Follow The Leader

I don’t know there is much scope for candidates to lead in the viva. In the stories I have been told, I don’t hear tales of examiners sitting back and waiting for the candidate to direct questions, or steer them towards conclusions, or evade lines of discussion. It’s not for the candidate to dictate what happens (nor should it be up to examiners to dictate things either, of course). It’s for examiners to steer discussions, examiners to fairly ask questions, suggest ideas and examine the thesis and candidate.

As a candidate though, you can lead yourself. This isn’t a throwaway, simple, nice-sounding thing. You can lead. Set the tone for yourself. What do you expect? What standards are you aiming for? What direction do you want to go in as a researcher for the viva, and how are you going to get there? Ask yourself what “prepared” might feel like – then ask yourself what you are going to do to lead yourself towards feeling confident on the day?

You have to lead yourself. So what are you going to do?

The PhD Is Supposed To Be Hard

You don’t get a PhD by just showing up. There are no shortcuts, no study hacks, no “five simple tricks” to help you dodge the work you have to do.

A PhD is a result of time, work and talent. Maybe a little luck will help, but it’s not the deciding factor. A PhD is hard. The viva is part of the PhD, so you can’t expect it to be easy.

But don’t expect it to be too hard either. It’s not trivial, but it comes after all of the other hard PhD days you’ve lived through.

The Final Hurdle

The PhD is not a sprint or marathon. The closest is maybe the hurdles event: a series of barriers to be cleared. Literature review has to be cleared so you have a good background understanding. The transfer viva has to be vaulted so you can progress to second year. Submission has to be jumped over to get you to the viva.

The viva, the final hurdle. Since you have cleared all of the others to get this far, why would you fall at the last one? Is it really higher or more difficult than everything else you’ve done?

You still have to leap, but you’re good at that. You have to be ready, but you can be ready. You have to be talented – and you have to be talented.

How else have you got this close to the finish line?

All Hat And No Cattle

Twenty years ago I had a boss who loved a fun turn of phrase. I worked in an independent furniture shop, and I can remember the day that one customer spent two hours wandering up and down the store floor, looking over every piece of furniture. He sat on every couch, looked in every wardrobe and tested the springs on every mattress we sold. He asked questions about delivery dates, customisation options and whether or not we could take his old furniture away. He dropped hints that his house was very big, his car was very fast and his wallet had a lot of money in it.

And after two hours, he walked out of the shop without placing an order. We never saw him again.

“That man,” declared my boss, “Was all hat and no cattle.”

I wasn’t even twenty at the time, not wise to the world, and had to have the expression explained to me: the customer made a lot of noise, a great show of importance, you couldn’t miss him – but underneath it all there was no substance. He wasn’t mean or malicious, he hadn’t wanted to waste two hours of our time as he had wanted someone to think of him as very important. He wanted people to think he was great, but he would never be able to back that up. He was a man wearing a big cowboy hat with no herd behind him.

I share this story to contrast that man with YOU.

You’re not this person. That’s not your reality. I don’t know whether you’re loud or quiet, whether people know how good you are or not – but you are good.

You. Are. Good.

You must be. You’re finishing a PhD. You must have done something valuable. A thesis doesn’t just happen. It’s a summary of years of valuable research. You must be good.

Your hat could be big or small, but you have a herd of ideas, experiences, talents, skills and knowledge behind you. You can show that off in your thesis, and you can show it off in your viva.

Being Grateful

There’s so many things that can be awful in the PhD.

Tight deadlines, fuzzy goals, abstract references, weird politics, bad supervisors, hard topics, vague questions, and a lot more…

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, the general postgraduate researcher problems. Some people have it much harder.

A lot could be good though. It might not all be, but as you get to the end of the PhD, when the viva is just around the corner, I’d encourage you to think about all you are grateful for from your time as a PhD. What opportunities did you have that you might not otherwise? What did you learn? How did you grow? Who helped you and how?

Being grateful can help shift your focus. If you’re feeling down about your work or the journey, look for the brighter stuff to help steer you into a positive place for your viva preparation.

Favourite Failures

I have failed many times.

Three years ago I spent a lot of effort and time developing an independent viva preparation workshop. I found a great venue and booked it three times upfront. I spent a lot of time and money making resources, promoting the events, and I got a lot of attention from people who said it was a great idea. Dozens of people expressed interest in going.

Then only four people came to the first session.

Only one person came to the second.

I cancelled the third session a few days before it was due to happen. No-one was signed up. Months of work and thousands of pounds. The idea just didn’t connect. It wasn’t what people wanted, or maybe I didn’t find a way to explain what it was.

In any case, my independent viva preparation workshop project had failed.

I remember during my PhD I spent months of time (thankfully not thousands of pounds) on calculations to prove something I thought was true. Hundreds of hours, hundreds of sheets of paper and in the end, I didn’t get the answer. I couldn’t find the answer. I couldn’t show that I was on track or that I had gone wrong.

I had failed in my research.

For some time, in both cases, I felt bad. I had failed, I hadn’t done what I set out to do.

But in both cases, I realised, I didn’t have nothing. For my PhD, I still got a chapter in my thesis. I was able to show the limits of calculating things in a certain way. I was able to improve on what was known previously. I didn’t have a final answer, but I had some new questions. I couldn’t tell you what happened in every case, but I was able to show some new examples.

My independent workshop idea didn’t work. That’s OK. It pushed me to do more and do better. I made lots of new resources, was able to share them, and started thinking about different ways I could deliver the session in universities. Ultimately that failure lead me to doing this daily blog. If I hadn’t explored the independent session, this blog wouldn’t be here.

Now, all of this isn’t simply looking for silver linings, or making lemonade from life’s lemons: it’s honestly reflecting that failures can still lead to later wins. Just because something didn’t work out the way you wanted, doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing.

So think: what didn’t work out in your PhD the way you wanted? What did you get even though you didn’t get the victory you were perhaps looking for? How could you communicate that to your examiners?

How can you convince yourself too?

4 Ways To Reflect On Your PhD Journey

What have you done? Where has it lead you? How will it help with what comes next? Here are four ideas to help with reflecting on your journey:

  1. Check your records: explore your written plans and meeting logs to see what your progress has looked like over the last few years. See what stands out to you.
  2. Reflect on a single question: what can you do now that you couldn’t when you started your PhD?
  3. Break down your contribution: make a bullet point list of what you have achieved. Make sure to include reasons for why something is a contribution. What makes it valuable? How did you make it happen?
  4. Draw a timeline: create a visual display of your PhD story. Highlight the milestones. What are your big moments of discovery? When can you see huge signs of improvement? What were the key events?

Take time to take stock. How did you get to where you are now?

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 simply 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.