World’s Largest Prairie Dog

In 2009 I went on a road trip across the USA. One day my friend and I saw a sign announcing, “PRAIRIE DOG TOWN!! See the world’s largest prairie dog!!” It was over one hundred miles away, and we laughed at something that seemed so silly.

Our feelings changed quickly.

Every few miles there was a different sign talking about the world’s largest prairie dog. Signs said we wouldn’t want to miss it. They counted down the miles. There would be a five-legged cow as well! And other animals: snakes, wolves and more.

The world’s largest prairie dog!

“How big could it be?” we thought. Prairie dogs are quite small normally… Could the world’s largest prairie dog be the size of a pig? Surely no bigger… Could it? Sign after sign told us it would be something amazing, something incredible. On the road to Prairie Dog Town we listened to the story. We built on it and built on it ourselves until…

Your humble author, for comparison…

…it’s a statue. And not even a particularly good one! For over one hundred miles we had amped ourselves up, read the signs, invested hours of conversation and discussion.

It was a statue!!!

Sigh…

There’s a set of persistent, conflicting, stories about the PhD viva:

  • It’s a big mystery.
  • It’s all about choosing the “right” examiners.
  • It’s supposed to be tough.
  • No-one fails, so don’t treat it seriously.
  • People do fail…and you might be one of them!

Is it any wonder that by the time of the viva, candidates don’t know which way is up? All they know is that it’s going to be a probably-survivable-but-maybe-not-all-that-good-event.

Stories are useful, but so are facts. With the viva people get swept up in the story about the event and forget their own story. What did you do to get to the viva? How did you do your research? What’s the beginning, middle and end of the journey so far? Whether it has felt easy or hard, whether it’s been rough or smooth, you got this far. You did this.

There was only one set of signs that lead my friend and I to the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. We went because we listened. There are lots of stories that swirl around the viva. Find the facts then listen to your story.

Party Time

After my viva I felt like I was celebrating because that’s what I was supposed to do. My family was thrilled for me, but I just didn’t want to celebrate that evening. My viva wasn’t bad, but by the end I was tired, numb. I didn’t begin to feel like celebrating until days later.

How do you think you might feel after your viva?

Do you think you’ll be saying, “Phew! I’m glad that’s done!”?

Will you frame celebrations as “This is a treat for finishing!”?

Or will you be thinking, “Now what?” – which is pretty much what was going through my mind after the viva.

As with many things, if you can reflect a little on how you feel now, you might be able to steer your motivations. If you’re thinking, “I’ll be glad when this is over,” you’re not likely to have a positive spin on things. Maybe you’re not in charge of your emotional state completely, but you can steer things.

However you feel, remember to celebrate. Passing the viva is big.

Plus, Minus, Interesting

I like to use thinking tools, and “Plus, Minus, Interesting” is a good concept by Edward de Bono. To put it simply, it’s just a request to look at things from different perspectives: look for positives, negatives and interesting features, don’t just examine something with whatever gut feeling you have.

I can think of lots of ways to use it when preparing for the viva:

  • Explore the methodology you used to do your research. Why was it good to do it the way that you did? What did it not allow you to do? What’s interesting about it?
  • If you find a passage that is unclear, use “plus, minus, interesting” to reframe the vague text.
  • Create a summary for each chapter, a single page divided into three sections. Plus for important things, minus for difficult parts, interesting for things that others might find, erm, interesting.
  • Use “plus, minus, interesting” to provoke an analysis or discussion of the main outcomes of your thesis.

This is just one flexible tool. There are others! Use what you can to explore your research in new ways. It’s good prep to think differently about your thesis before the viva.

Red Alert!

I love Star Trek. I love the visions of the future, the philosophical explorations and wonder of seeking out new worlds.

I also love it when someone shouts, “Red Alert!” Two words that signify danger and excitement, but not panic: they’re an instruction to the crew to focus. There are procedures to follow. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but they’re hyper-competent. Bad things may be happening, but if they can pull together they’ll get through it.

“Red Alert!” could be a good mental picture to paint for tough questions in the viva. Maybe not danger exactly: a call to focus, but no cause for panic. There are procedures you can follow. You’re good at answering questions, and something tough just requires more attention. Most questions will not be too hard, but like the crew of the Enterprise you are hyper-competent – you’re an experienced researcher! It could be tricky, but if you follow your talents and think you’ll get through it.

Hypotheticals

What if your examiners ask you a question and you go blank?

What if you forget something?

What if your examiners don’t agree on the outcome of the viva?

What if you arrive late?

What if you don’t know the answer?

And so on. The consequences for some of these situations seem bad. Some of them are easily coped with in the moment (if you go blank, think more; if you don’t know something, discuss it with your examiners), and some aren’t. But none of these will necessarily happen in the viva. Some of them are not likely at all.

You can’t always control how you feel, but rather than obsess over what-if scenarios, try to give your attention to preparation that helps.

What if you invested your time and energy in being prepared for the viva? What would happen then?

Use Your Network

It’s just you answering questions in the viva. Before then there are lots of people who can help you prepare. Think about your network. Think about the resources you can draw on. For example:

  • Do you know someone who can tell you about your examiners’ research? It could be a boost before you read some papers.
  • Do you know someone who can tell you about their viva? It could help to settle your mind about expectations.
  • Do you know someone who can listen to you talk about your thesis? It could be a way to get some useful feedback.

Who do you know, and how can they help you?

Time Flies

15th September 2017 marked nine years since I became self-employed. My PhD was all done and dusted, and after a few weeks thinking about the future and what to do, that was the day that I had my first meeting with a client.

In the blink of an eye, almost a decade has passed. My PhD was an important part of my life and continues to be an important part of my life, but I’m more proud of all of the other things I’ve done since then. All of the things I’ve written, the workshops I’ve delivered, the people I’ve helped – they’re worth more to me than my PhD is, but at the same time I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if it hadn’t done my PhD.

Be grateful for your PhD, but it will end at some point, and you’ll go on to other things. Before you know it, years and years will pass, you’ll accomplish more and better. Your PhD can’t be the apex of your life. I wasn’t stressed out too much by my viva, but it did seem like it was the most important thing in my life. I wasn’t thinking about the future. If I had, maybe I could have put things into perspective.

Per scientiam ad meliora

Hurry?

I realised the other day that I often advise people to take their time when it comes to the viva.

Plan how you’re going to prepare.

Invest time in reading your thesis carefully.

Don’t rush to an answer in the viva.

It got me wondering, are there any areas of viva prep or thesis examination where it would be good to rush?

Well, there are things that you can do quickly, but they’re not so much about rushing as they are about doing specific tasks. Dash out some bullet points about a chapter when you start a summary file; spend two minutes to put a Post It at the start of each chapter in your thesis; write down the first five researchers you can think of whose work you build on.

You can do these quickly and then develop them: write a summary, add Post Its to other important areas, expand your researcher list. You’re not rushing, you’re starting.

I can’t think of a good reason to rush in preparation or in the viva…

…but maybe after the viva you want to hurry to tell someone your good news?

Awkward

I talk about a lot of different things in Viva Survivor workshops, but there are certain tips or pieces of advice that often encounter a bit of resistance. See if they do the same for you that they do for others:

  • “Use Post It notes to add bookmarks or details to your thesis.”
  • “Pause and make a note after each question.”
  • “Feel free to ask your examiner if they can expand on a point.”
  • “It’s fine to ask for a break if you need one.”

Did any of those make you feel awkward, or make you feel that it would be awkward in the viva? Are you happy with the idea of pausing in silence to think? Do you feel comfortable with making notes? What do you think your examiners will say if you do or ask for any of these things?

Awkwardness is one of those things we develop over time. It’s related to stories that we come to believe. For example, if you feel awkward about the idea of pausing to make a note after a question, I would guess that you generally believe it’s rude to keep someone waiting if they’ve asked you a question.

Stories are powerful, but you can change them. If you feel awkward about any of the circumstances around the viva, or if anyone’s advice makes you think, “Sounds good but I couldn’t,” then see what you can do to change the story. Explore whether there’s a more helpful narrative you can take with you to talk about your research.

Why-How-What

If you’re looking for a way to share a summary of your research, as you might in the viva, think Why-How-What:

  • Why is your topic worth researching?
  • How have you gone about researching it?
  • What have you found?

Every time you give a summary of your work you get to try new ways to communicate what’s important. These questions are only the beginning, you might want to elaborate. You have to start somewhere though.