Making The Cut

My thesis could be described as a collection of six chapters that all explored different niches in my field of maths. I have a couple of appendices that contain summaries of results and listings of computer code. It’s all self-contained and linked and good.

And still, nine years later, I have a folder with bits and pieces of at least three other chapters. Projects that didn’t end up getting finished. Ideas that fizzled out or didn’t come together. Every now and then I think, “What if…?” It would have been nice to adapt some of the techniques that I used to get one more result. It would have been cool to just push that bit further and classify one more type of mathematical object.

Except: there’s only so long to do a PhD. There’s only so much space in a thesis. There has to be some sense that Result A is worth more than Result B, that Potential Chapter X is a more powerful contribution than Potential Chapter Y. Your thesis is finite. You have to stop somewhere.

What doesn’t make the cut in your thesis?

Make a list of the half-projects and the maybes that didn’t quite make it. Make a list of the reasons why. Make a list of what you would need to do to take them further. Your examiners might not pick this thread up in the viva, but you’ll build up a good summary for yourself.

Leave it in a good enough state that one day you could pick it up and keep playing with it. If you’ve got plans to do this already, in your post-doc, in your spare time, that’s good. But if passing your PhD is your exit from academia, leave some notes just in case you want to explore later on.

You never know when inspiration will strike.

Responsible

What are you responsible for in your viva? I get a lot of questions about expectations for the length of the viva, or types of questions, what examiners do, and so on. I don’t get a lot of questions about expectations of the candidate. What do your examiners expect from you?

  • They expect you’ll be prepared.
  • They expect you’ll be ready, willing and able to discuss your research.
  • They expect you’ll be ready, willing and able to discuss your field.

You were responsible for doing your research. You were responsible for getting the thesis done. You can easily meet your examiners’ expectations on the day.

 

Shadows

A shadow can be bigger than the object that casts it. Depending on the light, the distance, the angle, it might not be clear what the object even is if you only look at the shadow. Edges can be blurred, and perfectly normal things can seem scary from a glance at a shadow.

When you look to find out more about the viva, are you looking at the viva itself, or a shadow? What you see might depend on another’s experience, on the rules of your institution, on how you’re feeling that day about your research, and on many other factors.

Make sure when you find out about the viva that you get as full a picture as possible. Look for more than shadows. Build up more than simple impressions. Then you’ll be able to prepare well.

A Good INTRO

I used to be petrified of public speaking. I would only give talks during my PhD when I absolutely had to. I was always concerned that I would forget something, make a mistake or be asked a question for which I had no answer. I was even nervous about being too nervous!

Then I started a business where I had to present all of the time. My fears went partly because of regularly being in situations where I had to present, but also because I went out of my way to explore ways to give talks. I liked to find out about how to structure talks, particularly the beginnings. I knew that if I could get that right I’d feel good about the rest of the presentation, whether it was ten minutes or two hours.

A few years ago, my good friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared an effective tool for starting talks with me. The tool is, fittingly, called INTRO and is an acronym to provide structure for the start of a presentation:

  • Interest: start by sharing something that will grab the audience’s attention, a fact, an image, a joke.
  • Need: say why what you’re going to talk about is important. Why does it need to be addressed?
  • Title: share the title of the talk.
  • Range: say something about how long you’ll speak for, what you might cover and how you want to handle questions.
  • Objective: close your introduction by sharing what you goal is with speaking. Is there something you want the audience to do as a result?

I really like how it helps start things off but also leads to a good overview. There’s a nice logic to it, and done well it can be a great start to a presentation. I think the five prompts also give a great format to create a summary of your research when it’s time to prepare for the viva.

  • Interest: how did you become interested in your field of research?
  • Need: what need does your thesis address?
  • Title:¬†what is your thesis’ title, and why?
  • Range: what does your thesis cover?
  • Objective: what do you hope that someone would know, think or do after reading it?

Give INTRO a try when you next prepare a talk, see if it helps. Try it too when your viva is on the way to help break down what your work is all about.

Rehearsal

The mock viva is generally valuable because of the kind of practice it provides. Your supervisors might have some clear ideas about what a mock should be like. But if you think about it, the mock is a sort of test run for later success.

So think: what do you need to succeed?

  • Are you looking for certain types of questions or a particular focus for the discussion?
  • Do you want practice or pressure?
  • What kind of feedback would be most useful from the experience?

Think about what might help you. Everyone has different needs. It’s not wrong to think about how you can make the most of the opportunity.