Little Things Help

Sticking Post-it Notes to mark the start of chapters.

Bookmarking the webpage with your university’s viva regulations.

Underlining a typo, and then leaving it alone.

Making a list of things you know.

Reminding yourself that you are talented.

There’s lots of big pieces of work that help someone like you create a thesis. There’s lots of big things that you need to do to get ready for your viva.

Don’t forget the little things that will help too.

The Last Viva

It’s hard to imagine the first viva. When I tried it made me wonder about the last one too. If there was to be a last one it could be special for all sorts of reasons…

  • “We’re changing the process…”
  • “It’s the end of an era…”
  • “The Vice Chancellor is going to be there too!”

I smile to myself as I think about this – but it also reminds me that none of that would matter. Not really.

What matters is the work and the talented person who did it. These are the special things about the viva.

These are the things that matter.

It’s unlikely that your viva, whenever it is, would be the last one ever. It will still be incredibly special.

Share Your How

In preparation for your viva, explain to your researcher friends how you did your PhD. Share what processes and methods you followed. Tell them about the research that you built on. Explain why your ideas went in the direction they did.

As you’re doing this you’re getting practice for the kinds of thinking you might need in your viva. Pay attention to the questions your friends ask in response.

  • Can you be clearer in how you communicate your methods?
  • Were there alternate approaches you could take?
  • Are there processes or literature that you decided not to follow?

Build your responses into your thinking for when you next share your how, whether that’s your viva or telling someone else who’s excited to know how you’ve done this amazing work.

What Did You Enjoy?

A simple question to reflect on ahead of the viva. I don’t think it’s likely that your examiners will ask this, but it’s worth considering. Whatever your motivations for starting a PhD, and whatever you’ve found to keep you going, I think there must be aspects that you’ve enjoyed.

What were they? Simply, where did you find work that you loved doing? What things did you look forward to? And why?

It’s right to shine a light on research processes that are unnecessarily harsh, working conditions that should be better, funding situations that should be improved. It’s also good to acknowledge that there is joy to be found in the work of doing research. Where did you find yours?

And how did that help you in creating your thesis?

Moments of Success

Count them up to build your confidence for the viva. All along the timeline of your PhD – months of work, weeks of grinding through papers, projects and problems – nestled here and there are moments of shining success. Brief joyous periods where you figured something out, or the data said what you hoped or you found an answer!

And then you were back to work, looking for the next thing…

The work matters: it shows your determination, your skill, your talent. You stuck to it!

The success matters: it shows that you achieved something. You did it!

It’s easier to see the work than the success sometimes. Recognise them both as you prepare for your viva.

The Most Important

What are the most important papers or ideas that started your research journey?

What were the most important days of your PhD?

What are the most important passages in your thesis?

Where did you do the most important work of your research?

What are the most important skills you’ve developed or built on while doing your PhD?

All of these questions have subjective responses, but are all worth considering. Your work must have important stuff, and even with typos or different perspectives or things that could be changed, it’s far better to focus on what is important and good about your research, than direct attention to things that could detract.

A question with an objective response: who did the work to create a thesis from all of this important stuff?

(don’t forget the answer to that one)

Hitting A Wall

In your final burst to get to submission, or in your prep for the viva, it’s likely you’ll get tired.

Or you’ll get stuck.

Or you’ll not know what to do.

Or you will know what to do, but you just won’t want to.

Hitting a wall is hard, because it’s often painful. It can come with shame as well. Compared to some PhD stories I’ve heard, I know that I had quite a charmed PhD; nothing too bad happened. I was able to plot and plan my last six months and work to it and that helped. But I still hit the wall a few times on the run-up to my submission. I felt like I should be better, that I shouldn’t be making mistakes.

A lovely and well-intentioned friend in my office told me, Whatever it is Nathan, just get over it.

They were lovely and well-intentioned, but just get over it is, I think, very rarely the answer.

The answer always has to be quite specific, because the question isn’t simply “What do I do?” but “What do I do with this very particular situation of work and feelings and physical circumstances that has lead me to this wall?”

It could be that you’re tired from reading, or can’t make a connection, or you’re fed up with your PhD, or you’re concerned about something you’ve found – and these are the simple descriptions. The answer is going to be specific; you’ll have to find it probably.

The answer could start with:

  • Asking for practical help;
  • Taking a break;
  • Thinking about other situations you’ve overcome;
  • Remembering that you are awesome;
  • Walking away for a while to get perspective.

These are general solutions; they don’t fit every wall. You won’t just get over it, but there are lots of first steps you could take.

The Humble To-Do List

Make a little list of things you have to do for your viva prep, things that you know will help. It might include:

  • Read all of my thesis;
  • Read two or three papers by my examiners;
  • Chat to friends about my research;
  • Check the regulations;
  • Find out how my video viva will be done;
  • Check my supervisor’s availability for helping me.

Just a little list – this example is by no means complete, but there shouldn’t be hundreds of things! Some examples can be crossed off neatly, others will take time. You might want to break those down, depending on your preferences.

It’s much easier to know when you’re ready if you plot out what you need to do to get ready.

A little to-do list could help a lot.

The Puppet Problem

Or, Ideas That Have Not Found Their Moment…

For about three years, I have wanted to make a series of (hopefully funny) videos to help PGRs get ready for their viva. I would do these with a puppet co-star. Through a series of helpful suggestions I will calm “Pete the Panicking Postgrad” as I call him, and he’ll get ready for his viva.

For about three years I’ve been thinking about how to do this because the core idea makes me smile. A lot.

Maybe Pete’s not panicking, maybe he’s not a he, maybe it’s an animal, maybe it’s not even for the viva – but darn it, it makes me smile to think about doing a video (or seven) with a puppet!

I don’t own a puppet, I can’t throw my voice and I don’t know if there is an audience for PGR-related videos with puppets – but in some respects these are all minor problems. The idea just hasn’t found the right topic yet, the right moment, the right space to find fruition.

The same goes for my viva audiobook plans, my third book on viva help, a video course on viva prep, a regular Saturday morning viva webinar club! – the ideas are there, in some cases the foundations are good, but the moment isn’t right. My diary is too full. The resources aren’t there. I have other plans in motion.

How have you managed that during your PhD? How do you feel about your “puppet problems”? What have you not been able to take forward because the time is not quite right? Is there still a chance that you could do something with it before submission? If you don’t do it now, will it ever happen? And if it doesn’t, how will you feel about it?

I don’t have an easy answer for any of these, nor simple advice apart from suggesting you save your ideas somewhere just in case the moment does come. Maybe that moment will be in your viva, talking about future projects or potential developments on your research; maybe a year or two from now you’ll have a little time to take things further.

And maybe one day there will be a video of a puppet preparing for their viva…

I can dream 🙂

Obvious Afterwards

I’d say a good 75% of my PhD results seemed obvious afterwards:

  • A clever solution for a programming problem.
  • An insight into the way a particular bit of maths worked.
  • A step in a proof that seemed inscrutable beforehand.

All obvious afterwards and in some cases very simple to explain to others. I remember two pages of my thesis that describe a process which took me upwards of 100 pages of notes to figure out the first time! 100 pages to figure out notation, to understand with near-endless diagrams what was happening, capture intermittent steps to show what was working and so on. Two pages in my thesis.

The rough work, long thinking and difficult days that lead to simplicity and “obvious” answers in your thesis or research are worth remembering. The outcome and answers matter, but don’t lose sight of the work – and the person who did it!