What Matters

An incomplete list of what matters about you, your PhD, your thesis and your viva:

  • That you did the work;
  • That you put the time and effort in;
  • That you feel reasonably confident for the viva;
  • That you prepare for the viva;
  • That you have examiners who have done their prep;
  • That you have done something meaningful;
  • That you have talent and are a capable researcher in your field.

An incomplete list of what DOESN’T matter about you, your PhD, your thesis and your viva:

  • That you do or don’t have a certain number of publications in print or forthcoming;
  • That you have decided to stay or not in academia after your PhD;
  • That you feel nervous;
  • That you have typos in your thesis;
  • That you will get corrections in your viva;
  • That you haven’t read everything in your field;
  • That you don’t know everything.

In my experience, sadly, candidates pay a lot of attention to the second list but mistakenly think that the items either matter a lot or are problems that have to be solved.

Which list will you focus on?

Three More Three Whats

A little structure is a great way to start reflection, and Three Whats is a really neat little structure. It’s really flexible and can be applied to a lot of the areas that are worth thinking about towards the end of the PhD and as part of viva preparations.

On Obstacles…

  • What was the biggest obstacle during your PhD?
  • So what did you do to resolve the situation?
  • Now what do you think about it?

Getting Help…

  • What do you need help with before the viva?
  • So what group(s) of people can you ask?
  • Now what are you going to do first?

Worries…

  • What are you worried most about your viva?
  • So what can you do to improve how you feel?
  • Now what is your priority for action?

What, so what and now what are great for reflection, problem solving and a lot more. What other ways might you use them as you prepare for your viva?

Interesting Reasons

There are plenty of interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might be good examiners:

  • They’re experts in your general area;
  • You’ve cited them a lot;
  • You’re hoping to build your network a little.

You don’t get to choose directly. Most candidates can at least have a conversation with their supervisors about who they think would be a good choice. Think through what you might look for, and see how that conversation goes.

There are also interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might not be acceptable as examiners:

  • Maybe you’ve had lots of conversations with them about your PhD work;
  • Maybe you’ve had correspondence about working with them on a future project;
  • Maybe they’re part of a collaboration with your supervisor.

Depending on the rules of your institution, these possible conflicts of interest might disqualify them from even being considered. If you’re concerned at all then it is worth checking.

The first list comes down to preference: the kind of examiners you want depends greatly on what qualities you see as being valuable.

The second list comes down to policy: some people won’t be acceptable because of how you’re connected to them.

You should definitely think about the first list in advance of your viva; in some cases the second list will be just as valuable to narrow down options.

Surprise!

It might be a surprise to know exactly what your examiners think of your work, but it doesn’t have to be a surprise to know what other people more generally think of it. Share your work, get feedback and keep building on what you’ve done.

There may be a surprising question you’ve not considered before, but your general talent at answering questions shouldn’t be a surprise to you. Find opportunities to receive and respond to unexpected questions.

You might be surprised by a particular correction that you get, but you should know that most people are asked to complete some level of corrections. After the viva you’ll be given an opportunity to make your thesis even better.

There could be surprises in the viva, but there’s a lot that you can do to meet any challenges that come up.

Do the work, prepare well and the surprises won’t matter so much.

Nice, But Not Necessary

As you finish up your thesis, take twenty minutes to make a list of all the things that didn’t quite make it.

  • What did you not have time for?
  • What did you not have enough resources to do?
  • What didn’t come together in your thinking?
  • What did you realise too late to do anything about?
  • What would you have changed if possible?

Label the list Nice, But Not Necessary. Add anything else you had thought to do, thought was a good idea, but which you didn’t get to. It can help you to think around your thesis, different approaches, tangents that would be good to explore, ideas that could have merit.

Interesting stuff, but not essential.

Keep the list, but know you don’t need to focus on what-might-have-been. Your thesis, the necessary, the essential, is good enough.

You Get To Have A Viva

A few weeks back I was moaning because I had to wake up at 4am to catch a flight. Grumble, grumble, too early, grumble, grumble, why do I have to do this?

Then I remembered Seth Godin’s recent post about the difference between “have to” and “get to.” This made me pause my grumbling, and gave me a chance to change my perspective.

I was still tired when I woke up, but I wasn’t looking at it as, “I have to wake up early.” Instead, I chose to focus on what I would get to do. I would get to fly! I would get to go and meet new people! I would get to do three Viva Survivor sessions, something I love doing!

If you feel stressed because you have to have a viva, see what you can do to change your perspective. You get to have a viva. You don’t just have to have a viva – you get to have one because of everything you’ve done.

A change of words can be enough to bring a change to how we feel.

Putting The PhD Together

The process of doing a PhD is like doing a really hard jigsaw when you don’t have the picture to start with.

It takes time to get going. You have to find the corners, establish your boundaries, and make sure that everything fits in place.

Progress can be slow for a long time, but you start to see patterns, and slowly the gaps are filled.

When you’re done you might have ideas about what you could have done differently – but you don’t need to do them. You have what you need, and it works or you wouldn’t have the picture that you do.

The viva is telling someone about the jigsaw; they don’t have to go through the same process, but they want to know what yours was like, and what the picture was that you got at the end. Take time to think back over how you did it and what you got, so you can be clear with your examiners.

Whatever you ultimately feel about your picture, remember that your PhD jigsaw wouldn’t be finished if it wasn’t for your efforts.

The Number One Tip

What’s your number one tip for the viva?

I was asked this recently by a PhD candidate…

Take time to think is a good one for the viva; make sure you pause and think before answering.

Read your thesis carefully after submission is another that has a lot of value.

Try not to worry too much is a good tip, but can be tricky to put into practice!

These are good ideas, but my number one tip is this:

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Think back over the last few years. How did you get to this point? What have you done? What were the key events? How did you do it? How are you talented? What have you achieved?

Because it wasn’t all down to luck. There may be times you feel very grateful that something good has happened, but nothing just happens. You’ve worked hard to get to submission and the viva.

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Thesis Prep Checklist

Check off the following as you complete these thesis-related tasks before the viva:

  1. Added Post-it Notes to the start of each chapter to help with thesis navigation.
  2. Read through every chapter carefully at least once.
  3. Highlighted key references in each chapter.
  4. Added Post-it Notes to any important pages.
  5. Written a 1-line summary at the top of each page.
  6. Annotated any tricky passages to make them clearer.
  7. Bookmarked pages that add to the key contribution of the thesis.

If you’ve done all of these then you’re doing well. Your prep might not be complete, but you’ve read your thesis, annotated it usefully and started to think through why your work makes a difference.

What else can you do to get ready?