The Busy Final Year

In the final year of a PhD it’s not hard to get swept up in the emotions and actions of everything that you need to get done.

Finishing research, finishing writing-up, working towards whatever will come after the PhD and thinking about the viva – at times it can seem like there’s way too much to get done in a year. How do you prioritise? What do you do first? And how do you weave all of the other things you need to do into a packed schedule?

Full answers to those three questions could fill a book, but when it comes to thinking about the viva at least the answer is simple: do nearly nothing.

Nearly nothing.

At some point in your final year it’s good to have a chat with your supervisor about potential examiners. You can see what names are being suggested and probably suggest some of your own. It’s worth checking regulations around submission and the viva, so you know what’s what and can be sure of not getting any nasty surprises.

Before submission those are the only two things you must do for your viva in the final year. Preparation, making notes, mock vivas, summaries and the rest can wait until after submission.

There’s lots to do in the final year. Planning takes time – work takes time! But the viva doesn’t have to dominate your work until after submission. Make sure your attention and efforts are fixed where they will be most effective.

No More

The viva means no more.

No more time. No more writing. No more reading. No more meetings. No more experiments or interviews or models. No more prep. No more re-reading. No more wondering about what will or won’t come up.

No more…

…or enough?

After all of your PhD, enough time. Enough writing. Enough reading. Enough meetings. Enough experiments, enough interviews, enough models. Enough prep. Enough re-reading. Enough wondering about what will or won’t come up.

There’s a point where it’s all enough.

You’re getting there.

The Knack

My dad passed away quite suddenly when I was 17. Today would have been his 70th birthday, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately.

When I was little my dad was often self-employed. He had been made redundant from his job when I and my sister were quite small. For most of our childhood he had a stall at markets around the North West and in Scotland. I remember bagging biscuits at our dining table from huge boxes. I remember bundling tea towels and dusters, taking five and folding them a certain way, throwing a rubber band around them to hold bundles together. Seriously, I remember those afternoons quite fondly.

In the summer holidays my dad would let me help with various games he ran at fairs and carnivals. My favourite game was one where you had to throw a small wooden ball into a metal bucket. The bucket was inside a wooden frame, painted to look like a clown’s mouth; you just stood at a distance and tried to throw the ball in. This was the 1980s, so it was only 20p for three balls, and the spectacular prize was a coconut!

I remember the call still, “Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!

It was not easy. For a start, the bucket was pitched at an angle that encouraged the ball to rebound. The balls were ping-pong sized and dense: if you threw too hard they would bounce right back out. If you threw too soft, you might not get the ball in the target at all. Overarm shots always span out.

Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!” he would call out and throw the ball and DING! there it would land. Most people paying their 20p had never tried it before, never thought of playing anything like this. It was just something fun to spend 20p on.

There was no great trick, there was no con involved: it was just really hard. My dad had the knack though. He’d mastered this really hard skill. He’d found a challenge he knew was tricky, but spent a lot of time practising. He could throw the ball just so and have it land in the bucket every time. He made it look effortless, but that’s because the effort had been put in over years.

I tried and tried, failing many times, but still remember the first time I got my own DING! I kept going, and while I wasn’t as precise as my dad, I started to reach a point where I could get the ball in the bucket consistently. Practice, experience, nothing more.

Back to the present: your PhD is hard, but there are aspects of it you make seem effortless to others. That’s not to say it’s not still hard to you, but you can do it. You’re practised, you’re experienced. At the viva you can answer a question and engage with a discussion nearly every time because you’ve done so much during your PhD.

After all this time you have the knack.

No Shortcuts

There’s no secret path that takes you to the end of the PhD.

There’s no list of amazing tips that dodges all of the work involved.

You can’t hack your way past the necessary steps that got your thesis finished.

And that’s good.

All of the work you put into the PhD makes you amazingly qualified for your viva. There’s no way of doing the PhD without putting the hours in. All of those hours help you when you sit down to talk with your examiners.

Two Weeks

Thesis done? Submitted?

Take at least two weeks off.

Take two weeks away from reading your thesis, making notes or trying to unpick what all that work has been about. There is plenty of time to prepare for the viva. If you feel like you must do something then check recent journals and stimulate your brain with some new ideas.

You don’t need to keep going with your thesis. In fact, you’ll probably see things with more clarity when you get some distance from your work.

Not The End

One way to look at the viva is that it’s the end of the PhD. The finish line. The finale. You’ll probably have corrections to do, but in your mind, this is it, the end.

Except… It’s not. Not by a long stretch. Whether it’s been three, four or seven years, all that time has been when you were doing a PhD. The viva is the start of having a PhD.

Being a PhD.

Something to remember.

In The Moment…

…it’s possible that you forget something.

…it’s possible you don’t understand something.

…it’s possible that you realise something.

…it’s possible that you think about something.

…it’s possible that you doubt yourself.

…it’s possible that you convince your examiner.

…it’s possible that you know something no-one else does.

…it’s possible that you’re the expert.

…it’s possible that you’ve made a mistake.

…it’s possible that you’ve got the answer to that unexpected question.

There’s a non-zero probability of all of the above. They can depend on a lot of things, but there’s a chance they all could happen, good or bad. Focus on some and you can find help, focus on others and you’ll only find distraction. You get to choose what you focus on, and what you do as a result.

Remember: it’s impossible to get to the viva without doing the work. You’re the reason you’ve got this far.

Three Whats

I work on experiential learning workshops several times a year. “Three Whats” is one of the techniques we use to get participants reflecting. Typically we’d use them in sequence to encourage reflection after an activity or task:

  • What just happened?
  • So what does that mean?
  • Now what are you going to do?

The timescales are different, but these are also worth answering at the end of the PhD. Everyone will have different answers. Maybe once you have them you can see some other paths ahead of you.

Maybe you’ll look at the road behind you differently too.

Foundations

I sometimes think viva preparation is like renovating a house.

Annotating your thesis is like hanging wallpaper. Making a summary is like knocking a wall through to let in more light. A mock viva could be repairing the roof, making sure the house is ready in case of a storm.

None of it helps if you don’t have a good house and foundations: your thesis and the research you’ve done to get you there.

Renovation takes time. Viva prep takes time too, but if you feel stretched because of work, because of life, then breathe. It’s OK. Do what you can, and remember you’ve done the hardest part of your PhD.

You laid strong foundations over years of work.