Biased

How do you know your approach is a good one?

Is there only one way of interpreting your results?

Through years of study and focus, have you found one way of doing something, and now you only see that way of doing it?

Check your biases before the viva. Ask for your supervisor’s perspective. Ask if there were things that you discarded or which might be valuable. What have you ignored? What have you put to one side as you narrowed your focus?

You’re not looking for problems for the sake of it. You’re building certainty in the way you’ve done things, by being sure that you’ve not done something one way simply because you’re used to thinking of it that way.

The Weakest Parts

I think everyone, if they look, will find things in their thesis that they think are weak.

When they find them, they’ll feel bad and start to worry.

If this is you, you’ve found something and are worried, please reflect on the following three points:

  • First, it’s probably not as bad as you think. In wanting to succeed in your PhD, and wanting your thesis to be the best it can be, you’ve aimed for perfection and missed. Perfect is impossible.
  • Second, something that’s “weak” doesn’t just happen. There are reasons. List them, then interrogate them. Why did it turn out this way? What’s the cause? What could you do about it if you had more time/resources/interest and so on?
  • Third, weak is relative. If your thesis was all weak, you wouldn’t have made it to submission. You see something missing because you see what’s around it. You see something as weak because of strengths of your research.

Don’t ignore the weakest parts of your work, but try not to make them the biggest focus of your viva preparations either.

Asking The Literature

When the viva is coming up you’ll want to be sure of your methods.

Can you defend them? How did you arrive at them? Were they the only way to tackle the problem?

You’ll want to get your head clear on your conclusions too.

What are they? What do they mean? Why do they matter?

Maybe you’ll want to spend some time reflecting on what else you or someone could do with your thesis as inspiration.

How could you follow up this work? Who do you hope will be influenced? What’s your dream for how someone would take this forward?

These are all good questions that focus on your research – but spare a few questions for your literature review and bibliography. Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it didn’t appear from nowhere. What were the most helpful references that influenced your methods? How did your reading support your conclusions? What does the literature tell you about the way your discipline is evolving?

Changing your perspective is useful. Different questions and perspectives can help prompt different reflections. You can probably find something interesting and valuable by thinking about where your work has come from.

Take some time before the viva to reflect on the literature that helped you complete your thesis.

Debrief

If your PhD is anything like mine – or, come to think of it, any PhD I know – it has been full of ups and downs, both at work and in your personal life. The viva marks the end of a great big part of your life. A PhD is made from triumphs and victories, mistakes and missteps, everything that has happened has either helped you get over the finish line or at least not thwarted your ambition.

You’re done! (or at least you will be once you’ve done your corrections and you’ve graduated, officially)

So: what will you take away from all of this? Not just in terms of the research contribution, but you, personally: what have you learned? How have you grown? How have you changed as a person?

By the end of my PhD I was confident that I could do big things. I believed in my talent as a mathematician and at being able to solve problems. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a mathematician any more. I’d enjoyed my PhD, but was pretty certain I’d gone as far as I could in my field. I was looking for my next challenge.

How about you?

As your PhD draws to a conclusion, make time to reflect on what it all means. You get a certificate to mark the success of your PhD. It’s up to you to debrief yourself. Figure out what you’ve learned from the endeavour, and what it means for your future.

Start Again

What would you do if you could start your PhD again?

Would you follow the same process, explore the same topics? Would you want to take on something different?

Would you look for other ideas, dodge methods that didn’t work or papers that weren’t helpful?

How would you steer someone starting a PhD in your discipline?

Take twenty minutes to reflect on these questions. Make some notes to get the thoughts out. They’re not exhaustive by any means, but the answers can help you think before the viva about what you’ve learned about being a researcher through your PhD.

Pride & Achievements

Make a list of everything you’ve done that makes you feel proud. Think about all of the achievements in your PhD. Reflect on why they matter to you.

Within that list you’ll find the strengths of your work. You’ll see your research’s contributions. You made those contributions.

Make your list. Reflect on all you’ve done. Think about why you could be confident to meet the challenges of your viva.

Behind The Curtain

In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all thought they were missing something.

The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the Tin Man lacked a heart and the Lion had no courage. Dorothy takes them to see the Wizard, thinking that a great and powerful man like him will be able to give them the qualities they lack. Ultimately though, he shows them there is nothing he can give that they didn’t already have. All he gives them are symbols that recognise what was there.

Those qualities were there because they had the opportunity to show them through their adventures. They had to do something to demonstrate their intelligence, their love, their bravery, but after years of doubt they couldn’t see they had those qualities. They had to have the symbol and someone to point it out to them.

There are two Wizards in your viva. They can’t magically give you a PhD. Their questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, something that you’ve been doing for a long time.

The curtain is pulled back and the truth is there. There’s no magic, but that’s no problem. You already have everything you need.

The Anti-Top Ten Top Fives

Lists can be a good way to start reflections and summaries. I’ve previously shared Top Ten Top Fives and Ten More Top Fives as prompts to get candidates thinking about the best of their research. They can be a nice way to highlight valuable aspects of your PhD ahead of the viva.

But can we find something useful in taking another point of view? Looking at the negative or the worst aspects? Let’s see!

  1. Top Five Bad Papers You’ve Read!
  2. Top Five Worst Talks You’ve Attended!
  3. Top Five Frustrating Challenges Of Your PhD!
  4. Top Five Typos In Your Thesis!
  5. Top Five Examiners You Don’t Want!
  6. Top Five Mistakes You Made!
  7. Top Five Changes You Would Make!
  8. Top Five Things You Don’t Want In Your Viva!
  9. Top Five Ways You Could Improve Your Skills!
  10. Top Five Improvements You Could Make To Your Thesis!

Some of these might seem silly but remember: this is the start of a reflection or summary.

After you list these details, keep going. Ask why. Ask how. Ask what you learned from your mistakes. Think about how you overcame your challenges. Why were those papers bad? How would you improve your thesis?

Simply dwelling on the negative isn’t often helpful, but you can use it as a springboard to something great.

Past, Present, Future

An upcoming viva, like any major life event, can come to dominate your day-to-day life. There’s likely nervousness, possibly excitement, a slight melancholy at another chapter of your life coming to a close. There’s wondering if you’re ready, wondering what will be asked, wondering how it will go…

The viva is important, but it’s not the biggest thing you’ll do in your life, or even in your PhD. If you feel like your viva is really starting to take over then you could:

  • look back at your PhD for evidence that you’re exactly where you need to be;
  • make a plan for the prep you’re going to do in the near future, and restrict it to only certain times;
  • think about everything you’re going to do after your PhD is done.

The viva is important, but it’s vital for your own wellbeing that you keep it in the proper perspective. Consider the past, the present and the future to keep you grounded and sure of your talent.

Your Excellent Thesis

It’s not realistic to expect your thesis to be perfect, but it’s important not to think that your thesis is just “OK.”

“You’ve produced an average account of your satisfactory research.”

No! Start by considering what’s excellent about your thesis!

  • What are the best parts?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What really makes a difference?
  • What stands out?
  • How could someone be inspired by your research?
  • What do you love about your research?

Make some notes for yourself. Don’t forget. What’s excellent?