Why I love doing my annual review
While I wrote and submitted the paper for my annual review way back in May, busy schedules and a case of COVID on my part meant I only officially passed last week! While it can feel a bit overwhelming, here are three reasons why I love doing my annual review process.
As part of the annual review process at Cardiff University, all PhDs (at least in psychology) have to undertake a "mock viva". This is based on a draft of a paper that we will have submitted alongside paperwork. This is to demonstrate our progression throughout the year and highlight what we've been working on. Provided you submit everything on time, have done enough work to draft a paper, and know enough about what you've been doing to answer some questions, then you'll be fine. I'm yet to hear of anyone failing an annual review.
While some might build it up to be a big, scary examination, I tried to view it as a helpful exercise. Let me tell you why:
You have to work to a deadline. Unlike taught programmes, there are rarely any big deadlines during a PhD. During my undergraduate and master's degrees, I adapted to working to weekly deadlines. Therefore, it was a real shock to the system when I started my PhD and there didn't seem to be anything in place between then and my thesis submission in 3/4 years. To have such a big project due with no means of dividing it up was incredibly intimidating. When learning about the processes here, my supervisor explained the annual review process as a check-in to help prepare for the thesis, with each annual review being able to correspond with one chapter of your thesis. Personally, I've struggled with knowing when work is done. I've been trying to set myself timelines lately to combat this, but I could easily go on writing forever, adding in extra literature and tweaking wording here and there. So having to gather my thoughts about a piece of research that will form a chapter of my thesis and a hard deadline to get something down on paper by was really helpful to make me actually get on and submit a draft!
You practice answering questions and challenges to defend your work. This is such an essential skill! It's something you'll do informally in supervision every week. If you've been working with the data in a certain way, you'll have to explain what you've been doing to your supervisor and justify why it was the best method. At a conference, you'll have people ask you questions about specific aspects of your research (often a method they're interested in, or the bigger picture around your work). When you submit a paper for publication, you may have to justify to the editor or reviewers why you've made certain choices in your research. But before your viva voce at the end of your PhD, there are very few opportunities to sit down, face to face, and be really challenged on your research. It's a little nerve-wracking, I definitely didn't have all the answers prepared, but it's such a good skill-building exercise and it's invaluable practice for my real viva!
When else do you have a chance to consult with (another) senior academic in this much detail? Similar to the previous idea, it is rare to have someone who spends dedicated time thinking about your work. Most people are preoccupied with thinking about their own research. If they ask you about your work, it's normally to understand how it might relate to or benefit their own research. For someone outside of your direct supervision team to take the time out of their busy schedule to read your work in depth, really understand what you've been doing and dedicate an hour to sitting down and discussing it with you is extremely rare. It should definitely be valued as such!
I went into my mock viva with a growth mindset. This isn't something that always comes easy, I think we can all be quick to be defensive (especially about a paper we've spent months working on!). But by seeing this as a great opportunity to be challenged, forced to support my work and voice my ideas, I learned a lot. I identified some real strengths of my research that I wasn't highlighting, I found some pitfalls that I can work to fix and avoid in the future, and I gained an overall better understanding of my own research. This was a great opportunity and I'd highly recommend anyone to take advantage if they're offered something similar.
A special thank you to Professor Katherine Shelton (left) for being my mock-viva examiner for the second year in a row and, as always, Dr Georgina Powell (right) for her constant supervision and support.
It's important to celebrate the wins - so we spent the evening walking on the beach and enjoying the sunshine!