The end draws near – the PhD viva

Submitted PhD thesis

Submitted PhD thesis

A few months ago, I submitted my PhD thesis. After all of the preparation and writing, submitting was somewhat of an anti-climax. This is because submitting those nicely bound volumes means nothing unless someone is going to read and examine them to determine if the work they contain will earn you the degree and the right to call yourself Dr.

In the UK, these examinations often happen some time after submitting, in a process known as the viva. These exams involve the examiners coming to the university/institute and conducting a private, face-to-face examination of your knowledge and the work presented in the thesis, often over a number of hours.

All this is purely explanation of the main point:

I had my PhD viva on Monday and I passed!

I passed with the most common outcome; minor corrections. This means that whilst I have passed, the examiners would like some changes to be made before the final version of record is submitted. It is only when they are happy with those changes that I will officially earn the degree.

For now, I’m beginning to come down from the celebrations and start working towards the corrections. So it is still not yet the end; I think the real closure will happen when the award letter and certificates are in my hands.

3 years and 9 months

Submitted PhD thesis

Submitted PhD thesis

Yesterday, I submitted my PhD thesis! The culmination, to the day, of 3 years, 9 months of work, distilled into 145 pages. It means that I can now return to “normality”, having become somewhat of a hermit over the last month whilst I pulled out all the stops to get it completed.

It’s a great relief, and I hope I don’t need to write a document that long again for a while. It’s also not over yet though. For those who don’t live in the academic bubble, I just thought I’d explain what this means, and after what point I’ll officially “get” the degree.

What happens next?

Currently, the university is looking after my two submitted copies, until two people (one within UCL and one from outside) can be found to conduct an examination. They will then read the thesis and after that, the 3 of us will sit down in a room and they’ll question me on it – this is the oral exam or ‘viva’.

The outcome of this meeting will decide whether or not I am awarded a PhD. The most common outcome is “minor corrections”, where the examiners will award the PhD on the condition that various mistakes are corrected or additional information added before the final version of record is produced. This is version that will end up in the library at UCL. Once the examiners have approved those corrections; then I’ll be Dr James. So it’s not over yet, but the end is in sight ūüôā

Save the UCLU Garage Theatre Workshop

Save your student theatre

Save your student theatre

During my time at UCL as an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to be involved with a fine bunch of people; the UCLU Stage Crew society. These ladies and gents use their spare time to help other students put on shows; musicals, dramas, fashion shows, jazz concerts, opera, bongos(!). You name it, they’ve assisted with it.

They also run a small ~70 seater theatre on the ground floor of the one of the college buildings, the UCLU Garage Theatre Workshop. And by run, I mean everything from the year’s budget to keeping the backstage toilet clean and functional. It sounds like great fun, and it was, but now this is under threat from UCL.

The college, somewhat reasonably, would like to renovate the space. However they are refusing to replace what they are taking with an alternative space.

I think this would be a great shame, because as well as being immense fun, I think the theatre is a very valuable asset to the university and student body. I can say with certainty that I would not be the person am I today, in the position that I am in,  had that theatre not existed. And I can point to dozens, if not hundreds, who could say the same.

A few benefits are obvious: having a place to perform, try out small-scale projects and get your work seen by an audience without using the college’s larger (and more expensive) Bloomsbury Theatre is a benefit in its own right. But actually, aside from the considerable artistic merit and cultural benefit, working on a theatre project gives students the opportunity to learn many skills that are missed by an academic education.

On a personal level, I believe I developed many skills whilst working in the Garage:

  • speaking and performing develop self-confidence and public speaking, something directly related to giving talks or presenting in an academic context
  • teamwork is a vital skill for putting on a production, between designers, technicians, cast members, musicians and the director. Having a concrete example of working in a team to achieve a goal is invaluable to employers.
  • leadership goes hand-in-hand with teamwork, and being given a role of responsibility such as Garage Theatre Manager or Technical Manager is a good way to gain managerial experience as an undergraduate.
  • committee work is a strong component of running the theatre; allocating time, money and people to productions were all decided by committee.
  • personal organisation is key when running a theatre or rehearsing a show in your spare time, whilst also concentrating on a degree course.
  • budget management for shows in the Garage is important as the shows are often on a very restricted budget
  • bidding for funding is important for all clubs and societies, but the Garage has been traditionally successful in applying for extra funding for equipment, and this sort of ‘writing to persuade’ is very important in many jobs and even in getting a job, so honing it at the student union can only be a good thing.

These are some of my personal and less obvious ways I think a student theatre helps develop the skills and further the education of the student body. There are probably many others that I’ve missed. But I do think that a university should encourage students to gain all of these skills and that being involved in the Garage is brilliant way to do that.

The facebook page is doing a good job of collating videos and pictures of the Garage in action and I hope they can put together a persuasive case to the College and also persuade UCLU to give the campaign their full support. It has already gone out in the all student email, so I am hopeful that the union will be able to lobby the College too.

I’m Burlington Bertie…

UCL Mens 1st XV celebrating the Varsity win over the "Poly"

Yesterday was that highlight of the sporting year, the London varsity (well, the only one that counts), between King’s (Strand Poly) and the mighty UC. The rivalry between King’s and UCL is pretty well¬†known and well established (it even has its own Wikipedia entry!) and supposedly stems from their differing establishing aims and objectives. The animosity has been strong ever since, especially during the first half of last century according to the Wikipedia article. It is even mentioned in UCL’s chant of Burlington Bertie:

I’m Burlington Bertie,
I’m short, fat and dirty,
My college portrays my high class. (high class!)
I walk down the Strand,
With my cock in my hand,
And I wave it at King’s as I pass.
Oh Bert, Bert,
I come in my shirt,
At least I go to UC . (UC!)
There’s one thing I’m sure of,
Strand Poly are wankers,
I’m Burlington Bert from UC.
That’s me! And him! And him! And her!

I’m glad to report (as if there was any doubt), that UCL won both matches; Women’s 22-0 and Men’s 15-0, so WELL DONE!

Aside from being a vocal supporter complete with facepaint and yelling Burlington

Wearing some war paint for UC!

Bertie at the top of my voice, I took the opportunity to do a little more sports photography. The results are in the following Facebook album.

Turns out the sports photography in the dark with very bright floodlights everywhere is quite challenging… Who knew!?..</sarcasm> But I did have a lot of fun, am quite happy with the results despite the lens flare and the winning didn’t hurt either!

Strike action at UCL

I wasn’t going to blog about the fact the UCU have balloted members for strike action at UCL, but then I saw this Facebook group and couldn’t restrain the urge to comment and publicise the issue.

Normally I am staunchly against strike action, taking the capitalist viewpoint that companies exist to make money and should do whatever is permissible by law to make that happen with regards to staffing. This is definitely my thoughts on the current British Airways strike, especially as I am due to be inconvenienced by them. However, in an academic context, things are slightly different; the goal is not to make money but to educate. To me this significantly blurs the distinction between condemning and condoning strike action, for to me it seems only right for people to stand up and fight for a high quality of education; something that is not (and should not) be part of the free market.

The issue gets complicated further by the timing of the potential strikes. Calling action in the 3rd term at a university is grossly disruptive of exams and students. This is immensely worrying for those involved who may have future job offers, course offers and careers resting on the exam and more importantly the timely resolution of their grade.

I sincerely hope that UCU didn’t have a huge amount of choice¬†of when to call the strike, given the obvious effects it would have for their students, but I am worried by one sentence on the UCL UCU website which says:

it could also include refusal to mark and submit examinations results

Now I know the point of the strike is to be as disruptive as possible, but there must be other ways that don’t effects students so strongly. Going out there with such a controversial statement sure undermines their message of “fighting for education”, especially when UCU really needs student support to continue the fight against cuts.

In short, I’m not really sure what I think of this potential strike action, which is massive departure from my normal politics. One thing is for sure, it will be a very interesting term ahead. Leave a comment and tell me your views, or even try and persuade me to one side or the other.

UCLU Dodgeball 2010

Dodgeball in the UCL QuadToday was the annual inter-society dodgeball tournament at UCL. This is one of my favourite events of the UCLU calendar (others being the MODO Fashion Show and the Summer Ball) because the atmosphere is great, the weather is always great for it and I love what it says about UCL and UCLU. It is so much fun to watch and play such a fast-paced and rebellious game in such fantastic surroundings and the fact that UCL tolerate is to their credit. This juxtaposition of fun and frivolity with ostentatiousness and occasional pretensiousness is captured neatly in the tournament and sums up what I like about UCL; it is both progressive and world-leading, but with the right amount of tradition and ceremony as well.

Aside from my waxing lyrical about my alma mater (and soon to be my current institution as I begin a new course in September), the real reason for this post is that I went down there to photograph the event. I haven’t had a proper outing with the camera for ages, so it was good to get out and take some photos, which you can find on my Facebook, as well as my obligatory establishing shot at the beginning.

For those wishing to find out more about the tournament; I gather around 50 teams entered and the almighty winners were the UCLU Snowsports Society. More photos, information and results are on the UCLU website. From what I could see, it was definitely the most successful Dodgeball to date.

British Media Coverage of the Christmas Day Bomber

I’d love to write a long critique of the media coverage of this terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam on Christmas Day, but alas, I think it would probably take me the rest of the day and I have an essay to work on. Instead, some short thoughts will have to suffice.

Understandably, the British media are focussing on the perpetrator’s time in the UK, in London to be precise and the changes Britain is making to its airport security. What I don’t understand is the efforts of some (the Telegraph, basically) to appear to lay the blame squarely at UCL’s door.

This shown best in this Telegraph article. At the time of writing, some of the later comments have the right idea, but the article appears to suggest that UCL should monitor the activities of those that attend it. At first pass, that sort of seems reasonable, drawing parallels with a school or other welfare oriented organisation. And then you realise (or don’t in the case of the Telegraph), that isn’t the purpose of Universities. They exist to teach adults advanced concepts without the nannying or fussing of a school.

This sentiment is put perfectly by a comment by Ross Anderson on the above article:

we have neither the skills nor the management structures needed [for monitoring students]. Monitoring troublemakers is the special branch’s job (whatever it’s called this week) just as putting out fires is the fire brigade’s job.

This something I totally agree with: why isn’t more blame (or at least scrutiny) being given to both our security services and there American counterparts. I’ve travelled the US recently and they ask for a lot of data before you even get to the airport, so it does beg the question: what are they doing with that information?

Other recent Telegraph articles inciting a backlash against universities are here and here. The first one, and perhaps the most outrageous; accusing UCL of being “complicit” in the attacks is here.

Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of UCL had his say in the THE, a brilliant article which I wish more people would read.

UCL reaches 4th in the world!

(First written 8th October 2009)

So the THE World University rankings 2009 were published this morning. It shows UCL (my alma mater) climb yet again to make it the 4th university in the world and moving ahead of Oxford to 2nd in the UK. This is an amazing feat and probably well deserved given the profile of research undertaken there. Certainly in my field (life science), UCL research or an academic from UCL is often quoted in the media – showing both how well respected the research and researchers are thought of.

So in terms of research output, I am quite prepared to believe that UCL is 4th in the world, but to prospective students beware. In my view, UCL is not a world-leader in terms of undergraduate satisfaction. This is borne out by the National Student Satisfaction, shown at UniStats. At least (and again in my field), UCL performs badly at things like assessment and providing good feedback to undergraduates.

That said, especially in 3rd year when doing research projects, there is a feel for being in an amazing research environment and having tutorials with lecturers and academics whose names you recognise from having read and cited their prominent papers in your own essays.

I would say that UCL is a great place to study (and has a great student union) if you are able to work by yourself and are quite self-reliant. If you are looking to have your hand-held a bit more – move along.