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.

A Contentious Thesis?

Don’t worry. It means you have something interesting in your research. It means that in the viva your examiners have a lot to ask about.

And it means you’ve been working on your thesis for a long time. You will know how to engage with people who aren’t sure. With people who want to know more. With people who have their own ideas.

So read up, think, have a mock viva and conversations with friends, and get ready to explore your work.

Skeletons

Let’s make some assumptions about your PhD:

  • you didn’t plagiarise;
  • you didn’t falsify results;
  • you didn’t try to misrepresent anything in your work.

All fair? Then there can’t really be any skeletons in your research closet. Maybe there are realisations you feel you “should” have had sooner. Maybe there are questions or ideas that you groan at having considered. None of these are shameful secrets though. You might not feel like telling everyone about them, but they don’t disqualify you.

Fundamental question about your PhD: were you honest? Yes?

Good. Then everything else helped you learn. Your mistakes have helped you grow to be the talented researcher you most definitely are.

Current

“How long will your work be seen as current?”

I don’t know how common this question is in the viva, but I think it is a fantastic question to explore in preparation.

Get a piece of paper and jot down notes for an hour. Turn the question around in many different ways.

You have to think about the history of your discipline. What’s lead up to your research? You have to reflect on the value of your thesis. You have to see what is happening in your field, and think about how your work has been received so far.

You might put an estimate on the length of time your work will be seen as novel or useful. It could be that five years from now there will be something else that occupies the scholars of your field. That’s fine. Recognise that your work is a part of the unfolding story of research.

Your work makes a contribution to the sum of human knowledge.

(it sounds grand but it’s true!)

Learning From Mistakes

Nevermind typos in my final thesis, I made far bigger mistakes throughout my PhD research…

  • I spent days trying to solve a typesetting issue, before realising I was making a simple code error.
  • I tried for weeks to organise a set of numbers before realising that I was really overcomplicating the situation.
  • And I worked for months trying to solve a series of calculations before admitting that the problem was way too complex for my PhD.

In all of these I struggled, I was frustrated and at times I was bitterly disappointed – but I learned.

I learned how to be a better coder. I learned to see problems in new ways. I learned to stop and say no.

Where did you make mistakes during your PhD? What did you learn? And how has that made you a better, more talented researcher?

Limits

A PhD is all about limits.

  • There’s a limit to how much you could do.
  • There’s a limit to how many questions you could ask and answer.
  • There’s a limit to how many papers you could read.
  • There’s a limit to how long you can spend writing your thesis.
  • There’s a limit to how much time you can invest in preparing for your viva.

You can’t do everything you want. There will always be other things you could do.

You have a choice. You can focus on everything that didn’t happen; you can try to speculate and account for all of the maybes and possibles…

…or you could focus on your limits and where they’ve lead you.

You’ve got this far through your research journey by having limits. Keep going.

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.

Significant Original Contribution

I’ve heard these three words used so many times to describe what a PhD needs to produce. I’ve said them myself thousands of times in workshops! But what do we mean when we say these words? What are we getting at? Checking the thesaurus gives some helpful ideas…

Significant: compelling, important, momentous, powerful, serious, rich…

Original: authentic, initial, first, beginning, pioneer, primary…

Contribution: addition, improvement, increase, augmentation, present, gifting…

Significant original contribution is nice shorthand to capture the result of a PhD’s journey. Go deeper into the words to remind yourself just how awesome your research is.

Tearing Off The Paper

About six weeks ago I watched as a dozen children almost went to war in my living room. The reason?

Pass The Parcel.

It was my daughter’s fifth birthday party, and she’d insisted on playing a lot of games, including Pass The Parcel. We decided it would be like Pass The Parcel from our childhoods, with a single prize in the centre, and no little prize with every layer.

Well.

The kids were in uproar. We told them there was just one in the centre, but they were confused. Wh- Why?! Where were the little prizes? Then I want to win the one in the centre! They were desperate to hold on to the parcel in case this layer was the layer. They stopped having fun. We thought it would be alright, they would see the fun in taking part, taking a layer off getting closer to the prize, but they didn’t. Wanting the prize was too much for them. In the end, we fudged the final round so a particularly desperate child won.

(I feared tears and physical violence if they didn’t)

I was thinking about this game of Pass The Parcel the other day and was reminded of my PhD, and research more generally.

Sometimes, you only get to tear the paper off; sometimes, you don’t get to the big answer, the thing you were looking for. You get closer, but not all the way to the prize.

And that’s fine, you learn, you grow and you move everyone in your field forward.

It can be hard though, doing a PhD, writing a thesis, preparing for the viva, to see it that way. It might be true, but will your examiners see it that way? Or will they focus solely on why you didn’t get to the end goal? Examiners appreciate that not every research journey ends at the point one might want. They’ll have the experience to recognise what you’ve done if you don’t reach the point you wanted.

Your job, if this is your situation, is to be able to talk about how far you went. How close you came. What the different layers you tore off were. How you might have done it differently. And what other steps someone might need to take to reach the prize.