Hierarchy of Worries

I record every question I get asked in workshops. The text document runs to over 15,000 words now. Over time I see trends and themes, and they help me to think about how I evolve the workshop.

In particular I see the worries of candidates collect in three groups:

  • First, people worry that there could be something wrong with their research;
  • Second, they worry that they may have made a mistake in the write-up;
  • Third, they worry that they may not be able to answer a question from their examiners.

I get lots of questions related to all these areas, and I think they’re arranged in a hierarchy. I think people are more worried about the second kind of worries than they are the first; I think they’re more worried about the third kind the second. It makes a certain kind of sense. Research takes a long time to mature – you know everything you’ve done, everything you thought of doing, you learned from so many mistakes and successes. You know your research. Writing up took less time – however much you know about your research, there’s a chance that you’ve made a significant typo or forgotten something. You may have expressed something in a clumsy way. It’s not all that likely.

Whatever you did in your research and write-up though, you have no way of knowing exactly what your examiners will ask. There are lots of common questions, but your viva is a custom exam: you can’t predict every question or how you might respond.

Three common groups of worries, but some are more worrying than others. What do you do?

  • Worried that something is wrong with your research? Map out your methods. Check the core literature. Test your assumptions again. Try to explain it to someone who doesn’t know that much.
  • Worried that you’ve slipped up somewhere in your thesis? Get more feedback. Read it closely, line by line, no skimming. Ask a friend to proofread. Read it aloud to check that it makes sense.
  • Worried about your examiners’ questions? Practise answering questions. Have a mock viva. Use a list of common viva questions and record your answers. Get friends to ask you any and every question about your research.

Feeling worried? That’s OK. Work your way past the worries.

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