A Long Time

In the year before your viva you don’t need to do much to get ready. Your focus is on finishing research, finishing your thesis and thinking about life after the PhD.

In the month before your viva you can start your prep. Read your thesis, make notes, check details and take opportunities to rehearse.

In the week before your viva make a to-do list of anything that remains. What are your priorities? Who can help you? Remind yourself of what you’ve done to get his far.

In the day before your viva you might want to do some final prep, but equally it could just be time to rest and relax.

In the hour before your viva it’s a good idea to check one more time that you’ve got everything you need. Remember as well that you have a challenging couple of hours ahead – but you are ready for this challenge.

In the minute before your viva remember to breathe. Any nerves are about the importance of the day; they are not a negative reflection on your talent or contribution.

In the second before your viva you might blink-

-and then realise that it’s all done. Your viva flew by. You were there, but you were engaged and weren’t thinking about how long it was.

Success in the viva is a long time coming, but doesn’t take very long on the day.

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.

When Do You Stop?

I remember knocking on my supervisor’s office door thirty minutes before my viva to check a mathematical definition.

I know of people who took the day off before their viva and just relaxed.

Some candidates will be checking notes almost until they go into the viva room.

It helps, as with writing the thesis, to decide in advance what you are going to do. Make a decision about what “enough” preparation looks like. What are the tasks you will complete? What needs to get done? I would suggest allowing for a little relaxation time the day before to relax your mind; perhaps you can make a special plan to do something nice, if your schedule allows?

You can stop when you’re done, and you get to decide when that is. Make that decision. Otherwise you may just keep nervously doing more and more until you start the viva.

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?

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 sisters 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.