Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?

Simple and Easy

I worry that simple is equated with easy too often.

Too often I see people mistake the output for the process. It can take years of sifting through data, asking the right (and wrong) questions, or trying lots of things to arrive at an answer. And sometimes, after all of that, the final answer could be expressed in very few words.

Just because something can be explained simply doesn’t mean it has taken no effort to get to that explanation. If your ideas or research seem simple to explain now, don’t worry, your examiners will understand how you got to that point.

And if you find something easy at the end of your PhD, it can still be incredibly complicated – it could be too hard for other people – but not for you. Not at the end of your PhD.

Remember: simple and easy are not synonyms for each other; nor are they synonyms for worthless.

1-10-100-1000

On Day 1 of your PhD you have promise.

On Day 10 you might be worrying what you’ve let yourself in for, but you’re better than you were on Day 1.

On Day 100 you might be struggling, but there’s a path ahead even if you can’t see it.

On Day 1000 you’re doing so much more than you could at Day 100! Your thesis is taking shape, though there’s probably still a fair bit to do.

Well then: how good are you and your thesis going to be by the end? Pretty darn good.

Rest And Think

When do you do your best thinking? How do you relax? How do you organise your thoughts?

I think with a bit of reflection everyone can better their process. If you reflect on the above questions, you can start to think about how you improve. For example, for me:

  • I do my best thinking when I’m walking along the seafront – so maybe I should do more of this…
  • I relax well at the moment playing video games – and that’s nice but a bit lonely, so maybe I need to play more board games…
  • I use a couple of notebooks, but they run out too quick – so maybe I need to re-examine my system…

You don’t have to get better at something just for the sake of it, but if you want to improve you have to start from somewhere. After all, there’s a lot of thought needed in the production of a thesis, in the preparation for the viva and on the day itself. And for PhDs that question about relaxing is most important. Time off is never time wasted. Remember to take a day off, even if you’re preparing for the viva.

Connecting

My daughter is nearly four. While she seems to be changing all the time, there are some constants. Since a very early age we’ve read her a bedtime story every day. My wife and I love reading and telling stories and we want our daughter to be the same. Of course, we want her to simply enjoy stories at bedtime, but we hope it will make a connection for her life too. Books are great, stories are important.

Throughout your PhD you’ve built some strong connections with your research. Take a step back and think: what are they? Where do you feel personally involved with the research and the outcomes? If your viva is coming up, what new connections can you try to build between now and then? Look for new things in your thesis that are great, look for the parts of your research that are important.

No Guarantee

I knew what troubled me before the viva. I couldn’t explain the background of a particular chapter in my thesis. I understood the results perfectly. I didn’t understand the set-up. I tried to avoid thinking about it.

Methodology, results, conclusions, longevity of research – there are lots of areas that set people on edge, lots of directions tricky questions can come from. I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. The only thing I can think of is practice: find opportunities to practise answering tricky questions. It’s not a plan with a guarantee. It doesn’t mean that you’ll answer questions perfectly. You will answer them better and I think you’ll have less anxiety.

What kinds of questions do you feel you might struggle with in the viva? What can you do to answer them well?

As I said, I knew what troubled me before the viva and I tried to avoid thinking about it. That’s not a winning strategy.

SWOTting Up

SWOT is a neat thinking tool: rather than just throw ideas around to try to unpick a problem or situation it uses words to direct attention. As an acronym it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. For example, if you had an idea for writing a book and wanted to analyse it you might think about the following:

  • Strengths: what resources do you have? What knowledge can you pass on?
  • Weaknesses: what will you struggle with in the writing? What is difficult to share?
  • Opportunities: can you use the same material for something else? What doors might it open?
  • Threats: why might this not work? Is there a potential downside by doing it?

I love tools based around framing words and SWOT is a really flexible tool. It works well for reviewing a PhD thesis during viva preparation too:

  • Strengths: what are the highlights of the thesis? What might others find valuable?
  • Weaknesses: what parts are difficult to explain? What are the limitations of what you’ve done?
  • Opportunities: how might you extend your work? What can you do now?
  • Threats: how might someone criticise what you’ve done? Are there any potential problems?

What else can you do to look at your thesis a little bit differently?

Random Questions

At the start of my workshops I ask people for their questions about the viva. Anything and everything, procedure, practical stuff, advice, fears, really anything. My philosophy is “once people have an answer, they can move on, they don’t have to worry about that question any more. Even if they need to do something they know what they need to do.” I collect the questions on Post It notes. I’ve been doing this for seven years and have been recording them all for over three years.

Last month I got an odd question:

“Is anything in a session like this really applicable? Does it [the viva] simply depend on personalities? (randomness)”

If I’m honest, I felt a little… Irked. I was kind of thinking, “Huh. Someone decided to come… But then questioned the premise of what we’re doing? And right before we’d got started they decided to ask this?” It felt a little cutting, but that might not have been their intention. Maybe it was just their personality…

Back to the question. I don’t think the viva simply depends on personalities. An examiner could disagree with you, and that might not be an easy question or comment to take. An examiner could be really tired, or really grumpy, and so could you. The tone of the examination could be influenced by personalities, but none of that is predictable or within your control.

However, you can control what you do to prepare for the viva. What you read or re-read, what you learn about your examiners, the notes you make, the steps you take to remind yourself of everything you’ve done and can do. That’s all up to the researcher. If a session on viva prep shares some ideas about those sorts of things it will be pretty applicable, I think.

Last month I felt irked. Today I feel good. Questions help, even questions that seem left field or perhaps snarky. Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe they asked it wrong. When you get a question in the viva, try not to make assumptions about where it’s coming from. You can always ask why or for more details.

There could be a touch of “randomness” in the viva, but you can bring a lot of order in with you.

Understanding

“What did you do today Nathan?” I tried to show the complexity of the algorithm that I’ve been developing for the last three months. “…Bolognese for tea, OK?”

“How’s it going Nathan? What you been up to, finished that thing yet?” My PhD? Got another nine months, I think I’m on track but it all depends on proving the next result and then getting it all written up. “…Seen anyone else from school?”

My family and friends were very supportive when I was doing my PhD, but they didn’t really get it. Why should they, it had taken me a long time to get it. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, of course they did, but they didn’t understand what I did for the most part.

On the run up to the viva though, it might be useful if your friends and family can get a little understanding of what you’re about to do. Tell them what the viva is all about: it’s the exam at the end of the PhD. Tell them about your examiners and what they’ll be doing. Tell them what you’ll need to do to prepare – and what you might need from them.

It could be a bit of space to yourself, quiet in the evening to read. It could be time, so they’ll need to do the dishes while you mark up your thesis. It could even be telling your boss that you’ll need to arrange a little time off so that you can go to the viva.

Your friends and family are proud of you. Even if they don’t quite understand what you’ve been doing for all this time, they understand that it’s important to you. Help them to understand the end of the PhD and they’ll help you get there.