Where Did I Hear That…?

I listen to a couple of podcasts quite regularly – The Tim Ferriss Show and Revisionist History are both favourites of mine – and on one recently I heard someone say something that lodged in my head as being quite useful:

Regular review readily resolve random readings.

Ironically, I can’t remember where I heard this! But it is definitely good advice. I lost track of the number of times during my PhD where I thought, “Oh, I know this, now where…” and just couldn’t find the reference. You are hopefully doing better than me. You are hopefully managing your references well.

As you’re preparing for your viva, think about how you can summarise your key references. Think about how you can make a good overview of the key points of your argument and your results. You have a lot of this floating in your head, but if you systematically review what you’ve done and where it comes from the information and ideas will be easier to access. Make time to review things several times. It doesn’t have to be every day, but consider making it a habit.

Think about how you might do all this in a way that works for you – then do it.

How To Juggle

One of my heroes, Seth Godin, describes in one of his books why people struggle when they learn to juggle. Wannabe jugglers focus so much on trying to catch balls that they don’t throw them enough. They want the catch to be perfect so they hesitate. The secret, as he shares it, is that you need to throw the ball a lot more and not worry about a perfect catch. Better to start the action first before worrying about how you’ll complete it. Seth’s really talking about projects, and fear, and hesitating before making something good. Every project is throwing the ball from right hand to left, a chance to do something well.

PhDs unfold over a long period of time. A PhD is like a big project, but it’s wrong to see it as a single throw of a ball. There’s so much more involved. Like juggling, you get good at doing the PhD by doing it. Reading more, writing more, doing more. Each step is a single throw. When you’re near submission or the viva you’ve caught the ball a lot. You must have become good at doing your research. You must have become good at being a researcher.

The viva is a big deal. It’s normal to be nervous. If you’re feeling uncertain, reflect on your skills. Reflect on your progress. Reflect on what exists now that didn’t exist when you started your PhD. Your thesis didn’t just happen: you’ve made a lot of catches.

Relevant

In preparing for the viva you get to choose what to focus on. You get to choose what to avoid. Make the choice consciously. The list of advice and practical points is long. It’s unlikely that you can do everything that people advise. You don’t need to do everything.

Listen to advice, but decide for yourself what’s relevant.

(and if your viva is a long way off, this is true for the PhD too)

Nervous and Excited

More candidates tell me they’re nervous rather than excited about their viva. Many who tell me that they’re nervous wish they could feel confident or excited about the big day. Today, for the first time, I can reveal my four step plan to deal with viva nerves!

A process for anyone who is nervous about the viva:

  1. What would move you one step closer to excited? What concrete action could you take?
  2. Go do it.
  3. Are you nervous about the viva? Go to Step 1. Are you no longer nervous? Go to Step 4.
  4. Congratulations!

…If only it were that easy. Nervous and excited are not binary states that you land in and stay in. One day you could wake up excited; two hours later you’re anxious and wondering, “What if…?”

Still, find steps that move you away from nervous and towards excited. Actions will help more than just thoughts. You can do more than hope you’re not too nervous.

8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

Salmon Swimming

I had an idea for explaining the PhD process, a picture in my head that I described to my wife:

Me: “PhD candidates are like salmon, swimming upstream to the source of ideas. It’s a difficult journey, long and tiring, but at the end-”

Mrs R: “They’re eaten by bears? Are examiners like bears?”

Me: “Erm, no. Well, I guess you could say-”

Mrs R: “I think a lot of salmon don’t make it. I’m sure I read that. Swimming against the current kills some salmon just for trying.”

Me: “…”

Mrs R: “And then some of the salmon that make it get eaten. By bears.”

Me: “…”

There are lots of metaphors and analogies that work in describing the PhD journey and the viva. They’re useful because they give us something to hook into. They can set expectations or help us through tough times. Find one that helps you.

But please don’t be a salmon.