Just Like That

Whatever stage you’re at during your PhD, sooner or later you’ll be finished. For a lot of researchers I talk to this seems to come around much, much faster than they thought it would. Sooner than expected they get to their first draft, then submission, then the viva, then graduation.

Just like that, you’ll be done.

So before you get that far: what do you still want to do? What do you have to get done to feel happy with your PhD? And what could you do to make your path to completion enjoyable for you?

You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

Possible Future Plans

At the time I went to my viva, just over eleven years ago, I didn’t know for certain that I was finished with my research. I was 90% sure that I wasn’t going to get any kind of academic position, 90% sure that my research was done and I wouldn’t do more. And yet I had to be ready to talk to my examiners about what I could do with my research, or rather, how someone else could continue the work.

I talked about special cases that might be of interest. The utility in making a better computer program of an algorithm I’d developed. Other problems where my methods might be applicable.

But I was clear: I might not be doing this. These are just ideas.

You might be in a similar position. Or perhaps you know that when you’ve finished your PhD you’re leaving academia. You don’t have to lie, you don’t have to fib, but I think you do have to have something in mind. There are many reasons why people leave academia after the PhD. But there’s a natural line of questioning in the viva, “You did this, what could you do next?” Even if your examiners look to you with an expectation that you’ll tell them of your plans, you can reframe that sort of question with general ideas, as detailed as you think appropriate.

Possible future plans are just that: possible. Start with why something might be a good idea, say how someone might do it, what they might do. But you can be clear, if you want to, that that’s not the road for you.

The Slush Pile

I have folders of ideas that haven’t quite made it into reality. Everything from blog posts and simple games to books and workshop concepts.

Now and then I review them. Sometimes something will click and I’ll see a way to make that thing real; sometimes I’ll see that the idea is not relevant any more, or feel that it has been surpassed by something else.

And often I’ll just have a feeling the idea needs more time or a later collision with another idea, so back in the folder it will go.

Before the viva your focus needs to be the work you’ve done: what you’ve completed, why it’s good and how you did it. But keep an hour for checking your slush pile, the ideas that didn’t quite come together. Not something you now need to add to your thesis, just something to turn around in your mind again. Look for the ways they connect with your achievements and see what you could do with them in the future.

Your next big idea could already be waiting for you.

Whatever Comes Next

Remember at the end of your PhD – after the viva is done, after the corrections are finished, when you can breathe – take a moment to pause.

Whatever you do afterwards – whether you’re returning to a role you’ve had before, continuing with research in some form, going on to some new challenge – take time to unpack what you’ve got from your PhD.

Whatever comes next, you can meet that challenge in a new way.

Whatever comes next, you have talent that you didn’t have before.

Whatever comes next, you can draw on your experience, your grit and your commitment to getting something big done.

Your PhD is a big deal. Now go do the next big deal.

Onwards

After your viva there’s more to do. Not your corrections, not wrapping things up, not admin. Your PhD is coming to a close…

…and the rest of your life is right there waiting for you.

You’re not the same. Your PhD means something. What might it mean for you?

A change of title? A mark of respect? New opportunities? More money? More responsibility?

While you’re doing your PhD, it could feel like the most important thing you’ll ever do. Afterwards, as you go on, you have to find something else. So what will it be?