First Time PhD

In ten years of working with researchers I’ve met one person doing their second PhD. PhDs are fairly rare in the population; a person with two is like finding Bigfoot riding a unicorn!

For most candidates though, PhDs feel quite common. You’re around people all the time who either have them or want them. Often it can be easy to feel like maybe you’re not as good as others (hello impostor syndrome!). While you’re on track you’re not quite there yet. You see people who have succeeded and it’s easy to feel like you might not ever get there.

Well: give yourself a break!

It’s the first time you’ve done a PhD!

Whatever else you’ve done, whatever your achievements, interests or professional standing, this is a big deal. It’s important and it’s difficult – doubly difficult because usually you’re learning how to do research while doing it. Your process evolves while you do.

Appreciate that this is your first time. You don’t have to have all the answers. No-one expects the impossible.

If you feel like the PhD is beyond you, or the viva is out of reach, take a step back. Every day is an opportunity to get a little better, a little closer to “done,” but this is still your first time doing a PhD.

Counting For The Viva

One experienced candidate waiting to be done,

Two prepared examiners hoping this is fun.

Three years (or more) leading to this day,

Four key threads of prep can help along the way.


Five seconds pause can help get a thought together;

Six hours is unlikely (but never say never)!

Seven might be lucky, but you don’t need to be,

Eight lines is enough, now repeat: “It’s up to me.”

A Stone In Your Shoe

A little piece of grit just nudged your toe.

It’s a tiny pain, an annoyance, nothing serious but now you’ve felt it you can’t stop thinking about it. You have a choice:

  • Ignore it, just keep going. It’s a little thing and you can bear the discomfort.
  • Wiggle your toes. Push it to one side and wait ’til you’re done.
  • Take off your shoe. Bang the heel, see the stone fall to the back and pick it out.

Simply: you can ignore a little annoyance, spend the minimum effort to push it away or stop everything to resolve it. All three strategies have merit. All three can be applied to the end of your PhD, your viva prep and even in the viva.

  • Find a small mistake? Ignore it, make a note and fix it later, or drop what you’re doing and correct it.
  • Missing a reference? Ignore it, pencil it in your diary to sort out or go straight to your literature review and figure it out.
  • Critical comment in the viva? Ignore it, make a note and think about it, or ask your examiner for more so you can respond now.

There are pros and cons to all the approaches you can take when annoying little situations show up.

You have a choice about which one you pick.


Obsessed with the fine detail of your thesis? Take a step back and think about where your research fits in the field.

Pondering over how your work relates to other researchers? Zero in on all of the steps that made your work what it is.

Don’t just focus on the big picture or the small stuff. Change your perspective. Zoom in and out. Build up and reinforce the connections ahead of your viva.


You could spend your final year of your PhD counting down the days: Another day gone until I have to submit, another day gone until my viva…

I knew PhD candidates who stressed and obsessed that time was running out. It’s easy to see with hindsight and perspective that stress didn’t do much to help them. Of course, if you are stressed, it’s not enough to say “don’t do that,” it’s not something that you can just turn off.

Perhaps you can try to steer things a little though. You can wake up each day and say, “What am I going to do today that will help me? What can I can do that will get me one step closer to finishing my PhD?”

Then you can mark that day off with a different thought: Another day closer to done, another day closer to complete

It’s a little change. But little changes add over time.

What are you going to do today?