Help Is At Hand

There are lots and lots of people who can help you prepare for the viva. Your supervisor. Your friends and colleagues. Your university’s Graduate School. Anonymous Twitter-folk. People who run blogs and podcasts.

Usually, you just need an idea or two of what will help. Ask: you’ll get what you need.

But maybe you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re not feeling sure. Maybe you’re looking for more help than you can find. If you are, of if you know someone who is, then please check out my Viva Survivor workshop which is on October 4th. I run this session in universities all over the UK, and this is possibly my only independent session in 2017.

The details are all at the Eventbrite page. It’s going to be something quite special – I’m very happy to be able to share something like this. Registration is £99, but the first ten people to book by midnight on the 14th of August can get £30 off by using the code VERYEARLYBIRD.

Thanks for reading. If you need help, ask for it. If you can give help, offer it.

True North

A good compass points true north. You can find what direction you need regardless of where you are and what’s around. If you have a clear aim or objective the same can be true in the work that you do. Problem is, we have distractions everywhere. I have a couple of projects at any time that I’m actively working on, but there are always more ideas coming in. It can be hard to put them to one side, they can be all exciting and new, shiny and interesting or just something that seems difficult but useful.

A few years ago my friend Dee-Ann Johnson ran a workshop on establishing a vision, something to help guide you, like a compass. One of the session outputs was to get people to boil their vision down to three words. This was massively helpful to me. My three words are “Family, Writing, Play” – these are the words that help steer my projects and my work. I have them pinned on the wall in front of me. I want my work to be balanced so that I can spend as much time as possible with my family; I want my work to involve and allow for writing; I want my work and life to be filled with play. Sometimes these words help me pick my projects, other times they help me think about hard choices. Occasionally they remind me why I’m doing some of the tasks I don’t particularly enjoy (often because doing them allows me to spend time on family, writing and play).

My thought for the day: find three words to help yourself. Find three words that could help you through tough times. Find three words to be your viva vision.

Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?

Twelve Months

I was at Edge Hill last month to do a workshop. A participant asked me what they could do to prepare with about a year to go until their viva. They were interested at the various stages, i.e., what could one do twelve months before, at nine months, and so on. They were really keen to be ready for the viva!

On the one hand, I don’t think anyone needs to do much of anything for viva prep at that stage; the focus needs to be on finishing research and getting the thesis in on time. On the other hand, this kind of question resonates with me a lot; there are lots of things researchers can do from the start of the PhD which will help them when it comes time to submit and defend (and which could also make the research process and life after the PhD better too!).

For the final year in particular, here are some ideas:

  • Have a conversation with your supervisor about possible examiner choices.
  • Scope out what you have written and what needs to be written, and then make a plan.
  • Write every day, even if it is not something directly for your thesis.
  • Make opportunities to talk about your work.
  • When your examiners are set, compile a list of their recent papers.
  • Find friends and colleagues who are happy to help you prepare once you’ve submitted.

I have a lot more I could say about this – and I have a couple of projects/resources developing in this area – but this list is a start. If your viva is over a year away you don’t need to do anything now, but you could invest time along the way making opportunities that will pay off in the viva.

Simple and Easy

I worry that simple is equated with easy too often.

Too often I see people mistake the output for the process. It can take years of sifting through data, asking the right (and wrong) questions, or trying lots of things to arrive at an answer. And sometimes, after all of that, the final answer could be expressed in very few words.

Just because something can be explained simply doesn’t mean it has taken no effort to get to that explanation. If your ideas or research seem simple to explain now, don’t worry, your examiners will understand how you got to that point.

And if you find something easy at the end of your PhD, it can still be incredibly complicated – it could be too hard for other people – but not for you. Not at the end of your PhD.

Remember: simple and easy are not synonyms for each other; nor are they synonyms for worthless.