On Weakness

No research programme can’t be improved. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made or limits imposed. Sometimes experiments or investigations don’t work out the way you hope they will. That doesn’t mean your thesis is fundamentally flawed, or your research is weak.

Still, a lot of PhD candidates ask me, “How do I talk about weakness in my viva?”

If there’s really something that could be better then you can discuss it by being honest, being clear and by talking about what’s great in your research and thesis.

  • Be honest: don’t try to hide or bluff and hope that your examiners will move on.
  • Be clear: set out the facts and your reasons, what they mean and why.
  • Talk about what’s great: not to distract, but to honestly persuade.

If there’s something you consider weak about your thesis or research, you don’t have to bring it up as you start the viva. You do have a responsibility to have thought about it and be willing to engage with your examiners. That’s no different to anything else in your research though.

You can’t write a perfect thesis. But you can’t get to the end of the PhD by accident either.

Remember: just because you think something is weak, it doesn’t mean that it is. If your examiners frame something as being weak, and you disagree, it doesn’t mean that they are right.

“Weakness” is a shorthand that people use for limitations, lack of time, doubts, worries and uncertainty. By all means consider how things could be improved or be different, but perhaps consider using a more accurate word to describe what you’re thinking about.