Games Worth Playing

There are PhD games that people play that are ultimately not fun or helpful. They’re founded in perfectionism and not knowing what’s expected. Playing them seems like a good idea sometimes, but is ultimately frustrating. Don’t play those games.

  • Don’t try to live up to an imagined ideal that doesn’t match the reality of what you need to do at the viva.
  • Don’t try to beat some stellar standard you perceive in other postgraduate researchers.
  • Don’t try to read everything, do everything or know everything – because you can’t.

These games aren’t worth playing. They won’t reward you or your progress.

The games that will help are personal games. You set a reasonable target and try to achieve it. You recognise the commitment you have and your growth (as a person and a researcher). You take action and move along the very, very long journey.

Play the games worth playing. Save your focus for what matters the most. Your success does not have to be defined by the achievements of others or false expectations.

Who Is It For?

Your thesis is not written for your examiners. You have to write it for your PhD and your examiners have to read it to examine you. It’s not written for them – the goal is to make a contribution to knowledge.

You don’t learn about viva expectations so you have a template you’re trying to complete. You’re learning more so that you can prepare well. You’re not trying to meet some ideal for your examiners.

Your prep is not done for your examiners. It’s for you. You want to be at your best, ready, refreshed, feeling confident – but that’s not for them. You want to to feel ready for you.

Remember to keep the focus where it needs to be for the viva.

Mice & Gazelles

A lion is capable of catching mice for food, but if it spends all of the time doing so it won’t survive.

A gazelle could be harder to hunt for but will, if caught, provide everything the lion needs.

That’s a little paraphrasing of a famous business metaphor about focus, but the broader point is on the focus that we give to things. Focussing on the small, little, easy things to do might make you busy, might give you lots to do, but it might not reward your effort or move you closer to your goals. The harder tasks are more challenging, but if you succeed with them then they’ll give you what you need.

You could spend your time in preparation for the viva catching mice. Checking your thesis again and again for typos. You could obsess over sections trying to memorise things. You could look over lists of questions and try to think about what you would say.

But these mice won’t satisfy your sense of readiness for the viva.

You need to focus on the bigger, more challenging tasks: reflecting on your progress, building your confidence, rehearsing for being in the viva, reading your thesis carefully once. These gazelle-tasks take effort, they’re thoughtful, but they’ll reward your preparation.

We tend to get more of what we focus on. What will you focus on as you prepare for your viva?

No Peeking

You can’t somehow look ahead and know the outcome of your viva.

You can take a good guess that it will be a pass and minor corrections. You can’t grab hold like a birthday present and give it a squeeze – it’s a book/DVD/socks/chocolates!! – and know for sure what it will be like. You might have a sense that a chapter has a few typos that need fixing, or that a section will need rewriting in some way, but the details will be beyond your reach.

Rather than guess and wonder exactly what will happen, focus on doing what you can to be ready. Get your thesis done, prepare well, find your confidence, be ready to engage with your examiners’ questions. Leave the outcome and the corrections for later. Save your focus for what’s right in front of you.

No peeking!

Clear Out

It’s early in the year for spring cleaning, but I have been sorting out my office space and shelves recently.

Last summer I was struck by a notion, I wish I could remember where I read it, but (paraphrasing) it said “The less stuff you have, the more enjoyment you can give to the things you do have.” I like this idea. It really got me thinking about my shelves and storage spaces and possessions.

Rather than have fifty boardgames, each of which I play once a year – maybe I should have twenty I really like which I play more often. Having fewer means I could decide more quickly on what I play too! Instead of hoarding books (because they’re mine!), maybe I could trim down my bookcases to see more of what I actually want. Stop hoarding trinkets of past hobbies just because I used to do this or collect that.

Focus instead on the things I like, or the few things I do want to keep.

Have less, to focus more.

Which makes me think of viva prep (of course).

There are many things one could do, but not all have equal value. Focus more on a few things than spend only a little attention on lots. You don’t need to re-read every paper in your bibliography, but you can focus on the few that will really help. You don’t need to read every paper by your examiners; perhaps focus on the most recent ones to get an idea of current work. You can’t write endless summaries of what you did and why, but you can choose two or three to invest time in.

Focus on what you need most for the viva. Find the few things that will give you the most help.

Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

On Wishlists

Wishlists for presents and wishlists for the viva are two very different things.

For presents you’re telling others, “If you can, if you want to, can you please get me this?”

For the viva you’re saying, not asking, “These are the things I really want when I meet my examiners.”

Really, the best person to help you get what you want from your viva wishlist is you. If there’s things you want or feel you need then you have to work to make them a reality. If there’s no way of making it certain then you have to act to get more comfortable with the uncertainty present in the situation.

You might also have to recognise when an item on your viva wishlist, like a present wishlist, is just not going to happen. Some wishlist items are a shot-in-the-dark, maybe-just-maybe…

…but they’re probably more of a distraction than anything. Work to remove these items from your viva wishlist. Focus on what you can achieve, not just what you wish for.

What Don’t You Do?

At the end of your PhD, you could say, “I don’t know how to run that type of an experiment,” or “I don’t know about that topic,” or “I never read that paper,” and feel bad…

…or you could choose to list all of the things you can do and know.

Sometimes listing what you don’t do or don’t know can be a way of finding your edges; for the viva, it’s better to look inside those boundaries first. Get a real sense of your mastery. What skills do you have? What knowledge have you learned? What ideas can you share?

Explore what you don’t do if you must. Lead with what you can do.

Less Than

It’s not always easy to put exact numbers on the viva. Consider:

  • The number of mistakes in your thesis will be less than the number of good ideas you’ve had over the course of your PhD.
  • The number of minutes you spend in your viva will be less than the number of days you’ve spent on your research.
  • How long your examiners have spent preparing for your viva is less than how long you have spent in preparation.
  • The number of questions you’ll be asked in the viva is far less than the number you’ve already answered during your PhD.
  • A few hours in the viva is less than a few weeks preparing for it, which is a lot less than the years that go into your research.

Expectations help. Deciding where to focus helps.

Start At The End

I chatted to a PhD candidate recently about her viva prep.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she told me, “I’ve got so much material, so many questions I think about, and my examiners, my methods, my results – my life outside of my PhD! Where do I start?”

I could feel how overwhelmed she was. All she saw was more and more work. She hadn’t submitted yet, but was trying to plan her preparation. She hadn’t done her preparation but just thought about what her examiners would ask. Hadn’t been to the viva but was worried about managing her corrections.

I told here what I would tell anyone in this state: you have to treat all of these as distinct stages of the PhD. Get your thesis done before you start to prepare; prepare before you start obsessing about “what if’s”, and so on.

If it helps, map out the different stages on index cards. Limit yourself to focus on the task though, to really put boundaries on how much effort you sink in:

  • One index card with the big picture of what you need to do to get your thesis finished.
  • One index card with the key tasks to do in preparation.
  • One index card with key questions or ideas to think about for the viva.
  • One index card with notes on regulations for outcomes, and what that might mean for minor corrections.

If you’re still writing, then map out the different stages on four cards. Focus on the first one, getting your thesis finished, and only start on the next one when you’ve reached the end of your thesis writing. Start your path to the end, but only go one step at a time. That’s all you need to do.