Using “Plan, Do, Reflect, Review”

I’ve got a lot of help from remembering the Plan, Do, Reflect, Review cycle for projects and work over the last decade or so. I like to think of it simply as:

Make a plan, do the work, reflect on what happened and review what you learned from it all.

While you might use this process a lot during the PhD, it’s kind of lopsided when you apply it as a lens to the whole PhD experience. Making a plan and doing a work is most of the time, the reflection comes in towards the end as you finish writing up and start preparing for the viva. Then the review is the viva itself.

I’ve often written about the need to make a plan (even a small one!) for viva prep time, and you can’t prepare for the viva without doing some work, but it would be really wrong to leave out the other two points of reflect and review.

It’s not just what did you do? and what did you learn? Use that review to think about how you can be confident for the viva. What experiences have got you this far? How have the last few years developed your knowledge and talent?

And how will they help you to succeed in the viva?

Profiteroles & Preparation

A good hour of viva preparation is like a short stack of profiteroles.

What? What are you talking about?

Consider a profiterole.

A little globe of choux pastry, a delicious cream centre and a set chocolate top.

Take a few for a dessert. Separate parts that combine into something more.

But eat too many and you’ll be sick.

……..O-kay, and viva preparation?

Consider preparation for the viva.

All you need is a little structure: targeted tasks aimed at reflection, checking ideas and annotating your thesis.

Do several small pieces of prep – annotate a chapter, reflect on a question, check on a paper – and the benefit you get builds up.

Do too much and you’ll get tired and confused. You can undo your good efforts by doing too much.

………..

See, profiteroles and preparation!

…….OK, you just about saved this blog post……..

Two or three profiteroles of viva preparation is enough for any sitting. When you’ve done a few small tasks, take a break before you do more.

(from the mind that tried to make something of salmon swimming as an analogy for the PhD!)

Off The Treadmill

Turn up at 8:30, start work by 9, check the list to see what edits need doing, start work, check every half hour or so that I’ve saved and the new pdf works, break at 11, back to work, lunch around 1, back to work, type-type, edit-edit, keep going and pack up around 4:30.

Come back the next day and do it all again.

That was pretty much the last six months of my PhD. Every day I got on the thesis-finishing-treadmill. The structure helped, working towards getting it done, a plan to follow.

The first few weeks after submission I felt adrift. No job at that time, no plans on what to do next, and no idea really what to do to prepare for the viva.

If this is you when you get off the treadmill – or if you feel overwhelmed because there’s so much other non-PhD/non-viva stuff to do – then put a little more structure around things. Not a lot; find a new little treadmill to get you going.

When will you sit down and prepare for your viva? What time, and where? For how long? Thing about what you think you need to do to feel happy and ready.

Then start.

Three Simple Hows For Viva Prep

On this blog and in my workshops I share a lot of viva prep ideas. No-one needs to follow all of my suggestions: my hope is that the ideas I share spark a path forward. The danger, sometimes, on being presented with lots of options, is that someone might think “I want to do it all!” or “I need to do it all!” or “Oh my gosh, how will I do it all?!”

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about all of the ideas for viva prep; today let me shift gears to give three questions I think can help anyone break down what they will do to prepare for their viva.

Three simple “how” questions:

  1. How much do you need to do?
  2. How much time do you have?
  3. How will you arrange it all?

Focus on you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. There are lots of options but only a few core areas to pay attention to.

Don’t make your viva prep complicated. Just ask three questions to get started.

Beating Busy

It can feel like a great pressure has been taken away when you submit your thesis…

…only to be replaced by the pressure of the viva and preparation. Some candidates will feel it more than others, particularly if they’re juggling work, applying for jobs, taking care of their families and 101 other things.

So plan. Break up the pressure by being clear about what you need to do. Some questions that could help:

  • How much time do you have available?
  • What constraints are there on your time?
  • What can you do to make your preparation time more effective?
  • When can you work at your best to prepare?
  • Who do you need help from? (and how can you ask them?)
  • What can you do less of or rearrange to make space for your viva prep?
  • What would a good plan for your prep look like?

“Busy” means you have to make a change. Start by stepping back. Get organised and get to work. The end is in sight.

Prep Scores

There’s several strands running through how prepared a candidate could feel for the viva. You might know your thesis back-to-front, but be worried about answering questions. You could feel shaky on what vivas are actually like, but feel certain that you know about your examiners’ research interests.

Building on this post from last year, here’s a quick exercise to help you get a grip on how you’re doing and what you could do to boost your confidence. Give yourself a mark out of ten for each of the following:

  • Awareness of your field;
  • Knowledge of your research;
  • Confidence in your abilities as a researcher;
  • Confidence in what you’ve written in your thesis;
  • Ability to answer questions and discuss your research;
  • Awareness of your examiners’ research;
  • Certainty about viva expectations.

Which is highest? Why? Can you be even better or have greater confidence?

Which is lowest? Why? What’s your plan for that particular aspect?

For all of these, how could you increase your mark by one point? What steps could you take? Who could you ask for help?

Now, what will you actually do?

(if you’re looking for help, there’s a lot of it on this blog, on the Resources and Elsewhere pages, and of course in the Podcast Archive!)

Easy Viva Prep?

I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss: he’s written interesting, thought-provoking books and interviewed hundreds of people at the top of their fields in his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. My wife got me his latest book, Tribe Of Mentors, for a present. It’s a collection of over a hundred short Q&As with people who are the best of the best; a means to find out what inspires them, how they do their best work and so on.

The genesis of the book was Tim feeling stuck, not sure what direction to take his life in. He has a list of questions that he’s found useful to get himself unstuck including “what would this look like if it were easy?” After a little free writing from this provocation his brain latched on to the idea of a “tribe of mentors” to help guide him, and thus the idea for Tribe Of Mentors was born.

The book is great, but the question is greater. I’m using it now to help me unpick future projects – some of which are related to this site and resources – but I think it could also be useful more generally when helping people get ready for the viva.

What would it look like if viva prep were easy? I don’t have firm answers yet, but I do have some ideas that are leading to useful questions for me:

  • Maybe it would be organised. What might that look like?
  • Maybe it would be structured. What form would it take?
  • Maybe it would be principled, based on key ideas. (I have some thoughts on this already!)
  • Maybe it would involve other people. Who, and how?

These are just ideas. I’m looking at it from a big, utilitarian view, trying to think how I can help as many people as possible. You can think much more focussed. Think: “What would it look like if viva prep were easy for me?”

Prep Procrastination

Procrastination is a permanent hot topic in PhD circles. If you suffer with it, it might not go away when you submit. You can still procrastinate about prep, about thinking about the viva, about jobs and everything else that comes next. Of course, just because you’re not actively working on something, it doesn’t mean that you’re not turning it over in the back of your mind. But you may feel bad for putting it off, and feeling bad tends to not feel so good!

Maybe a solution doesn’t have to be hard though. Pick a simple task for prep. Put it in your diary. Remove your distractions. And then get it done when the time comes.

30 minutes at this time, on this day, to do this task.

Phone on silent, email off. Start small, but start. Get something done.

Then something else, and something else, and so on. Prep doesn’t have to be three great big, long tasks. It could be lots of smaller activities with breaks in-between. You’ve figured out how to do a PhD despite procrastination woes! You can prepare for your viva.