A Tiny Insurance Policy

A few weeks after I submitted my thesis, in spring 2008, I got a bill from my institution. It was a request for fees as my funding had finished. The request was very formal, pay now, and there was no phone number to contact anybody.

This was the dark ages of mobile internet: no wi-fi and the 3G modem for my laptop was painfully slow. It took nearly an hour to find a phone number for someone who might be able to help. When I explained and they checked my student number they immediately said, “Oh yes, the system’s sent it by mistake; you owe nothing and there’s an amended letter on the way. No problem!”

No problem – except for the stress, the frustration and the lost focus I’d had for an hour!

Most candidates I help have a fairly good idea of the format and regulations for vivas at their university. Still, unexpected requests for fees or an unexpected regulation can be stressful. You might not be able to find out everything in advance; but today you can find contact details for someone who can help if you find yourself in a tricky situation. You might not need to call anyone, but it’ll take two minutes to find them now, just in case something crops up.

No problem – save stress, save frustration and keep your focus!

Inevitable

If you’re doing a PhD, the viva is coming. It will happen. It is all about your work, your ideas and what they all mean. The viva reveals things, to your examiners and to you. Your examiners have read your thesis and are exploring something new to them; they’re exploring it with you, the researcher who did it.

However you feel now, today, there’s time to get ready. If your viva is two years away, you have time to explore good examiners. If your viva is tomorrow, you have time to make quick summaries or use questions to unpick your argument. If your submission is six months away you have time to review your thesis structure and explore if there’s any way to improve it. If you submitted a month ago, have time to carefully read your thesis.

Doing a PhD? Your viva is inevitable. But you can be ready when you reach that day. You have time.

Party Time

After my viva I felt like I was celebrating because that’s what I was supposed to do. My family was thrilled for me, but I just didn’t want to celebrate that evening. My viva wasn’t bad, but by the end I was tired, numb. I didn’t begin to feel like celebrating until days later.

How do you think you might feel after your viva?

Do you think you’ll be saying, “Phew! I’m glad that’s done!”?

Will you frame celebrations as “This is a treat for finishing!”?

Or will you be thinking, “Now what?” – which is pretty much what was going through my mind after the viva.

As with many things, if you can reflect a little on how you feel now, you might be able to steer your motivations. If you’re thinking, “I’ll be glad when this is over,” you’re not likely to have a positive spin on things. Maybe you’re not in charge of your emotional state completely, but you can steer things.

However you feel, remember to celebrate. Passing the viva is big.

Six More Whys

I wrote a short post a few months ago with six why questions to help reflect on your research. Here are six more to continue the process.

  1. Why had no-one already done what you’ve done for your PhD?
  2. Why is your work original?
  3. Why is your work necessary?
  4. Why would someone else care about your research?
  5. Why is your thesis now finished?
  6. Why will you be celebrating after the viva?

Make some notes and let your answers rest for a couple of days. Come back and reflect some more.

Make opportunities to explore your research now your PhD is almost done.

Rewind

Graduated. (yay!!!)

Final submission. (yay!!)

Corrections approved. (yay!)

Doing corrections. (well…)

Given corrections. (probably)

Viva over. (viva passed!)

In the viva. (in flow, I hope)

Ten minutes before the viva. (………)

Day of the viva. (last minute nerves)

Day before the viva. (getting centred)

Weeks before the viva. (preparation)

Submission. (phew!)

Weeks before the submission. (finishing up)

And so on.

We can start at the end of the PhD and work backwards. You can start from today and plot forwards. We can get as detailed as we like, but have to acknowledge that we can’t know how everything will play out. Think and plan. Get a sense of the direction you’re going in.

Per Scientiam Ad Meliora

My school’s motto. Those four Latin words have been rattling around my head for twenty-five years. We were told it meant “through knowledge to better things”. I’ve loved it since the headmaster explained it on the first day.

Three thoughts:

  1. It’s a pretty good motto for a PhD. Whatever your experience during the PhD, good or bad, after the viva you’re headed to better.
  2. What’s your knowledge? You’ve done a lot. What have you introduced to the world that wasn’t there before?
  3. What could “better” be? Your thesis has to be good by the end. What are you going to do to top it after the viva?

However far you’ve come, you can go further.

A Thought on Explaining

I keep folders of articles and posts that I’ve found interesting in the past. Every few weeks I pick a few out at random. Either I find something useful I need to remind myself of, or I decide that I’m not interested any more and discard it. It always helps give me a mental pick-me-up. I came across the following in this article on writing and it made me think about the viva:

You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume.

In the viva, you are the expert in your research. Your examiners have a lot of experience to draw on but less knowledge than you do about your thesis. They’re seeing the end result. They didn’t see it develop like you did. When answering their questions it’s useful to think about what else they need to know. From later in that same article comes another relevant line:

So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.

What experience do you want your examiners to have? What can you do to design that?

Twelve Months

I was at Edge Hill last month to do a workshop. A participant asked me what they could do to prepare with about a year to go until their viva. They were interested at the various stages, i.e., what could one do twelve months before, at nine months, and so on. They were really keen to be ready for the viva!

On the one hand, I don’t think anyone needs to do much of anything for viva prep at that stage; the focus needs to be on finishing research and getting the thesis in on time. On the other hand, this kind of question resonates with me a lot; there are lots of things researchers can do from the start of the PhD which will help them when it comes time to submit and defend (and which could also make the research process and life after the PhD better too!).

For the final year in particular, here are some ideas:

  • Have a conversation with your supervisor about possible examiner choices.
  • Scope out what you have written and what needs to be written, and then make a plan.
  • Write every day, even if it is not something directly for your thesis.
  • Make opportunities to talk about your work.
  • When your examiners are set, compile a list of their recent papers.
  • Find friends and colleagues who are happy to help you prepare once you’ve submitted.

I have a lot more I could say about this – and I have a couple of projects/resources developing in this area – but this list is a start. If your viva is over a year away you don’t need to do anything now, but you could invest time along the way making opportunities that will pay off in the viva.