Archive for PhD examination

Via Beato Angelico

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in Milan(o). I’m just here for a short visit in order to participate in a PhD examination tomorrow at the Universita Degli Studi di Milano. I’m looking forward to it, actually, as I’ve never done such an examination in the Italian system before. It will also give me the chance to meet up with a couple of old friends I haven’t seen for a while before flying back to London tomorrow night.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before on this blog but I was a fairly long-term resident in Milan some years ago. In fact I’ve just checked the dates and it was in 1994, i.e. twenty years ago. Time flies indeed. All those years ago I was here as a Professore a Contratto, which means I gave some lectures and did a small research project. The invitation for this came via Silvio Bonometto. I didn’t get paid a huge amount for this visit, but as part of the deal I did get use of an apartment organized by the University. It was on the Via Beato Angelico and this photograph, which I have just ripped off from my own facebook page, shows the view from the balcony:

Via Beato Angelico

It was a nice enough flat and in a good location just around the corner from the University. The one thing I remember well is that one of the main tram lines ran along the street below; their sound has stuck with me through the years, as they often woke me up very early in the morning. I think there was an ice cream place over the road too.

During my stay here I was accompanied by a friend, Anna, whom I invited to come when they told me I was going to have use of an apartment. Anna wanted to try to find a job in Italy so it seemed a great chance to spend three months or so looking around while I worked. The place was easily big enough for two and I was grateful for the company in the evenings. We had a lot of fun doing the tourist things, visiting night clubs, and the rest. Most people thought we were an item, I suppose, but we weren’t. Her long red hair gave her the nickname Anna Dai Cappelli Rossi, after the cartoon character. Here is a picture of Anna I took on the roof of the Duomo:


Anyway, when it was time for me to return to England, Anna stayed in Milan because she had found a job (and a man). She did return to England though and now lives in the Midlands in a place called Liverpool.

I’m mentioning all this because the hotel I’m now staying in, the Hotel Dieci, is just a short walk from that old place. I’ll probably have enough time in the morning to take a walk past and see if I can find it. I wonder how much the area around here has changed in the last twenty years? I’ll have time to find out tomorrow but for tonight I had better read the thesis again!

The Day After…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 14, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday was a memorable day for more reasons than the outbreak of Higgs-teria I blogged about. The main event was in fact the PhD examination of my student Jo Short. Being the supervisor, I didn’t actually attend the examination in person but did get to have lunch with the Chair and other examiners, including external examiner Andrew Jaffe from Imperial College, who blogs at Leaves on the Line.

After lunch the Examiners, Chair and candidate disappeared into the special room we keep for such occasions (complete with thumbscrews, etc) and I went back to my office to wait it out while Jo was grilled. I always feel a bit protective towards my PhD students, and a viva voce examination always brings back painful memories of the similar ordeal I went through twenty-odd years ago. Although I had every confidence in Jo, I was a bit nervous sitting in my office wondering how it was going. However, this is something a PhD candidate has to go through on their own, a sort of rite of passage during which the supervisor has to stand aside and let them stand up for their own work.

About 90 minutes after the viva started I remembered that I had to pick up some medication from a chemist, so braved the inclement weather to do that.  Yesterday, incidentally, threw an extraordinary range of weather at us: hail, thunder, gales and dark apocalyptic clouds. When I returned the examination was already over; Jo passed with minimal corrections to be made. My nerves clearly weren’t justified. Congratulations Dr Short!

Caught on the hop by the fact that the viva finished in just over 2 hours, I then had to mobilize the obligatory champagne which was chilling in a fridge belonging to the Astronomy Instrumentation Group. Worse, a team of PhD students which had been dispatched to buy celebratory gifts hadn’t returned with the goodies by the time we opened the bubbly. Nevertheless, an appropriate celebration was eventually held in the department, followed – so I’m told – by an evening of revelry in the town. I didn’t go to the latter, as I’m far too old for that sort of thing.

By the way, Jo’s thesis is partly about the analysis of the pattern of temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background and partly about modelling galaxy clustering revealed by the Herschel Space Observatory and she’s staying on at Cardiff on a research fellowship.

P.S. Our genial external was last seen getting into a taxi to get to the station and thence back to London. I assume he got home safely…

P.P.S. For the sake of complete disclosure I should admit that I wrote this blog post while chairing another viva…

Exam Time

Posted in Education with tags , , on May 18, 2010 by telescoper

A busy day today, marking undergraduate examinations most of the time, but also keeping an eye on the viva voce examination for a PhD student too. In the end both tasks went off satisfactorily. I finished my batch of marking third-year examinations scripts and my PhD student Rockhee Sung also passed her PhD. The completion of the former task wasn’t so much of a cause for celebration, because I still have a second paper to do, but Rockhee’s successful PhD defence definitely was. The viva was probably no more than the formality I expected it to be, but it was great to see the look on her face when she emerged from the room. In anticipation of a successful outcome I’d bought a few bottles of champagne which I had secreted in the departmental fridge. A few minutes after the viva had finished, I sprang into action,  corks were popped, and we were all congratulating Rockhee on her success. We then adjourned to a local bar and thence to dinner in a nice restaurant.

Rockhee started her PhD with me when I was at Nottingham. When I decided to move in 2007, she moved with me and transferred her registration to Cardiff. Moving wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated  owing to the Credit Crunch. It took me the best part of a year to fully relocate, causing considerable disruption to my research (and Rockhee’s PhD). However she managed to complete her thesis some time ago and managed to get a  postdoctoral position in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. She flew back yesterday for her viva, just escaping the dreaded Icelandic Volcano Ash, and passed (with flying colours) today. Well done Rockhee!

Although the outcome of the examination was hardly unexpected, I don’t mind saying that I was absolutely delighted, as I am every time one of my PhD students passes this final hurdle. It’s one of the things that makes this job so very special. That’s a round dozen now, and I’m so very proud of all of them. Especially considering what a crap supervisor they all had.

That’s not to say that I won’t feel proud when this year’s undergraduates finally qualify for their degrees,  but postgraduates have a much closer personal connection than undergraduates do to their tutors and lecturers, and that  inevitably makes their success that bit more special…

Viva Voce

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 11, 2009 by telescoper

Just back from a flying visit to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, where I was involved in the examination of a PhD candidate at the Institute for Astronomy, which is housed on the site of the Royal Observatory.

For those of you not familiar with how this works, a PhD involves doing research into a particular topic and then writing up what you’ve done in a thesis. The thesis is a substantial piece of work, often in the region of 100,000 words (200 pages or so), which is then assessed by two examiners (one internal to the university at which the research was done, and one external). They read copies of the thesis and then the candidate has to defend it in an oral examination, which was what happened today, after which they make a recommendation to the university about whether the degree should be awarded.

At most universities the supervisor does not attend the oral examination, but is not normally required to go into hiding for the day, which is what seemed to happen in this case…

There aren’t many rules for how a viva voce examination should be conducted or how long it should last, but the can be as short as, say, 2 hours and can be as long as 5 hours or more. The examiners usually ask a mixture of questions, some about the details of the work presented and some about the general background. The unpredictable content of a viva voce examination makes it very difficult to prepare for, and it can be difficult and stressful for the candidate (as well as just tiring, as it can drag on for a long time). However, call me old-fashioned but I think if you’re going to get to call youself Doctor of Philosophy you should expect to have to work for it. Some might disagree.

As it happens, my own PhD examination 20 years ago was quite long (about 4hrs 30 minutes) and my external examiner was John Peacock, who happened to be the supervisor of today’s candidate Berian James. It wasn’t a deliberate consequence of me wanting to take vicarious revenge as external examiner on John’s student, but this turned out to be a long examination too. We did break twice (once, briefly, for the remembrance day silence and then for a longer period for lunch), but it was still a lengthy affair.

Obviously I can’t give details of what went on in the examination except that it was long primarily because the thesis was very interesting and gave us lots to discuss. In the end internal examiner Philip Best and I agreed to recommend the award of a PhD. Berian then went off to celebrate while we completed the necessary paperwork. At Edinburgh as in most UK universities, the examiners simply make a recommendation to a higher authority (e.g. Board of Graduate Studies) to formally award the degree, but in the overwhelming majority of cases they follow the recommendation.

After doing the paperwork I still had time to join the party for a glass or two of fizzy. At the do and at various points during the day I had the chance to say hello to some old friends, including Andy Taylor, Bob Mann, and Alan Heavens who all work at the ROE and Richard Nelson who was there for a meeting that I hadn’t known about when we arranged the date and time of the viva.

All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. Although I had to dash around to and from airports a bit getting to and from Scotland, all the planes went on time and since it’s less than an hour flying time from Cardiff to Edinburgh, it was all remarkably hassle-free.

Just before I left to get a taxi to the airport I had a quick chat with one of the PhD students, Alina Kiessling, who joked that I must be rushing off to write about the day on my blog. I never had time to read blogs when I was a PhD student (but  they hadn’t been invented then).

Perhaps I should start charging people to put their name in lights on In the Dark