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.

Three Favourite Summaries

I like thinking about and developing ideas to get people creating summaries of their thesis.

An essential part of the viva prep process is to think about your research, and it’s useful to take a step back and try to think differently. Rather than let that thinking be abstract and drift away, it makes sense to capture it, both to help clarify what you think and to build a resource.

While I’ve been tinkering away on lots of ideas for a long time, when I deliver a Viva Survivor session, there are three in particular I recommend to candidates:

  1. “What’s Important?” – a simple, powerful question, framed on a single sheet of paper for each chapter. “What’s important?” can prompt a lot of thoughts in a lot of different ways, and restricting the answer to one side of paper for a chapter forces you to be thoughtful and not just wander off.
  2. Edited Bibliography – a prompt to explore the most useful references that support your thesis. Your thesis bibliography might stretch to hundreds and hundreds of articles, but what’s at the core of that? What would help a reader more than anything? What helps your research more than anything? What are the twenty or thirty most useful references? That’s your edited bibliography.
  3. A VIVA Summary – using four prompts to analyse a chapter and really direct your thoughts about your thesis. What’s Valuable to others in this chapter? What is Interesting to you? What do you find Vague or unclear? What questions might you like to Ask your examiners? These four prompts help to explore not just the ideas in your thesis, but how you express them, how you made them real and a lot more.

These are my favourites, and they can help a lot. If you try them, let me know how well they work for you!

Nice, But Not Necessary

As you finish up your thesis, take twenty minutes to make a list of all the things that didn’t quite make it.

  • What did you not have time for?
  • What did you not have enough resources to do?
  • What didn’t come together in your thinking?
  • What did you realise too late to do anything about?
  • What would you have changed if possible?

Label the list Nice, But Not Necessary. Add anything else you had thought to do, thought was a good idea, but which you didn’t get to. It can help you to think around your thesis, different approaches, tangents that would be good to explore, ideas that could have merit.

Interesting stuff, but not essential.

Keep the list, but know you don’t need to focus on what-might-have-been. Your thesis, the necessary, the essential, is good enough.

You Get To Have A Viva

A few weeks back I was moaning because I had to wake up at 4am to catch a flight. Grumble, grumble, too early, grumble, grumble, why do I have to do this?

Then I remembered Seth Godin’s recent post about the difference between “have to” and “get to.” This made me pause my grumbling, and gave me a chance to change my perspective.

I was still tired when I woke up, but I wasn’t looking at it as, “I have to wake up early.” Instead, I chose to focus on what I would get to do. I would get to fly! I would get to go and meet new people! I would get to do three Viva Survivor sessions, something I love doing!

If you feel stressed because you have to have a viva, see what you can do to change your perspective. You get to have a viva. You don’t just have to have a viva – you get to have one because of everything you’ve done.

A change of words can be enough to bring a change to how we feel.

The Number One Tip

What’s your number one tip for the viva?

I was asked this recently by a PhD candidate…

Take time to think is a good one for the viva; make sure you pause and think before answering.

Read your thesis carefully after submission is another that has a lot of value.

Try not to worry too much is a good tip, but can be tricky to put into practice!

These are good ideas, but my number one tip is this:

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Think back over the last few years. How did you get to this point? What have you done? What were the key events? How did you do it? How are you talented? What have you achieved?

Because it wasn’t all down to luck. There may be times you feel very grateful that something good has happened, but nothing just happens. You’ve worked hard to get to submission and the viva.

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Elevating Your Thesis Pitch

I’m sorting out my home office while I procrastinate about my next book. I’ve gathered a lot of notes and material over the last ten years of working with researchers, and not all of it is useful now. There are workshops I regularly did ten years ago that I’m not involved with now, and yet I’ve kept all of those notes just in case. It’s time to be ruthless, but I read and check them all one last time.

Just in case.

I found an old note about the 5Ps for elevator pitches and sharing business ideas. You can use the 5Ps – pain, premise, people, proof, purpose – to frame what you’re going to say about your amazing business proposal. These are essentially a shorthand for questions you’re answering while you tell the story of your idea.

  • Pain: what is the thing your business helps with?
  • Premise: how does your idea help with the pain?
  • People: who do you have on your team?
  • Proof: how do you know that your idea works?
  • Purpose: why are you doing this?

I like simple models for telling stories and communicating ideas. So when I found the 5Ps in an old note, one thing in the centre of a page of now-redundant information I wrote it out as a reminder. After a week of stewing at the back of my brain, I realised it could be a good way of reflecting what your research is about.

If you were to give a thesis elevator pitch, perhaps you could use the same 5Ps to prompt some questions and exploration.

  • Pain: what is the problem your research addresses?
  • Premise: how did you set about finding answers?
  • People: whose work do you reference in your thesis?
  • Proof: how do you know that what you’ve done is good?
  • Purpose: why did you want to do this research?

Each of these questions is generally good to explore before the viva. Together they make a neat little story about your research. Reflection and writing summaries before the viva is good preparation because it gives you opportunities to think about your work, and practice how you could talk about what you’ve done during your PhD.

Just in case.

The Value of Valuable Questions

I love finding valuable questions. I try to read as widely as possible in things like self-help books, coaching blogs and interviews with interesting people. The ideas and advice are often helpful, but a good question hooks my attention more than anything.

In a recent TEDx post I came across a really insightful question:

What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?

The article is asking in the context of time management and organisation, but this makes me think more generally. Perhaps, what can I do today to make my future brighter? What can I start now to set up a better later?

It gives me two thoughts for the viva and viva prep particularly. First, what’s the most important thing you can do today for your prep that will make the rest of your viva preparations better?

Second, what important things have you done throughout your PhD that makes your current situation great?

Preparation and reflection both help as you get close to the viva.

What other valuable questions help you? And where could you get more from?

Reflecting On Acknowledgements

Just over eleven years ago I wrote this in the front of my thesis:

A thesis might be written by one person, but that one person could not possibly write it without many, many more people helping and supporting them. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have helped me over the last four years.

First and foremost I have to thank my family, my mum Susan and my sisters Rebecca and Sophie, for their love, support and encouragement.

Thanks to Professor Hugh Morton, my supervisor, who has been a great mentor and a patient teacher throughout my studies.

I’ve made many friends while studying at Liverpool, and there are a few I want to thank in particular. I’d like to thank Shaine, Andy, John and Angela – “The Mathematicians” – thank you all for your example, your help, your humour, and your friendship; thank you Helena for being a great office-mate and for making me think more mathematically; thank you Rachel for being a fantastic and supportive friend. I’m so lucky that we did our PhDs together.

I acknowledge financial support from EPSRC and the Department of Mathematical Sciences; my thanks to both, especially for giving me the chance to attend conferences in the UK and abroad.

In my first lecture at Liverpool the lecturer began, “There is a famous proverb, three things come not back: the said word, the sped arrow, and the missed opportunity.” I’d like to think that I’ve made the most of my time at Liverpool; thank you to everyone who has been a part of it.

I’m always happy to see the acknowledgements page in someone’s thesis. Acknowledgements are a nice way to say thank you, and sometimes a way of adding something personal to what could (in some fields) be quite an impersonal thesis.

They’re also good to help us reflect on how we got to where we are.

A PhD and a thesis don’t just happen. However much work you do, you don’t do it without help. I owe a lot to the practical and emotional support that others gave me during my PhD. I owe a lot to the support I continue to get now.

Reflect, as your PhD journey comes to a conclusion, on how other people have helped you get to where you are. Find the moments in your story where that help has been most helpful. Say thank you, and if you have the chance, think about how you could make a difference in the future to someone on their PhD journey.

Three Lots of Three Whats

I like “Three Whats” – what, so what, now what – as a means to start reflections and forward thinking. Like many prompt and reflection tools, they have a much wider application.

For Preparation…

  • What will help you feel ready for the viva?
  • So what are you going to do?
  • Now what is your first step?

Giving A Summary Of Your Research…

  • What started your interest in this area?
  • So what was the result of your research?
  • Now what does that mean for others as a result?

Debriefing After A Mock Viva…

  • What did that feel like?
  • So what does that mean for the real viva?
  • Now what are you going to do?

I’m a huge fan of tools and frameworks. They’re useful for getting started, you don’t begin with a completely blank page.

What else could you apply the “Three Whats” to?

So what are you waiting for?

Now wh– I’ll stop!