Changing My Thesis

I re-read my thesis now and cringe!

There are long, waffly sentences that need serious editing. The diagrams look amateur. The structure of the thesis barely supports how I frame my ideas. It could be so much better – and this doesn’t take into account what more or different research could show!

My thesis will never be perfect. Your thesis can never be perfect. There will always be things you could make better, but that doesn’t you won’t reach a point where you’re done.

Before submission you have to decide what “good enough” means, then work to achieve that standard. At your viva justify your decision. Your examiners might ask for some corrections you didn’t anticipate (or some you don’t agree with), but they’ll largely be requests to make it as good as they can reasonably imagine.

And eleven years later you might cringe!

It will never be perfect, but through submission time, the viva and afterwards you will find a good enough thesis to contain your research. Keep going until you’re finally done.

Gaps & Holes

At the start of your PhD you have gaps: the things your research seeks to address.

At the end of your PhD you have holes: the things you didn’t get to, couldn’t show or don’t know.

Both need some of your viva preparation time. Reflect on the research gap to better share it with your examiners. Explore the holes so you can talk about them confidently in the viva.

Your thesis and research are more than gaps and holes, of course, but both will matter in the viva.

Words & Wonder

About eleven years ago, just after I finished my PhD and started to explore researcher development, I learned of the Sagan Series and the Feynman Series, two science engagement projects by Reid Gower. Through a combination of beautiful images, inspirational music and wonderful words by two great science communicators, these videos hooked into my brain. As I was starting on a path thinking about how to share things with others, this helped me to see that you had to do more than just say the words to communicate.

I saw just how important it is to choose your words carefully. You have to play, practise, listen… Maybe then you can find a way to connect.

Eleven years on, and when autumn arrives I think of these videos. I press play on my playlist and see what they make me think of today. Today they make me think about how one might inject a little wonder into your words. How will you choose your words for the viva? How could you frame your research to make it connect with your examiners and others?

Perhaps, more importantly, how could you describe it for yourself? Not to boast or brag or deceive yourself – how could you make your thesis feel even more wonderful and inspiring than it already has to be? And how might that help you?

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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.