where degree classifications stick since for the pencil-pushers there, a quick sift on measurable criteria is a time-saver. Many academics could be completely persuaded by someone with a 3rd who makes a compelling argument as to why that happened and shows passion and knowledge in the topic of the PhD. Call the admissions department and ask is not bad advice - but also bear in mind the admissions department will likely be an HR person who might just be following the rule they want a 2:1; not an academic who would consider the situation. Wherever possible contact the academic/PI, not the HR department.

I would not let the 2:2 hold you back at all. Frankly, I'd be inclined where you can to just indicate you have a degree then explain if asked at interview, because if HR are just sifting this might get you infront of the interview panel to explain what you know and how much you care about the topic. Absolutely do not forgo opportunities just because they say on the form they want a 2:1 and you have a 2:2 then an MSc Distinction - you'd be deliberately excluding yourself for no good reason.