Horses, Not Zebras

A few months ago I read a lovely little book called The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts – which is a long title for a quick read! Each chapter was a short discussion about different useful concepts, like thought experiments, thinking from first principles and so on.

In describing Occam’s Razor, the book introduced me to a wonderful phrase: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

This is a great reminder for PhD candidates and the viva: I’ve observed many candidates to believe that the smallest hoofbeat could only be a great big zebra! For example:

  • A typo doesn’t mean you’ve made lots of mistakes – it’s just a typo and can be corrected.
  • A passage in your thesis that doesn’t quite make sense; now you wonder how you’ll pass – you will, you just might need to rephrase or explain it.
  • The difficult question you struggle to respond to – is just a difficult question that is difficult to respond to! It’s not a sign of failure.

Problems at the viva are likely to be small. Issues you spot in prep will not be overwhelming. It’s far, far more likely that the problematic zebras you think you hear around the viva are nothing more than horses trotting by, here today and gone tomorrow.