Thoughts and insight from Dr Benjamin Halligan
Dr Benjamin Halligan
Presentation Workshops: Challenges and Opportunities
A number of our Doctoral students in the Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing took the opportunity of talking about their work in progress at a Presentation Workshop organised and hosted by Dr Andy Cramp, and introduced by the Dean of Faculty, Professor Linda Lang, on 1 December. It was an interesting evening, and I was glad to be there.
Talking about your work in front of others is always difficult. Sometimes the work is at an early stage and ideas are not yet fully formed, let alone substantially tested, and confidence in them is in short supply. Sometimes the work is in a disorientating middle stage: the Literature Review signed off and the methodology settled, but the bulk of the actual research still in process, and the way ahead may be obscured, or the incoming results in tension with your main thesis or argument. Or relatively straightforward matters, such as access to archives, interview subjects or sites of research, may be causing unforeseen troubles. And sometimes the work is winding up, and the presenter may not be willing to entertain ideas that may seem to question, or even potentially undermine, the methodological foundations of the study, as set in stone some years before.
Two sessions struck me in particular. Diana Soares (“Biomechanical Analysis of Three Dance Jumping Tasks”) and Sara Smith (“Developing Student Capability”) both boldly outlined their methodologies as the primary focus of their presentations. They both talked us through the thought processes that informed the evolution of their approaches, and how early results invariably led to revisions in their methodological models. As always, the best presenters are those that are speculative – even chatty – and talk of risks and challenges and missteps and mistakes, rather than those that present their data in a matter of fact way, bookended by a narrative about what the researcher intended to do, has now done, and will soon conclude.
Methodologies are often far from perfect, and a wise PhD student will spend time exploring possible methodological limitations early on in their thesis, thus pre-empting and defusing anticipated criticisms. The more typical reaction from the PhD student is to try to dazzle the audience, or Viva Voce panel, with their results… so pushing the methodology discretely to one side, out of harm’s (and discussion’s) way. But in almost every Viva Voce I’ve been at, in a variety of capacities (as Chair, as Examiner, and even as the PhD student myself), the panel almost invariably hone in on the methodology as a, if not the, major point of discussion. This is where the thesis – a copy of which is in front of each examiner – is most marked-up, and with post-it notes plastered across pages, to traumatising effect. Even where the Viva has gone well, and the PhD awarded on that day, there will still be some uncomfortable back-and-forth on the methodology. As I tell PhD students prior to their Vivas: sometimes panels will raise questions in bad faith – playing devil’s advocate by articulating arguments against a given methodological approach even when they feel that the approach is quite satisfactory.
One of the opportunities afforded by our Presentation Workshops then is to talk about your methodology to peers, friends and lecturers, often from a variety of different academic backgrounds. The feedback and responses given can be invaluable in helping you shape and nuance your approach, or in shedding light on aspects that need further thought and additional research. Talking about the methodology is a skill in itself, and the Workshop can be a dry-run for the Viva – as well as conference papers, developing book proposals and responding to questions in job interviews. And, despite all the caution I’m voicing here, the feedback and responses may offer some welcome confirmation that your approach is correct… and so speed you on your way to PhD completion.