The PhD Is Supposed To Be Hard

You don’t get a PhD by just showing up. There are no shortcuts, no study hacks, no “five simple tricks” to help you dodge the work you have to do.

A PhD is a result of time, work and talent. Maybe a little luck will help, but it’s not the deciding factor. A PhD is hard. The viva is part of the PhD, so you can’t expect it to be easy.

But don’t expect it to be too hard either. It’s not trivial, but it comes after all of the other hard PhD days you’ve lived through.

Lucky Charms

If you need them, you need them. If you think they’ll help, you’ll feel bad if you don’t have them.

Rituals, routines, placebos, priming, good luck charms, special socks or magical music…

If this was your whole viva preparation then you’d probably be in trouble. But if you put in the work during your PhD, spend some time and effort preparing for the big day and finish by psyching yourself up with a playlist of special songs? Sounds like a plan.

For a big event like the viva, how you feel is as important to manage as what you know. Passing is not down to luck, but helping yourself to feel better with a lucky charm or helpful self-care can make the difference.

Confidence Is A Lot Like Research

They take time.

Confidence and research require evidence.

They can be inspiring and could lead you to new ideas.

Confidence and research are processes. Whatever you do today, might not be what helps tomorrow.

As a postgraduate researcher, your confidence is like your research: your responsibility. You have to take charge of it. To make it real you have to act and keep acting.

Make plans for your research, make plans for your confidence. Act to further your research, act to further your confidence.

7 Tips For A Viva Presentation

Presentations are not often requested by examiners to start the viva, but they can be a useful way to get things started. If your examiners ask for one they’re giving you a way to control the start of the viva, and hoping you can use it to start well.

Of course, you could still be nervous, as people often are when called to give a presentation. Here are some thoughts on what you could do to help your presentation:

  1. Think Why-How-What to give structure: Why did you do your research? How did you do it? What were the results? This can do a lot to frame a good presentation.
  2. Check to see if other candidates have given presentations. How long were they? What did they decide to include? Use this to help shape the depth and content you share.
  3. Ask your supervisors for their perspective. What are the key results or ideas you have to tell your examiners about?
  4. Decide on the format. Powerpoint or whiteboard? Prompts or script?
  5. Recycle! Do you have diagrams, slides or other material you have used before, that could be repurposed for this presentation? You don’t have to start from scratch.
  6. Practice! If your examiners are expecting a twenty minute overview, don’t show up with fifty slides you’ve not rehearsed.
  7. Remember this is all about giving you a good way to start the viva.

You might not be asked to give a presentation to start the discussion. Still, giving a presentation could be a valuable task in advance of your viva. Many of the things you would do to prepare a presentation will also serve you well as part of your viva preparation. Giving a presentation could also be a great confidence boost before the viva.

Who Are Your Examiners?

Once you know their names, check them out. It’s useful to check recent publications to get a sense of their own knowledge and research focus. It’s useful to follow that up with a look at their staff pages to see what else you can find out. What are their research interests? What teaching do they do?

It is also really useful to be aware of what they are like as people. Have you met them at conferences? What do you know about your internal? What do their students say?

Knowing their research may give you insight into questions they may have, but knowing about them helps create a picture that these are real people coming to talk to you. Not faceless strangers, unknowable and uncaring: they are humans like you.

Knowing a little about them can help your confidence a lot for the viva.

Seat Belts & Viva Prep

I got in a taxi a few weeks ago and the driver didn’t wear his seat belt.

Nothing bad happened, we didn’t have far to go, it wasn’t raining and the roads were quite clear…

But WOW! was I nervous!!!

Most cars don’t get into accidents. Most drivers pay attention properly and do what they need to. Wearing a seat belt, as helpful and vital to safety as it is, shouldn’t be needed. You do it because the consequences could be awful if you don’t.

Over a full-time PhD you could do 6000 hours of work. You build up talent, knowledge, instinct – all of which is helpful in the several hours you’ll be in the viva. But you still need to invest time before then, a small period of viva preparation, to be ready. The relatively small amount of work can make the difference in your viva.

It can help you do your best work on the day rather than face a stressful situation you’re unprepared for. Take the time to cover all the little things you need.

Critics & Cheerleaders

Your Worst Critic?

It’s probably you. Pulling yourself down for slips, failures and mistakes. Overly critical of things that could be better. Berating yourself for things that are difficult. And the Worst Critic within is self-perpetuating, it’s hard to get away from the voice.

But you can try. If you hear your Worst Critic creeping up the backstairs of your brain place a call to your Biggest Cheerleader.

This could be you too!

Ask your inner cheerleader to tell you something good. Not just something positive and nothing false, just something truly good about what you do and how do you do it. You need your critic, but only so long as they don’t drown out your cheerleader. You need your cheerleader to help you believe in your talent. As you get close to the viva, there’s a place for both of them.

You need to think critically: to be clear, to be honest, to be able to engage well as a researcher with your examiners.

You need your cheerleader to remind you: you’re great, you got this, you can do this, you’re amazing.

The Final Hurdle

The PhD is not a sprint or marathon. The closest is maybe the hurdles event: a series of barriers to be cleared. Literature review has to be cleared so you have a good background understanding. The transfer viva has to be vaulted so you can progress to second year. Submission has to be jumped over to get you to the viva.

The viva, the final hurdle. Since you have cleared all of the others to get this far, why would you fall at the last one? Is it really higher or more difficult than everything else you’ve done?

You still have to leap, but you’re good at that. You have to be ready, but you can be ready. You have to be talented – and you have to be talented.

How else have you got this close to the finish line?

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!