“There’s No Miracle People”

Today is the centenary of the birth of Richard Feynman. Since I first heard about this Nobel-winning physicist/mischief-maker/inspiration I’ve not stopped looking for documentaries, books and more about him. He was, quite simply, an amazing human being and researcher; he made an impact that will be felt for generations.

I have a lot of favourite Feynman stories and quotes. One that came to mind thinking about today, and thinking about the viva, is from an early-1980s BBC short film, right from the start of the programme:

…I was an ordinary person, who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens they got interested in this thing and they learned all this stuff… There’s no talent or special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics…that comes without practice and reading and learning and study…

You might not be studying quantum mechanics, but if you’re a PhD candidate then Feynman’s observation holds true. You got where you are because of what you did: all the practice and reading and learning and study. You’ll get through the viva for the same reasons.

Letting Go

At some point you have to let go of your thesis. At some point it’s as good as it’s going to get. You can’t anticipate every comment you could get from examiners. You can’t write things in an effort to prevent questions. It doesn’t work that way.

For any kind of creative work – and a thesis is a creative work – there comes a point where you have to stop, be happy with what you’ve done and move on. Moving on after submission means preparing for the viva, using the solid foundations of your research and thesis.

Let go when you submit. You’ve done as much as you could possibly do.

Forewarned Is Forearmed

I got a striking question at a workshop last month:

What are the skills or tools to arm myself with for a successful viva?

I like this question a lot. There’s a built-in assumption that the viva is achievable. You can prepare for it, it’s not about luck. Like the PhD, it’s about talent and work.

My answer?

Arm yourself with your thesis. Annotate it in a useful way.

Arm yourself with knowledge about the viva. Ask around for the regulations and expectations.

Arm yourself with opportunities to discuss your research with others. This will hone your ability to think and talk for the viva.

For most candidates, these aren’t any new skills or tools to acquire. It’s simply a continuation of practice. Preparing for the viva isn’t difficult if you’ve done the work to produce a thesis. You have all of the skills you need to meet the challenge ahead.

Devil’s Advocate

Exploring how your research could be better while you prepare for the viva can be interesting. You’re not looking for fatal flaws, just inspecting your work and asking some critical questions. You’re not trying to anticipate criticisms in the viva, just think clearly about what you’ve done and what you could have done.

For example, thinking back, how could my PhD research have been better?

  • I could have learned C++ to make a good computer program for an algorithm I created.
  • I could have applied my results to other cases to see what was interesting.
  • I could have completed the big table of results that no-one else had done.
  • I could have finished those three other chapters.

Make sure you couple any critique with reasons why you didn’t do something different. So why didn’t I do any of these things that might have made my research better? Respectively:

  • I didn’t have time.
  • I didn’t think of some of those cases until I was writing up.
  • I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
  • I didn’t have time and wasn’t sure if there was something thesis-worthy in the ideas.

It could feel awkward to ask yourself how to make your work better, or ask yourself what’s wrong with it. Really, you’re just giving another check. It can also help to spot little things that need support with more ideas. Looking at your thesis with a different mindset is valuable. You’ve done a lot of good work by the time you submit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate is just taking a step back. You’re not thinking “This is rubbish, what’s wrong?” but “This is great, could it be even better?”

There’s Always More

Worried about whether or not you’ve done enough prep? Worried if you find a reference after submission that seems like it would be a good addition to your thesis? Worried that there’s something else that you just have to do before the viva?

Whenever I get stressed out and think I need to read more or do more, I remember a little line from Ecclesiastes 12:12. Probably 2500 years old and still relevant:

“…There is no end to the writing of books, and too much study will wear you out.”

You could read one more paper. You could check one more detail. Make one more note. But do you really need to?

At some point you just have to stop. Weigh it against everything else you’ve done, and you’ll find the right point.

Don’t exhaust yourself just because you’ve found one more thing you could do.

Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?


How long will your viva be?

What will your examiners think about your thesis?

What questions will they ask?

What award will you get?

How will you feel afterwards?

How long will it take to complete corrections?

You might have expectations, but some questions about your viva have answers that are unknowable at this point.

So focus on what you do know.

Your viva comes at the end of several years of hard work. You did the work. You are talented. You’re more than up to the challenge.

Examiners Are Not The Enemy Either

They’re not out to get you, with malicious ideas and opinions. You’re not locked in their sights, and they’re not on a mission to make the viva uncomfortable, unenjoyable and un-passable.

They have to do their job. They have to examine your thesis and you. They have to be experienced and knowledgeable, they have to be prepared for the viva. That can sound intimidating, but all of these are good things.

Remember that you’re the expert in your thesis. Your examiners might have more general experience than you, but no-one else in the world has as much experience with your work as you do.

Your examiners are not faceless and unknown. See what you can learn about them and their work. Explore what you can find that will help you feel confident meeting them to discuss your research.

Questions Are Not The Enemy

They’re not being asked to find your weak spot or the flaw in your thesis. They’re not to be dodged or to guard against. You can’t write yourself away from questions with your thesis.

Questions are there to examine you, shed light on your work and explore what you’ve done.

Don’t dread them. Don’t put up a wall. Don’t just hope that they’ll be OK.

Find opportunities to practise, so you can realise that they’re not to be feared. In the viva, pause, breathe, think and answer.