Interesting Challenges

Throughout my PhD I thought that I was particularly attracted to what I did because I loved the challenge of maths. Maths can feel like there is a secret language at work. If you know it, or know enough, then you can feel powerful. It’s hard to get to know enough, and then to build up enough intuition about how to apply this magic to solve problems.

After my PhD I realised that I loved having interesting challenges to work on, and for a long time maths had been filling that space for me. So I started looking for interesting projects. This blog is an interesting challenge to work on. I have to write a lot (and edit a lot). I have to do a lot of planning and scheduling. Interesting challenges are worth it. They stretch you. They develop you. They’re worth finding or making.

At the end of your PhD, spend some time thinking about the interesting challenges you had. What did you learn from them? How did you encounter them? What happened as a result? Your examiners will not necessarily launch into asking you about the interesting challenges of your PhD, but if you spend time reviewing them you’ll find rich ideas to reflect on.

What Didn’t Work?

If something didn’t work, if something went wrong, if you didn’t get the result you were hoping for… Why? In 3+ years of research, not everything can go perfectly. What’s responsible? Who is responsible?

At every stage, but particularly at the end of the PhD, you have a choice in the story you tell yourself. You can say that it’s all your fault. You can say that things were beyond your control. Or you can change focus: treat everything as an opportunity to learn. This happened, why, what next? This happened, why, what do I do differently?

Ask

I love helping people prepare for the viva. One of the happiest parts of the workshops that I run, for me, is the opportunity to answer questions at the end. It’s important to answer questions (typically which are “what if…?” or “how do I…?”) because then people can move on. If you have an answer then you can step forward and do the really important stuff.

In general, ask more people more questions. Even if it’s not about getting a better picture of the viva. Ask your supervisor about your thesis. Ask them about your examiners. Ask your friends about their vivas, and be specific with your questions. Ask your family for help (whether that’s giving you space, taking on chores or putting the kids to bed).

You can ask me questions about the viva too. Send me an email, I’ll get back to you ASAP. I’ll keep a list of questions for future Q&A specials of the podcast. You can find two past episodes here.

If you don’t ask…

Day Off

If you spend every day between submission and the viva doing some effective viva prep, then you’ll be in a great position for the viva. If you do nothing between submission and the viva, you probably won’t be in a great position for the viva.

Do some viva prep regularly on the lead up to the viva. But if, say, on a Bank Holiday, you take a day off? You’ll be fine. If there’s no bank holiday in the period leading up to your viva, still take a few days off. Well-placed breaks are just as important as the hard work you put in towards a goal.

[inspired by #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs which Dr Kay Guccione tweets about a lot!]

In three seconds…

In three seconds…
…a photon travels almost 900 million metres.
…a Shinkansen moves over 250m.
…Usain Bolt is a third of the way to the finish line.
…in the viva you can feel like there’s an awkward pause in conversation.

Three seconds might not seem like a long time, but it’s all about perspective. Three seconds is the difference between victory and defeat in a race. In the viva, it’s not even a pause, but it can feel like forever.

In reality, it’s a few heartbeats while you put some thoughts in order and take a breath. Not too long, in fact not long at all. Take a quick pause to think in the viva and you’ll go a long way.

Typos

It’s good to catch as many typos as possible. It’s not always easy to see them, even with spellcheck running. And spellcheck can’t always see when you put words in the wrong order. Proofreading can be hard. Enlist some allies as early as possible to help read through and spot what you might look past.

If you’re reading through your thesis to prepare for your viva, don’t worry about miskates too much. If you find erors, you can always correkt them l8r.

Instead, focus on anything that seems vague. If you read something that you’ve written and think, “Hmm… What did I mean here?” then spend time unpacking what it’s all about. Typos aren’t vague: when you see a typo, you know what needs to be there. Passages that are vague are harder to crack: it may not be immediately obvious what needs to be there. But if you focus on the vague then you’ll be in a better position in the viva to talk about your research.