A Good Choice

In most institutions PhD candidates can talk to their supervisors and discuss possible examiners. There may be hundreds of names that could fill the roles. What makes for a good choice? Who do you pick? How do you pick?

I like creative thinking tools. There’s a lot of them, and many approaches aimed at finding a creative solution to a problem propose divergent thinking – trying to find as many ideas as possible – followed by convergent thinking – using tools to narrow down possibilities to the most suitable choices.

Some questions to open up the space of possible examiners:
Who have you cited?
Who have you met at conferences?
Who has particular interest in the kind of research you’ve done?
Who has a reputation for being excellent?

Some questions to narrow the field:
Who is just an absolute no? (for whatever reason)
Whose name would be a useful reference?
Whose work have you criticised?
Whose work do you find particularly influential?

These questions can be useful, but I think you first need to have some idea of good examiner qualities. The overall question is far more personalised than people usually take it: instead of “what qualities should you want in a good examiner?” the question needs to be “what qualities do I want in my examiner?”


It will be like this. It will be like that. You need to do it this way. I did it that way.

Check this book. Listen to that podcast. My friend said this.

A friend of a friend had a nightmare experience. A friend of a friend of a friend FAILED.

My sister’s brother’s best friend’s dead dog’s former owner knew someone who had their viva and said it was no big deal, so what are you worried about?

Everyone has an opinion about the viva.

Ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Decide for yourself. Keep doing good work.


I don’t know that it’s universal, but the lightbulb is a powerful symbol for making a connection. One second you don’t know something important, the next you do.

I remember being sat on a train in early 2005, less than six months into my PhD. I was waiting to go and visit a friend. Just as the train doors were closing something CLICKED in my head and I could see the answer to a problem. It was just a little one but one at the root of a bigger problem in my thesis. Just like that, it came to me. And while there was a lot more work to do, this one little insight allowed me to write three chapters of my thesis. There were harder problems in my PhD, but this is the time I remember when something just came to me. Weeks of reading, of doodling and noodling, and then CLICK.

When you have a real lightbulb moment, be grateful.

What else are you grateful for in your PhD?

Tell Ten People

I like to read entrepreneurial books. A lot of the same stories and ideas come up, but sometimes it’s more the way that someone phrases something that hooks you than the idea. An idea isn’t just a thing: it needs to be given in a way that it will latch into someone’s brain, it needs something extra to make it instantly or powerfully understandable.

“Tell Ten People” is a good idea for testing products that comes up again and again: before you put your book, your product or whatever in front of customers, tell ten people, friends or partners or colleagues that you trust about what you’re doing. If none of them give you more than an “OK” then you’ve probably not got a winning idea. Maybe you have a good idea if you have but you’ve not hit on a winning expression of it.

A thought for today: tell ten people about your research. Ten people who you know and you can trust to listen. Tell them why you do it, how you do it and what you’ve got as a result. You’re not looking to hopefully convince them the way that an entrepreneur would, you’re just hoping that they get it. If they do, great. If they don’t, ask them about what information they needed.

The more you talk about your research and the more feedback you get, the better you will get at showing people what you do.


It’s really tempting to only read the good parts of your thesis.

When you’re done and you’re preparing for your viva, it’ll feel good to read the parts you’re most proud of. The chapter where you reach your amazing conclusions. The masterful description of your methodology. And then within those chapters, you’ll know that there are sections which are superb. You zero in on your favourite paragraphs.

You glance at the rest, because, yeah, you know what’s in your thesis, you wrote it after all. You are in a good position to know what is most important, most valuable, in your thesis. But it’s all necessary. Everything in your thesis has a reason or a purpose or a value, otherwise it wouldn’t be there.

So don’t skip. Don’t skim. Read it all. That could be hard, but read it all at least once after submission – if for no other reason that you can then be sure about what is there. You don’t have a false memory of a chapter or section.

Don’t skip the “bad” stuff because you need to know what’s there. Don’t skip the good stuff because everything can be reinforced and made better.

Best Bit

My favourite thing in my thesis is on pages 33 and 34. I struggled for a couple of weeks on a single detail that I needed in order to prove the most important result in my research. I couldn’t get it. I knew what I needed and I knew intuitively it was true, but I couldn’t see the step.

And one day I took a break, and realised that the result I was aiming for was far bigger than what I needed. I was trying to slice bread with a chainsaw, but couldn’t get the damn thing to start.

As I realised that I needed a much smaller result to prove what I needed, I knew exactly how to prove it! It was a huge feeling of elation after a string of disappointed days. As I wrote down my proof, I realised that this tiny result could also be generalised: I’d spotted the blockage on the chainsaw, and now had the stronger result that I’d not been able to get.

I had a brief tug of war between satisfaction and frustration; thankfully satisfaction won out.

Three-and-a-half questions:
What’s the smallest meaningful result in your thesis?
What are you most satisfied or frustrated by in your research?
What’s the best bit of your thesis? Why?

Stepping back when doing research is important. Stepping back afterwards helps you grow.