What Have You Forgotten?

I believe it’s worth reflecting on this a little before the viva.

What have you forgotten?

Perhaps you can’t know for sure. You’ve had to edit out papers, ideas and references that didn’t fit. You forgot them, to concentrate on what mattered.

Perhaps there are details that elude you sometimes; if so, what can you do make them more memorable or to summarise them?

Perhaps you view the question as an almost-irrelevance, a nonsense. How could you remember what you’ve forgotten?

I think it’s useful to remember that however much you have forgotten, accidentally or so you could focus, there must be so much more that you remember by the end of your PhD. You have a lot of knowledge, which doesn’t mean simply knowing more: you know more of what you need.

What have you forgotten? What do you remember? What do you know?

Values & Valuable

Different people value different things.

Whether or not a job, a house, a partner, a research idea or anything else is suitable or good to you will depend on what you see as valuable. For your thesis then, there are two useful sets of questions to consider.

First, what do you value in your field? What is it that you think is “good” or “useful”? What topics or ideas do you think are better? Consequently, how do you see your thesis as being valuable? What contribution does it make? Why does that align with your idea of what you value?

Second, what might others value in your field? What might they then see as being valuable in your thesis? What ideas are people looking for? What contributions have you seen others value recently, at conferences or in papers?

Different sets of values might still find common valuable features in your research. Perhaps by considering what others find interesting, useful or significant, you could find a new perspective on your research.

Stars and Black Holes

We can see stars directly. Some are big, some are small (relatively speaking), some are bright, some less so, but so long as nothing is in the way, they’re there. We can’t see black holes directly. They’re tricky, difficult to describe maybe, possibly destructive if we get too close and you don’t want your examiners to talk about them-

-oh, yeah, this is a thesis metaphor!

The stars are your contributions. They’re in your thesis, and so long as nothing is in the way (clunky writing, obscure terminology, confusing structure) your examiners and anyone else reading your thesis will see them. They might still have questions about them, but they will see clearly that there is something valuable there.

The black holes are things you can’t see clearly. Problems, Issues, Gaps – things you don’t want your examiners to ask about because it’s hard to talk about them. And you worry that once you’re in the conversational gravitational pull you won’t be able to escape the crushing forces at the heart of the matter!

The stars and black holes in your thesis are made up of the same stuff though: ideas.

Get back to ideas in your preparation. Stars or black holes, what are the ideas that make them up? Why do they matter in their respective way? How can you best describe them?

Get used to the brightness of your stars. Grow comfortable being in orbit of your black holes.

New And Improved

How would you advertise your research?

Do you have an exciting and original take on classic ideas?

Do you have a new and improved way of looking at things?

Is your work wholly original, never-before-seen concepts?

Advertising works. When we use different phrases to communicate a value, different parts of our brain focus. We listen more for details or we are channelled to look for certain information.

Soundbites won’t win the viva, but if you take the time to explore the words you use to frame your research, you’ll hopefully find helpful phrases to lead your thinking and others’ attention.

Your Best Work

Where is it? How do you define best when it comes to your research?

  • What’s your best result?
  • What’s your best chapter?
  • What’s the best idea in your thesis?
  • What was the best talk you gave during your PhD?
  • What’s the best way you can prepare for your viva?

It’s vital to acknowledge that you have really good ideas in your work. You have achieved a lot to get this far. Don’t hide it or hide from it.

Dig deeper by asking yourself why after all of these questions.

And remember this is your best so far. Better is still ahead.

Lost & Found

You will almost certainly lose some things over the course of a PhD.

Probably you’ll lose track of good ideas. You’ll forget the name of an author. That little project you were going to do. That section you were going to write. Perhaps even a chapter that just won’t fit with everything else.

Whatever you lose or forget, don’t forget you will find far more than you lose.

Ideas that make a difference. Skill, talent, ability. A thesis that matters. Confidence in your self, I hope.

Think about what you’ve lost in preparation for the viva, but only a little; don’t forget that your examiners really want to hear about what you’ve found along the way.

What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simply happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?

What Do You Want Them To Ask?

As part of your viva prep spend ten minutes listing everything you’d like your examiners to ask.

Reflect for each one: why do you want them to ask about that thing?

Do you feel confident? Why?

Do you feel happy? Why?

Do you feel proud? Why?

It’s useful to dig into things that trouble you and ask why. Once you’ve unpicked the feeling you can start to do something about it.

It’s just as useful to reflect on the things you’re happy with. You can build confidence for the viva on those whys as well.

Pride & Achievements

Make a list of everything you’ve done that makes you feel proud. Think about all of the achievements in your PhD. Reflect on why they matter to you.

Within that list you’ll find the strengths of your work. You’ll see your research’s contributions. You made those contributions.

Make your list. Reflect on all you’ve done. Think about why you could be confident to meet the challenges of your viva.

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?