Highs & Lows

No project, period or PhD is super-excellent all the time, or super-terrible for that matter.

There’s ups and downs, highs and lows. I can remember some of mine from my PhD days…

Highs from my PhD:

  • Realising the fundamental structure of the first algorithm I created.
  • Winning a poster prize from my department.
  • Realising a key step of a proof before my supervisor – and being able to explain it to him.
  • Being asked to help with two residential skills workshops…
  • …and being invited back to help again after I did a good job the first time!

Lows from my PhD:

  • Postponing two months of supervisory meetings because I was ashamed I hadn’t solved something.
  • Comparing myself to office-mates who seemed so much more capable than me.
  • Not finding an answer to the problem in my seventh chapter.
  • Being super-anxious before every presentation I did.
  • Not admitting when I didn’t understand things.

What have yours been during your PhD? As you get closer to the viva, perhaps make a list of highs and a list of lows. File the lows list away – don’t throw it away, just don’t give it your attention. It doesn’t define you.

Keep the highs list to hand. Give it your attention from time to time through your preparation. You can find confidence from considering the highs of your PhD.

Postscript: this is another variation on the Make Two Lists approach of the wonderful Seth Godin! Credit where credit is due 🙂

Post-postscript: my viva doesn’t feature on either of my lists. I don’t think I know anyone who would put their viva on a list of PhD-highs or PhD-lows. Something to keep in mind maybe…

Two Lists For Viva Prep

Take a sheet of paper, divide it in two.

Down the left column write down problems for your viva. Anything you can think of that you’re worried about, or tricky questions, sticky situations, little worries and fears. Anything and everything.

Now in the right column, write at least one thing you could do for each problem. Ask a friend for help, read your thesis, learn something, do something. At least one thing – you may not know the solution for a problem, but you will definitely have ideas of where to start.

Cut the sheet in half, you now have a list of problems and a list of things that might help.

Which one do you want to focus on for your viva?

(inspired by this evergreen post of wonderful advice by Seth Godin)

You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

You Get To Have A Viva

A few weeks back I was moaning because I had to wake up at 4am to catch a flight. Grumble, grumble, too early, grumble, grumble, why do I have to do this?

Then I remembered Seth Godin’s recent post about the difference between “have to” and “get to.” This made me pause my grumbling, and gave me a chance to change my perspective.

I was still tired when I woke up, but I wasn’t looking at it as, “I have to wake up early.” Instead, I chose to focus on what I would get to do. I would get to fly! I would get to go and meet new people! I would get to do three Viva Survivor sessions, something I love doing!

If you feel stressed because you have to have a viva, see what you can do to change your perspective. You get to have a viva. You don’t just have to have a viva – you get to have one because of everything you’ve done.

A change of words can be enough to bring a change to how we feel.

The Culture Around Vivas

“People like us do things like this”

This phrase runs through my mind at least once per day. It’s Seth Godin‘s definition of culture, and I often bring it up when I tell people about the viva. It’s worth exploring to understand the process of the viva on the day, and to help you hone your expectations.

Vivas don’t just happen. There are regulations, but academics in your department have ideas about what a “good” viva might be. This is informed by practices of your department – the culture of your department. Maybe a “good” viva is two hours. Maybe it starts with certain questions. Maybe they like to explore certain topics. Maybe they proceed in a certain way. The definition of “good” will change over time, because the academics come to a shared idea of what a good viva is like.

People like your examiners do vivas like this.

And what does the phrase mean for you? You are talented, dedicated, you’ve done the work, you’re prepared…

People like you do things like passing the viva.

 

Postscript: I have a lot of things to be grateful to Seth Godin for since I first heard of him. Not least, he is the first person I heard of who shared a daily blog, with the goal of helping others and trying to be useful.

Two years ago today I started this little experiment by following his example. Over 700 posts later, I only wish I’d started sooner 🙂

How To Juggle

One of my heroes, Seth Godin, describes in one of his books why people struggle when they learn to juggle. Wannabe jugglers focus so much on trying to catch balls that they don’t throw them enough. They want the catch to be perfect so they hesitate. The secret, as he shares it, is that you need to throw the ball a lot more and not worry about a perfect catch. Better to start the action first before worrying about how you’ll complete it. Seth’s really talking about projects, and fear, and hesitating before making something good. Every project is throwing the ball from right hand to left, a chance to do something well.

PhDs unfold over a long period of time. A PhD is like a big project, but it’s wrong to see it as a single throw of a ball. There’s so much more involved. Like juggling, you get good at doing the PhD by doing it. Reading more, writing more, doing more. Each step is a single throw. When you’re near submission or the viva you’ve caught the ball a lot. You must have become good at doing your research. You must have become good at being a researcher.

The viva is a big deal. It’s normal to be nervous. If you’re feeling uncertain, reflect on your skills. Reflect on your progress. Reflect on what exists now that didn’t exist when you started your PhD. Your thesis didn’t just happen: you’ve made a lot of catches.