Confirmation – not as big a deal as you think it is?

Just like the Catholic Church, academia asks PhD students to present themselves for confirmation after a certain amount of membership time has passed. Unlike the Catholics, academics don’t do the smells and bells thing, or demand that you take on a new name. Instead, after about a year of Research Degree study, you will be asked to show that you have ‘the right stuff’ to continue in your studies.

Confirmation can take various forms depending on your discipline and university rules. It might be called ‘program approval’ – or some other obscure managerial name, but it’s a significant milestone anyway. Some students will have to write a substantial piece of the literature review and a thorough outline of methods; others will have pilot studies or artifacts to present.

Despite these differences, most students will have to do some sort of public presentation after which they will be judged by a panel of academics as good enough to continue – or not.

It’s at this point, in the Australian system at least, that you can be asked to leave – or be downgraded to Masters, so it’s not the easiest time for many students. @thetokenlefty (who is doing confirmation one week from now) summed up the feeling perfectly this week when he told me that he is ‘shitting bricks’ at the thought of it. So I thought I would write this top five for him – and any others who have yet to pass through the confirmation process.

1) It’s about the questions (except when it isn’t)

A confirmation presentation is basically a chance for you to demonstrate you have research questions and have some idea of how you might answer them. You probably have more than one question – that’s ok, but try, if you can, to know your ‘hierarchy of concerns’. What is the most important question to answer? Do your questions depend on each other, ie: is there one that has to be answered before the others?

For a minority of students, such as those in creative arts and design, the questions are not really known in advance. In project based disciplines research questions tend to arise out of and follow the work. Your job is to show that this process is happening – probably by talking through some of the preliminary work you have done and what questions it has raised so far. Instead of demonstrating a hierarchy of concern you could talk about the fruitful directions you intend to continue to explore

2) Show the audience why the research is interesting

Constructing good research questions is a subtle art, so the academics wont be expecting the questions to be phrased perfectly. However your questions should be should be big enough and complex enough that a thesis is the ‘answer’. Spend your time convincing the audience that the questions you have are interesting and worth asking – and that you are the right person to answer them. For the creative project based types the emphasis will be on demonstrating reflection on the practice and what it means, not just a recitation of what you have done.

3) Skip lightly through the literature

The temptation at this moment is to retreat into showing the ‘teacher’ (your panel) that you have been a good student by telling them everything you have read over the last year. Let’s face it – this is going to be pretty boring for everyone.

What the academics will be looking for is how well you use the literature – not whether you have a complete collection of it. Think of yourself as a curator – not an archivist. The panel will want to know: 1) can you identify ‘good’ from ‘mediocre’ work and 2) can you talk about it properly.

Focus on the key writers, practitioners or studies and know this material well – mention the rest during question time if it comes up. This way you appear effortlessly erudite rather than anxious and defensive.

4) Ask for help

At the same time that you need to present a ‘doable’ project with interesting questions and good reasons for carrying it out, too much confidence can be your undoing. It’s natural at this stage to have gaps and unknown areas.

Some academics might take an overly confident presentation as a sign that you have failed to see these gaps and will get worried. Or they might just think you are a young whipper snapper who needs to be taken down a peg or two. Either way you need to reassure them that you are thinking deeply, so throw them a bone. As you go through your work, highlight one or two areas you are unsure about and ask for help and ideas.

5) Keep calm and carry on

Remember that the academics sitting on your panel have done a PhD too. They are not expecting a finished piece of research – just promising beginnings.

Best of luck @tokenlefty – but you wont need it! Anyone else got advice on confirmation they would like to share?

14 thoughts on “Confirmation – not as big a deal as you think it is?

  1. I was found by one of the heads of school crying in the toilets before my confirmation. (Me crying, not him!). He said that the confirmation is not for kicking students out, it’s simply to make sure that you haven’t missed any significant details and that if you have, the panellist’s discussion is to help you fix the problem. As it turned out, my external panellist thought my longitudinal study was not longitudinal enough. (I could here my principal supervisor and external panellist shouting at each other through the door). When they finally let me back in, the problem had been solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Win!
    So good luck @thetokenlefty. It will be fine :)

    • What a kind Head of School!

      I felt unnaturally calm before mine – I think my brain OD’d on serotonin or something. I only realised how stressed I was after I finished – I had huge sweat marks under my armpits! (Lucky I was wearing a black jacket :-) )

      I should have emphasized your point about the reason for the process – I have never heard of anyone getting kicked out after confirmation. I have known quite a few people who were asked to do it twice – even three times until the project was right. I have known a few downgraded to masters. All these people are grateful later that these decisions were made however.

    • Although I did my confimation in 2002 it is still a confusing memory. Two Professors argued about nothing relevant to my study my supervisor just let it go on and I went and sat down for what seemed to be an eternity. Then I was confirmed. Alll a lot of grand standing really and it has made me a very supportive supervisor to my own students.

  2. Pingback: Confirmation – not as big a deal as you think it is? | Creative Writer PhD

  3. My MA confirmation was a nightmare, only because of one examiner who did not read the work I had submitted and asked a number of irrelevant and unhelpful questions that would have been answered had he had read the document. It was worse in that it was structured as an open, public confirmation, in which I had other graduate students unfamiliar with the discipline (as the confirmation included all disciplines from my school) and who had not read the document asking similar irrelevant questions/stating that the project was a waste of time. I was really fortunate that my supervisors were there to help me get through those tough on-the-spot bits, and I remember during the 40 mins of deliberation afterwards how wrecked with nerves I was in thinking that I had failed it, only to be told I had easily passed with flying colours and was recommended for the PhD upgrade by the rest of the panel who had read the document. To this day my supervisors shake their heads at the way it was structured and what had happened, and I honestly couldn’t have asked for more support/be more grateful to them in being supportive and understanding. My upgrade to the PhD was fine and easy to get through, and I’m hoping my Mid-Can will be the same. Your blog is fantastic in helping grad students like me get through the worst of it :)!

  4. After 17 months (I study part time) of reading, reading, reading with some writing along the way I have my CoC in 4 weeks. Where to start with my CoC document? Any help or links is appreciated. knowing it is a decision step for me to continue is making me feel like I am stuck in concrete!

  5. I found confirmation to be a bit of a joke in Australia. So long as you don’t try to wing it or put no effort at all into it, you will be fine (even at top uni’s) and this is because there is a financial incentive for you to be passed along and eventually graduate. I think both confirmation and the final talk need to be more thorough. Also to show that that I am not saying this because I think I’m all that, I think I perhaps shouldn’t have passed mine back when I had it.

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