Best Bit

My favourite thing in my thesis is on pages 33 and 34. I struggled for a couple of weeks on a single detail that I needed in order to prove the most important result in my research. I couldn’t get it. I knew what I needed and I knew intuitively it was true, but I couldn’t see the step.

And one day I took a break, and realised that the result I was aiming for was far bigger than what I needed. I was trying to slice bread with a chainsaw, but couldn’t get the damn thing to start.

As I realised that I needed a much smaller result to prove what I needed, I knew exactly how to prove it! It was a huge feeling of elation after a string of disappointed days. As I wrote down my proof, I realised that this tiny result could also be generalised: I’d spotted the blockage on the chainsaw, and now had the stronger result that I’d not been able to get.

I had a brief tug of war between satisfaction and frustration; thankfully satisfaction won out.

Three-and-a-half questions:
What’s the smallest meaningful result in your thesis?
What are you most satisfied or frustrated by in your research?
What’s the best bit of your thesis? Why?

Stepping back when doing research is important. Stepping back afterwards helps you grow.

How Do You Feel?

I start every workshop by asking the room how they feel about their viva. I get a range of answers. Most are centred around nervous, anxious, stress. One or two fears or terrors. A few people will say they don’t know what to feel because the viva is such an unknown. Some people just want it over and done with.

Occasionally one or two candidates will be excited: they see the viva as a chance to talk about their work with experts, or they’re looking beyond the PhD at what comes next.

There’s no right or wrong to any of these, of course. In every case you can say, “OK, so what do I do now?” If you’re stressed, find ways to prepare and lower your stress. If you’re afraid, figure out the root cause. If the viva is an unknown to you then find out more. And so on.

So how do you feel? And what do you need to do?

Examiners Aren’t

They’re not monsters. They’re not cyborgs from the future programmed to irrevocably alter your timeline. They’ve not got a list of 101 unfair questions. They’ve not been looking through your thesis with an eye for problems and mistakes.

They’re not ninjas.

Your examiners are experienced. They’re professional. They’re interested. They’ve done the work to be prepared for your viva. You can too.

Strategy

“What’s a good strategy for answering questions in the viva?”

It’s a common question I get in workshops. I’m not sure why. I understand that people want to do well, but at the same time I wonder if it’s overthinking things too much.

You’re asked a question? Pause briefly to think, then answer.

Your viva is probably going to feel more like a discussion or conversation than anything else. If an examiner wants to know more or less then they’ll steer things. If they want to talk about something else or ask a particular question then they will. When asked a question, answer as well as you can. That’s probably all you need to have in mind for a strategy.

Alternatively…

From xkcd, at https://xkcd.com/1403/

Superpowers

My wife and I really enjoyed the Daredevil show on Netflix. For those who don’t know the character, Daredevil is a superhero who is blind but has super-senses. His hearing, sense of touch, smell and so on are so powerful that he has an advantage over people who can see. Of course, there are some things he can’t do, because despite his super-senses he still can’t see.

Nathan, this is a blog about a vivas and PhDs and stuff!

Oh yeah!

The character of Daredevil got me thinking about the viva. If you’re on your way to the viva you have a similar situation: you’re blind to what’s coming your way. You don’t know how long it will be, you don’t know what questions are coming, you don’t know what opinions your examiners have formed. There’s a lot you don’t and can’t know.

But like Daredevil you have an advantage: you have the experience of doing your PhD. You have 3+ years of work and thinking about your research, not just the thesis. You can’t see the question coming, but when it comes you know how to tackle it. Why? Because you have superpowers.

(Again, it’s no accident that you’re at the viva)

Medals

“We’re so pleased to present you with this award for shortest viva this year, well done!”

“Congratulations, you did it! Here is a Silver Star for no typos in your thesis!”

“This ribbon shows that you are Quite Probably The Smartest Cookie Ever. Both the external examiner and I salute you!”

Three sentences which have never been uttered during or after a viva. And there are no medals for the viva. There are different awards, like getting no corrections, minor, major and so on, but you don’t get a prize. You’ll get a certificate when you graduate, but it’s not the same.

You’re not doing your PhD and the viva for badges and medals though. (I hope) You have your reasons, but sometimes those reasons – your why – get lost in the doing. As the end of the PhD looms, take some time to reflect on why you were doing it all in the first place. Maybe those reasons have changed as well, but in either case it’s interesting.