Reflect

Take time to stop and think.

Reflect on your PhD. Reflect on the journey. The peaks and troughs of hard work and difficult circumstances that have brought you this far.

Not far to go now. Reflect on what you need to do to get to the end.

And reflect on how it will feel and what you might do when your PhD journey is over – when you start a new one as a PhD, not working to be one.

Take time to reflect before your viva.

Several Steps Back

You might have to take a step back when writing up to really ask yourself, “What else does this need?”

You might have to take a step back from your thesis at submission, to give yourself space to reflect before your viva.

You might have to take a step back from your PhD at submission, so you can rest and restore yourself.

And you might have to take a step back from yourself and your research in the viva. A question could seem unfair, it could seem too critical, but remember that any question in the viva is being asked for a good reason.

A step back helps to nudge your perspective. You might need to take several steps back as you finish your PhD, but they will all eventually help you move forward.

Space To Feel

In my writing and webinar work I try to help and to give perspective on the viva. I try not to share things like a great to do list, but also know that some people I engage will treat things that way:

If I do X then Y will happen and everything will be fine.

Everything probably will be fine. Things will probably work out the way you want and you’ll have the outcome you’re looking for – but the journey there might not be smooth, navigating the bumpy road of emotions, changes and endings along the way.

This has been hammered home to me in the last year as I’ve delivered webinars.

In a seminar room, people tend to have their public faces on. They could be unsure, they could be curious but they smile – there’s a mask in place. In a webinar, with cameras off and chat windows open, people talk more freely. Questions become longer than could be squeezed on a Post-it Note, and real emotions flow into the statements that people make:

I’ve not thought about how things are going to change… The pandemic hasn’t given me the chance or the pause until today…

I’m angry because of how my submission and viva will be so different than I had imagined!

I’m crying a little as no-one, not my supervisor or department, have told me that I’m good or talented before…

These aren’t direct quotes, but they are representative of what people have told me in just the last few months. Perhaps it’s been there in the background all along, and it took the shift to webinars for me to recognise it in candidates. Maybe it’s a more recent emergence brought on by the pressures of the last year.

In either case, if you want a to do list for getting ready, here’s my update: read your thesis, make notes, rehearse for the viva, boost your confidence…

…and make space to feel.

Reflect, not just on your talent to help build your confidence, but on where you are, how you got there and how you feel about all this. Happy, sad, angry, excited, scared – however you feel, make space for it. Unpick it a little maybe. See what you need to do.

Imagine

Picture the hours after your viva. You’ve passed. You did it, you really did.

Who are you telling first? How are you getting in touch? What are you saying?

Picture the hours of your viva. You’re talking with your examiners, responding to their questions and engaged with the discussion.

What’s that like? How do you think you’ll feel? What would you want to stand out in those moments?

Picture your hours of prep. Reading, making notes, rehearsing, becoming more sure you’re ready for the viva.

What do you need to focus on? When are you doing the work? How are you keeping it stress-free?

Picture the (perhaps many) hours of work left before you submit. Finishing practical parts of your research, writing and redrafting, and finally being done.

What’s left to do? How do you prioritise? How can you keep yourself on track?

 

If you can imagine these different stages, whichever are left of your PhD journey, then you can work to make them a reality. If you start with your goal or outcome, you can consider what will help you reach it.

Imagine the PhD and viva you want, then work to make it real.

The Middle

A lot of space is given to the origins of a research project in how we think about the viva and what you might need to talk about. How did you get started? What ideas influenced your first steps? What literature did you read?

Lots of space is also given to the outcomes of a PhD. What are your conclusions? What results helped you reach those conclusions? What’s the overall result of your thesis?

These two themes are important, but we mustn’t forget the middle of your PhD. The middle where you kept going. The middle where you most likely found your way past dead ends and small failures.

How did you get through the middle? What did you learn? How did you keep going – and how could you use that to keep going now?

To Begin Again

What would you do differently if you were to start your PhD over?

Candidates have asked me about what they should say to this sort of question in the viva. It feels like it could be a trap: similar to interview questions asking people to talk about their failings or weaknesses.

Perhaps if you did something differently that’s the same as saying you got something wrong?

Maybe if you made a change you’re admitting there’s room for improvement?

I can understand the worry, but don’t think there is much to worry about. A question about starting again isn’t a trick or a trap: your examiners are trying to engage you. They want to know about what you’ve learned. There are many ways you could start to respond:

  • “Knowing what I know now, I’d start by exploring…”
  • “I’d save time as I wouldn’t have to learn how to…”
  • “I didn’t have the opportunity to research X; perhaps I’d start with that…”

You can’t start over. You can begin to explore just how far you’ve come – and what a difference that journey has made to you.

Repeating

Repeating.

You’ll probably be doing this in the viva. Saying similar things to what you’ve said or thought before. Rehashing old arguments and reasons. That’s OK – the viva is about exploring what you did and what you can do, so there’s bound to be an element of covering old ground (for you).

You need to do this in preparation of the viva too. Reading your thesis again, checking old notes and making new ones that summarise points. Checking papers you’ve read. Rehearsing with friends or supervisors the kinds of things that you might say in the viva itself. That’s to be expected.

But you could be repeating all through your final year too. Carefully, calmly repeating to yourself: I’m doing this. I’m good enough. I succeeded when I did X. I did something important when I finished Y. This chapter is good. I’m good. I’m good enough.

Repeating to yourself that you’re good enough isn’t magic or wish-making: it’s repeating the truth. It’s a reflection of yourself. Repeat the truth of how you’ve got this far, and you’ll find the confidence you need for your viva.

 

(this is a message I share a lot in my work, but let me know if you need to hear it again)

A Good End

I’m a little wistful lately, remembering the final days of my PhD.

Not my viva, not corrections, but those last few days when I was packing things up. It is late-summer 2008. My office-mates are either on holiday or have heads down trying to get things done while the campus is quiet.

I had stacks of papers I’d never read, filed away into a box where they remain never-read. Notes for ideas that I thought I might get to, which stayed filed away until a few years ago when I recycled them. Drawers with odds and ends, emptied out now into containers so they could be sorted.

There was no celebration though; no marking of the occasion by me or anyone else. We’d had dinner after passing my viva; months later I’d celebrate graduation, being Dr Nathan, with my family. On those days of finishing though, there was just me, the excess clutter of my research being loaded into boxes and a collection of bittersweet feelings rattling around my brain.

Endings can be complicated and not always within our control. We can try though. My wish for you today is that you have a little space to think, to reflect and then to plan what the end of your PhD might be like.

Your PhD doesn’t end with your viva. Graduation is the epilogue to your story. What would be a good end for your PhD?

Remembering Sir Ken Robinson

One day in late-August I found myself bursting into tears while casually browsing through a friend’s Facebook posts. They’d shared a short memorial post, and that was how I learned that Sir Ken Robinson had passed away. I cried reading the news, and felt upset for weeks afterwards.

Today would have been his 71st birthday. I never met him, but after finishing my PhD it was his voice that started me on the path I’ve been on ever since. His 2006 TED Talk connected with me in a profound way. Over the following years I read his books, pre-ordered them when he published more, scoured YouTube for more talks and reflected on his message, his presentation style, his wit and his passion.

Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent” was a framing that helped me as I explored how I could help researchers in the space I’d found myself in. His encouragement to try things, even uncertain things – “you won’t find anything original unless you’re willing to be wrong” – helped me to develop my work, my business and myself.

If you’ve never heard of Sir Ken Robinson before, I’d encourage you to learn more about him, his incredible life story and the great work that he did. We’ll feel his impact for a long time to come.

And for you, for today, I’d encourage reflection on your talents. By this stage in your PhD journey, you must be talented in many ways. How do you define your talents? What makes you certain of them? How will they help you find success in your viva?

And what might you do with your talents after your PhD is completed?

Average & Amazing

PhD candidates often want to know about the “average” viva:

  • How long do they usually take?
  • What do examiners most often ask?
  • How do they usually start?
  • What’s the most common outcome?

This is to be expected and a good set of expectations is really helpful for a candidate. There are plenty of questions about the average viva, but perhaps it’s even more useful to focus on questions for the amazing viva?

  • What do you most want to share with your examiners?
  • What are you looking forward to talking about?
  • What will you do to be well-prepared?

And, most importantly, what will you do to show up with as much confidence as you can find for this amazing event?

Expectations help, but so does preparation that raises you way above the average.

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