Talents and Skills

There are two main outputs from a PhD programme: a thesis and a person.

It’s easy to see what’s new in a thesis perhaps; less easy to see how a person has changed. Take time to explore your qualities as you get closer to the viva. A useful resource might be Vitae‘s Researcher Development Framework. It is partly a breakdown of all of the skills and attributes that an effective researcher might have, but there are lots of supporting tools for making sense of them too.

What can you do now that you couldn’t before your PhD? How are you now more skilled? And what are you going to do with your talents and skills when your PhD is over?

Everest

The viva is often framed as the top of the mountain after an epic climb. It’s taken a long time, a lot of work, but finally you reach the summit of your PhD. Some people take the story even further, “it’s all downhill from here, hahaha…”

I think it’s more accurate to see your thesis submission as the summit. The viva comes a little later. The viva is talking about the climb, how you did it, what worked, what didn’t and maybe how it compares to other climbs.

While you’re up at the summit though, pause, look around. What’s on the other side of your PhD-mountain? Where are you going to go next?

Flip It

Instead of wondering if your thesis is good, first ask yourself what you look for in a good thesis. What do people generally want?

Instead of worrying about what questions your examiners might ask, start by thinking about what questions would be in your mind when you first pick up a thesis. How would you start to unpick a large book of new research?

Instead of hoping you’ll be ready for your viva, ask what you would need to feel ready. What would you need to have or be to feel confident on viva day?

Whenever you encounter a doubt, flip it around. What can you do about it? Got an idea? Go do it.

Amazed

Doing a PhD and writing a thesis is like finding your way to the centre of a maze. You might have some ideas about how to get there when you start, but it will still take work to make it through. You can go down wrong paths, get lost, but with time and effort you’ll get there.

Preparing for the viva is finding your way back out of the maze. It takes less time, but you have to check your way as you go. Just because you made it in, it doesn’t mean you know the shortest way back. You can still get lost. But you have a lot of experience to draw on now.

Describing the maze is the viva. How it looks. How you got there. Why you decided to walk it in the first place.

Walking back out of the maze will help you make sense of how you got in. Checking back over the twists and turns will make explaining the route to someone else a much easier task.

Lightbulb Moments

What were your lightbulb moments during your PhD? When did you find yourself getting something, suddenly, maybe inexplicably, like someone just flicked a switch? What was happening? What had you tried already? How did you make that connection?

Last year, I wrote about a real lightbulb moment during my PhD. It’s no exaggeration to say that this idea, when applied, helped me to write three chapters of my thesis. It was a tiny result that allowed many others. It came to me like magic.

But it wasn’t.

It was work.

It came after weeks of exploration. Lots of failed attempts. Dozens of diagrams, calculations and notes that went around and around. And then the answer came, after work has made it possible to see the connection.

Sometimes results or ideas in research seem to come out of nowhere. Conclusions jump out from a sea of ideas and data. They’re a product of work, not luck.

Look back over your PhD before the viva. Find your lightbulb moments, then deconstruct them. How did you get to that moment when the light came on?

Necessary, Broccoli

Necessary and broccoli are my two word nemeses: two words that I can’t reliably spell correctly. It bugs me. It frustrates me. It’s not every day that I have to write about vegetables, but necessary is… essential. Spellcheck can sort me out when typing, but I’m often writing longhand on a flipchart in front of twenty people. I don’t want to mess up.

Lately I’ve just been thinking “one C, two Cs” to help me remember. It’s not perfect. For the most part I’ve got my frustration under control. Necessary and broccoli are two little blips that I can deal with. While I can’t always remember how to spell those words, there’s a lot more that I can do – a lot more I can do really well.

I remember preparing for my viva. My mind drifted to all of the little things (and some big) that my examiners might focus on. I can remember the frustration on my part, “Why didn’t I do X? Why don’t I know Y? When will I ever understand Z?”

After spending so long working on something and wanting it to be good, it’s easy to focus on things that you could do better. It’s hard not to wonder what examiners will make of flaws, blips and rough edges in your research or your practice. Maybe there are ways to make X, Y or Z better, but if those are the things you focus on you’ll just lead your mind to doubt.

So what can you do? Focus on your strengths first.

Start a list of things that are great in your research. Results, writing, presentation, style, your ideas, your insights, your passion, your supervisor, that one meeting that one time where you made a great observation, whatever you can find.

Don’t dismiss weakness, but don’t let that be the guide. Every time you come to do some viva prep, take out the list, quickly read it, then see if you can add one or two more things.

You’ve done a lot of great work to get you to the viva.

Necessarily.

Very

When postgraduate researchers imagine the viva they often dial it up to 11…

The viva is not just tough, it’s very tough. The questions aren’t just tricky, they’re very tricky. It’s not just long, it’s very long, and so on…

It’s more than challenging, it’s a nightmare! Examiners aren’t critical, they’re harsh! I ask someone, “Are you nervous?” and they reply “I’m terrified!

…yikes.

If this is where your head is at, it’s possible to turn the dial back. For a start, just how talented are you as a researcher?

Very.

You did the work to get this far. That means something.

The Knack

My dad passed away quite suddenly when I was 17. Today would have been his 70th birthday, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately.

When I was little my dad was often self-employed. He had been made redundant from his job when I and my sister were quite small. For most of our childhood he had a stall at markets around the North West and in Scotland. I remember bagging biscuits at our dining table from huge boxes. I remember bundling tea towels and dusters, taking five and folding them a certain way, throwing a rubber band around them to hold bundles together. Seriously, I remember those afternoons quite fondly.

In the summer holidays my dad would let me help with various games he ran at fairs and carnivals. My favourite game was one where you had to throw a small wooden ball into a metal bucket. The bucket was inside a wooden frame, painted to look like a clown’s mouth; you just stood at a distance and tried to throw the ball in. This was the 1980s, so it was only 20p for three balls, and the spectacular prize was a coconut!

I remember the call still, “Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!

It was not easy. For a start, the bucket was pitched at an angle that encouraged the ball to rebound. The balls were ping-pong sized and dense: if you threw too hard they would bounce right back out. If you threw too soft, you might not get the ball in the target at all. Overarm shots always span out.

Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!” he would call out and throw the ball and DING! there it would land. Most people paying their 20p had never tried it before, never thought of playing anything like this. It was just something fun to spend 20p on.

There was no great trick, there was no con involved: it was just really hard. My dad had the knack though. He’d mastered this really hard skill. He’d found a challenge he knew was tricky, but spent a lot of time practising. He could throw the ball just so and have it land in the bucket every time. He made it look effortless, but that’s because the effort had been put in over years.

I tried and tried, failing many times, but still remember the first time I got my own DING! I kept going, and while I wasn’t as precise as my dad, I started to reach a point where I could get the ball in the bucket consistently. Practice, experience, nothing more.

Back to the present: your PhD is hard, but there are aspects of it you make seem effortless to others. That’s not to say it’s not still hard to you, but you can do it. You’re practised, you’re experienced. At the viva you can answer a question and engage with a discussion nearly every time because you’ve done so much during your PhD.

After all this time you have the knack.

5 Questions To Ask Your Supervisor After Submission

When it comes to asking for help from your supervisor a lot of focus is given to mock vivas. While these can be valuable, there are other questions you could ask that will help a lot. Here are five valuable questions to ask your supervisor:

  1. What do you need to know about your examiners’ work? You may know a lot, or have ideas, but it’s good to get another perspective.
  2. Are there any parts of your research they think your examiners could challenge? That doesn’t mean something is wrong, but it’s good to get thinking.
  3. What do they see your most important contribution as being? Again, you’ll have your own thoughts, but their opinion counts.
  4. What are the most recent papers or developments in your field? Explore what you might have missed while writing up your thesis.
  5. What do they do when they examine a thesis? Find out if there is a process that is common in your field, or at least get some ideas of how examiners think about the viva.

Your supervisor’s help doesn’t stop at submission. You might have to pick your moment or negotiate a good meeting time to discuss some of these topics, but they could all help a lot with your viva preparation. Think about it, then ask for what will help you the most.

No Shortcuts

There’s no secret path that takes you to the end of the PhD.

There’s no list of amazing tips that dodges all of the work involved.

You can’t hack your way past the necessary steps that got your thesis finished.

And that’s good.

All of the work you put into the PhD makes you amazingly qualified for your viva. There’s no way of doing the PhD without putting the hours in. All of those hours help you when you sit down to talk with your examiners.