Everything? or Enough?

Have you done everything you could for your research and thesis? It’s almost impossible!

Have you done enough for your research and thesis? Probably, since most candidates do!

It helps to define “enough” before you try to decide if you’ve achieved it.

Similarly, you can’t do everything in preparation for your viva, but you can do enough. Figure out where you have gaps, where you need support, where others can help you, then work your way to being ready. Decide in advance on what you need to do before you get to work.

You can’t do everything, you can do enough.

Actions Beat Hopes

You can hope your examiners don’t spot them.

A vague paragraph. An unfortunate typo. An unfinished project. The method you can’t quite remember. The definition that you struggle to place. The ideas you’ve not finished developing.

The things you hope your examiners won’t notice, but they easily could. Hope is wonderful, but in this case hope isn’t enough.

Rather than hope your examiners won’t notice something, think about what you could do. Could you help yourself with more thought and more prep? Could you write a note in the margin or make some other useful annotation? Create a summary to explore or explain ideas? Ask a friend to ask you questions? Have a mock viva?

Hope can help you in the viva, but your actions help you more.

What will you do?

It’s a Wonderful Viva

A few days ago I was inspired by A Christmas Carol. Today my mind turns to It’s a Wonderful Life, which is my favourite Christmas movie. I could write a lot about how this movie makes me feel, what I adore about it, why it makes me cry every time I watch it, but let me pull out a key moment and why it’s worth remembering for your viva.

Towards the end, the protagonist, George, who thinks his life has gotten so terrible that it would be better if he had never been born, is given the chance to see what that world would be like. He is shown a town which is cruel, where people are mean, where no-one knows him and where some of the people he knows are fundamentally different – all because he wasn’t there as part of their lives.

As his angel (second-class!) guide Clarence tells him, “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

Now, I don’t imagine many PhD candidates consider stopping just before their viva, or truly wish they had never started. However stressed or worried, whatever fears are conjured, whatever doubts they may have about their ability, they probably don’t wish for it not to be taking place, or for them not to be PhD candidates.

Still, remember: by doing your PhD you have made a difference. You have made something that wasn’t there before. You have become better than you were. You know more and can do more. And along the way you will have helped others, directly and indirectly.

By doing your PhD you have made a difference. Remember that and it might make a difference for how you feel about your viva.

Bag Of Tricks

While your examiners will want to explore your research with you, they also want to explore your capabilities as a researcher. To prepare for your viva you need to explore your research, but also invest time in reflecting on your own development.

What’s in your bag of tricks? What can you do that others can’t? What have you learned over the last few years doing your PhD?

Four Threads Of The Final Year

Whatever kind of research you do, there are four threads that will run through the final year of your PhD. In those last twelve months you will have to:

  • Finish your research: no more reading, no more experiments, no more following ideas to see where they lead. You have to find a place to stop.
  • Finish your thesis: write, write, write, and then write some more. Get feedback and then do your best to create a good thesis.
  • Think about your next steps: at the very least, think. Apply for jobs? Start a business? Write papers? Juggle, juggle, juggle…
  • Start your viva preparation: …but only a little!!!

Over 99% of your final year will be the first three threads. You have to get your research done, thesis submitted and start exploring what you will do afterwards. But there are a few small tasks to do before submission that will help with your viva.

First, have a conversation with your supervisors about potential examiners. Think about your preferences and what names that would suggest to you.

Second, get contact details for a member of staff in your graduate school or doctoral college who could help in case of emergency or something unexpected happens.

These are the only two essential tasks for viva preparation in your final year, but if you want to do more then make opportunities to talk about your work and take questions about what you’ve done. Give seminars, present at conferences, go for coffee with friends and build your confidence at talking about your research and what you can do.

Viva prep is a tiny element of your final year, but it still needs to be started.

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.