The OK Thesis

Perfect is the enemy of done, but does it then follow that it’s fine to submit an “OK” thesis? One which you know has typos in? One which you know could be better? One which you know has things you could fix? It’s OK… It’s fine. It’s acceptable. It’ll do.

Is that OK?

Since most candidates will have a successful viva that leads to some form of corrections, it’s a natural question to ask if you could just submit your first, could-be-better, OK version of your thesis. There’s only so much time to do a PhD. There’s so much going on, especially recently. I can empathise with someone who would make the argument that they just have to get their thesis in now, and then fix anything later on.

But.

If you know there are things that could be better – in terms of making sure your thesis communicates your research – it’s nearly always worth the extra effort before submission, the viva and corrections. If you’re tempted to let things slide, to rush something in, to say you’ll fix it later, I’d urge you to take another look. See what you can do.

If you have a deadline you cannot break, then at least prioritise the most important things to help your thesis be the best it could be.

You’ll never reach perfection, but your best is a lot better than OK.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

My daughter used to be obsessed with Pokémon.

We watched every episode of two series, bought books about them, played with toys, looked through cards, role-played being in the world…

(she drove this process)

(honest)

Pokémon has the famous tagline, “gotta catch ’em all” – which refers to collecting all the different creatures in the world of Pokémon. It’s an attitude I see expressed all the time around PhDs and the viva. People think they have to catch every typo before they submit. Anticipate every question. Read every paper. Perform every test. Do everything for their research, their thesis and their viva.

And none of this is possible. This is fine. You’re not expected to have done everything. Perfection is not the standard.

In case you ever confuse Pokémon and PhDs, remember:

  • Pokémon: gotta catch ’em all!
  • PhD: cannot catch ’em all!

Perfectly Impossible

I got a note from an anonymous seminar participant:

I have written the perfect thesis. Should I worry about the viva?

If the first statement was true, I could see no reason why they should. If their thesis was perfect, really, why would they need to worry? If I had a perfect thesis, there wouldn’t be much point!

Small problem: there is no perfect thesis. Imperfection is inevitable. The perfect thesis is an impossibility.

But an imperfect thesis doesn’t automatically mean that someone should worry. They might anyway, because they have doubts, or questions, or 101 concerns. And there could be a problem in any imperfect thesis that leads to tough questions or tricky corrections: both are part of the process, neither “should” be worried about.

An imperfect thesis doesn’t mean you failed. It means that you didn’t achieve the impossible.

You have a thesis. You have you. You have everything you need to beat back your worries and succeed in the viva.

Necessary, Broccoli

Necessary and broccoli are my two word nemeses: two words that I can’t reliably spell correctly. It bugs me. It frustrates me. It’s not every day that I have to write about vegetables, but necessary is… essential. Spellcheck can sort me out when typing, but I’m often writing longhand on a flipchart in front of twenty people. I don’t want to mess up.

Lately I’ve just been thinking “one C, two Cs” to help me remember. It’s not perfect. For the most part I’ve got my frustration under control. Necessary and broccoli are two little blips that I can deal with. While I can’t always remember how to spell those words, there’s a lot more that I can do – a lot more I can do really well.

I remember preparing for my viva. My mind drifted to all of the little things (and some big) that my examiners might focus on. I can remember the frustration on my part, “Why didn’t I do X? Why don’t I know Y? When will I ever understand Z?”

After spending so long working on something and wanting it to be good, it’s easy to focus on things that you could do better. It’s hard not to wonder what examiners will make of flaws, blips and rough edges in your research or your practice. Maybe there are ways to make X, Y or Z better, but if those are the things you focus on you’ll just lead your mind to doubt.

So what can you do? Focus on your strengths first.

Start a list of things that are great in your research. Results, writing, presentation, style, your ideas, your insights, your passion, your supervisor, that one meeting that one time where you made a great observation, whatever you can find.

Don’t dismiss weakness, but don’t let that be the guide. Every time you come to do some viva prep, take out the list, quickly read it, then see if you can add one or two more things.

You’ve done a lot of great work to get you to the viva.

Necessarily.