Changing My Thesis

I re-read my thesis now and cringe!

There are long, waffly sentences that need serious editing. The diagrams look amateur. The structure of the thesis barely supports how I frame my ideas. It could be so much better – and this doesn’t take into account what more or different research could show!

My thesis will never be perfect. Your thesis can never be perfect. There will always be things you could make better, but that doesn’t you won’t reach a point where you’re done.

Before submission you have to decide what “good enough” means, then work to achieve that standard. At your viva justify your decision. Your examiners might ask for some corrections you didn’t anticipate (or some you don’t agree with), but they’ll largely be requests to make it as good as they can reasonably imagine.

And eleven years later you might cringe!

It will never be perfect, but through submission time, the viva and afterwards you will find a good enough thesis to contain your research. Keep going until you’re finally done.

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.

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.

7 Questions On The Journey

When your viva is a few days away, take thirty minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What was the first day of your PhD like?
  2. How about the end of your first month?
  3. What was it like at your transfer viva?
  4. How did you feel the first time you presented your research?
  5. And how about the most recent time?
  6. How did you feel at submission?
  7. How do you feel now you’re almost-prepared for the viva?

You have to improve over the course of doing a PhD. You change, but day-to-day you might not feel it. Take a little time before your viva to reflect on the beginning, middle and almost-end of your research journey. Just before the viva you might feel a little nervous, a little excited, but hopefully you can see that the last several years have been a process leading you to the talented, wonderful researcher you are now.

Lost & Found

You will almost certainly lose some things over the course of a PhD.

Probably you’ll lose track of good ideas. You’ll forget the name of an author. That little project you were going to do. That section you were going to write. Perhaps even a chapter that just won’t fit with everything else.

Whatever you lose or forget, don’t forget you will find far more than you lose.

Ideas that make a difference. Skill, talent, ability. A thesis that matters. Confidence in your self, I hope.

Think about what you’ve lost in preparation for the viva, but only a little; don’t forget that your examiners really want to hear about what you’ve found along the way.

Simple Instructions

Help for the viva can be summarised very simply.

  1. Before submission, do the work. Write a good thesis.
  2. After submission, read your thesis. Reflect and write on your research. Practise answering unexpected questions. Remind yourself that you must be talented.
  3. On the day, present your most confident self. Listen to questions, pause, respond as well as possible.

It’s simple, but not always easy.

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.

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?

You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.