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.