Units of Measurement

It would be ridiculous to measure the table you work at in miles.

You would never tell a friend that your thesis draft is coming along nicely at 972,638 characters.

And you wouldn’t record how many cups of coffee you had had to determine if you’d been working hard.

Units of measurement have to be fit for purpose. They have to be reasonable. And yet I’ve met many PhD candidates who measure themselves against other people. They doubt their success because they compare their research with a colleague’s work. They worry about their viva because they look at what their examiners have achieved and feel small.

How long have you been working on your PhD? How much have you done? What is your contribution? Responding to these questions is an appropriate measurement. You don’t need to compare yourself to others.

Measure yourself and see that you’re good enough in your own terms.

Dressing Your Ideas

I’m a huge Hercule Poirot fan.

I’ve read most of the novels by Agatha Christie. I love the many adaptations featuring David Suchet. Indeed, this isn’t the first time that I’ve exercised my little grey cells to write a post with the Belgian Detective in mind.

For our recent anniversary my wife bought me a little book of Poirot quotes. The first quote listed in the book really resonated with me:

“Words, mademoiselle, are only the outer clothing of ideas.”

I like this. Words express ideas; they’re not the ideas themselves. When one responds to a question – say, in the viva – one has to choose words to help express the idea one wants to share. Words are only the outer clothing though. It’s important then to pick them carefully when responding to a question.

Practise or rehearsal before the viva can help a lot. Time spent reflecting on fundamental concepts or the findings of your research can help you to share your ideas effectively.

Exercise your little grey cells in preparation and you’ll be rewarded when you make the same efforts in the viva.

The Wrong Ideas

Candidates sometimes have the wrong idea about the viva.

They expect that they’re an inch away from failure.

They think it could be a lawless free-for-all where examiners can do and ask anything.

They sometimes believe it’s a terribly high bar to clear, that too much will be demanded from them.

Or they sometimes think that because most candidates pass that the viva itself is a trivial exercise.

There are lots of ways you could get the wrong ideas about the viva. The simplest way to find some right ideas is to learn more. Don’t build your ideas of the viva on doubts, worries and half-truths. Learn about what they are like. Ask people who have passed, rather than rely on rumours. Read the regulations. Talk with your supervisors.

The right ideas about the viva will give you a sense of what to expect, what happens in your department and institution, how people experience them – and give you right ideas for what you can do to get ready.

Easy or Hard?

Questions in the viva do not fall neatly into one of two piles.

Easy and hard are relative terms that don’t help to describe the questions that prompt the kind of discussion found in the viva.

An easy question for one candidate could be very hard for another.

An easy-to-ask question could have a very hard-to-formulate response.

A hard question could have been considered many times before by a candidate, while an easy question has no certain response.

Best to get away from labels of easy and hard completely.

Questions in the viva can be challenging or not. In either case, they are there to drive the discussion. They’re asked with an expectation of a response from the candidate. You can’t predict what questions you will be asked before your viva, but you can prepare yourself to respond to whatever question your examiners bring to you.

Examiner Maybes

Maybe they’re nice. Maybe they’re a bit unknown to you. Maybe they have a special interest in your research area.

Your examiners might be experts. They could be among the many people you’ve cited in your thesis. Maybe they know your supervisors; they’re friends, more than professional colleagues.

There are lots of possibilities for examiners – and lots of certainties too.

They will have prepared. They will be ready. They will have questions. They will have expectations for you, the viva and themselves.

They will not have been randomly selected – supervisor friends or not, experts or otherwise – they will have been asked for a reason. They will have been selected as a good choice.

Best choice? Perhaps. Capable? Certainly.

Find out who they are and you can help yourself as you prepare for your viva.

On Thanksgiving

I don’t have much to add to the post I shared about a year ago on Thanksgiving.

Simply: Being thankful really helps.

Like last year, being thankful has really helped me and my family throughout 2021. The special occasion of Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in the UK, but the act of giving thanks is a valuable one.

What are you thankful for about your PhD journey?

If you’re getting ready for your viva what are you thankful for in your prep?

Being thankful for things that have gone well or worked out, for the resources and means to do well, for supporters big and small – all of these can help with feeling good for the viva. Being thankful helps to put things into perspective and can help remind you that things do go well – when things are hard, there are still good things happening.

Bibliography Focus

Your thesis’ bibliography might contain hundreds of references. While you will have used all of these to shape and inform your research, it’s impossible for you to remember every detail. Your examiners won’t expect that from you either. They’re not unreasonable, but they will want to see evidence that you know your stuff.

What could you do in preparation?

  • You could take another look at the references that have helped build up your methods.
  • You could be sure of how sources containing important information have helped your research.
  • You could look again at any references you disagree with – to be sure you’re certain why you disagree with them.
  • You could create an edited bibliography: a top twenty list of the most useful papers that you’ve cited.

You don’t need to do all of these. You might need to do something else. But you need to do something to bring your bibliography into focus before your viva.

Time For Confidence

Here and there throughout the many Viva Survivors daily blog posts you’ll find clear hints that I’m a fan of science fiction. 58 years ago today was the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who.

In their fantastic TARDIS timeship, the Doctor and their companions travel through all time and space – but they don’t always get where they mean to. They often get close, but the TARDIS is tricky to control. The console is presented as having hundreds of buttons, levers, switches, bells, bits and bobs that make it do what it needs to. Even if you’re 1000 years old (or more) and exceptionally talented it would take a lot to make it work right every time.

Controlling the TARDIS makes me think of confidence.

A person can be really talented, but feeling good and capable – feeling self confident – could be a difficult thing. It’s not one button to press but many switches to manage. What you do, what you don’t do, what you think about or don’t think about, even what you wear – so many things can influence confidence. But you can get there; you can land close to where you need to be.

And for your viva you really need to. You’re talented, you’ve done the work, you’ve proven already that you’re a capable researcher. Now you need to do what you can to feel confident and show your examiners your best self.

Don’t start thinking about this the day before your viva. Confidence needs action over a long period of time – thankfully not 1000+ years – but you can steer yourself to how you want to feel.

Find confidence for your viva and pretty soon there’ll be one more person with the title “Doctor”…


Postscript: If you’re looking for more Timelord-inspired help, one of my favourite episodes of the old Viva Survivors Podcast was with Dr Tatiana Porto – who talked about how Doctor Who helped with her PhD journey!

The Key Expectation

There are lots of things we could expect of the viva. A particular length, certain questions, the tone of the discussion, the expertise of the examiners…

And the most fundamental expectation: that the candidate is up to the task. That they have done the work. They have written a good thesis. They are a capable researcher.

If your viva is near, or submission is soon, it’s reasonable to expect you are up to the task.

It’s also common to feel that you’re not. It’s common to be nervous, anxious or worried that you are missing something.

If you feel doubts about your ability then take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions:

What am I really worried about? What can I do to work past that worry? And could I really have got this far if I wasn’t good enough?

You can’t simply be lucky. You’re expected to be good.

And really, you must be good by this stage.

For I Made No Haste…

A few years ago, I read “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. Part of the memoir, available free here from Project Gutenberg, is Thoreau describing how he built a cabin for himself. This was a place of solitude to work and think.

I was enjoying the turns of phrase and descriptions of life when part of a sentence made me gasp as if a light had come on:

“…for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it…”

For several years I’ve been returning to this phrase. The last year and a half have seen many changes. This phrase, for some reason, keeps me reflecting.

I think of all the times when I have rushed to get things done. All the time when I have tried to cram more things into an already busy week. All the times when I have worked to be finished with a task – so I can then go and do more.

Instead… Why not make the most of my work? Why not prioritise doing my work well rather than seeing it simply done? Why not see it as a chance to grow and develop than an output or outcome to be finished?

Thoreau was writing in a very different era, but there’s wisdom in his words.

So for viva prep, why not make the most of the time to learn a little more? Why not use the opportunity to be sure you’re ready?

For the viva, why not approach it with an attitude of eagerness? Why not think about how to make the most of the opportunity? This is a chance to talk with two people who have read your thesis and are eager to talk with you, not just an exam to pass.

Of course on your PhD journey, like anything else in your life, there are pressures and drivers. There are things you have to get done.

But how can you do the work and make the most of it? And how can you remove the need for haste so you can make the most of it?