Katamari PhD!

During my PhD I became aware of the Katamari Damacy series of video games. They’re odd games, really colourful, really lively music – I used to write for hours while listening to the soundtracks! – and lots of fun.

The basics are always the same in a Katamari Damacy game: you are the Prince, a tiny creature tasked with making stars by your father, the King of All Cosmos. Your only means to do this is to roll up things using a katamari, a sticky ball that gets bigger and bigger and can roll up larger things as it gets larger. Levels end when you have created a crazy kind-of-ball that your father then turns into a star!

But the King is eccentric and all-powerful. What he says goes, and if he doesn’t like your katamari then it won’t get to be a star. And he’ll blast you with his cosmic eye-beams as punishment for failure.

The Katamari Damacy games are WEIRD. To some people they make no sense. To some, you can explain what you’re doing and why and still they look at you as if you have gone insane. How is this fun? How does this work? Why would you do this? What’s the point of all this???

The very best game we could use as a metaphor for the PhD is Katamari Damacy.

Lots of people won’t get your PhD. Those who do will really get it. The skills for success at both can be learned, though there are bound to be failures along the way. The skills for success might seem odd compared with useful skills in other areas, but they are necessary to master. They take time. As you go along the ideas that go into your thesis get bigger and bigger. A small notion leads to big ideas, that lead in turn to bigger concepts and results. And when you get to the end your thesis is weighed up by some all-powerful cosmic god-creatures who decide if it passes!

…OK, so my little thesis falls down towards the end! Still, for me and my PhD, Katamari Damacy seems like a great fit. I rolled along for years adding layers of ideas to my thesis-ball, growing in scale and importance. I didn’t always know exactly where I was going or how I was going to get there, but I had purpose motivating me.

If you’re getting closer to submission, and the time when your Cosmic Examiners weigh up your contribution, think about how you got there. What were the steps you made along the way? What were the little ideas that you had and how did they get big? How did you roll your thesis bigger and bigger?

Most important of all, what makes your thesis a star? And what makes you a star?

Cover for the original Katamari Damacy game! 🙂


Noun. Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.

You are the best in the world on the subject of your thesis.

You did the research. You wrote the thesis. Thousand and thousands of hours of work.

It will take people with expertise to read your thesis and get something from it.

No-one else will have the expertise that you do. That might not be enough to help you feel completely confident for your viva, but it’s a good starting point.

You Don’t Have To

You don’t have to have a mock viva.

You don’t have to have a conversation with your supervisor about your examiners.

You don’t have to read your thesis beforehand.

You don’t have to talk to people about their experiences.

You don’t have to ask for help.

You have to show up for the viva and do your best, but there is no list of things that you have to do.

There are lots of things that will help though. Everything mentioned above, just for starters. You don’t have to do everything, but you probably need to do something.

Ask yourself what you need, then get to it.

Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

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.