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?

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.