Interesting Times Forever

It’s two years since my world changed, just before the first pandemic lockdown in the UK. Two years ago today I shared Interesting Times, thoughts on where I was and where I might be going in the weeks that would follow. A year ago, things had changed and were continuing to change, in ways that a year earlier I couldn’t have predicted. I wrote and shared Still Interesting Times.

And now it is 2022.

In the last year I’ve continued to work from home. I’ve been jabbed three times. I’ve seen my work and life continue to be impacted. I’ve avoided COVID but cared for my wife and daughter while they were poorly with it a few months ago. I’ve been fortunate to keep serving PhD candidates via their universities and sometimes through webinars I’ve set up myself. I’ve been fortunate to keep writing, keep helping and keep responding whenever anyone gets in touch.

 

What stands out to me when I think about the last two years?

Everyone needs help. Helping others helps us to grow too. So when you can: help. When I think about the viva it reminds me that there are lots of people who need help and lots of people who could help.

  • Candidates should reflect on their needs. What do you need to feel confident? What do you need to know to have a good picture of the viva?
  • Candidates should know they are not alone. Who can you turn to for support? Ask early and be honest. Work to get what you need from supervisors, colleagues, friends and family.
  • PhD graduates can help friends who are finishing. Can you tell your friends how much time you have for them and what you can offer to help? Can you tell your story to help set good expectations?
  • Supervisors should help set expectations with candidates about what is expected in the viva now. Supervisors can guide candidates past doubts and help them to focus on what really matters.
  • Graduate schools, doctoral colleges and doctoral training programmes can support PGRs by offering resources of all kinds that help to emphasise personal development. Share things and do things that help candidates feel stronger as a result.

I’m here too! This blog is updated every day, but you can email me or tweet me if you have questions. There’s almost five years of posts on the blog. There are over sixty viva stories in the podcast archive.

 

We live in “interesting” times. We always did, of course, but they’ve become even more interesting. More challenging. More surprising. Sometimes, more upsetting.

If you’re reading this though then, like me, you’re still here. Still learning. Still growing. Still making mistakes and persevering. So far, you have managed to keep going in difficult circumstances – and difficult might be an understatement in the last two years.

Get help if you need it, offer it to others if you can, but keep going.

Still Interesting Times

A year ago, just before the first UK lockdown, I wrote “Interesting Times” – an extra post for March 16th, recognising that difficult change was coming hard and fast.

A year later, it feels like that change has never stopped.

It’s strange to read that I thought I would be working from home and doing webinars for “a few months”. That became a year. That will most likely be the rest of this year too. And that’s fine.

In the UK we have dates in the diary for the coming months when restrictions might lift and things could change. They’re all provisional though, and things could change again – conditions in the autumn or winter might make things harder for many people once more.

A year ago I wrote this:

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In and amongst everything this last year, that’s stayed the same. It’s no silver lining that the interesting times of the last year have opened interesting doors for me to connect with PhD candidates, but within all the chaos I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to help. I’m grateful for more time with my family. I’m grateful to friends and colleagues I don’t get to see in-person any more who do amazing work to support researchers and inspire me to do more.

I finished Interesting Times by writing:

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

Let me reframe: get in touch if you need help. Help your friends, family and colleagues. Survive, keep going.

Pause, reflect, reset – change tactics if you need to – but keep going.

The Best Of The Best Of Viva Survivors 2020

Between Christmas and New Year I shared some of my favourite posts from the blog from 2020. In case you missed them here’s a link to those posts, and a link to my favourite post from each category!

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Viva PrepSix Steps For Friction-free Prep does exactly what it says in the title. I explore all the different aspects of this post in detail in other posts, and they’re topics that I like to come back to again and again. I like the simplicity of this post.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Long PostsBeing Thankful stands out to me. Gratitude helps. It can’t always solve problems immediately, but can help frame the situation better. Viva prep and the viva can both be challenging, but being aware of what has helped you (and what could help you still) can encourage you to look again at where you are and what you have to support you.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Short Posts – I realised in May that I had latched on to a few new ways of expressing something about being “ready” for the viva. Better & Ready was a neat way of sharing these thoughts.

Best of Viva Survivors 2020: Surviving – for the last few years I’ve finished off my best of series with posts on confidence. Exploring confidence has helped me personally a lot over the last decade. But for 2020 it felt appropriate to reflect on surviving a little more, another topic that comes up in my work a lot. Is Survival Enough? raises the point that while survive is a good verb to have in mind for the viva, it’s not the only thing you could find through the process.

Interesting Times is an important post for me too; back in March 2019 it had to be written. At the start of that week I went from being a guy who travelled up and down the UK most weeks between different universities, to being a guy who stays in his little home office and smiles into the camera to deliver a seminar.

Going back to gratitude: I’m very thankful that I was able to keep maintaining this blog all through 2019 and keep helping where I could. Thank you for reading! And if any of these posts resonate with you, or you know someone who might benefit, do pass them on!

Final Touches

A lot of universities (at least in the UK) will be closing for the holidays today. As a postgraduate researcher, a university being officially closed won’t mean that the work has to stop for you. There’s always more thinking, more reading, more catching up-

-but there’s also a need for rest. A need for a break. A need to put work and research to one side and gather yourself up for what will most probably be a challenging 2021.

If you’re submitting in the first few months of next year, or have your viva some time in that period – or if you’re still somewhere in the middle of your PhD – take a little time today or tomorrow just to leave yourself in a good place for when you come back to things in the new year. Leave a few notes for what you need to do next. What’s your priority when you start back? The first thing you have to do? Who’s the first person you’ll need to get in touch with or reach out to?

And leave yourself a message. Thank yourself. Boost yourself. Remind yourself.

You’ve got this far; you can do it.

Interesting Times

I tend to write this blog many weeks in advance. As of today, Monday 16th March 2020, I have posts readied until April 5th, but today it felt right to pause and add an extra post.

The world is changing, quickly, and in some ways unpredictably.

Often, change seems gradual, perhaps so slow that we don’t even notice it happening. With some countries today in lockdown, social norms in flux, universities in the UK closing their doors for now, and all of this happening in the space of weeks, it’s difficult to see what happens next.

Last Friday I was in Bristol, delivering a Viva Survivor session, and in and amongst the questions about viva lengths, concerns about going blank or wondering what makes a good examiner, an important question came from the room:

What do I do if my viva is cancelled? I have a date, I’ve booked time off work to prepare, but it might be postponed or move online. What do I do? How can I get ready?

In that moment and since I have had a hundred and one thoughts about how to respond to this concern – a concern which must be going through a lot of PhD candidates’ minds right now. Here are a few:

  • If it’s cancelled, it will be re-arranged.
  • Your prep still counts. It adds to making you ready.
  • If you pause your prep, you can unpause later.
  • If your viva is online, you can make it work. Check details, check the systems involved.
  • If an examiner has to cancel, another will be found. Think about who else could meet the standard for a good examiner for you.

If you’re facing this situation won’t say “don’t worry”. That never helps. I’ll advise you to think – even if the timeline to your viva is now uncertain – think about what you can do today to make tomorrow better. Worry can’t be avoided, but worry won’t solve a situation. Your work will, your actions will. So what actions now will help you in the future for your viva? If you can’t yet act to reduce uncertainty, how can you act to increase your own confidence or talent?

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In the short term, it looks like I’m working from home for at least a few months. There will be challenges with that, but also, perhaps, the space for new ideas or opportunities. A Viva Survivor session I was to deliver in person next week is now going to be a webinar. I have never delivered a webinar before! So this will be a chance to learn, grow and develop. We’ll see where that leads. I’ll be using some of my time at home to make more resources and find more ways to help candidates get ready for their viva.

Potentially, the situation in the world means some of my work will be cancelled. As a self-employed person that’s a little unsettling, at times it feels a little scary. But I feel confident that things will work out eventually. If you can help me, do check out my Ko-fi page, consider becoming a follower or supporter there. Or if you’re looking for general, considered viva support, take a look at my ebooks. Little things will help, and if you can help me, I thank you.

But help others first. If someone around you has their viva coming up, and because of the situation in the world they’re extra-worried, extra-nervous, consider how you can support them. Consider what little actions could help them to feel just a little better, because it all adds up. And if no-one around you needs help with their viva, consider how else you can be a helper for those around you.

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.