The Last Post

I had an idea to do an “April fool!”-style post about this being the last day of Viva Survivors, but couldn’t bring myself to do it! 🙂

The last ever post. What would that look like? A summary? A thank you? Goodbye? A big list of links?

I really don’t know. And I really don’t know why I would stop, how I would close things off tidily or, importantly, what I would do with myself if I did. So I guess it’s really good I’m not stopping!


I remember my last ever day as a PhD student. I had been trying to avoid thinking about it.

I turned up for one more cup of tea and to check nothing was left in my desk. There was no ceremony. No triumphant fanfare. My friends had to work, of course, but now I was done. It was odd. It was weird to have nothing else left to do, perhaps because for me, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next.

For now, you might be busy getting your thesis finished, or working hard to get ready for the viva. Still, take a minute to look ahead: the day will come when you will no longer be a PhD student. No longer a postgraduate researcher.

You will be done. Being done is strange to adjust to. Take a little time to think ahead to see if there is anything you can do to make that transition easier for your future self.

New Beginning

Your viva is almost the end of your PhD. What’s next?

An ending is also the start of something else. What’s your new beginning?

What do you take with you into this next chapter of your life? What new knowledge or skill set do you now have that you didn’t have before? What hopes or goals are you working towards? How are you better equipped to pursue them now that you have the experience of your PhD?

Before you start your new beginning, consider that all of that learning, development and knowledge will help you in the viva too.

Great Power

With great power comes great responsibility.

It’s fun to know that Stan Lee didn’t quite invent this phrase, but lovely to know that it’s popularisation is pretty much all due to Spider-Man. It applies to more than just superheroes and those in positions of power, it’s a beautiful truth that applies to many situations.

Like PhDs, of course! I have a couple of thoughts in mind for today.

First, through what you’ve built up over the course of your PhD, you owe it to yourself to prepare well for the viva. This doesn’t have to take a lot from you – remember, you’re powerful! – but you have that responsibility after all this work to see it through to a good conclusion. You have power in that.

Second, and more important by far, with all that power, you have a responsibility to do something that matters after your PhD. That could be a job in academia or somewhere else. It could be you start a business, or you volunteer your skills; it could be that you do something to help one person or many. Your family, your local community, your organisation or people all over the world. You can make a difference.

Knowledge is power, but you have more than just that. You have skill. You have talent. You have know-how as well as knowing lots. With the great power that you have, you have a responsibility to make a difference.

Spider-Man isn’t “better” than someone without powers. A person with a PhD isn’t “better” than someone without. But you might have skills that they don’t, skills that they could really need.

So help. Make a difference.

Be a hero.

Passing Prestige

There are different outcomes to vivas, but in the grand scheme of things there’s no real hierarchy with them. We know this because when everything is complete you’re not awarded anything extra for how you pass.

Corrections, minor or major, are for most the necessary work for a pass. But there’s no special seal on your certificate for no corrections, no demerits for having to do more. No official commendation: you pass, and that’s that.

Passing is special enough, right?

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.


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?