What Have You Forgotten?

I believe it’s worth reflecting on this a little before the viva.

What have you forgotten?

Perhaps you can’t know for sure. You’ve had to edit out papers, ideas and references that didn’t fit. You forgot them, to concentrate on what mattered.

Perhaps there are details that elude you sometimes; if so, what can you do make them more memorable or to summarise them?

Perhaps you view the question as an almost-irrelevance, a nonsense. How could you remember what you’ve forgotten?

I think it’s useful to remember that however much you have forgotten, accidentally or so you could focus, there must be so much more that you remember by the end of your PhD. You have a lot of knowledge, which doesn’t mean simply knowing more: you know more of what you need.

What have you forgotten? What do you remember? What do you know?

Creation or Discovery

When I was a mathematician, some of my colleagues said maths research was like sculpture. A big block of stone was chipped away at until you had the art you were trying to make. You have to start with everything and keep working until you have the proof you wanted.

I was always fond of that analogy, and of the two philosophies that followed. One mathematician might say they were really creating the maths and results. Maths is an act of creation. Another mathematician would say the maths was already there, hidden, waiting to be revealed. In this way, maths is an act of discovery. I loved hearing different takes on this, and personally, when it comes to maths I’m on the side of discovery – the ideas are out there waiting to be found!

I’ve heard similar thoughts and feelings from people in other lines of research too. Often though, I notice people enthusiastically discussing this topic but missing something fundamental. Creation or discovery don’t happen by accident, only through work. Whether you create an equation or discover it, you do the work.

Whatever you have in your thesis, whatever kind of research you discuss in your viva, it only happens because you did it.

Making An Impression

A question from a nervous candidate, “What should I wear for the viva? I want to make the right first impression on my examiners!”

Except that’s not the first impression. Your examiners’ first impression is your thesis. They get their first impression long before they meet you in the viva.

Wear something that helps you to feel confident: there are far more important questions to grapple with than what should you wear.

What have you written? What did you do? What does it mean and why does it matter?

And what impression do you hope your thesis will make?

Implications

Whatever else your thesis has – ideas, opinions, theories, hypotheses, results, conclusions – it has implications.

  • What might someone else do with your work?
  • How might they be inspired?
  • What questions do we now know to ask?
  • What questions do we know are foolish?
  • What does your thesis mean?

Thoughts in these areas could be rich for useful viva preparation – and relevant topics for conversation in the viva.

Gaps & Holes

At the start of your PhD you have gaps: the things your research seeks to address.

At the end of your PhD you have holes: the things you didn’t get to, couldn’t show or don’t know.

Both need some of your viva preparation time. Reflect on the research gap to better share it with your examiners. Explore the holes so you can talk about them confidently in the viva.

Your thesis and research are more than gaps and holes, of course, but both will matter in the viva.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Your examiners will want to talk about the strengths of your work in the viva. They’re there to talk to you about your contribution. Spend time in your prep thinking about what makes your work strong. How is it new? How does it make a difference? What makes it good? Why does it matter?

Your examiners might want to explore weaknesses. They might want to unpick clumsy sentences that don’t express what you had hoped. They may want to ask about limitations. The potential for improving on your research could be a rewarding topic of conversation. What could you do differently? Are you sure you’re right? Why?

Spend a little time thinking about your weaknesses. Spend much more time reflecting on your strengths. The background assumption for the viva is there is something valuable in what you’ve done – be ready to talk about your strengths!

What Was Hard?

Was it reading everything you did to understand your discipline?

Was it finding ways to frame questions for your research?

Was it difficult getting to grips with methods and processes?

Was it tough to write your thesis?

Anything that’s hard at PhD level is valuable. It has to be. It’s either valuable because it’s practically hard, taking time to acquire skills or understanding, or it’s valuable because it’s original. Anything you’ve found hard during your PhD (even if you find it less difficult now) is valuable.

Valuable is a sign post leading in the direction of what makes your research significant: why it matters and what kind of a difference it makes. Take time before the viva to think about what was hard. You’ll unpick some of what you’ll need to talk about with your examiners.

Favourite Failures

I have failed many times.

Three years ago I spent a lot of effort and time developing an independent viva preparation workshop. I found a great venue and booked it three times upfront. I spent a lot of time and money making resources, promoting the events, and I got a lot of attention from people who said it was a great idea. Dozens of people expressed interest in going.

Then only four people came to the first session.

Only one person came to the second.

I cancelled the third session a few days before it was due to happen. No-one was signed up. Months of work and thousands of pounds. The idea just didn’t connect. It wasn’t what people wanted, or maybe I didn’t find a way to explain what it was.

In any case, my independent viva preparation workshop project had failed.

I remember during my PhD I spent months of time (thankfully not thousands of pounds) on calculations to prove something I thought was true. Hundreds of hours, hundreds of sheets of paper and in the end, I didn’t get the answer. I couldn’t find the answer. I couldn’t show that I was on track or that I had gone wrong.

I had failed in my research.

For some time, in both cases, I felt bad. I had failed, I hadn’t done what I set out to do.

But in both cases, I realised, I didn’t have nothing. For my PhD, I still got a chapter in my thesis. I was able to show the limits of calculating things in a certain way. I was able to improve on what was known previously. I didn’t have a final answer, but I had some new questions. I couldn’t tell you what happened in every case, but I was able to show some new examples.

My independent workshop idea didn’t work. That’s OK. It pushed me to do more and do better. I made lots of new resources, was able to share them, and started thinking about different ways I could deliver the session in universities. Ultimately that failure lead me to doing this daily blog. If I hadn’t explored the independent session, this blog wouldn’t be here.

Now, all of this isn’t simply looking for silver linings, or making lemonade from life’s lemons: it’s honestly reflecting that failures can still lead to later wins. Just because something didn’t work out the way you wanted, doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing.

So think: what didn’t work out in your PhD the way you wanted? What did you get even though you didn’t get the victory you were perhaps looking for? How could you communicate that to your examiners?

How can you convince yourself too?

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.

Niches

It’s only recently, when reflecting on my PhD, that I realised my research niche wasn’t my topic.

It wasn’t skein invariants of knots, or two-variable polynomial properties of three-dimensional links; that was my topic, but my niche was edge cases and little results. During my PhD I looked for small problems; I searched for opportunities to apply methods to specific restricted cases. I proved a couple of open theorems, but I really loved finding processes for calculating things. My niche was algorithms, not knot theory. My niche was the questions I was asking, not the part of my field that I was exploring.

So what is your niche? How would you describe it? What does it mean to you? Do you have a neat way of telling others about it?

And do you have a useful way of describing it in the viva, if your examiners should ask?