Pull The Lever, Take A Chance

A clatter of coins spills! I pulled the lever and now I’m rich, rich, rich!

Except I wasn’t. I was maybe ten and they weren’t coins, they were tokens. I grew up in a seaside town and there was a time when summer holidays meant stretching out pocket money in the arcade. I would jump from machine to machine, trying to find way to have just a little longer playing silly games.

The one-armed bandit could be fun for a time. Put your coin or token in, pull the arm down and watch the reels spin. Most of the time it was nothing. Sometimes it was a few pennies or a token back. Even rarer, an invitation to nudge a reel, see it drop but get nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes…

JACKPOT!

…and enough tokens to keep spinning the reels for another ten minutes.

There was no skill, no talent, not even any real work. You had to take part, put something in, but your effort and money were the same as anyone’s.

Alas, some candidates think the viva is a one-armed bandit, a game of total chance. Turn up, pull the lever and who knows what will happen. What questions will spin up? What sequence of opinions will your examiners have? What random outcome will it settle on?

It’s not random. It’s not by chance. Your work is built on purpose. There can be luck, but that’s guided by direction, by talent, by effort.

Your thesis isn’t just thrown together: it’s a statement. Your answers don’t just appear: they’re built on work and talent. Your examiners aren’t just winging it: they’ve been selected for a reason.

You probably will hit the jackpot in the viva, ding-ding-ding, you’ve passed! But it’s not by chance. It couldn’t just happen to anyone.

You’ve not just been lucky. You’ve not got this far by accident.

Not Lucky

Winning the lottery is lucky: you buy a ticket, or lots of them, and maybe yours is the one that wins. There’s no skill, it happens or not.

Winning a race is fortunate: you develop skill, and even if there are other skilled people taking part your skill wins out. It isn’t luck, because you didn’t leave it to chance.

One of these descriptions is like the viva, and one is not, despite both being about situations involving a great many people.

If you’re lucky, you did something but it wasn’t in your control really. It could have been anyone else who succeeded, and what you did didn’t particularly matter. If you’re fortunate, then something good has happened, but what you did made a difference. Success in the viva is fortunate, I think, because it comes down to your developing talent through the PhD and what you are able to show on the day.

This is how I put the line between lucky and fortunate; you might define them differently, but I think you take my point. If you’ve read a lot of posts on this blog then you’ll know it’s a recurring theme for me: success in your PhD and viva is down to your talent and is not just good luck. This is important for the story you tell yourself afterwards. Not “I was lucky with the questions I got,” but “I was fortunate that I had done the work and could answer their questions well.”

You’re fortunate, you’re not lucky.