Surviving a PhD disaster

This post is written by Brian Flemming, a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh.  He completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University in 2014 and is now appreciating the freedom to continue studying and spend time away on the hills, without the associated “PhD-guilt” of neglecting the books. In this post Brian tells us about a situation we all dread: discovering a mistake in his thesis after it had been submitted….

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.22.03 pmIt was a sickening moment. I was staring at the computer monitor in disbelief. My jaw sagged open at the realisation I’d made a mistake in my thesis, which I’d just handed in for examination only the day before. And not a trivial mistake either: anyone with a working knowledge of the subject would have spotted it straightaway.

It was a pure Adams-esque moment, of the “…accidently chang[ing] down from fourth to first instead of third thus making your engine leap out of your bonnet in a rather ugly mess…” variety.

I’d been preparing a short presentation of background material for the viva when I decided to check on a mathematical equation in a company report to which my thesis was partly related. I’d chosen not to use this report as a reference to avoid any awkwardness over access to material not in the public domain. The equation concerned was the realisation of a physical definition I’d quoted in my thesis. I checked a few other references for corroboration. The uncomfortable truth was there in stark black and white: I’d misinterpreted the definition.

My initial reaction was of mild panic. Not that those working around me noticed anything different, but inside I was quietly dying. After all that hard work making sure the thesis was as perfect as possible, and now this. It was if a large black hole had opened up in front of me, and there was nothing to stop me being sucked in.

My first thought was to try and recall the thesis. There was still a week to go before the deadline for submission. There was conceivably just enough time to correct the draft and resubmit. On the other hand, I was due to start a long-awaited holiday abroad in the next few days, which would effectively scupper any attempt at resubmission.

Missing the deadline would mean an extra six months delay in completing the degree, which I was unwilling to contemplate. I was already fed up with whole process of writing the thesis and wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

Sheepishly I wrote an email explaining the situation to one of my academic supervisors. His reply was reassuring. “Don’t worry”, he said, “it is only a draft. Any mistakes will be dealt with at the viva, and corrections can be done afterwards.” (Editor’s note: Australian students note: you probably don’t have this option)The pressure was off temporarily.

Even so, I didn’t fancy the idea of undergoing a viva without having an answer to a thesis I knew was flawed.

I looked at the damage again with a fresh perspective. With great relief, it transpired that I had implicitly been using the correct definition after all, so that my results were still nominally correct. My thesis was concerned with an alternative approach to the standard method. To save time, I’d simply ploughed on ahead with the analysis: the introductory description had been added in later, which is when and where the mistake had occurred. It could just be a simple matter of correcting the error and moving on; on the other hand, this would also be a good opportunity to improve the argument by making a stronger connection between the standard definition and my alternative analysis.

Time was still of the essence though, and it would mean working through the holiday I’d planned with my long-suffering better-half as a celebration for my finishing the thesis. The books would, after all, be following me to France.

We agreed a compromise whence I’d work on our rest days between sightseeing trips. The total sum of the changes were two chapters swapped round, a new introduction drafted, conclusions revised, and follow-on effects traced throughout the remaining text.

The laptop glowed red hot crunching new data. It had been hard work but I’d done it, and the end result was a much stronger and more convincing argument. The question still to be answered though was why the mistake had happened in the first place.

Because my project involved a wide-ranging mixture of techniques spanning physics and statistics, my two academic supervisors were from the separate schools of mathematics and physical sciences respectively. I had spent considerable amounts of time writing up summaries of essential theory to aid inter-disciplinary understanding, in which differences in notation had also to be overcome.

Crucially, neither supervisor was particularly expert in the field in which the mistake had occurred, so that I was effectively policing my own understanding of the subject. I could remember distinctly the occasion when I’d checked the meaning of that particular definition. I trusted I knew what it meant. Unfortunately, I’d assumed the wrong interpretation and pushed on with the mountain of other work still to be done, unaware of the inadvertent discrepancy between the introduction and the rest of the analysis.

The viva took place approximately three months after the original draft had been submitted, during which time I’d continued to refine the replacement sections. It was a full discussion of the thesis, including my proposed changes. Having worked hard to overcome the flawed earlier submission I felt far more confident in discussing the material than I might otherwise have done.   I passed: convincingly as it turned out. I’d demonstrated that I knew my stuff, and that is all I needed to do.

The moral of the story is that, no matter what the pressure, it pays to check and check and check yet again. Then check some more. In my case I’d let the pressure of work get to me instead of mentally setting aside the impending submission deadline, a tactic I’d found so effective in the past in maintaining a high standard of work. On the other hand, errors in execution are not necessarily fatal: the important point is your understanding of the subject matter, which includes knowing when you’ve made a mistake and what to do about it.

I should note, Brian had a viva to correct the record, Australian students will not have this opportunity. Have you had a near miss or PhD disaster? What did you do to fix it?

Related posts

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What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners

28 thoughts on “Surviving a PhD disaster

  1. Grace @ Cultural Life says:

    “It pays to check and check and check yet again” – a worthy piece of advice for a budding post grad student like myself.

    Also, you mention that you mentally set aside the submission deadline – I’m curious to know how you do that. It sounds like a good technique to keep working efficiently and avoid becoming stressed under pressure.

    • Brian Flemming says:

      Hi Grace. Thanks for the feedback. There isn’t really any great secret to my “mentally setting aside” a deadline; it was just something I learned to do. I’d noticed early on how the quality of my work was being affected whenever a deadline loomed, and I found the most effective way of coping with the increased pressure (which was actually a self-inflicted anxiety about being criticised) was to “pretend” the deadline was far enough in the future for it not to matter. In other words, it was a psychological trick to help me concentrate on the work at hand and not to worry whether I’d have done enough work by whatever deadline I had to meet. For me, quality of output was a better indicator of progress than quantity, so I indulged in every stubborn instinct to help keep me focused. Fortunately, it worked.

      Most deadlines were, of course, nothing of the sort. They were merely a milestone for taking stock and adjusting priorities as necessary. The problem with the thesis submission was I believed it was truly a “drop-dead” date when everything had to be completed to the highest state of perfection for the viva; which, ironically, led to my being pressured into making a mistake in the text. Once I realised it wasn’t the catastrophe I feared, I seized the opportunity to make the best of it.

      Of course, you can’t simply ignore deadlines; you have to plan your work around them. But sometimes a simple trick like the one I worked out can help you maintain concentration when it really matters and the pressure or anxiety starts to build. It’s a trick I still use occasionally, much to the frustration of my project managers! Hope this helps. B

      • Grace @ Cultural Life says:

        Hi Brian, thanks for responding to my comment. Sorry it took me so long to reply – I finished my undergrad degree this week, so things have been busy!
        I hear you re: getting anxious about being criticised. I also find that I put a lot of pressure on myself and set high standards. And that’s a good thing, of course, because it keeps me motivated. But sometimes it can backfire and lead to work that could perhaps be of higher quality. As you said, feeling pressured can lead to mistakes.
        I’ll try your “psychological trick” when I begin my postgrad studies. 🙂

  2. Fiona Martin says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer

    I really, really love your blog and tell all my colleagues and students about it.

    I am an academic in Taxation and Business Law. I came to academia after being a tax lawyer and then spent a lot of time becoming a good teacher and not doing a huge amount of research (although enough to keep myself employed).

    I then started a PhD several years ago and completed it in 2013 (after 23 years as an academic). I might add PhDs are not that common in the legal field and I was advised early in my career by my Dean not to turn my research from my masters into a Phd – bad advice in hindsight.

    But, I digress. This blog particularly struck a chord with me which is why I am writing.

    With my PhD, although I had two excellent supervisors (and one that left me part way through to go to another university who was also good), neither of them are truly across my own area. My research involves taxation law and native title and charity law. So multi-disciplinary within the legal discipline.

    I used to lie awake at night worrying that I had misinterpreted some case or section of legislation. It made the experience very harrowing.

    One way that I did overcome this issue was to publish from my work as I went. I found this invaluable as referees would pick up ‘mistakes’ or ‘misinterpretations’ before I actually published my work or submitted my thesis.

    This may of course be difficult to do in some disciplines

    My very best wishes and thanks for your invaluable emails

    Dr Fiona Martin | Associate Professor | Taxation and Business Law
    UNSW Business School, UNSW Australia
    Address, Room 2054D, QUAD, UNSW Sydney 2052
    Telephone +61 (2) 9385 9558 | Fax +61 (2) 9385 5555 | Web

    [Vital Design]


    This email is intended only for the use of the individual named above and may contain information that is confidential and privileged. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any dissemination, distribution or copying of this email is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message in error please notify the sender immediately and delete this message. Views expressed in this message are those of the individual sender and are not necessarily the views of the Australian School of Business at The University of New South Wales. Before opening any attachments please check them for viruses and defects. CRICOS Code: 00098G

  3. M-H says:

    Australian students do have a chance to revise their thesis after examination – unless they are deemed to have failed. So if this were picked up by examiners it might be a revise and resubmit, which Brian had already well in hand. I admire his pro-activity with this – I might have felt “Let’s see if the examiners notice.” 🙂

  4. Katie says:

    Check and check again is good advice, but I think it should also be emphasised that there is a point at which it is really important to STOP checking. Submitting a thesis with minor omissions or errors is not fatal usually, as the thesis is a large body of work that is going to be judged from that view. Small mistakes are small mistakes only! This to me is yet another example of the trade off between time and perfection.

  5. theepowerofgood says:

    Having suffered from check exhaustion, data exhaustion and general exhaustion I don’t know how I would have reacted to a setback like this. One possibility is that my mind might have fled my twitching, foetal positioned body and to dwell on a plane of pure torment. Or I might have cried about it for a good hour and then pulled myself back together to do rewrites. Hopefully the later.
    Thanks for the blog.

  6. OhDear says:

    I had similar disaster happen, although it’s far from being fixed. At the end of the third year of my PhD, I came to the conclusion the work done up to that point was nowhere near good enough; most studies had crippling methodological flaws, vague research questions without any real theoretical or empirical basis, and there was no topic or overarching research question to speak of. As a result, I found myself in unenviable position of preparing to write up, well, nothing. All this despite, or because, of feedback from my supervisor and other faculty than indicated everything was on track and of suitable standard.

    While I’ve been (luckily) given the chance to salvage things and head in a totally different direction, the disaster that was the past 3 years has had a lasting effect; there’s an enormous amount of stress, guilt and shame attached to the experience, and I’m left without any confidence in my own research ideas or questions.

    Does anyone have any advice they’d like to share on how to deal with emotional consequences of this experience (and the more or less crippling effect those have on developing and implementing research ideas)?

    • ELF says:

      I did a few months of counselling, with a psychologist who had also done a PhD. it was very helpful in terms of processing my feelings of inadequacy! It also helped me realise I needed to reestablish my self-care routines. These had been disrupted because I injured my ankle and couldn’t run. My running had really been my major source of stress relief, and I had to find other ways of getting exercise etc. Once those things settled, I got clarity in my thinking and started making progress again!

  7. louloureads says:

    Somewhat less major, but I wrote a protocol, got supervisors’ approval/peer review/ethics for it, and started conducting my study; shortly after that, someone in my faculty with far more expertise in that specific methodology than either of my supervisors got hold of my protocol & realised I’d done everything wrong. It was too late to recall the study, so I just had to brazen it out. Thankfully, my PhD consists of two large studies rather than just one, and there was some scope to salvage the data from that study, but it was incredibly disheartening. Like the author of this post, I’d been teaching myself this particular method from books and papers, because my supervisors were unfamiliar with it, and when it first happened, I thought it was all over.

    As it turns out, I just wrote a REALLY LONG limitations section when reporting it for my transfer document, and made sure that my “future plans” section was as tight as possible. It was awful at the time, though. I can’t imagine how it would feel to discover it after submitting a thesis–hats off to Brian for persevering instead of panicking!

  8. Psych Stats Tutor says:

    And the experience also shows: All is not lost. As you said, you were more confident and competent due to noting the error. Which is the point of the process in a Thesis.

  9. triplemilitarvictory says:

    I think I can feel you. Whenever I am ready to submit my paper or thesis, my mind is full of qualm. I am just afraid of missing a fault or a blunder even after proof-reading uncourable times. I have the experience many times that even after I have proof-read a complicated article uncountable times and considered the article should be faultless but long time later I still caught typos. So I think no matter how many times I proof-read my article, especially a complicated one, such as including a lot of math formulas, I can’t guarantee my article is faultless.I really desire to have a proof-reading machine which can guarantee faultless after proof-reading.

    • Brian Flemming says:

      Dear Psych Stats Tutor. I’m afraid I do not agree with your comment that the mistake in my draft thesis was due to a lack of competent and effective supervision. Both my academic supervisors provided me with very competent and effective supervision throughout the entire period of my study, and they have my utmost respect for their knowledge and skills. The error was mine entirely and not due to any deficiencies on their part. I would respectfully ask you withdraw your comment about supervisory competence in this case. Thanks.

      • Psych Stats Tutor says:

        Apologies, Brian. I thought I was responding in-context to OhDear, as that was where I had replied. Didn’t realise it became another comment on its own. Of course, delete as irrelevant.

  10. KMK says:

    This article has been a comfort to me but I’m still currently freaking out and losing sleep over three minor errors I have noticed in a Masters thesis I have submitted (final submission – no chance of recall!). Also the possibility that there may be more lurking in there that I’ve missed. One that I’ve noticed is a formatting error, one is a word missing in a sub-heading (still makes sense but is different from the contents page) and another is a reference to an incorrect chapter. This is life-altering stuff as I have received a conditional offer for a PhD but have to get 80% on this masters thesis to be eligible. I can’t believe I missed the mistakes but I was to fatigued when i submitted that I just skimmed through the final draft, having read it more than a thousand times before. I’m panicking!!! Can anyone out there offer some reassurance – do assessors penalise errors like this?

  11. Freddy says:

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