PhD Viva Voce Success in IICD
Several students in IICD had viva voce examinations as the final stage of their PhD programmes in the period before Christmas 2015. Some agreed to share their experience, these include Mabruka Alfaidi, Claudia Amatruda, Angela Lungu, Marwa Mahmoud and Alex Rothman.
I really enjoyed being a PhD student in the Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease. I originally came from Libya where I achieved a medical degree in the field of cardiology. I was lucky enough to join the Department in 2011. When I started my PhD I had a vague idea of what a doctorate program was going to be but that soon changed with the support of my supervisor Prof. Sheila Francis and all the people in the department. Undertaking a PhD is a beautiful challenge that was different from my previous clinical experience. I believe a researcher clinician doing a PhD is required to be committed, talented and passionate.
The first year went quickly and let me experience two main principles – firstly face your weaknesses and try to address those. Secondly, loneliness kills - especially if you are an international student and do not know where and who to ask for help or advice in a completely new environment, away from family and friends. However, I was lucky enough to go through that pretty quickly with the help of the people who are ready and keen to help. In our department, everyone is friendly and they do not hesitate to provide any advice when it’s needed. My supervisors were great and patient during that too. This is gold. They really helped, especially when I was sidetracked and needed to get back on course.
During the second and third years, I was able to build up my confidence to ask and address relevant questions, and found the joy of finding the answers. I have also been lucky enough to get the opportunity to present my work at national and international meetings. Socially, I was able to represent the department at the MPGS and meet students across the faculty and was able to make friends, share our experience, discuss our issues and try to find solutions. In the department, we had regular Research in Progress meetings where I could have good conversations with the academics and other students and postdocs at the breakfast and coffee announcements before the meetings. These meetings along with the seminars and post seminar lunches that are held regularly in our department were useful and a vital part of understanding the research culture.
During a PhD not everyone has an opportunity to teach, however, in the department of IICD I had many opportunities to teach students from different disciplines; including undergraduate, master and PhD students. I like interacting with students. Teaching was easily available in our department and was a great way of transferring knowledge and engaging other audiences in your research study.
Writing a thesis can be a depressing and stressful experience, especially for those who have a no previous experience in that, however, it’s a part of the PhD training. Therefore, it was useful when I started planning my thesis chapters by the end of the second year of my PhD. Taking strength from that, the whole thesis chapters were written by the end of the third year. I found that it is really a crucial to get your supervisors to look through your draft in a timely manner, so any amendments can be done before the deadline and can be addressed efficiently. Additionally, as important as writing, you must revise your draft and keep your thesis alive until the very end. Revising takes as much time as writing your first draft, so planning enough time for the revision was useful.
Following submission, I have started to prepare for the viva and the preparation was not as massive as writing my thesis, but it was an intellectual experience. In the medical school, we have very clear policies and regulations of how the viva is going to be conducted. I found it really helpful to have a day to go through that. Additionally, doing a viva survivor workshop by Dr. Nathan Ryder and an arranging a mock viva with my supervisors a week in advance before the actual date of the viva were really very helpful. My viva lasted for nearly three hours and I enjoyed it very much. It was one of my great experiences, and it could be helpful if you keep in your mind that “You are the expert in the room”, so just ENJOY IT.
The hardest bit of my PhD was to explain to people what my PhD was. Whenever anyone would ask me "so, what do you do for life?" my answer was "I play with colours on a computer!" "really?" "yes, I build models with my computer, I make them do things and see what colours appear as a result".
The hardest bit of my viva was to convince the external examiner that the set of colours I had decided to study was as relevant as the other set of colours I could have chosen!
Part of this struggle came from the fact of being part of the Medical Physics group within the IICD department: however, although the diversity of background with my colleagues may have generated some issues in understanding each other's projects, it also created a fertile terrain of communication across topics. More than once, I made use of the biology knowledge of my "next-door office colleagues" in order to understand how wrong my assumptions were while building up my cellular model.
I have to acknowledge the wide support I received from my supervisors, not only for the research in itself but also for the chances to travel for conferences, to visit companies and to join courses to develop the skill-set necessary for this long path and the help from the IICD staff has always been quick and effective.
Finally, my viva: although I was probably too stressed, I still managed to enjoy some parts of it. But the main excitement after it was over was not the fact that it was, indeed, over, but also the fact that that long, in depth discussion made me realise how much I have learnt in all these years, both as amount of information and how to think "as a researcher".
“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful” wrote George E. P. Box in his book entitled ‘Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces’. Essentially, yes! However, it took a while before I convinced others, and also myself, that although the models are built on assumptions and the simplification of reality, the ones proposed in my PhD project were useful. And the biggest such defence took place on my voice viva day. After allowing me to briefly summarise my project, the examiners started turning page after page, asking questions, raising eyebrows or making positive remarks on the work. Three hours later, which felt like only 30 minutes, I finished with congratulations from the examiners, a smug smile on the inside and a huge one, of simple happiness, on the outside.
My PhD project focused on the non-invasive diagnosis and assessment of pulmonary hypertension, using computational models, supported by Magnetic Resonance Imaging measurements. Like many other projects in the Medical Physics group, it was designed as a direct translation of engineering concepts and mathematical models into clinical use. It might seem tempting for engineers to stay in their “techy” bubble, however being able to improve or create new models, being part of a multi-disciplinary department like the IICD, working close to clinical specialists and having access to clinical data was of high importance for the project’s development and implementation. In addition to this, it enables access to seminar series, lectures and presentations held by key-speakers all organised within the department, as well as support for disseminating the work at workshops and conferences.
Finalising the PhD required hard work, home sickness and tears of desperation at (multiple) times from me, experience, guidance, patience and mentoring from my supervisors, technical and clinical support from other staff members and colleagues, cookies and hugs from friends and constant encouragement from the family. But, luckily for me, it gave me back a whole set of new skills and deeper knowledge, friends and people to look up to, and the satisfaction of completing a useful piece of work. Indeed, some models are useful!
I have had a very enjoyable time during my PhD, I have learned so much and developed many skills over the course of three years of my studies. Being part of a dynamic and supportive research group (led by Prof. Paul Evans) and department such as IICD played a big role in making my PhD experience enjoyable. A number of experiments that were part of my PhD studies would not have been possible without the help and guidance from members of the department, specifically from Prof. Sheila Francis and Dr. Mark Ariaans. It has been an absolute pleasure being part of IICD. The processes of thesis writing and preparing for the viva examination were quite stressful. However, surprisingly, my PhD viva examination was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my life! I thoroughly enjoyed discussing my work and getting into in-depth discussions with my viva examiners regarding the “big ideas” revolving around my PhD project and related themes.
I undertook my MRC funded PhD in the department of Department of Infection, Immunity & Cardiovascular Disease studying the cellular biology pulmonary arterial hypertension. My work investigated the role of microRNA in disease pathology and used network biology to identify new drug targets to treat this devastating disease.
The department, and people within it, provide a stimulating, supportive environment for all aspects of learning and training. I embraced the opportunity to focus on my research fully and enjoyed my time in the department immensely. Defending my work at viva was an unnerving experience, however the opportunity to discuss the finer details with critical examiners made for interesting discussion!