All Hat And No Cattle

Twenty years ago I had a boss who loved a fun turn of phrase. I worked in an independent furniture shop, and I can remember the day that one customer spent two hours wandering up and down the store floor, looking over every piece of furniture. He sat on every couch, looked in every wardrobe and tested the springs on every mattress we sold. He asked questions about delivery dates, customisation options and whether or not we could take his old furniture away. He dropped hints that his house was very big, his car was very fast and his wallet had a lot of money in it.

And after two hours, he walked out of the shop without placing an order. We never saw him again.

“That man,” declared my boss, “Was all hat and no cattle.”

I wasn’t even twenty at the time, not wise to the world, and had to have the expression explained to me: the customer made a lot of noise, a great show of importance, you couldn’t miss him – but underneath it all there was no substance. He wasn’t mean or malicious, he hadn’t wanted to waste two hours of our time as he had wanted someone to think of him as very important. He wanted people to think he was great, but he would never be able to back that up. He was a man wearing a big cowboy hat with no herd behind him.

I share this story to contrast that man with YOU.

You’re not this person. That’s not your reality. I don’t know whether you’re loud or quiet, whether people know how good you are or not – but you are good.

You. Are. Good.

You must be. You’re finishing a PhD. You must have done something valuable. A thesis doesn’t just happen. It’s a summary of years of valuable research. You must be good.

Your hat could be big or small, but you have a herd of ideas, experiences, talents, skills and knowledge behind you. You can show that off in your thesis, and you can show it off in your viva.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Your examiners will want to talk about the strengths of your work in the viva. They’re there to talk to you about your contribution. Spend time in your prep thinking about what makes your work strong. How is it new? How does it make a difference? What makes it good? Why does it matter?

Your examiners might want to explore weaknesses. They might want to unpick clumsy sentences that don’t express what you had hoped. They may want to ask about limitations. The potential for improving on your research could be a rewarding topic of conversation. What could you do differently? Are you sure you’re right? Why?

Spend a little time thinking about your weaknesses. Spend much more time reflecting on your strengths. The background assumption for the viva is there is something valuable in what you’ve done – be ready to talk about your strengths!

Ignorance Is Bliss*

*but not for the viva.

Sometimes it’s better to not know something (a news story, a headline, a particular meme that is going around) but for the viva, ignorance is definitely not bliss. You need to know things.

You need to know your work. You need to know who your examiners are and what they do. You need to know what about regulations and expectations.

You really need to know that you can’t know everything (and also don’t need to know everything).

You can do all of that. It’s not a huge task to not be ignorant for your viva. And it’s far better than missing something you need to pay attention to.

Crossing The Swamp

I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators.

A quote from The Art of Possibility by Ben and Ros Zander; it popped up several months ago in a newsletter I subscribe to. I love a good quote, and this one is apt for the viva.

You just need to get to the other side. That’s your job. Your job is not to defend every idea to the death, your job is not to respond forcefully to every criticism, you don’t have to fight-fight-fight your way through.

Questions and comments could suddenly pop out of the water and you might need to make a full response for some. For many you could just say, “OK, thank you. Thanks for letting me know. That’s interesting. Could you tell me more?”

You don’t have to fight all of the alligators in your viva. You need to get to the other side – to being done.

Big Things I Learned At My Viva

I find it helpful to look back on my viva now and then. A lot stands out to me that I wasn’t expecting at the time. As time goes by some realisations grow more important in my mind, so I thought today I’d share a few to think about for yours.

  • Comfortable clothes help a lot! You can look smart and be comfortable. You may want to dress to impress, but don’t wear shoes that are too tight or something that you find impossible to keep straight. Smart can be nice – but comfortable is what you need.
  • I was asked to give a presentation to start my viva. This was good for me. It forced key talking points and questions to be on my mind. Even if you’re not asked for a presentation (they’re not common) consider spending time thinking about what you would include. Or give a presentation for friends as part of your preparation for the viva.
  • I learned that vivas can be four hours long! Mine was. Yours could be, although it’s not very likely…
  • …which makes it all the more important that you ask other people about their experiences. You can’t predict your viva, but if you listen carefully to enough stories you can get a sense of what yours could be like.
  • Corrections aren’t a punishment. Examiners ask for them to try to help make your thesis better. I didn’t know that. I didn’t think my thesis would be perfect, but at the same time I hoped I wouldn’t be asked to make any changes. That’s unrealistic. As I later learned, most people are asked to do some kind of corrections. You probably will too.

A big learning point has only come with time and distance: my viva was important, my PhD was important and is important to me still – but neither of them are the most important things I’ll ever do. Take it seriously, of course, but you don’t need to obsess and worry.

And when you’re all done, take some time to reflect. What have you learned from your viva?

The Busy Final Year

In the final year of a PhD it’s not hard to get swept up in the emotions and actions of everything that you need to get done.

Finishing research, finishing writing-up, working towards whatever will come after the PhD and thinking about the viva – at times it can seem like there’s way too much to get done in a year. How do you prioritise? What do you do first? And how do you weave all of the other things you need to do into a packed schedule?

Full answers to those three questions could fill a book, but when it comes to thinking about the viva at least the answer is simple: do nearly nothing.

Nearly nothing.

At some point in your final year it’s good to have a chat with your supervisor about potential examiners. You can see what names are being suggested and probably suggest some of your own. It’s worth checking regulations around submission and the viva, so you know what’s what and can be sure of not getting any nasty surprises.

Before submission those are the only two things you must do for your viva in the final year. Preparation, making notes, mock vivas, summaries and the rest can wait until after submission.

There’s lots to do in the final year. Planning takes time – work takes time! But the viva doesn’t have to dominate your work until after submission. Make sure your attention and efforts are fixed where they will be most effective.

What Was Hard?

Was it reading everything you did to understand your discipline?

Was it finding ways to frame questions for your research?

Was it difficult getting to grips with methods and processes?

Was it tough to write your thesis?

Anything that’s hard at PhD level is valuable. It has to be. It’s either valuable because it’s practically hard, taking time to acquire skills or understanding, or it’s valuable because it’s original. Anything you’ve found hard during your PhD (even if you find it less difficult now) is valuable.

Valuable is a sign post leading in the direction of what makes your research significant: why it matters and what kind of a difference it makes. Take time before the viva to think about what was hard. You’ll unpick some of what you’ll need to talk about with your examiners.

7 Questions On The Journey

When your viva is a few days away, take thirty minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What was the first day of your PhD like?
  2. How about the end of your first month?
  3. What was it like at your transfer viva?
  4. How did you feel the first time you presented your research?
  5. And how about the most recent time?
  6. How did you feel at submission?
  7. How do you feel now you’re almost-prepared for the viva?

You have to improve over the course of doing a PhD. You change, but day-to-day you might not feel it. Take a little time before your viva to reflect on the beginning, middle and almost-end of your research journey. Just before the viva you might feel a little nervous, a little excited, but hopefully you can see that the last several years have been a process leading you to the talented, wonderful researcher you are now.

Lost & Found

You will almost certainly lose some things over the course of a PhD.

Probably you’ll lose track of good ideas. You’ll forget the name of an author. That little project you were going to do. That section you were going to write. Perhaps even a chapter that just won’t fit with everything else.

Whatever you lose or forget, don’t forget you will find far more than you lose.

Ideas that make a difference. Skill, talent, ability. A thesis that matters. Confidence in your self, I hope.

Think about what you’ve lost in preparation for the viva, but only a little; don’t forget that your examiners really want to hear about what you’ve found along the way.

Superstitions Are Stories

Stories can be very persuasive.

Do you have a story that says you need to do this or that in order to be ready for the viva? You might be unable to not listen. You might have to wear those socks or listen to a certain song in order to feel right to talk with your examiners.

Or do you have a story that says you can’t do certain things? You might need to avoid drinking coffee because you feel it makes you twitchy. You might need to avoid a colour because of an association you have with it.

Perhaps you even want to avoid walking under ladders, seeing black cats or scheduling your viva on Friday the 13th!

Superstitions are stories. They can feel true, but they are only stories we tell ourselves. Rather than do this or avoid that before the viva, perhaps it’s better for you to try to create some new true stories.

What’s the story of your PhD, for example?

How did you get from the start to where you are today?

What are the things you could do to boost your confidence?

What stories are you telling yourself before your viva?