The Next Iteration

The end of the PhD looms. If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?

Where would you send and spend your focus?

What would you drop from your task lists?

What would you keep exactly the same?

How would you develop yourself?

What would you read?

When would you do it?

How would you work?

And why – why would you make the changes you’d make and keep the same the things you wouldn’t?

You’re not going to do another PhD (probably!). You won’t get to go around again. Experience and hindsight really are great teachers though. It’s not pointless to think about how you would approach the PhD again even though you (probably!) never will.

It’s just one way of asking yourself, “What have I learned from all of this?”

Just Right

I’ve heard it said that the Earth is in the Goldilocks zone for planets. Just the right distance from the Sun, just the right composition of elements and so on. If things were a little different: no life, no humans, no Viva Survivors!

The Goldilocks viva would vary I guess. Just the right kind of comments, not too critical. Not so long as to be over-tiring, but not so short as to make the examination meaningless. Impartial but friendly examiners. No unanswerable questions, but nothing that’s trivial.

Your definition might be different. Maybe you really want the circumstances of your viva to be just right, but what can you do about it? Very little.

On the other hand, you can be a Goldilocks candidate. In fact, if you’ve done the work to produce a thesis then you must be just right to meet the challenge of your viva.

Review Review Review

I started this blog almost a year ago. I’ve written over 300 posts in that time. Over 50,000 words. I have to check my records constantly. I have a spreadsheet with every post listed by date, and often when I’m thinking of a title I have to doublecheck I’ve not used it already.

Last week I wrote a post and was super-proud of it…

…until I realised that it was very similar to a post I had written the week before, only slightly better! (which is something at least)

I review the blog all of the time. I’ve recently started a project to make themed posts easier to find. I’ve started at the beginning and am adding tags to posts to make ideas easier to search for. Hopefully I’ll be able to put them into useful categories.

Doing a PhD you have to review your ideas and progress all of the time. Are you on track? What’s left to do?

Writing up you have to review what you’ve done and how you can communicate it. What works? What do you need?

Preparing for the viva you have to review… everything! Start at page 1. Made notes? Review them. Used key papers? Review them. You don’t need to remember everything, but you do need to feel sure about what you think.

If you’re doing something important – like a PhD, like the viva – then the review never stops.

First Questions

There are lots of ways your examiners could begin your viva, lots of questions to start the discussion.

It could be “how did you get interested in this topic?” or “how would you summarise your findings?”

Maybe they’ll ask “what’s your most important result?” or “why did you decide to follow this line of enquiry?”

Or maybe they’ll simple ask “how are you feeling today?”

There are no trick questions in the viva, especially with whatever your examiners ask first. The first question is likely to be something you’ve thought about before; you can’t guarantee what it will be exactly, but you can be sure it’s something you can answer.

No Bad Cops

The strangest viva myth I’ve been asked about is whether examiners take a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” approach. It really puzzles me.

I can’t wrap my head around the idea. Which one is supposed to be the bad cop?

Your internal? Someone who has to make sure that the viva is fair according to the rules of your university? Someone that you likely know?

Your external? Someone who has been singled out for certain reasons by your supervisor (often in conversation with you)? Someone who often has particular interest in what you’ve done?

They’re not trying to trick you. They’re not trying to trap you. It’s not a routine. It’s not how they do things.

They’re professionals. Like cops, yes, but with a much different agenda. They’re there to examine, not interrogate.

I don’t know that you would call either examiner a good cop – but neither of them is a bad cop.

Final Feedback

After you submit your thesis is a good time to get one last burst of feedback from your supervisors. Chances are that in the run-up to submission you could only get direct feedback on what you were writing – thoughts only on the piece that you gave in that day or that week.

After your thesis is finished, when everyone involved has time to let it settle, time to think, then you can get considered feedback on your research and thesis: what have you done well? What could you have done differently? Is there anything you have to keep in mind about your work?

These questions are basic of course. After your thesis is finished, when you’ve had time to think, you can ask much more valuable questions to get much more valuable feedback on your research and thesis. Take time to reflect: what would help you the most?