The Puppet Problem

Or, Ideas That Have Not Found Their Moment…

For about three years, I have wanted to make a series of (hopefully funny) videos to help PGRs get ready for their viva. I would do these with a puppet co-star. Through a series of helpful suggestions I will calm “Pete the Panicking Postgrad” as I call him, and he’ll get ready for his viva.

For about three years I’ve been thinking about how to do this because the core idea makes me smile. A lot.

Maybe Pete’s not panicking, maybe he’s not a he, maybe it’s an animal, maybe it’s not even for the viva – but darn it, it makes me smile to think about doing a video (or seven) with a puppet!

I don’t own a puppet, I can’t throw my voice and I don’t know if there is an audience for PGR-related videos with puppets – but in some respects these are all minor problems. The idea just hasn’t found the right topic yet, the right moment, the right space to find fruition.

The same goes for my viva audiobook plans, my third book on viva help, a video course on viva prep, a regular Saturday morning viva webinar club! – the ideas are there, in some cases the foundations are good, but the moment isn’t right. My diary is too full. The resources aren’t there. I have other plans in motion.

How have you managed that during your PhD? How do you feel about your “puppet problems”? What have you not been able to take forward because the time is not quite right? Is there still a chance that you could do something with it before submission? If you don’t do it now, will it ever happen? And if it doesn’t, how will you feel about it?

I don’t have an easy answer for any of these, nor simple advice apart from suggesting you save your ideas somewhere just in case the moment does come. Maybe that moment will be in your viva, talking about future projects or potential developments on your research; maybe a year or two from now you’ll have a little time to take things further.

And maybe one day there will be a video of a puppet preparing for their viva…

I can dream 🙂

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.

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.

Making The Cut

My thesis could be described as a collection of six chapters that all explored different niches in my field of maths. I have a couple of appendices that contain summaries of results and listings of computer code. It’s all self-contained and linked and good.

And still, nine years later, I have a folder with bits and pieces of at least three other chapters. Projects that didn’t end up getting finished. Ideas that fizzled out or didn’t come together. Every now and then I think, “What if…?” It would have been nice to adapt some of the techniques that I used to get one more result. It would have been cool to just push that bit further and classify one more type of mathematical object.

Except: there’s only so long to do a PhD. There’s only so much space in a thesis. There has to be some sense that Result A is worth more than Result B, that Potential Chapter X is a more powerful contribution than Potential Chapter Y. Your thesis is finite. You have to stop somewhere.

What doesn’t make the cut in your thesis?

Make a list of the half-projects and the maybes that didn’t quite make it. Make a list of the reasons why. Make a list of what you would need to do to take them further. Your examiners might not pick this thread up in the viva, but you’ll build up a good summary for yourself.

Leave it in a good enough state that one day you could pick it up and keep playing with it. If you’ve got plans to do this already, in your post-doc, in your spare time, that’s good. But if passing your PhD is your exit from academia, leave some notes just in case you want to explore later on.

You never know when inspiration will strike.

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.

Thinking Through My Fingers

Isaac Asimov: “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

I found this in one of those quote lists that are everywhere. I like lists, but I love the gems buried in them, and this is a gem. Asimov’s insight is especially profound when it comes to the thesis. It takes a long time to write a thesis. When you sit down to write you don’t have to get it right first time. Sitting to write can help you clarify what you think. Getting something, anything, typed up can help you make the vague clear. It takes time, but when you’re finished and you submit, you’re telling your examiners that you think you’re on to a winner.

If you’ve submitted already, then this is the message you were sending. If you’ve not submitted yet, I think the opportunity here is asking yourself, “What would a winning thesis look like?” Aim yourself at the answer and do the work. Get thinking through your fingers.