Category Archives: PhD life

Finally, I’ve submitted my thesis

This will be short, as it’s after midnight, but under the circumstances I thought I’d better post a quick update.

Thesis and poster images for submitting

I went to Newcastle to submit my thesis in person on Friday. (I did manage to move to Cambridge in February.) Everything went well, I had a good weekend there, and I’m glad that’s finally behind me.

Here’s what’s next:

  • The Graduate School will keep one copy of the thesis and send the other two to the examiners who have been appointed. One of those (the “internal examiner”) is at Northumbria but has not been involved in helping or overseeing my progress. The other (the “external”) is at another UK university.
  • In maybe 2-3 weeks, I’ll receive a notification of the possible dates for my viva voce exam — dates roughly 2-3 months from now that all the other parties have indicated they can make — and I’ll be asked to choose one. This exam should be similar to what in the US is called a “defense”.
  • We’ll meet for a couple of hours. They’ll ask me questions. I’ll answer as best I can. I’ll leave the room. They’ll decide on the outcome. I’ll come back into the room. They’ll tell me the outcome.
  • There are five possible outcomes:
    1. Pass with no corrections.
    2. Pass with corrections required, which I have to complete within six months. My supervisors can sign off on this; the examiners don’t need to review them.
    3. Revise and resubmit (also known as “major corrections”) within a year. This will involve another viva.
    4. Award of a lower degree. (In the case of my research programme it would be a Master of Philosophy.)
    5. Fail.
  • I follow up with whatever is required.

I would say that #1 is highly unlikely and that #4 and #5 are not going to happen. I think #2 is more likely than #3, but I wouldn’t rule out either one and I don’t want to second-guess anyone or contaminate the process. So I won’t say anything else about this except the viva date when I have it, until I know the outcome.

More information is here: https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/static/5007/graduateschool/submittingforexam.pdf

I’ll write a long post soon, about various things.

Surprised…

…that I haven’t dreamed about my PhD before now.

A couple of nights ago I dreamed that I had my viva and they gave me a result of “Second, with distinction”. That doesn’t make any sense, because as far as I know only a bachelor’s degree gets a first, second, etc., and “with distinction” doesn’t apply to a second-class degree anyhow. But that was my dream. It meant, I think, that I’m anxious about how well I’m going to do.

It doesn’t help that I’m having problems with my main laptop. I’m not going to rehash the story here, but Apple still haven’t come up with a diagnosis/solution that make the problem go away. It’s seriously getting in the way of my productivity, and I’m really glad I never got around to selling my old one. It doesn’t have the memory, speed, or storage of the newer one, and it weighs a lot more, but it suffices as an interim solution.

It’s been quite a week

It’s been quite a week.

First, the best news: I got word that Sigma UK‘s application for a visa sponsor licence has been approved. That’s a big step in the process of my getting a work visa, and I’m delighted! Now they have to issue me a Certificate of Sponsorship, and then I can apply for my visa. Not sure exactly how long all that will take, but I’m confident I’ll have a work visa before my student visa expires in mid-February.

Next, the mixed news. I had my mock viva this week and got really helpful feedback. Both supervisors said it was extremely well written (it’s always nice to receive praise, but I confess I place greater value on feedback that’s actually news to me); the panel said the contributions to knowledge are sufficient for a PhD but I need to convey them more fully. My primary supervisor and I met afterward, and he had a brilliant idea for how I can fill in that gap. The reason this news is mixed is that I won’t be able to make all the changes in time for a mid-December submission of my thesis. I’m going to make as much progress as I can in the next three weeks, and at the end of the month we’re going to regroup and see where we stand. But this feedback and my supervisor’s idea filled in a space that had been worrying me for a while. Clarity is good.

Finally, the horrible news. I’m sure you know what that is. I won’t say much about the US presidential election here because I’ve said a lot on Facebook and this blog is about other things — so I’ll just write this one paragraph. I’m horrified and disgusted. I know that a lot of people voted for Trump because they felt themselves to be in more and more dire straits economically and wanted a change, and some trusted his promise to go “pro-life”; but his election has unleashed a backlash (or a “whitelash”, as some call it) of bullying and violence against people of color and LBGTQ people, and I refuse to let Trump voters pretend they didn’t know that that would happen. I hope we can stem it.

I also want to say that I’m glad I was already making moves to stay in the UK. I’ve heard a lot of Americans say they want to leave the US, and I like to think that if I hadn’t already been planning to stay here I wouldn’t have done so purely because of the election.

They say that…

They say that writin’ up is hard to do,
Now I know, I know that it’s true.
Do say that this is the end.
Instead of writin’ up I wish that
I could lighten up again…

(with apologies to Neil Sedaka)

Thesis title approved and examination team appointed

Today I received a letter from the Graduate School that started:

APPOINTMENT OF RESEARCH DEGREE EXAMINATION TEAM
 
CANDIDATE FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY: MS ELIZABETH BUIE

Dear Elizabeth,

I am pleased to inform you that the University’s Research Degrees Committee has now appointed the Examination Team to examine your thesis and has approved the final title of your submission as:

Exploring Techno-Spirituality: Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experience

It went on to say who the examiners are (I knew this already; my supervisor chose them but he had asked me what I thought and I agreed with his choices) and who the chair will be. The examination chair doesn’t have to be particularly knowledgeable in the subject; it’s more important that they know how an examination should be handled. The chair they appointed is someone I know and like; he’s in social science rather than design, and I think he’ll be fine.

Now to finish drafts of all the chapters and put together draft appendices for the internal panel (due on Sunday) so we can hold my mock viva on the 17th. I’m up to almost 75K words now.

Mock viva set for 17 October

I received an email today from my primary supervisor saying that my “mock viva” has been scheduled for the 17th of October and that I’ll need to get a reviewable draft of all my chapters to the panel no later than the 8th. The mock viva panel are the two people who have done my annual progress reviews, so I’m pleased they could both do this. They know my work and give good feedback.

A mock viva is like a test run of the viva voce exam in which the examiners ask questions about the final submitted thesis and decide on your fate. The mock has two purposes: to give you experience in answering questions of the sort the examiners are likely to ask, and to give you feedback so you can make changes in your thesis to ensure the examiners get your best work. I have been reassured that for the mock the thesis doesn’t have to be polished (or even quite finished), so I will do the best I can by the 8th. I must get my literature review finished this weekend and then write drafts of the discussion and conclusions chapters, which I’ve not started yet (except for notes). Polishing the analysis chapters (of which there are three) can wait until I’ve got some meaningful content in every chapter.

My thesis has to be 75,000-85,000 words long. I’m at about 73,000 now, so it’s going to be tight. As I write, I’m identifying bits I can move into footnotes, endnotes, or appendices, if need be.

Thanks for all your good wishes!

Thesis abstract (as finalized)

I should have waited until today before posting the abstract, but I was too excited about it to let it go any longer. Today I had a meeting with my second supervisor, who explained the feedback he had emailed me and told me I didn’t have to stick to 300 words. So here’s the revised version. (I’m leaving the original version up because I did say it was the original version. <smile>)


Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STXs) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on what they are, how artefacts support them, and how design can contribute to that support. People often find such experiences transformative, and artefacts do support them — but the literature rarely addresses artefact support for STXs. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

The first phase of research involved the conduct and analysis of 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods informed by relevant literature and by studies performed earlier in the PhD research programme. Analysis found that STXs proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support at least two stages and people desire enhancements to all three. This STX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it extends the structure of STX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the stages of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences.

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, which aimed to elicit speculative design ideas in an atmosphere of fun and play. By playing a game that incorporated themes from the grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, workshop participants sketched 69 design ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. Analysis mapped the ideas to the stages of STX and drew on relevant research to inspire possible extensions to the workshop-generated ideas. By far the largest number of ideas mapped to the STX stage Creating the Context, with very few mapping to Living the Experience, which suggests that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly. This point is especially important for experiences such as STX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. Transcendhance workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context.

This thesis combines the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshop process, presenting peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.

Thesis abstract (more or less)

My supervisor says it’s OK for me to post my abstract here. What you see below isn’t what actually went into the Assignment of Examiners form, because after I wrote it I learned that the committee that reviews that form is very picky about language, so although there is precedent in my faculty for writing a thesis in the first person, I changed it for the form. (Man, I hate passive voice.) So what I’m posting here is what I originally wrote, before I revised it to use the third person. I may revise and/or expand it a little for the thesis itself, but this accurately conveys the gist.


This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STX) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on designing to enhance them. Such experiences can be ineffable and transformative and artefacts can support them, but the literature rarely addresses the connection between artefacts and these experiences. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

I conducted and analysed 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods as informed by relevant literature and by studies conducted earlier in my programme. I found that STX proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — with artefact support and desires for enhancement applying to all stages. My theory supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it adds artefacts and desires to the structure of these experiences.

I designed and conducted “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, employing play to stimulate design ideas. Using themes from the grounded theory, workshop participants sketched 69 ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. I mapped the ideas to the stages of STX, building a framework to guide techno-spiritual design. Living the Experience and Creating the Context showed a large disparity in mappings, suggesting that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly, especially for ineffable experiences that are tricky to define, impossible to predict, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. The workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, essentially “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context. Even fanciful ideas provided insights for techno-spiritual design.

Combining the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshops, I developed peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.

Thesis title settled

Throughout my PhD program(me), the title I’ve been using — which I always have to enter on administrative forms — has been “User Experience and the Human Spirit”. That title captures the spirit, the motivation, but gives no information about the content of my research. Today my supervisor and I settled on what I am going to use for the title of my thesis:

Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

I also had to write a 300-word abstract for the purpose of assigning examiners for my thesis. I’ll find out if I can post that here too.

When I find myself thinking that two-days-plus was a very long time to take for only 300 words, I console myself with the famous quasi-quote: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

The summer of writing up

On Wednesday I met with my primary supervisor to discuss the draft of my Methodology chapter. In his written comments he described the chapter as “a thorough and meticulous account of your research process with an [enviable] attention to detail and rigor in argument” and “a fantastic first draft”. More specifically, he said, “It provides a very robust defense of the methods chosen and makes a strong case for a coherent and theoretically informed approach. It is well structured, clear about claims and superbly well referenced.”

Whew!

He wanted to see more discussion of a couple of things, he said, and we talked about those. But on the whole that chapter is in great shape and I have agreed to send him the final draft on Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.

I have drafted a timetable for finishing the drafts of all my chapters over the summer, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. Good thing I had already decided to forgo my usual holidays — a week of singing Renaissance polyphony in the East Midlands in July and a couple of weeks in Italy in September. I may take a weekend or two and go somewhere, but basically it’s The Summer of Writing Up.

Wish me focus and persistence!