Friction

Google around and you’ll find lots of articles about problems with making positive changes. People don’t eat well because they don’t buy good foods. People don’t exercise because they don’t have an environment around them that supports exercise. People don’t practise with a hobby because they keep their materials shut up, and so on.

One way to get around this is to get rid of friction in the situations: actually buy healthy stuff, use books as free weights, keep your paints or guitar out where they’re in reach. Organise yourself so that you free up time to do what you want. Then you can’t rationalise your way out of doing what you need.

What are the sources of friction in your viva prep environment?

  • Is it having space, time and quiet? What can you do to address that? Who can help?
  • Do you need journal articles and certain knowledge? How are you going to get it?
  • Feel like you want the “right kind” of stationery to make notes or summaries? Where can you get what you need?

Once you get rid of the friction you can get to work. Without these kinds of friction you’ll work better too.

Five Stars

What would a well-reviewed viva look like? Given that there’s two parties, what would they say about each other? I wonder…

Best examiners ever! Felt like they had really read my thesis and asked me lots of interesting questions. Was such a thrill to talk about my work with them. Gave me a lot to think about too, but all good. Would totally recommend to future candidates!

What kind of examiners would you give this review to? What are you looking for? Who might fit this description?

Stellar candidate, five stars! Took the time to think through our questions and answer our concerns. Clearly well-prepared: confident responses, excellent research. We wish them all the best for the future. Congratulations.

What would you need to do between now and the viva to get a review like that? What are you going to do?

Who’s Who

For some time I’ve suggested that researchers make an edited bibliography as part of their viva prep. If you have 200 references, what are the 20 most important? Make a list and add a few details to each of them: which chapter they’re most important to, why, and so on.

Last month at a workshop in Leeds, a participant gave me a brilliant hack of this idea. Think about the main researchers you’ve included in your bibliography, or who are big names in your field. Make a list and write a couple of sentences for each to summarise their research or opinions. Creating the list helps you to think about your field, and afterwards you have a resource to refer to as you prepare for the viva.

Let’s Pretend

I am a huge fan of role-playing games. I love everything about them, from playing them to running them, investigating how they work and the kinds of play that they can produce. I have a side project as a role-playing game publisher, although my ambitions to date have been quite modest.

Anyway! One of the things I like most about them is the opportunity they give people to pretend to be someone else. You’re no longer a mild-mannered skills trainer, you’re a warrior-wizard with strange powers and a thirst for revenge! For a few hours you can step back from the real world and be someone else, somewhere else.

An element of role-playing could be really useful before the viva too. A mock viva is a kind of role-play, but there are other opportunities.

  • Imagine you’re an examiner. How do you read a thesis? What questions would come to mind?
  • Imagine you’re your supervisor. What advice would help a researcher? What could you do to help?
  • Imagine you’re one of your friends. Do you know what a viva is? What questions do you have for your friend? How can you help?
  • Imagine you’re you in the viva. How is it going? How are you feeling?
  • Imagine you’ve succeeded. How did you do it? What helped you pass the viva?

Some people act when they role-play; others just think and imagine. Try it out for yourself. Reflect on what questions or ideas come up, and see how they can help you be ready for the viva.

Do Not Forget

You did all the work that you got this far.

Whether it’s your transfer viva, a conference presentation, your viva, walking across a stage somewhere to shake a hand and collect a scroll – you did that. No one else. On Day One of the PhD you were supposed to be there. On Day 1000 you were supposed to be there. Keep going, and when you get the chance, tell people about it. Your story might help someone.

More Than Gold Letters

After the dust of my examiners’ questions had settled and all the corrections were done I got to make some pretty nice hardbacks. My name and the title of my thesis was in gold on the cover! I was done! My thesis was great!

Except… I thought I would feel something. I was happy, sort of, I guess… And I knew that finishing my PhD was a milestone. I wasn’t expecting fireworks, or a band to strike up, but I thought I would feel something.

The end of my PhD was an anticlimax, I didn’t feel much of anything. At the time. As the months went on I realised that it was something big. It opened doors for me. It gave me a skill set that I use and develop nearly a decade later. It helped to give me a perspective on the world and shape my values. I co-authored a couple of papers and contributed to my field too.

My story might not mirror yours: it may be that you are totally over the moon after your viva. But you might not. Just a friendly word: it might take a while to sink in. Regardless, I think most PhDs, in time, come to realise that the PhD is so much more than a book with your name in gold letters on the cover, however cool that looks.