The work is what gets you to submission. The work is important, even if you’re sick of it. The work matters. The work is a significant and original contribution to your field. The work didn’t just come from nowhere.
You did it.
When you submit, keep at it. Your focus changes but you’re not done. You have to check the work. You have to make sure you understand the work, and can explain the work. You have to defend the work. You can do all of this because it uses skills you already have.
Use what you know, use what you can do, and keep doing the work.
Twice recently I’ve been asked, “Is it possible to submit a perfect thesis but then fail your viva?” I’ve written about the impossibility of the perfect thesis in the past, so let’s modify it slightly: can you fail if your thesis is really good?
I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s got to be highly unlikely. Right? How do you submit a really good thesis? Only by doing really good research. You have to have built up a talent for asking and answering questions. You have to have built up a talent for doing practical research in your field. Even if you don’t like being in situations like you imagine the viva to be, you’re going to be able to meet the challenge.
Can you fail if your thesis is really good?
This question comes out of worry, anxiety and fear. Find the root concern and you can address the problem. Worried that you’re treading on an examiner’s research? Find out more about it, so that you know more. Anxious that your mind will go blank? Read your thesis carefully and make summaries to help you think it through. Afraid your examiners will have harsh comments? Ask friends about the tone of their vivas to reassure yourself.
It’s understandable to be worried. Find the cause and think about how to address it. Do that, and the question will disappear.
How many times have you answered questions about your research?
How many times have you read a paper and increased your knowledge?
How often have you made a contribution to your field?
How many times have you had a discussion with someone about your work?
How many times have you checked your work?
How many times have you thought about your thesis and how best to write it?
How likely is it that you will be faced with an unanswerable question in the viva? How likely is it that you will freeze or go blank? How likely is it that you’ll realise that something you did is fundamentally wrong? How likely is it that you’ll face one of the nightmare scenarios that people imagine and torture themselves with?
It’s not likely, right?
You did the work. Do the prep. Thrive in the viva.
In 2009 I went on a road trip across the USA. One day my friend and I saw a sign announcing, “PRAIRIE DOG TOWN!! See the world’s largest prairie dog!!” It was over one hundred miles away, and we laughed at something that seemed so silly.
Our feelings changed quickly.
Every few miles there was a different sign talking about the world’s largest prairie dog. Signs said we wouldn’t want to miss it. They counted down the miles. There would be a five-legged cow as well! And other animals: snakes, wolves and more.
The world’s largest prairie dog!
“How big could it be?” we thought. Prairie dogs are quite small normally… Could the world’s largest prairie dog be the size of a pig? Surely no bigger… Could it? Sign after sign told us it would be something amazing, something incredible. On the road to Prairie Dog Town we listened to the story. We built on it and built on it ourselves until…
…it’s a statue. And not even a particularly good one! For over one hundred miles we had amped ourselves up, read the signs, invested hours of conversation and discussion.
It was a statue!!!
There’s a set of persistent, conflicting, stories about the PhD viva:
It’s a big mystery.
It’s all about choosing the “right” examiners.
It’s supposed to be tough.
No-one fails, so don’t treat it seriously.
People do fail…and you might be one of them!
Is it any wonder that by the time of the viva, candidates don’t know which way is up? All they know is that it’s going to be a probably-survivable-but-maybe-not-all-that-good-event.
Stories are useful, but so are facts. With the viva people get swept up in the story about the event and forget their own story. What did you do to get to the viva? How did you do your research? What’s the beginning, middle and end of the journey so far? Whether it has felt easy or hard, whether it’s been rough or smooth, you got this far. You did this.
There was only one set of signs that lead my friend and I to the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. We went because we listened. There are lots of stories that swirl around the viva. Find the facts then listen to your story.
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.
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.
What’s your knowledge? You’ve done a lot. What have you introduced to the world that wasn’t there before?
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?
Universities have regulations about thesis examination, conditions that they expect. But every viva will be different from every other. Every PhD thesis and every PhD researcher is different from every other. Your viva won’t be like mine: it’ll have the same goals perhaps, but it will be different.
Every snowflake is different from every other, but we know how to prepare for a blizzard. Your viva is going to be unique, but you can still be ready for the day it comes. Plan a little, prepare a little and you’ll be fine. You’ve come a long way already.
I worry that simple is equated with easy too often.
Too often I see people mistake the output for the process. It can take years of sifting through data, asking the right (and wrong) questions, or trying lots of things to arrive at an answer. And sometimes, after all of that, the final answer could be expressed in very few words.
Just because something can be explained simply doesn’t mean it has taken no effort to get to that explanation. If your ideas or research seem simple to explain now, don’t worry, your examiners will understand how you got to that point.
And if you find something easy at the end of your PhD, it can still be incredibly complicated – it could be too hard for other people – but not for you. Not at the end of your PhD.
Remember: simple and easy are not synonyms for each other; nor are they synonyms for worthless.