What nobody tells you about ‘minor corrections’

Have you ever wondered what happens after the examiners give you feedback on your dissertation? In the UK and many other countries, this feedback is given in an oral presentation called the Viva. The viva is becoming more common in Australia, but most people will still get a written report from the examiners. It is your job to make changes based on this feedback, in consultation with your supervisors. It sounds simple, but in reality, making changes to a complete piece of work can be tricky.

This post is by Dr Mary Frank, who holds a PhD in Translation Studies from the University of Bristol, England. Her practice-based research investigated the interplay of translation theory and translation practice and led to three different translations of collection of satirical stories written in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. Her research interests are literary translation, the translation of literature from the GDR and prismatic translation (multiple translations of one text). https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-frank-0b27619/

Photo by @anniespratt on Unsplash

In the UK system, the majority of PhD students pass their viva ‘with minor corrections’. Your examiners present you with a list of corrections, you go away and implement them. Easy, yes? Well, no, not necessarily.

If you’re lucky, corrections are simply typos, formatting issues etc. So far, so good. Any thesis will inevitably contain some of those, and you’d definitely want to correct them before submitting the final version. Corrections of that nature can legitimately be considered ‘minor’. But corrections of that kind are only a small part of the story. Much more problematic, in my experience, are corrections that, although still considered ‘minor’, involve re-thinking and re-writing. Nobody warns you that you’ll need to re-gather your energy and brainpower to tackle them. That, for me, turned into a struggle for which I was completely unprepared.

Let’s be clear: getting through your viva ‘with minor corrections’ is a great achievement. Your work is definitely of the required standard, but there are still tweaks to be made, perhaps to make connections clearer or to fine-tune an explanation. After all, you and your supervisors have become so close to your work that you may not realise that a particular point is not entirely clear to somebody reading it for the first time. This means that ‘minor’ corrections are entirely legitimate, and indeed should be welcomed as contributing to the quality of your final thesis. So why, when my examiners reeled off their list, did making those corrections seem like another huge mountain to climb? After all, it was the most likely outcome of the viva, so it wasn’t a surprise.

The problem, I think, was that after six years of researching and writing, and (for reasons beyond my control) a long and anxious wait for the viva, I had simply burned out. I had nothing left to give. While my supervisors cracked open a bottle of bubbly after the viva and people started gathering to congratulate me, I found it hard to celebrate. My brain felt completely drained, yet I knew that I somehow had to address those corrections before I could pass the finishing post. To my examiners and supervisors, those corrections were indeed ‘minor’, but to me they seemed bewildering and daunting.

“Do the minimum necessary,” my supervisors advised. For the first few days, all I could do was stare at my thesis. It was if it was carved in stone. It was only painfully slowly that my energy and brainpower returned and I felt able to tackle the typos, the easiest of the corrections. Once that barrier had been broken, the corrections that involved re-thinking and re-writing followed. In the end, I wrote three additional paragraphs at various points in the thesis and expanded my illustrations of an argument at another. Not, after all, a big deal.

Given that there is so little advice around on how to deal with ‘minor’ corrections, perhaps I’m unusual in having experienced this response. Or perhaps people like supervisors, having come out the other side, quickly forget what it’s like to have to re-visit your thesis at the very point when you may have nothing left to give. In case it helps others to avoid a crisis, here’s my advice:

  • Although the viva is the key milestone in your PhD journey, try to bear in mind that it may not be the final one. In the UK and similar systems, you may well need to make corrections, so be sure to preserve some energy.
  • When tackling corrections, it’s helpful to distance yourself from your thesis. Imagine yourself as an editor looking critically at somebody else’s work. That way, you’ll find it easier to break through that barrier of being unable to see how anything could be changed.

Thanks Mary! Are you tackling corrections now, or have you completed the ones asked of you? So you have any advice to offer?

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Doing your ammendments without losing heart (or your mind)

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19 thoughts on “What nobody tells you about ‘minor corrections’

  1. lindensong says:

    I submitted my thesis for a New Year’s Eve deadline, with a scant 2 1/2 hours to spare. No celebration for me … I was far too tired. Slogging away for 11 years, with full-time employment, curriculum development projects at the college where I teach. I went to a conference presentation early in December in Perth (Australia), the other side of the continent from my home. This could have been foolish, but I managed to spend most of my time there with my supervisor spurring me on to make the deadline.

    So, I submitted on time … and immediately had to get back to this curriculum development project which is a radically different philosophy to what my college has taught before, ready for delivery from the beginning of February. All thought of my research work has been out of mind, including publication projects in limbo.

    I dread the report from the examiners. As I climbed the peak to submission, the thought of trying to keep the whole gamut of the research in mind was daunting. My inner voice would say “I have trouble trying to keep the focus for a journal article … how could I possibly keep a whole thesis together in any kind of rational form?”.

    I see the gaps and the inconsistencies. Having dropped the basket, so to speak, how to pick it all up again to make corrections?

    Anthony Linden Jones
    Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney

  2. Shifa says:

    I so appreciate this post as I find myself in a similar situation; feeling beyond saturated after years of hard work, but still I need to tackle minor corrections. I’m going to use the advice of seeing yourself as an editor. Thanks, Mary!

  3. Orbital Weaver says:

    Formatting and spelling in body of the text are easy. Just do those.

    I wrote an addendum chapter to deal with the examiners’ major points and explained what the additional chapter was for. I also did a separate point by point response paper.

    This seemed fine. I passed my PhD. About 4 years ago. At U Syd.

  4. tashd1309 says:

    OMG Yes! I am in that situation right now, but in Australia so after Examiners’ reports have been received (no VIVA). One examiner passed with no corrections – not a single one. The other one, an overseas examiner, had minor corrections. While minor, they are still overwhelming and very frustrating, as they are not very specific corrections or comments. Some are purely comments and asking things that were not in the scope of my research, others ask me to ‘clarify’ when it is a chapter containing a publication, so I can’t change the chapter, I have to somehow add it to the discussion/conclusion chapter. Not a single typo in the whole thesis, just some very frustrating comments that I have to address on a very short deadline (6 days) if I want to get it approved in time to make the cutoff for graduation in May. And my brain is still feeling fried after the last sprint to get the thesis finished before Christmas. Others around me asked whether I was celebrating having passed with minor corrections, but I was just feeling deflated and annoyed and frustrated…

  5. Peta Myers says:

    I have also just received feedback from examiners and am working through these too. I was struck by how differently the examiners viewed my dissertation, and possibly what their expectations were for dissertations. After a discussion with my supervisors we have looked at the common themes, discarded a couple of peculiar observations/thoughts, and hopefully I am now on track for graduation. I don’t want to overthink this at this stage, just do what I need to and be able to move on … to writing about what emerged from the study!

    • Gesare Mose says:

      Have read this and it is very informative thanks a lot for the post. I just submitted my PhD thesis (not yet received a viva) but am hoping for the best. I must admit that I also had to rush to submit because it was long overdue having juggled, a full time job, a small baby to nurse and a side hustle in the name of editing. The experience is tiring, cumbersome and mind clogging.

      • Peta Myers says:

        Well done on managing all those commitments then Gesare. I was lucky in that I had sabbatical in the last year, which meant I could focus on my thesis … and my children are all grown up. I hope you find time to enjoy the feeling of achievement when you get through your viva.

  6. Dr Muzza says:

    Minor changes is either an oxymoron or misnamed. I have just completed my PhD with minor changes. However, most of the minor changes seemed to be nothing more than a ramble. Other than grammatical errors, there was nothing specific to change…yet I was still required to make some changes. To do this, I had to deduce what the comments even referred to in the first place. This was not helped when one examiner had a very different reading (if not misreading) of the thesis compared to the other two examiners.

    In the end my supervisor basically said I just needed to ‘tweak’ areas of the thesis to ‘show I had considered the examiners comments). Also I completed a form to comment on the examiners responses (where I could deduce them!). While this was successful and I passed by PhD, I think it can be done better. In particular, any changes required should be specifically noted (down to paragraph or sentence level) by the examiners. Anything else from the examiners should just be treated as “commentary” rather than being framed as minor changes.

  7. Elaine says:

    Thanks for the insightful post. I passed my viva with minor corrections early March, yet I’m still doing them. I found after the viva I just couldn’t bear to look at my thesis and have struggled with even the most basic points. A number of the corrections I don’t feel confident enough to tackle. After the viva I felt such relief and euphoria, now I feel deflated; what seems to be a simple task is taking such a Herculean effort.

    • Indecisive says:

      Hey Elaine, I’m in the same boat. I defended two weeks ago and the number of comments and edits I received was just so daunting. I keep having breakdowns and realizing how flawed my thesis was. One of them asked for a repeat analysis of my data and I’m just so done with it. I hope you’re doing better than I am because I am very much burnt out and considering even dropping out after defending.

  8. Lea says:

    After my viva at the beginning of December, they said they will award the degree with what my supervisor considers to be minor revisions – I have to completely rewrite an entire chapter and half of another. It’s not happening. I’m dropping out, and not graduating. There is absolutely nothing left, and I had a panic attack after the viva just at thought of rewriting – I will not put myself through the stress and anxiety that writing creates for me again. I’m done – no PhD for me.

  9. tropicposs says:

    A real cautionary tale about a period I’m not looking forward to.
    A friend of mine was so fazed by this stage that they didn’t complete the minor corrections required before the university’s PhD time limit elapsed, and so never got awarded their PhD.
    True story.
    20 years later they’re doing another PhD.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I’ve run across this situation a couple of times in my career. Always makes me shake my head and think of it as a failure of supervision, but I do have one student who may fall into this hole, despite all my efforts. The whole idea of doing extra work can send people into a shame spiral that goes nowhere good.

  10. Natalie says:

    Great article, this was the same for me. All the easy typo/diagram corrections were done first, then it came down to the tweaking of certain sections to improve the clarity. The corrections deadline is next week, and I can finally see the end to what I need to do. They seemed so daunting at first (and I kept leaving the hard bits to the end), but chipping away at them bit by bit has helped make it easier.

  11. Heath says:

    Great article. I’ve just passed with one correction. My supervisor understood much better what was wanted of me. I didn’t understand at all and because I was burnt out it was making me quite agitated/annoyed. So my recommendation is get supervisor feedback on the examiner feedback before you start! It was only 500 words (2 paragraphs) but took a month to do it because I didn’t feel like rushing (plus I was working).

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