Towards Corpus-driven History of Contemporary Islamic Political Discourse in Turkey and Bosnia

Next month, CASS will welcome visiting researcher Dino Mujadzevic. Read more about his project in his own words, below.

As a visiting researcher during February and March 2015 at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), I am looking forward to widening my knowledge on corpus-driven methods in order to integrate more empirically-grounded methodology into my research of contemporary media and political discourses in Turkey and Bosnia. As the leading research centre focussing on the interdisciplinary corpus-driven research of the language in the social context, CASS was a natural choice for seeking theoretical and practical consultation, as well as assistance in the more technological aspects of carrying out a corpus-driven study. I was also attracted to the openness of CASS towards applications of corpus-driven methods to the study of history (which I consider to be my core discipline), as well expertise on topics related to Islam.

Since February 2014, I have worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the History Institute, Ruhr University Bochum (Germany). There, I am working on a research project entitled “Turkish Foreign Policy and pro-Turkish activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2002-2014): Discourse and actors“, which is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt foundation. In this project, I examine the media promotion of Turkey in this country by applying the Discourse Historical Approach to CDA on textual material in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BHS) and Turkish produced by state and non-state pro-Turkish actors, both Turkish and Bosnian Muslim. The academic research on recent Turkish foreign policy and conservative cultural trends has risen in the past years as a reaction to the very active, influential and visible Turkish involvement on the world stage, mostly in the Balkans and the Middle East. Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its large Muslim population and its legacy of recent war, has a special symbolical importance for the ruling political party. The systematic study of the discourse which drives the Turkish official and non-official foreign policy coordinated by the government is still in its early stages.

During my fieldwork research stay in Sarajevo in summer of 2014, I started collecting textual material on Turkey in Bosnian media since 1990s. Additionally, in order to clarify the background of this material I carried out numerous interviews with persons active in pro-Turkish and/or Islamic groups promoting Turkey and participated in public events and religious ceremonies.

Due to very large amount of available media related to the research subject and possibility of more comprehensive quantitative backing of conclusions, I decided to upgrade my CDA research by applying the corpus-driven approach. Currently, I am building a corpus of pro-Turkish digitalized texts from Bosnian media (in BHS and Turkish languages), collected from private digital media collections, the Internet and by scanning the newspapers.

I plan to segment the corpus into chronologically delimited corpora and to extract keyword nouns and their semantic fields (KWIC, collocations, word-clusters) from each one of these corpora.  The extracted data would be used to analyse changes (or continuities) in discursive practices in the pro-Turkish discourse in Bosnia since 1990s. Assistance for this task should be provided by network visualizations (e.g. networks of keyword’s collocations). Because I am still in the initial phase of acquiring technical and methodological knowledge related to corpus linguistics, I started a smaller pilot project to try out the corpus-driven approach. I collected all Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan´s speeches (2003-2014), interviews and other statements in both in English and Turkish which were available online. Currently, I’m writing a paper on the incorporation of Islamic references in his political discourse which I plan to analyse by using AntConc tool on the chronologically divided corpora of Erdogan political statements. The major problems I am facing in scope of my pilot project include building a representative reference corpus and lemma lists for Turkish.

My stay at the LU is funded by European Research Stay Programme of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Are you interested in being a visiting researcher at CASS? Email us at with details about your project and your proposed time and duration of stay for more information.

New CASS Briefing now available — What words are most useful for learners of English?

CASSbriefings-EDLWhat words are most useful for learners of English? Introducing the New General Service List. Learning vocabulary is a complex process in which the learner needs to acquire both the form and a variety of meanings of a given vocabulary item. General vocabulary lists can assist in the process of learning words by providing common vocabulary items. In response to problems identified in the currently available General Service List, the authors decided to investigate the core English vocabulary with very large language corpora using current corpus linguistics technology.

New resources are being added regularly to the new CASS: Briefings tab above, so check back soon.

New CASS Briefing now available — The EDL: moving right-wing populism online in the UK

CASSbriefings-EDLThe EDL: moving right-wing populism online in the UK. The English Defence League (EDL) is a far-right populist political movement and campaigns specifically on issues concerning the presence of Muslims and Islam in Western societies. This briefing from CASS presents the results of a corpus study on the online activities of the EDL and its supporters. The briefing shows that, although the hierarchy of the EDL claims to be specifically concerned with radical Islam, the discourse of supporters is less focussed and contains more explicit forms of Islamophobia.

New resources are being added regularly to the new CASS: Briefings tab above, so check back soon.

Participate in our ESRC Festival of Social Sciences “Language Matters” event online

We are very pleased like to announce an event that we are live streaming on YouTube and Google+ next week. We hope you can find time to attend online*; if not, the recording will be available on YouTube afterwards.

From 1730 – 1900 GMT on 4 November, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science is hosting a live event in association with the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences and in tangent with our popular FutureLearn course. We would be thrilled if you could ‘tune in’ and collaborate with us during “Language Matters: Communication, Culture, and Society”.

This evening is a mini-series of four informal talks showcasing the impact of language on society. These are presented by some leading names in corpus linguistics (including the CASS Principal Investigator, Tony McEnery) and their talks draw upon the most popular themes in our corpus MOOC:

– What can corpora tell us about learning a foreign language? (with Vaclav Brezina)
– A ‘battle’, a ‘journey’, or none of these? Metaphors for cancer (with Elena Semino)
– Wolves in the wires: online abuse from people to press (with Claire Hardaker)
– Words ‘yesterday and today’ (with Tony McEnery, Claire Dembry, and Robbie Love)

Though we pride ourselves on bringing interesting, accessible material to people on the go, what really brings these events to life is the interactions that we have with attendees. That’s why we invite you to log in and contribute to the discussions taking place after each presentation.

There are two ways to virtually attend.

First, via Google Hangout if you have a Google account. Sign up at and then log in from 17:15 GMT  on 4 November to greet your fellow participants.

If you don’t have a Google account, you can watch us on YouTube at with no registration.

We’ll be taking questions from the Google Hangout and from the #corpusMOOC hashtag on Twitter (particularly for those viewing on YouTube) and mixing these in with questions from our live audience.

We hope that you can take advantage of this event by participating online.

* If you are available, located in the London area, and would like to attend in person, please visit our event website to register.

Welcome our new CASS postgraduate students!

Last week, we had the pleasure of welcoming four new postgraduate students to the centre. Abi, Jennifer, Róisín, and Gillian have now joined last year’s postgraduates Robbie and Amelia in our ever-livelier corridors. These four represent a great range of interests (both academic and personal), and their research promises to be very exciting indeed. Introducing our new postgrads, in their own words:

Abi Hawtin

hawtinI’m currently in my first year of a 1+3 studentship at CASS.  My research is concerned with the methodological issues surrounding the building of corpora, but I’m also interested in how corpus approaches can be applied to critical discourse analysis, online communication, and the relationship between language and gender.

I grew up in Leamington Spa in the West Midlands, and then moved to Lancaster to study for my undergraduate degree in English Language and Linguistics here at Lancaster University. Before choosing my degree I had never even heard of ‘linguistics’, but came across it when trying to find a course that would combine my interests in language and science. I quickly discovered that linguistics is often defined as ‘the scientific study of language’ and haven’t looked back since! I became interested in corpus linguistics in my third year of undergraduate study, when we were shown how the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods could be used to provide insight into real world language use in many different areas of linguistics.

When I’m not working with words I can usually be found with my nose in a book (probably Harry Potter)!

Jennifer Hughes

hughesI am a Research Student at CASS in the first year of my PhD in Linguistics. My PhD focuses on finding psycholinguistic evidence for collocation using EEG. I became interested in this topic whilst doing my BA in English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster, when I took modules in Psycholinguistics and Corpus Linguistics. I then developed this interest during my MA in Language and Linguistics, also at Lancaster, when I wrote a dissertation on how English collocations are processed by native speakers and learners of English.

During my PhD I am looking forward to gaining a more in-depth knowledge of Corpus Linguistics by, for example, exploring the different methods of extracting collocations from a corpus. I am also excited about learning how to use the EEG machine, conducting experiments, and learning more about Psychology in general.

Aside from my academic interests, I also really like dancing and do a variety of styles including tap, ballet, Irish, jazz, and contemporary.

Róisín Knight

knightI first came to Lancaster as an undergraduate studying English Language and Sociolinguistics. I absolutely loved my degree and enjoyed being introduced to many different areas of Linguistics. Once I had graduated, several lecturers parted with the words, “We’ve not seen the last of you… you’ll be back!”.

I then moved to London and trained at the Institute of Education to be a Secondary School English Teacher. I taught for two very crazy, exhausting but ultimately fun years. If there is one thing teaching taught me, it is the true meaning of the phrase ‘emotional rollercoaster’.

It turned out my lecturers were right; I soon missed being able to devote time to studying and completing my own research. I wanted a way to combine my interests in Linguistics with my teaching skills, and this sparked the idea for my PhD topic: investigating how corpus linguistic methods can aid the assessment of Key Stage 3 students’ creative writing.

I was fortunate enough to be offered 1+3 funding from ESRC, so I quit my teaching job (much to my students’ confusion- “how can you be a doctor without knowing medicine?”) and dragged my boyfriend back ‘up north’ (much to his displeasure- “but I don’t want to end up sounding northern!”). I’m really excited to be a new member of CASS, and I’m looking forward to providing updates on this website soon detailing some of the research I’ve been carrying out.

Gillian Smith

smithI am an MA student in the first year of a 1+3 PhD studentship. My research focus is the application of corpus-based approaches to the study of classroom interactions of children with communicative difficulties, specifically investigating how teaching strategies affect their linguistic and social development.

I grew up in a tiny village in the middle of Yorkshire that was so remote I inevitably became a bookworm and hence knew from an early age that I wished to pursue higher academic study. Having been inspired by an exceptional GSCE English teacher, I decided to pursue the subject further, taking A-level English Language and coming to Lancaster in 2011 to study BA English Language and Literature. In the final two years of my undergraduate degree I dropped literature to pursue my English Language studies and subsequently discovered my two main research interests: the study of communication disorders and corpus linguistics. Study of the linguistic manifestation of communicative disorders fascinated me and I was drawn to the widespread and practical applications that corpus linguistics offers.

As postgraduate study was always on my agenda, being given the opportunity to study my specific research interests in CASS was a dream come true. Through links with the centre I have already been given the chance to study in China for a month, which was an incredible experience and I am looking forward to the continuing prospects being a research student in CASS holds.

Are you a current postgraduate student interested in visiting Lancaster University for a research stay, or a current undergraduate student considering taking up a Masters or PhD featuring an element of corpus linguistics? Get in touch (write to to see if there are any opportunities to work with CASS.

Remember also to check back periodically to hear updates on what our postgrads are studying and researching.

Latest news on the CASS/iCourts collaborative investigation into the language of the law

Earlier this year, a formal collaboration between iCourts and CASS was signed based on our centres’ joint interest in the corpus-based investigation of language in the context of law. We are motivated to analyse legal data linguistically, because law is practiced in language, legal judgements are texts, legal arguments are phrases in texts, and legal concepts are expressed in words. One primary argument against analysing legal language from a linguistic perspective is that the data tend to be extremely formulaic and objective. However, findings from our collaborative analyses have shown that legal language shows elements of both fixedness and variation. Both sorts of patterns were exposed using corpus-based critical approaches to language.


Sigrun Larsen (Dept. of Law, Lancaster University), Matt Fisher (Tripod Software), Ioannis Panagis (iCourts, University of Copenhagen), Anne Lise Kjær (iCourts, University of Copenhagen), Amanda Potts (CASS, Lancaster University), Tony McEnery (CASS, Lancaster University), Henrik Stampe Lund (iCourts, University of Copenhagen), Paul Rayson (CASS, Lancaster University), Laurence Anthony (CASS visitor, Waseda University)

On our first collaborative project, “Decoding the rule of law: Corpus-based discourse analysis of the construction of achievements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)”, I serve as P.I., collaborating with C.I. Anne Lise Kjær of iCourts. This month, I traveled to Copenhagen to spend 1.5 intensive weeks working at the University of Copenhagen. I arrived prepared to work with two corpora that had previously been collected and cleansed with the help of Matt Fisher (Tripod) and Ioannis Panagis (iCourts): 1) All of the trials and appeals published thus far by the ICTY (10.5 million words); and 2) Annual reports published by the ICTY from 1994-2013 (425,000 words).

In the use of frequency lists, (contrastive) collocation analysis, n-gram description, and key semantic domain analysis, we have demonstrated the ways in which legal language remains rigid and fixed, and also described instances in which variation occurs. Because trials (and, to a lesser extent, appeals) are intended to be self-contained documents, we have also been able to trace problematisation in variations of legal language, which led to confusion in the court, and increased time and money spent in search of justice.

Analysis on the first phase of our project is now complete, and initial results are being disseminated. I presented findings with my collaborator Anne Lise Kjær last week at the fifth international conference for Critical Approaches to Discourse Analysis across Disciplines (CADAAD) at ELTE (Loránd Eötvös University) in Budapest, Hungary. A paper outlining our recommendations for corpus-based critical analyses of legal language and featuring detailed findings of this initial study is in the final stages of preparation, and will be available next year.

Gypsies, tramps and thieves? UK national newspaper depictions of Romanians and Bulgarians analysed

British tabloid newspapers repeatedly associated Romanians – but not Bulgarians – with criminality and anti-social behavior during 2012-2013, a comprehensive new “big data” report by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory shows.

The report Bulgarians and Romanians in the British national press was undertaken by CASS Challenge Panel Member William Allen and Dora-Olivia Vicol at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. It provides a detailed analysis of the language used by 19 British national newspapers to discuss Romanians and Bulgarians between December 1st 2012 and December 1st 2013. The analysis encompasses 4,000 articles, letters and comment pieces mentioning Romanians and/or Bulgarians, a total of more than 2.8 million words.

Key findings include:

  • Language used by tabloid newspapers to describe and discuss Romanians as a single group was frequently focused on crime and anti-social behavior (gang, criminal, beggar, thief, squatter). This was less prevalent in broadsheet newspapers.
  • Where Romanians and Bulgarians were discussed together this was consistently in the context of immigration, across both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.
  • Verbs used to describe or discuss Romanians and Bulgarians together, across both broadsheets and tabloids were frequently related to travel (come, arrive, move, travel, head). In tabloids these included metaphors related to scale (flood, flock).
  • Words appearing before “Romanians and Bulgarians” in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers were frequently related to prevention of movement (stop, control, block– tabloids) (deter, restrict, dissuade – broadsheets).
  • References to Romanians and Bulgarians together were frequently associated with specific numbers, across both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. The most common specific numbers were 29 million – the approximate combined populations of Romania and Bulgaria – and 50,000 – a prediction from MigrationWatch, a pressure group which campaigns for reduced immigration, of how many A2 migrants would be added to the UK population each year for five years following the end of transitional controls.

Some language associated with stories unrelated to UK migration was also evident – particularly Romanian abattoirs implicated in the horsemeat scandal and the blonde Bulgarian Roma child who sparked an ‘abduction’ investigation in Greece.

William Allen, co-author of the report said: “The report is valuable because it provides a comprehensive account of how British national newspapers discussed Romanians and Bulgarians during a key period. The language used to describe Romanians – particularly in tabloid newspapers – often mention them alongside criminality and anti-social behaviour, while this was not the case with Bulgarians.” Read the full report here.

How to be a PhD student (by someone who just was), Part 3: Towards the viva

After successfully defending my viva early this year, I’ve been sharing some of the lessons I learned over my 38 months as a PhD student. In this installment, I talk about powering through your final year and preparing for your viva. 

If you missed the previous entries, click through to read Part 1 (Preparing for the programme) or Part 2 (Managing your work and working relationships). 

Coming down the final stretch

When you absolutely can’t stand the sight of your PhD, you know you’re nearly finished with it. From speaking to my friends and colleagues, this tends to happen around 8-10 months before submission, which means that you get about 40 weeks of steely focus, single-mindedly trying to get the demon out of your computer and into the hands of your examiners. This is a testing time for your personal relationships and for your scholarly stamina, but a most excellent time for your academic work.

I’ve yet to meet someone who had the problem of too little material for their PhD (though I suppose they might be out there), so remember ABC: Always Be Cutting. When re-reading your work, keep a sharp eye out for words and phrases such as basically, simply put, in other words, and so on. These are clear indicators that you’ve been repetitive and could be more succinct.

Don’t be afraid to be absolutely ruthless in editing and rewriting, especially in this magical 8-10 month period where you just want it gone. Print out a copy of your research questions and hang them somewhere in sight of your working space. As you finish your analyses and revise your structure, make sure that all words serve the research questions. If you find that your work drifts, you have two choices:

  1. Revise the research questions to match what you researched. It is the worst-kept secret in the academic world that research questions posed in the infancy of a project might not be those we end up answering along the way. This is totally natural. What’s unnatural is if your research questions and chapters/analyses do not evolve together, and your thesis ends up looking more like a centaur than a human or a horse. Pick a human or a horse, and run with it!
  2. Remove analyses that do not directly contribute to the thrust of your thesis. This can be very painful, but is almost always necessary. You do so much work during the PhD that you want to be able to show it all off at the end. But the truth of the matter is: not everything is relevant, and 80,000 words cannot hold the entirety of your own knowledge, let alone the accumulated learnings of the human race. If you find analyses that are clear departures from your research questions, remove these from the main document and save them in a series of new files to turn into papers when you’re ready. Summarise each of these in bullet points, and you can add them into the ‘further work’ section of your thesis, which means that you can still demonstrate that you’ve thought about (and even journeyed toward) new directions in your work. The upside here is that you have a clear path to follow-on publications.

Remove distractions. Be selfish. This is a very short time in your life where it is perfectly fine to just stay the course and keep your eyes on the prize. Surround yourself with understanding, patient, and supportive people. Work each day until you are not being productive anymore, and then relax doing something that is not mentally exhausting but is not mentally destructive. Try your best to stay flexible and (self-) reflexive.


Staying flexible and reflexive

Everyone who starts a PhD is a perfectionist, to some point. We all came to this point (the highest tertiary degree on offer) with a unique mixture of natural talent, intellectual curiosity, mental fortitude, and real hard-headedness. Either you or many of the people in your cohort would have been at the top of their Masters or Bachelors classes, or come from a solid career in industry. The thing about a PhD is that it is designed to be both finite and imperfect.

In the postgraduate socialising area of the linguistics department at Lancaster, we once hung a sign that said, “There are two kinds of PhD: Perfect, and finished”. Choose ‘finished’! The last year of your PhD will break your heart, because that’s when you realise just how much you can do in your finite period, and more devastatingly, how much you just cannot fit in. I can’t remember who told me this, but whoever it was should step forward (because I owe you a drink):

Your PhD is not your great work. If you stay in academia, it is almost certain to be your worst work.

We do this to prove that we can do greater things if given more time, money, chances, collaborators, experiences. If you save all of the interesting things that you can’t fit into your PhD into separate folders, you have a good head start on papers that you can publish either during or directly after your doctorate. You can easily fill up a ‘Future Work’ section in your final chapter. And most importantly, you can finish your PhD.

As soon as I let go of the idea of my thesis as this all-encompassing, nearly-perfect, staggering contribution to science and accepted the fact that it was just the best version of many possible (apprentice) books that I could have written in that time, it just flowed out of me.

For instance, throughout my thesis, I worked on a method of downsampling that could help researchers who were, like me, working with very large corpora resulting in hundreds or thousands of collocates per search node. To make sure that this method was applicable to different data sets, I did two case studies, and I was able to refine the method quite dramatically in the second half of my study. As I wrote up the second half of my PhD, I agonized about the first half, which was completed and written up using the now-outdated, subpar version of the method. “Do I have to go back and redo the entire thing?” I wailed to my long-suffering supervisor. “It will be more perfect if I do”. In his wisdom, my supervisor suggested that I find a way to turn these lemons into lemonade, rather than turning them into 6 months of additional hard labour.

In the end, I presented my PhD warts and all. I was transparent about my ‘research journey’, which my examiners looked upon very favourably. Remember that this process is meant to be hard work; totally whitewashing your PhD by removing all traces of earlier errors, therefore denying yourself the ability to weave in a narrative about the learning experience itself will not do you many favours. Also, including brief notes about where you went wrong, how you identified problems, and what you did to fix them, will help future PhD students immensely. Everyone who opens your thesis afterwards can avoid reinventing the wheel you already sweated over – they can focus on their own unique and novel problems!

Choosing your panel

Choosing the people who will sit on your panel is one of the most crucial decisions of your doctorate. In the UK, we generally have four panels: a pre-confirmation, a confirmation, a post-confirmation, and a viva voce.

The pre-confirmation happens during your first year, and generally checks your progress and working relationship with your supervisor. I suggest choosing an examiner who is (even marginally) in your field and can make some comments about your literature review and some suggestions for possible directions in your work. The most important trait of an examiner in the pre-confirmation (in my opinion) is that they are supportive and kind. Choose someone who will boost your confidence for the road ahead!

The confirmation panel (in my department, taking place in the second year) confirms the movement from PhD student to PhD candidate. This panel is high-stakes, as failing it can mean a significant delay in finishing your PhD, or even discontinuing it completely. Despite this pressure, I recommend choosing the toughest possible person from your department to examine your confirmation panel. For this spot, you want the person most likely to pick holes in your theoretical and methodological choices while there is still time to adjust before the viva. If you choose correctly, your confirmation will be the hardest panel of your PhD – mine certainly was!

The post-confirmation panel happens in the third year of the PhD here, and checks that you have settled on research questions and are on target to submit. Your examiner should be someone quite critical about research questions and design, but also someone who you feel that you can trust and talk to, particularly if you’re encountering issues. This is your last panel before the viva, so it’s a good place to take the temperature of your overall research design and to get a bit of a confidence boost or a reality check.

Finally, we come to the viva. In Lancaster, this happens after 3-4 years of PhD study. I know that some universities don’t give students much control over the members of their panel, but I urge you to have an open dialogue with your supervisor about this. The people sitting in those seats can not only change the outcome of the day, but also have a lasting effect on your career. For my viva, I needed to have three examiners: one internal and two external. (At Lancaster, your supervisor is present during the viva, but cannot speak.) I chose a variety of scholars who have all used corpus linguistic methods in their work, and whose previous findings have been echoed in my thesis. I knew that they would be critical of my work, but would most likely receive it positively. At this point in the process, you would like to engage in a lively debate about your research, but you do not want this to be a negative or a defensive one.

Preparing for the day

This was quite controversial at the time, but I also only told three people (my partner and two very close friends) which day my viva was on. I was freaking myself out enough counting down the days to V-Day; I didn’t want a dozen other friends (as well-intentioned as they might have been) ramping up the pressure by constantly reminding me of the impending panel.

You’ll likely have quite a bit of practice describing your research from speaking to fellow students, scholars, and conference attendees. However, speaking to influential people in your field is much different; it’s a good idea to practice some answers just in case you find yourself freezing up on the day. Here are some questions that could/maybe/will come up in a viva:

  1. Explain your thesis in fewer than 5 sentences.
  2. Explain your thesis for a layman.
  3. What is the one idea that links the entire work together?
  4. What motivated you, personally, to undertake this work?
  5. What do you think the main contribution of this work is?
  6. What was the most crucial decision that you made in designing/structuring/undertaking this work?
  7. Do you think you could have done better work with more data or less data?
  8. How have you, as a researcher, influenced the outcome of this analysis? What safeguards have you put in place against this?
  9. How has the process influenced you? Has your view of the data/circumstances/research topic changed over the course of the degree?
  10. Summarise your major/key findings. Are any of these surprising? Why are they interesting?
  11. Who will find this work most interesting? Do you think it’s accessible to this audience?
  12. Do you have plans for distributing these results to non-academic audiences? What about the contributors/stakeholders?
  13. How would you begin future research?
  14. What sort of advice would you give future PhD students? (Maybe you can write 3 blog posts about it!)
  15. Why do you think that this merits a PhD? (This is the toughest question in the book, and I think it’s only asked in extenuating circumstances, but best to be prepared.)

The best thing that I did to prepare for my viva (personally) was to read through my thesis one last time, with comments and track edits turned on in MS Word. I got a head start correcting typos that were spotted by my examiners, and I was able to add comments expanding on some areas that I thought might fall under their scrutiny. Because I was reading the thesis closely enough to edit it, I really re-familiarised myself with the content (much of which I had blocked out in the two months between submitting and defending it). When I was done, it was this copy that I printed and brought with me in a ring folder to the viva. I’ve seen a lot of people put post-its and highlights all through their theses, but I just put tabs on each chapter and post-its marking the areas I thought we’d turn back to regularly: 1) key words; 2) details of corpus design; 3) final comments. I’ve heard of people bringing stacks of books to their viva, but if a critical reference isn’t contained within your PhD, you have much bigger problems! The printed, annotated copy of my own thesis was totally adequate.

On the day itself

On the day of your viva, try not to do anything that makes you more anxious than normal. For instance, I’m a coffee addict but I only had one cup that morning, resisting the urge to chain-drink the stuff to get some rocket fuel before the main event. Try not to run around the department like the sky is falling, or to haphazardly skim-read your thesis; you know what’s in there. Go about your business like it’s a normal day and then go to talk about your work with some people.

That’s important enough to bear repeating: you’re just talking with people. During the viva, remember to be as respectful and as grateful as possible, and you will (most likely) be treated with kindness in return. Examiners read hundreds of pages — for free — and often travel great distances just to discuss your work with you. Be gracious about this! Not everyone is entitled to a smooth, friendly viva, but we all hope that we get one.

So when an examiner asks you a question about your thesis (your baby! your precious!), answer as calmly and objectively as possible. They are genuinely curious! Famous people! About your work! Remember that nobody has read and done paperwork and travelled to be horrible to you.


Unlike in sports, the best defense is not a good offense. If the PhD is an apprenticeship, the viva gets close to teaching new scholars what it is like to present to the toughest crowd at a conference, or to get back the most detailed peer review from a journal. In almost all cases, you can accept what your examiner says, or thank them for their comment and think over the ramifications later. This is not to say that you should go limp during the viva; if you feel misunderstood, or if you feel as though a challenge to your theoretical framework/methodology/research design is unfounded and can be easily responded to, do your best to present your perspective. But much of the viva is a group of very clever, very curious people asking questions, hoping for clever, interesting answers. If you are able to get into this mind-set, you might actually be able to do the unthinkable and enjoy your viva. If you manage to impress examiners with both your work and your congenial attitude, your viva might also be the birthplace of new collaborations or lasting scholarly relationships.

You can do it!

This was my last post in the series. If you have any questions about being a PhD student, or if you’re considering doing a PhD at Lancaster University, please get in touch! You can email me at or follow me on Twitter @WatchedPotts

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn – Project Ambassador for ‘Newspapers, Poverty and Long-Term Change. A Corpus Analysis of Five Centuries of Texts’

We are delighted to announce that the Rt Hon Alan Milburn has kindly agreed to become the project ambassador for our project ‘Newspapers, poverty and long-term change. A corpus analysis of five centuries of text’ led by Professor Tony McEnery.

Alan Milburn served as a Labour MP for Darlington between 1992 and 2010 and, throughout that time, was recognised for his strong commitment to combatting social inequality and modernising politics. In January 1998 he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, between 1999 -2003, served as Secretary of State for Health where he led wide-ranging reforms in health and social care services. He went on to serve as Chanceller of the Duchy of Lancaster between 2004-2005.

Alan Milburn chaired the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions from 2008 and 2009 under Prime Minister Brown and was then appointed by Prime Minister Cameron to chair the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty which has a statutory duty to monitor and report on both issues. In this role, he has worked tirelessly to reduce child poverty and challenge Britain’s so-called ‘glass ceiling’ which maintains deep-rooted social inequality. His background, growing up on a council estate in a small town in County Durham, has given him first-hand knowledge of the crippling disadvantage that can be engendered by social deprivation. He has spoken recently of the changing nature of British poverty, arguing that it has become a mainstream issue affecting many working families.

Alan Milburn runs his own consultancy, advising governments and international corporations, and continues to be involved in a number of charitable ventures.

Alan Milburn already has a strong connection with Lancaster. He studied history as an undergraduate at the University and, in 2000, was awarded an honorary degree. In January 2015 he will start a new role as Lancaster University’s Chancellor.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn’s commitment to our project has stemmed from his lifelong interest in the causes and consequences of poverty. As project ambassador, he will provide expertise and guidance to the project team members at CASS and is very well-placed to share our findings with other interested parties from non-academic backgrounds.