Because I Need To

I read a lot about stand-up comedy and recently read an article where someone described why they did it. I’d seen a lot of comedians describe this before, “Oh, I love the sound of a room laughing,” or “There’s nothing better than telling a story in front of people,” or “I was actually hoping to be a famous actor but this happened.” Then I read someone put it so simply and beautifully: “I do it because I need to do it.”

They just need to do it. It really resonated with me, because that’s why I do this blog and this work. I do it because I need to.

It used to be: the podcast is about learning, the blog is about practice, it’s all tied into earning a living; I want to help others, I want to help my family, I want to make some part of my living from a creative practice and so on. Lots of things, all bound up. And those things are still there, still true, but they’re behind a greater reason.

I do this work because I need to. I need to do it. It’s as simple as that.

My reasons were different in the past. They might change again in the future. But for now, I do this because I need to.

Why are you doing your PhD, right now? What’s keeping you going? What will keep you going to the end?

(and if things have changed over the course of your PhD, and because you are smart and can change your own course, how might you need to change your reasons and approaches to get you to submission, to the viva and beyond?)

Achievement Unlocked

I’ve been keeping busy for the last few months, work and family life has had lots going on lately while we make changes and adjust. I’ve been enjoying games a lot: teaching my daughter lots of board games during the day, then switching over to my PlayStation 4 when she goes to bed for games she can’t play!

Most video games I play have some kind of trophies in them: parallel goals alongside the game’s main aims.

Instead of just finishing the Spider-Man game, seeing where the story goes, a trophy might be for taking certain pictures, or beating up bad guys, or collecting runaway pigeons (I hated that trophy). Oxenfree, a fantastic story game I’ve played three times and adore, has trophies for collecting things, but also for steering the game to different outcomes. Detroit: Become Human has similar trophies for the wildly different stories it can become, whereas the Untitled Goose Game has trophies for stealing a picnic, wearing a red bow tie and locking a child in a garage…

Whenever I earn a trophy in a game, a little ding! sounds and a medal-object briefly appears to say, “You achieved this!” Trophies on the PS4 range from Bronze (small accomplishments) and Silver (tricky challenges) to Gold (finishing the game or performing a near-impossible feat).

Trophies aren’t essential, of course, but they can be nice little motivators.

Which brings us back to the viva!

First, what achievements have you already unlocked? Over the course of your PhD, where can you see that you have achieved something?

  • It could be small – ding! You read a paper or solved a little problem!
  • It could be tough – ding! You finished re-drafting your methods chapter!
  • It could be a really big deal – ding! You submitted your thesis!

Take some time to map out what you have achieved – and realise that you’ve done a lot to get this far.

Perhaps consider what achievements lie before you on the path to your viva. Bronze trophies for gathering resources, Silvers for reading your thesis or having a mock viva, Gold for getting everything as ready as possible for the day.

Lots of games have Platinum trophies too: a trophy you get for earning every other trophy in the game. For most games this is particularly hard, ticking every box, exploring everywhere, doing everything.

For you and your viva, with so many trophies earned already, you can be confident that your PhD Platinum is within reach.

You Don’t Get This Far…

…by being lucky.

…without talent.

…without results.

…without challenges along the way.

…without making difficult decisions.

…without answering questions.


…without hard work.

…if you haven’t sacrificed something along the way.

…if you don’t have a significant, original contribution.

…unless you’ve survived for a long time.

…unless you’re good.

Keep going.

You Have More Than Hope

You have all the days you spent working for your PhD.

You have all the nights you spent as well.

You have all the questions you asked.

You have all the answers you found.

You have all the lightbulb moments when something came into focus.

You have the nervous times before a talk, and the moments spent sharing what you’ve done.

You have the questions you were asked and what you said in response.

You have your thoughts and feelings about your research.

You have all your motivations that push you on.

You have your friends, family, colleagues, supervisor and community.

You have expectations for what will happen.

You have a thesis! And everything else you wrote and crossed out to get it into one book.

You can hope your viva goes well, but you have more than hope.

You’ve got this far for a reason. Keep going.

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?