How to Avoid Major PhD Corrections | Lex Academic Blog

In the UK, PhD students usually pass their viva voce – that is, an oral defence of their thesis – with minor or major corrections. As a follow-up to our recently published how-to guide to avoiding minor PhD corrections, we thought it would be useful to produce a post on avoiding major corrections. Whereas minor corrections encompass relatively straightforward issues like typos and formatting, as well as small amounts of rewriting, major corrections involve substantial rewriting and restructuring. Passing with minor corrections shows that your thesis is at the right standard. Passing with major corrections, as the University of Sheffield explains, means that ‘the thesis has the potential to merit the award of the degree for which it has been submitted, but does not yet satisfy the requirements for award and contains deficiencies that are in excess of editorial or presentational corrections’. Because major corrections entail more work, then, students are usually given six months, rather than three, to resubmit their thesis.

Despite this, passing with major corrections is by no means a bad result. The key word is ‘passing’, not ‘corrections’, and, in the UK at least, corrections are unlikely to have a long-term impact on your academic career or profile. In the short term, though, there are some very good reasons to try to avoid major corrections. If, in the time between submission and your viva, you’ve managed to obtain your first academic job, the difficulty of juggling major corrections with a full-time post could mean correcting your thesis on a part-time basis and resubmitting after twelve months rather than the usual six. Additionally, even if it’s not a bad outcome in the long term, passing with major corrections can feel like a blow. Amending typos is relatively painless, but having to make corrections that involve reworking entire sections of prose is daunting and tiring after the years you’ve already put in to reach this point. Here, then, is some advice for avoiding major corrections.

Some of the points in our post about avoiding minor corrections are equally relevant here. Firstly, your literature review – the part of the thesis where you critically analyse the major contributions to and trends within your field – should be complete and up to date. Secondly, at your viva, it’s essential to react to constructive criticism positively, rather than defensively. Regarding major corrections specifically, though, this award usually means that, although the research is satisfactory, it has not been articulated clearly or fully enough. One excellent way to assess how well you articulate ideas is to present parts of your thesis at conferences. If your papers regularly elicit questions (the more probing, the better), your ideas are probably clear, since this demonstrates that listeners were able to follow your paper. Take particular note of questions that imply a flaw in your argument or that ask for clarification, then address the relevant sections the next time you sit down to write. Similarly, it’s worth trying to publish a section of your thesis as a journal article (note, however, that publishing too much of your thesis may make publishing it as a book harder, since publishers prefer to publish original material). If you can successfully get an article through peer review, this suggests that your thesis is at the right standard and therefore doesn’t require major corrections. If your article is rejected, the reviewers will (hopefully) explain how to improve it. The point is that feedback from a variety of sources – not just your supervisor(s), who are almost as close to the subject as you are by the end – is valuable if you aim to avoid corrections.

Another common reason for major corrections is that the thesis lacks a clear main argument, structure or method. Examiners often begin the viva by asking the student to explain the rationale for their thesis and to summarise its main argument or findings. When preparing for your viva, prepare answers to general, predictable questions like ‘why this topic?’, ‘what is your main argument?’, ‘why this methodology?’, and ‘why this structure?’. You should also reflect on why you haven’t used an equally valid alternative structure or methodology. It’s easy to dismiss such questions as too easy and focus instead on the nitty-gritty. But in fact, being able to answer these questions clearly and concisely suggests that, broadly speaking, your thesis is sound – in other words, there’s no reason it should require major corrections. If you don’t have answers to these questions, this implies a fundamental problem. As implied earlier, what you say in your viva can determine the level of corrections imposed.