Doing your amendments without losing heart (or your mind)

Many research students in Australia will be planning to submit their thesis next month. Let’s fast forward to that sweet moment you find out your examiners reports are back, or completed your Viva and been told you have passed. Congratulations! Time to ring up the bank and the passport office to get that long awaited ‘Dr’ in front of your name right?

Wrong.

You cannot use the title of Doctor until you graduate.

To graduate you must first get your thesis published in the university library. This involves submitting a ‘camera ready’ or complete copy of your thesis to the relevant administrators, who will then pass it to the librarians to catalogue. I’m writing this post because Laura left a message on the feedback forum asking questions and I realised I have never got around to talking about this aspect of the process.

When I started Whispering, about seven years ago, we used to lodge bound copies in the university library stacks. Now most universities have a public, online repository. This has been a great development; increased accessibility means increased relevance. But before your thesis can take its place there, you must attend to the changes that your examiners have suggested that you make to your thesis.

(If you are in the USA, you may want to stop reading now unless you are interested in what happens in other countries. What I have to say pertains to the Australian and UK system, and some other parts of the world, usually those who were formally colonies of the UK)

How many amendments you have to make will depend on how your thesis was categorised. In most universities I have worked or studied in there is a 5 point categorising system, with varying amounts of time allowed to make the amendments as follows:

  • Category One: no changes, around 2 weeks to submit final camera ready document to the online university repository
  • Category Two*: minor amendments, usually 6 weeks to submit
  • Category Three*: major amendments, mostly 3 months to submit
  • Category Four: revise and resubmit for examination, 1 year
  • Category Five: fail

*Primary supervisor has to approve the final version.

shredderThe categories I listed above are not a scoring system, despite what the numbers might suggest. A PhD is a pass or fail proposition; the scoring system is just a way of communicating how much change is needed before you can pass. In Australia you will get category Four before you get category Five, so you’ll have at least one year to pull yourself out of the hole if the examiners do not think you did a good enough job. Only 2% of research students, nationally, fail on their second attempt. To put this in perspective, as my old boss Denise Cuthbert used to say, with an average attrition rate of around 30% nationally, there’s far more risk of never completing than failure.

The examination process is full of ambiguity. One examiner might think problems with how you have numbered the footnotes means you should get a category two, but another might merely tell you to fix it and give you a category one. There’s no need to panic if you get category 1, 2 or 3 – your thesis can still be considered of high quality. I got category two for my PhD, but both examiners checked the ‘outstanding work’ box which made me feel better. I later won the faculty award for best thesis and was one of the runners up for the university prize (dammit!), so category two didn’t hold me back a bit.

Everyone who has amendments will find it disheartening, if not demoralising. But remember that the overwhelming majority of people have to do amendments of some sort. At RMIT, where I used to work, around 89% of people had to do changes suggested by the examiner before they could submit their camera ready document. Here are five suggestions if you get a Category Two or Three and have to negotiate changes with your supervisory team (I’ll write another post about category four because I think the issues are much more extreme for those who have to be re-examined).

1) Do it now, and as quickly as you can

You’ve probably waited up to 5 months for your exam results or the chance to do your Viva. By the time the reports come in life has moved on; you may have a new job or even be living in a new country. It can be hard to even open that document you sweated over and a time limit of a couple of months can seem both daunting and depressing. But just because you have a couple of months, doesn’t mean it will necessarily take that long. I’ve known people to work through category three amendments in less than a week. The category two changes on my PhD took a day of hard work. The trick is to do the bare minimum of the suggested changes, which leads me to my next point.

2) Work out which amendments you really have to make and which ones you will refuse to do

No one’s work is perfect, so swallow your pride and try to read the reports as objectively as you can – how many of these changes do you HAVE to make? The examiner is not the expert – you are; the report is a list of suggestions, not a shopping list. So take control and address only those concerns you think are important.

In a perfect world you will have a civilised meeting with your supervisors to discuss a plan of attack before you make substantive changes to your document. I should caution you, however, that there’s potential for conflict here. Some supervisors, particularly inexperienced ones, are under the impression that their job is to make sure you carry out every suggestion, no matter how ridiculous. Make yourself familiar with the regulations around examination so you can explain them if necessary.

3) Always make a cogent and well argued case for not taking up a suggestion from the examiners

You’ll need good reasons why you will not make a suggested amendment. Some reasons are more acceptable than others and the language you use is important. Never complain it will take too long; state how and why the changes suggested are impractical within the timeframe you have been given. I think you should resist, as far as you are able, any requests to collect more data. A thesis that honestly needs more data was poorly designed in the first place and should never have passed. If data is highlighted as an issue, suggest to your supervisor that you do more analysis or interpretation instead.

4) Summarise the changes as you go

Your supervisors will want to assess the changes you’ve made without reading through the whole thesis again. This is why it’s important to document the changes as you go in the form of a rejoinder. You might use a table with three columns  ‘suggestion’, ‘response’ and ‘page numbers’, itemising each change as you go. Alternatively you can arrange the suggested changes in themes, and make a written statement of the changes under each heading. This is what I did in attached PDF which is a response to Examiner comments on my own PhD. As you will see, it’s a formal document similar to the kind of document you write for journal editors when you have made changes to your article, but perhaps a bit more forceful.

5) Cross the T’s and dot the I’s

Usually you will submit a PDF to the repository, which might present some challenges to those who have video or other data which accompanies the written work. Check the instructions and get help from the library if you need to. Many universities require you to get copyright permission for any images or tables used in your thesis that you did not make yourself. This involves locating the original copyright holder and writing to them.

Getting copyright permission can take anywhere from 24 hours to never; sometimes even locating the original copyright holder can be tricky. I’ll do a post on this process in the near future, but I mention it here to highlight that there are a lot of small details you need to attend to before your thesis will be considered acceptable. I’ve known people to spend months, even up to a year, working on these details – such a waste of time.

I hope this cheat sheet helps you in the final stages. Are you about to complete and have questions about this process? I might not be able to answer all of them, but feel free to ask away in the comments. I’m hoping some of the experienced supervisors, whom I know read the blog, might chime in and help with advice and suggestions in addition to what I have written here.

Finally – best of luck with your submission!

Related Posts

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5 rookie researcher mistakes

54 thoughts on “Doing your amendments without losing heart (or your mind)

  1. This is so helpful — those details no-one tells you about! I’m doing a Creative Writing PhD and I will be exempt from putting my novel on my institution’s online repository; instead I will submit it bound to the library, the old-school way. I’m not sure if the accompanying critical commentary goes online — I hope to make the case that I’ll sell both of them!

    Just to say that I’m sure this goes for other institutions and practice-based courses as well. If there is possible commercial value in your work, you won’t be expected to give up the chance to see that value realised.

    • Just a word of caution. If you hope to get your thesis accepted by a publisher, they are unlikely to consider it if it is already online as your thesis. This is something that the uni does not like to tell PhD students.

    • In such a situation, one might request an embargo on their thesis – I have seen one that is embargoed for 13 years!

  2. Thank you so much for this post – I’m waiting on the return of my thesis from examination and had absolutely no idea of the process ahead! This was brilliant – I feel much more in control now. Thank you

    • I also got a 4. Not nice, but not the end of the world. The real work, for me, is to sit down and do the corrections. For some reason I keep postponing (Viva was on Dec ’12 I’m writing this on Feb ’13) the correction process: I have everything in my desk, the thesis with the comments, the files open in the computer, a nice home office with a lovely view, and somehow The New York Times seems to be more important to read. Fear of success one might argue, perhaps.

      • you think that’s bad? my viva was in march 2011 and i still haven’t done my corrections (i got a 3). i just couldn’t deal with them at all for a year and a half and have only got back on the horse in the last few months.

      • I like the term fear or success! I took time away from the revisions as I need to be ready to go back into my thesis to see it for what it could be not what it was.
        A fellow 4

  3. I did the whole spread sheet thing – I married up the examiners comments (some were quite similar so they became one action item), I added the former page and the new page as seperate columns then I added a column that was entitled response. Some of the issued I could just write Done or ocrrected (spellings/grammer,formatting) but others I detailed what I did or why I didnt do it. I thing from memory there was only 3 or 4 things I DIDN’t do. One would have needed a completely new thessis and two wre not actually relevent to my arguement. I still managed to submit bound copies with formatting errors (the dreaded 1 line on a page problem). No one actually seemed to care.

  4. “it’s place” ? Tsk, tsk! A tip for all PhD students (and academics): please learn the difference between it’s and its. Thanks.

  5. Your posr came just in time as I’m in the throes of addressing amendments and feeling a bit overwhelmed by how to address them. Knowing I am one of 89% helps! So thanks for your advice, Susan Inglis

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. Thank you Aunty Thesis Whisperer :) I am a newbie PhD student, and often feeling at loss … having re-entered the academic world after ten years in business. I am at the second year now, preparing for data collection and moving through the bureaucracy which I had thought to be simpler than the business world’s or the government organisations I have worked for. Well, thanks to your blog about rookies mistakes, I choose not to be “angry about the weather” and just tidy up those PLSes and ethics application to fit the administration requirement. I am on a huge learning curve to write at PhD level, as a scholar. I used to be a lecturer and conducted research at short term projects scale, but after a decade in the business world where speed, succinct-ness (is this the right term?) and practicality trumps the slow-cooking of ideas and thoughts, I am re-learning what it means to be writing to a distinguished academic audience. And this blog about the thesis amendment … oh my, completely shattered my fantasy about the third year being a peaceful, consolidating, contemplative kind of time writing the new knowledge. No wonder my mentor (who’s completed her PhD in the emotional experiences of adult learners) advised me that before I signed up for a PhD I must, MUST find a topic so hot that I can get up every morning for the next 3-5 years without anybody having to make me to. It takes THAT MUCH passion to complete this scholarly journey … which is fun from thought process and sharpening the mind kind of view, but honestly it is difficult especially for me, to slow down and process new information and construct new knowledge. REally, at times, it feels like training to be a starship captain (oh yeah, I did read the blog about what to say when somebody asks me why I am doing my PhD, esp. as a mom of two children under 7, a part time employee and a social kind of person…)

    Thank you, Aunty :) Hope you have a good day knowing that what you wrote has helped another PhD student makes sense of her world.

  7. Thanks for the post – and a brief question: what is your position on online repositories vs. hardcopy to the library with respect to later book contract negotiations? I know a book is not a thesis and vice versa, but there has been quite some chatter nonetheless that a full digital copy of your work might make presses reluctant to print a revised version (unlike one or two chapters out as articles, which likely work the other way round). Going for hardcopies would then be a sound precaution (if your institution gives you a choice, that is). What do you think?

  8. Good advice – I sent in my corrections earlier today before seeing this post, but think I did the sorts of things you suggest. Think the wait for it to be signed off is going to be worse than waiting for the Viva!

  9. I’m one of those who could have stopped reading but read on because I actually am interested in how PhDs are done in other countries. ;)

    It’s honestly fascinating. I’m doing my PhD in Germany and here it’s not enough to hand in a bound copy to get your title. You have to publish your thesis and while it’s possible to do online, this won’t do if you are in the humanities and want to stay in academia. So publisher hunting will await me after my viva. Oh, on the other hand – it’s up to you to incorporate the criticism from the reports. So it’s really quite different. :)

  10. Thank you. A very timely and useful post for me. It has taken me so long to get to the point of submission (two pregnancies-babies, etc) that at times the idea of having to do any corrections is just too much to contemplate, but having a short guide/pep talk will help.

  11. Fantastic Inger! When I handled complaints I dealt with a few students who were very upset when their Faculty ‘averaged’ examination numbers in a way they thought was inappropriate – mostly when there was two reports of a 1 or 2 and one report of 4. This almost always resulted in a 3. Students felt this was a punishment to do lots more work, rather than seeing the interests of schools and examiners was often to have the thesis be the best it can be. With my Masters Research I received two reports with category 1, but I probably in effect implement category 2 changes – they made comments that were helpful and made certain sections stronger once I made additions. Category 1 did not mean the thesis was perfect, it meant the thesis met the bar for a Masters Research even if no changes were made. I think it is helpful to keep that in mind.

  12. I went back and thought about it, I think I was a category 2 or 3 thesis. I remember submitting on 7th December 2010, getting results early April 2011 and resubmitting to my supervisors I think in May?. I promptly went overseas and then started a new job. I got final print permission 28th September and submitted 14th October. Graduated December 2011.

  13. A quick point with regard to averaging – my university doesn’t average as such, your thesis gets whichever grade is lowest, so a 1 and a 3 meant my thesis was assessed as a 3. Which was a little depressing. In the end, the changes significantly improved my work, and also helped with my anxiety that I had missed things or got things wrong – I had, and the result was not catastrophic. In terms of timing, I took a couple of weeks to process the reports (and do a bit of raging about how a couple of comments “just didn’t get it”), then a couple of weeks to make most of the changes. 3 weeks off for a holiday. Finish the other changes. Ignore for a week. Check changes. Send off to examiner with a table like the one mentioned above, and all of my changes marked in track changes. The timing was submit in early August, reports back in late November, changes sent in January, everything approved in February, degree to be conferred in March, graduation will be in June.

  14. It would be quite interesting to see the average amount of time it takes for reviewers to hand back a corrected thesis (Hons, MSc, PhD) between universities and states! I am currently waiting on my MSc to be reviewed and hope it won’t be much longer now (I’ve heard it can take up to years!)

  15. Would be quite interesting to know the average amount of time it takes for the viva to happen once the thesis has been submitted (in the case of Masters by Research in Australian Universities)? Any information on that?

  16. Hi there! Excellent article! Would anyone know the average amount of time it takes for the viva to happen once the thesis has been submitted (in the case of Masters by Research in Australian Universities)? Any information on that Inger?

  17. Excellent article – I am waiting for my examiners reports right now and I feel much more confident about what to expect. Rewriting tasks seem to be left out of conversations regarding submission, lots of people will talk about their thesis process but rarely speak about their examiners reports and the following processes.

  18. Pingback: When are you really finished with a PhD? | The Thesis Whisperer

  19. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web page and thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to finding out about your web page repeatedly.

  20. I am a student in the U.S, and I totally disagree that US students should stop reading at the point. I found this very useful, as I have received no guidance on how to proceed, post-defense [Viva]. My university has three categories Pass/minor revisions, Incomplete/minor revisions and Fail. I recently got Incomplete/major revisions = your Cat. 4. I have one year to turn that into a Pass. This post has given fantastic and concrete advice on how to practically respond to all 5 (!) examiners with conflicting complaints and revision directions. The spreadsheet is a fantastic idea, which I am going to try. I really did not want to track my changes.

  21. I got given major corrections (viva was just yesterday, so it still stings). But told me that I had 6-12 months to fix it and that they weren’t expecting me to take the full time given…I don’t know what to make of it. Happy, with a little h. Annoyed that the supervisor didn’t pay attention to my thesis. She didn’t read it. But I got told unfortunately the quality of the supervision couldn’t be taken into account. That wasn’t my intention anyway. So considering my phd and thesis are mine only with zero direction, a category 4 is pretty good!….it’s all subject to dancing to the academics tunes, from my awful experience. The sooner I’ve done the corrections, the sooner I can go far and away from this soul destroying university/department!

  22. So sorry Cat4r.h. – I realize now that very few in my committee seriously read my thesis and may never do so. I waited 2.5 months until I finally got some written directions on revisions – but nothing from those who had the strongest criticisms at the viva and nothing from my supervisor. Could be a good idea to type out what you remember being told at the viva, because it might be all you are going to get as far as a way forward and out. Solidarity from someone else working to get out of another soul destroying department/uni with zero support/direction. We can do this!

    • Thanks, LN, and a heartfelt likewise. It does sound like a good idea to write out what they said, I’ll do that. Thanks for the tip. I keep having panic flashbacks as it is and replay the event over again, so maybe that can be turned into a positive thing! All I have at the moment is the nervous, barely legible scrawl I made during the viva, and one of my examiners is known to be so laid back about correspondence that she’s practically horizontal. Your viva sounds like a harrowing event. 5(!!) examiners (I only had 2), and you still managed it, go you!! :). Hard(er) sloggers unite! Much support your way too, from across the ocean in the UK. Let’s do this for better and brighter things, and more importantly to get away from our current environments. You’re right, we CAN do this!

      • I’m almost out alive :). I’m just about to resubmit in fact (literally days away), and I came back to this web page for a reassuring (hopefully!) update. Nothing has changed on the supervisor front (same cold, uncaring attitude/border lining serious incompetency). But, something good came out of the last few months and that was getting my research accepted and published in an international journal. Which made me think: so I AM good enough, considering peer reviewed published work is better than two people passing judgement over your thesis. I think it just goes to show that decisions made at vivas isn’t a reflection of your competency as a researcher…..having said this, though….warning!! Doubt wave ahead!!…here’s hoping they feel my revisions live up to their standards!! It’s all about the sucking up….*laugh/sob*

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  24. I recently passed my examination (or viva as it would be called in the UK) and got a pass with major revisions, and will have to resubmit to the committee within six months. the examination itself went terrible; I was an emotional mess, nervous and unable to answer some even simple questions about my thesis due to extreme nerves and fear. I have been working on my self-confidence (while having a full time job) and trying to finish my thesis. I had taken time off work to prepare for the defense, but the research itself took place more than two years ago, and my supervisors are almost non-existent. I just find I struggle with my own self worth so much, I already had such a tough time with the thesis and now am terrified of not getting the revisions in on time (as I will be working full time out of town for the summer) and just wanted a place to express all my worries!

    I have been working on the revisions now for a week and a half and have addressed many of the concerns of my committee members, but have still been unable to schedule a meeting with my main supervisor, who seems to have deserted me all together! I like the idea of keeping a spreadsheet- I have so far just been using track changes and comments, but the spreadsheet seems like a much more organized way to go about it.

    Anyway, thanks for the advice and keep up with it! Would still love to see an article for us special sad sacks category 4’s…

  25. I got my reports a week ago after waiting 7 months! They were due in earlyDecember. I know my thesis needs improvement and I will make the changes and correction and I am thankful for the insight given by examiners…. etc. But I mean should I complain to the student committee? I am an intl student and this “dead time” has affected my possibilities of a job, my morale, and so many things. I got 6 months to make corrections and will make them and resubmit with all the good positive diligent energy… but I feel my thesis was put on hold for no reason. Should I complain or move on and just do the corrections and move on? Please help…. w some feedback.

    • I can only give you what I’ve experience as help. Hopefully, you might find it useful :).
      I’ve found that complaining doesn’t really count for much at departments when it comes to phd thesis handling. I think it’s probably down to zero regulations/standardised practices towards PhDs. When I dared to complain about how long it took for examiners to get back to me, I got jargon filled emails sent to me instead of addressing the problem. So nothing got done, my resubmission got delayed, and for a bonus, what should feel like a relief of finishing a phd felt like a big chore and now there’s no feeling of satisfaction left for me.

      By all means kick up a stink, it’s a good way of getting release, but I wouldn’t expect too much as a result of your complaining unfortunately. :/

      I would suggest get your head down and do the corrections. Phd thesis examinations are poorly regulated subjectivity steeped in tradition, and there doesn’t seem to be much improvement happening any time soon. Good luck and all things positive coming your way! :)… Hope I helped a little :)

      • There were several, many irregularities in my examination and resulting reports. I checked what few rules there were available on line and forwarded them to the committee immediately after my examination. Those rules were immediately followed. Otherwise, I did nothing official. What was the point? Make those examiners that obviously didn’t like me and my work dislike me more? Alienate one or two that were supportive? The final deposit still needs signatures.

        Now that you finally got your results, and its time to get back to work. Your revenge is making your thesis much better and your results coming closer to eventual publication and you getting a good position. The satisfaction is in your accomplishment, despite everything. So yes, put your head down and get back to work.

        I’m within a few weeks of handing in, with my job completed, if after that there are other roadblocks put in front of my graduation, then I am going to make the biggest stink possible. Otherwise, I’ll walk away with PhD in hand and move upward and onward and away from this horrible institution.

  26. Just to add, in addition to the spreadsheet, which assigns numbers to all the corrections and revisions, I inserted an endnote marker where each correction and revision asked for appears in the text, highlighted in yellow. This distinguishes the marks from my footnotes, which are part of the final text. I’ll take each of those endnotes out after I get the go ahead to deposit, but keep a copy of the marked up text in case there are any problems.

    • Your phd experience has sucked as badly as mine has. And you’re right, complaining does alienate you further from examiners, and some cases (like mine) your supervisor too. This resubmission period has been difficult enough, and it didn’t help with my supervisor taking me in front of another higher up academic to confirm by face whether I was the one who complained about my situation (I was called in on a guise of a thesis related catch up). And as you can guess the proverbial hit the fan, ceiling and anything else within a 5 mile radius. The university that I am at definitely does not care for students at all. No matter what their brochures/posters say.

      I agree with you too that sticking it to them in the thesis is the best revenge. Because if they want to, they will make your graduation a difficult goal to get. I just missed summer grad because the examiners took ages returning results before the deadline for graduation. Then lo and behold, literally a day after graduation, there was my pass confirmation. Angry was not the word. What they gained from it, I’ll never know. At the same time I had colleagues around me graduating at the time I was supposed to. I was drained of all positivity. Isolation was the only way of not snapping at people who were not at fault. But all I’ve got left is the final approved thesis submission now and then it’ll be over, and then I too can get away from these horrible people for ever!

      I hope your resubmission goes well! Fingers crossed!

  27. Thank you for your reply. Cat 4 and other friends. I met w supervisor a couple of days ago and we agreed that one of the examiners went CRAZY with suggestions; to the point she thought she was talking to an undergrad… (maybe patronizing attitude because I am intl student?!) At least I feel my supervisor is on my side even though he didn’t read the thesis passionately… It good not to have too high expectations and do the best you can for yourself! At first when I saw the suggestions I was overwhelmed; then I started prioritizing: what will improve the thesis? what is plain capricious? etc. I was suggested more readings or concepts that have nothing to do w my line of thought; some I will ignore….but some will clarify in a footnote (when and if necessary) I.e a new term or concept. Now I know I need to more intensely analyse a concept and that’s it…. plus detail more my fieldwork. So really it’s not that bad…. I have to it off like 8000 words though! And rewrite them but I am not as panicked now! Hey examiners are really not the experts!

    • I meant “cut off”…. 8000 words. Hey, examiners are really NOT the experts. …I’m not discouraged and I’m sure now that the “problem with getting examiners” was because of plain ignorance from the part of my super not having read the thesis. He now feels guilty and said he will help correct the thesis. We will see how effectively helpful he is… ok he is helping me w references in my job search, he is not that bad only a bit lazy and big headed.

  28. I apologise for the typos and mistakes in my posts…. I was on my mobile. I agree one must believe and be convinced that the thesis will become a publishable book. In my case, I hope I am en-route for a job in an institution or research centre that will appreciate my practice-based research. This particular examiner is from a film studies dept., so she “resents” that I am actually a documentary maker/artist who is capable of producing both written and practice-based work. She is probably frustrated and angry. I wish you could read her report; it is SICK with resentment. I will be 100% into my writing and fieldwork analysis… and that will be my “sweet revenge”; 1. my thesis will turn into a beautiful book and project. 2. I will get hired by a good centre/institution/organisation who will value my work and 3. the resentful examiner will keep on failing her poor students… there are always those kinds of professors at uni. DONT BEcome ONE OF THOSE!

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