Learning From Mistakes

Nevermind typos in my final thesis, I made far bigger mistakes throughout my PhD research…

  • I spent days trying to solve a typesetting issue, before realising I was making a simple code error.
  • I tried for weeks to organise a set of numbers before realising that I was really overcomplicating the situation.
  • And I worked for months trying to solve a series of calculations before admitting that the problem was way too complex for my PhD.

In all of these I struggled, I was frustrated and at times I was bitterly disappointed – but I learned.

I learned how to be a better coder. I learned to see problems in new ways. I learned to stop and say no.

Where did you make mistakes during your PhD? What did you learn? And how has that made you a better, more talented researcher?

What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simple happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?

Start Again

What would you do if you could start your PhD again?

Would you follow the same process, explore the same topics? Would you want to take on something different?

Would you look for other ideas, dodge methods that didn’t work or papers that weren’t helpful?

How would you steer someone starting a PhD in your discipline?

Take twenty minutes to reflect on these questions. Make some notes to get the thoughts out. They’re not exhaustive by any means, but the answers can help you think before the viva about what you’ve learned about being a researcher through your PhD.

Who? You!

Doctor Who was first broadcast fifty-five years ago today. Given my past posts on superheroes, it should come as no surprise I’m a fan. One of the highlights of my time recording interviews for the Viva Survivors Podcast was interviewing Tatiana, whose love of Doctor Who helped her through her PhD.

The Doctor is a time-travelling alien who helps people. They’ve taken on the name as a signifier. It tells people something about themselves. It’s not the name they’ve always had; it’s something that marks them out because of what they’ve done and what they intend to do.

That’s a little like you, right? After your viva, you’re a doctor. You did the work, so you get to be a doctor. That title means something.

Being a doctor, like being the Doctor, sets expectations. People make assumptions about what PhDs are like, what they do and what they “should” do. I think it’s better to set your own expectations. You’re talented to have achieved what you have. Keep being talented: expect yourself to do good things, but pick the things you want to be good at.

Whenever an actor is ready to step down from playing the Doctor, the character regenerates into a new persona. Passing your viva, getting your doctorate is similar. You’re the same underneath, but there’s also something different about you now.

What will be different? And what will you do with the difference?

The Sum

Σ

One of the neatest pieces of shorthand I learned in my many mathematical years.

“The Sum of” and then an expression or a concept. In simple terms, add up everything that looks like this.

You might have some lower or upper bounds, you might have very specific things you want to add. If you’re lucky there could be a formula that represents what that sum is (I used to love working out those). I use Σ when trying to decide whether or not a crazy idea is viable financially.

A PhD candidate is the sum of their experiences. “Σ everything you’ve done” – there are lots of little formulas we could create…

  • Your talent is perhaps Σ your experiences.
  • Your knowledge is Σ your results + Σ your reading + Σ your failures!
  • Your thesis is Σ the hours you’ve spent.

There’s around 6000 of those hours. The viva is not a one-off event, it’s the next one that you’re going to succeed at. Add up all of the days that you’ve spent getting to the viva. All of the good things you’ve done. All of the less good stuff that helped you learn.

Σ all these things equals someone meant to be at the viva.

The Path To The Viva

There is a weird disconnect for some people around submission. They imagine submission is like jumping over a ravine between here and there, between almost- and now-submitted. They take a breath and jump and hope it will all work out, hope they’ll land on the other side.

It’s really not a leap of faith though. It’s the same path to the viva they’ve been on for years.

At submission, you’re striding over a bridge, not jumping and hoping.

Persist

I wonder if the key common attribute for researchers is persistence. Not smarts or know-how, not project management skills or effective presentations. Persistence. If you don’t keep going when things are tough, if you don’t keep going when you reach a gap and need to learn (or jump!) then you’re stuck.

I’ve not met a researcher or graduate in the last decade who hasn’t had a problem of one sort or another during their PhD. Some of them severe. Yet they persisted. Kept going until the answer was found. Kept going until they saw a way forward. Kept going until they knew more or could do more.

The viva is the final bit of persistence. Continue to know you’ve done good work. Continue to remember you must be talented. Continue to believe you have all the skills and talents you need to meet the challenges of the viva.

Don’t stop now.