How *not* to approach your doctoral viva exam. Or indeed your research.

hattujamiekka15_0If there were a league table of cool places to do doctoral degrees, it would have to be topped by Finland. It’s the only place I know where you are given a top hat and a sword on graduation (see picture), which is rather like being transformed into a rather elegant academic Ninja. Anyway, today I thought it might be amusing to upload a spoof viva script I use when teaching on doctoral courses. For those who haven’t been subjected to this rite of passage, a viva is an oral exam where you have to spend a couple of hours (at least) being interrogated fiercely about your thesis by two or more seriously clever people. This script shows how to get almost everything wrong in the exam, and describes what might be the world’s worst doctoral project by the world’s most unaware student. Do not try this research project at home.

  1. How did you choose this topic of study?

I thought it would be easy to get a tobacco company to sponsor it. Plus I have just given up smoking myself.

  1. Tell us a bit about your study, could you explain the title in more detail?

I can’t remember the title, it’s so long. Hang on, I have got it written on a bit of paper here. “Puff the Magic Dragon: Adolescence and Smoking Culture in the Secondary School Environment”

  1. What is the gist of your study? What is your ‘thesis’?

That there is still a very entrenched smoking culture in secondary schools, despite recent legislation. I have developed an idea based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, that in addition to social, cultural and intellectual capital, there is also a kind of ‘smoking’ capital that kids develop over time. They form a social identity as smokers, and base this on the smoking culture they see around them. If you like, this is almost a kind of smoking habitus, which is an all-encompassing identity as a smoker. I have linked this to Foucault’s work on the design of prisons and the relationship with control. I argue that schools are generally not very well designed, because pupils still find lots of places to hang out and smoke, which means the surveillance aspect of things isn’t working sufficiently well.

  1. What would you say is the main contribution from your study?

I have completely rethought Bourdieu’s theory on capital and shown that there are four kinds rather than three. I think this is so important internationally that I have started writing a journal paper for the Harvard Review of Education on this.

  1. What is NEW or novel about what you are saying?

Nobody has identified the existence of smoking capital or a smoker’s habitus before. If you are going to stop children smoking, then you have to nip this habitus formation in the bud, frankly, otherwise all the nicotine patches in the world won’t work.

  1. What methodologies did you follow and how did you prepare for doing fieldwork?

I have a friend who works in a secondary school in Harlow, so I carried my fieldwork out down there. I thought it was very important to do this discreetly, otherwise the school would try to hide evidence of pupils smoking, because of school policy. So I managed to get in one weekend to install Axia webcams in the key areas that my friend had previously identified as likely smoking venues. Then I monitored them remotely over the internet to track what sort of pupils used the smoking venues and how often.

  1. How did you think through or prepare for an ethical concerns you might have had about how you conducted the study? Did you not think of doing participatory research?

I did wonder about the ethical dimension of what I was doing, but I knew that an American researcher called Humphreys published an article with the title “Tearoom Trade” in 1970, which discussed his observation of homosexual men carrying out sex acts in public toilets. He managed to acquire really good data about sexually transmitted diseases which he was able to transfer to a later study, so it seemed to make sense to me to use a more modern version of the same methodology, and it seemed legitimate to base the fieldwork in school toilets and so on. I was also aware that Petticrew et al published a journal article in 2007 in the British Medical Council’s journal Public Health, about the smoking ban in Scotland, entitled “Covert observation in practice: lessons from the evaluation of the prohibition of smoking in public places in Scotland”. In the article they describe how complicated it is actually remaining incognito whilst carrying out covert research. That’s why I decided the webcams were vital for this project. Clearly if all these people are doing covert research, then it’s acceptable to do it if your reasons are genuine.

  1. What did you find out through your study?

I discovered that school toilets are only used for smoking during certain key periods of the day, such as during lessons, and that kids throw wet wodges of toilet paper at smoke detectors to make sure they won’t react to the smoke. During breaktimes and after school, pupils tend to smoke behind the school kitchens, and not the bike sheds as people popularly believe. Regarding the smoking habitus, it is more likely that girls take up smoking than boys, and this is generally because they are worried about putting on weight, and they think smoking will suppress their appetites. It is part of the habitus of being a modern young woman. Boys tend to do it to look cool and be part of the gang, on the other hand. I could hear all this over the webcams.

  1. Talk to me about the sorts of literature sources you read that led you or inspired you to study this topic.

Well, the main inspiration was probably the Humphreys ‘Tea Room’ article. There was also an article in the American Journal of Public Health called “The power of policy: the relationship of smoking policy to adolescent smoking” by Pentz et al in 1989, that looked at school policy towards smoking and whether it was likely to decrease smoking amongst adolescents. There was also a really great article in Social Science and Medicine in 2004 by Aveyard et al, that explored the influence of school culture on smoking amongst pupils. These three articles were the main inspiration for me. I read some books as well, but there aren’t so many of those. I am hoping to write the first.

  1. How did you collect, organise and manage your data? Did you follow any documentation/data set management procedures? What is your evidence base?

I observed pupils over the Axia webcams whenever I had time, by logging in remotely. I made notes in a fieldwork diary while I was watching, and referred to these notes when I was writing up. Really I was looking for good examples of my theories about design and control, and habitus.

  1. How did you analyse your data?

As I said, I selected the most interesting examples that supported my theories, and then made sure they were prominent when I wrote up the dissertation. I was a bit disappointed because most of the time, pupils weren’t actually smoking in the toilets, so I had to make the most of the few times that they were.

  1. How did you get access to your subjects of study?

I was lucky to have a friend doing his teaching practice in the school, and he organized things so I could set the webcams up. He cares a lot about pupil health as much as I do, and I was very grateful for his help.

  1. What would you do differently if you had to do this again?

I think it was a bit limiting doing it in only one school, so I would be inclined to find another school and use that as a kind of control group to show that what was happening in the first school wasn’t unusual in any way. It’s important to be scientific, even when you’re just looking at education.

  1. Where do you think your research leads? i.e., what next for you or your research agenda?

I want to disseminate the research as widely as possible, so I am planning to write a book about smoking in schools, and put some of the film clips up on my website. This is so school managers have an idea what is going on in schools today. Obviously I will anonymise the name of the school because it’s important to be ethical.

  1. What sort of supervisory support or guidance did you have – cause frankly, it’s not looking too good for you just now…. 🙂

I had a supervisor for the first month, but I found that after I found it very difficult to get on with him because he just wanted me to spend the whole time in the library. So I didn’t bother going to supervisions after that. He wanted to read the final dissertation but I didn’t see the point, because I don’t think he really understood habitus in the same way as me, which would make him biased when he was reading it. So I can proudly say this is all my own work.


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