The Extra Mile

During my PhD I didn’t have to extend my algorithm to consider the HOMFLY polynomial…

…but I thought it was more useful than just writing it was possible in a discussion section.

I didn’t have to produce tables of plait presentations in my thesis…

…but I knew that no-one else had done it before and thought it might be helpful to someone.

When have you gone the extra mile in your PhD? When have you done something, big or small, that maybe wasn’t essential but which helped?

Make a list of what and why. Don’t play them down. They can show others your drive to do something valuable for your field.

Lightbulb Moments

What were your lightbulb moments during your PhD? When did you find yourself getting something, suddenly, maybe inexplicably, like someone just flicked a switch? What was happening? What had you tried already? How did you make that connection?

Last year, I wrote about a real lightbulb moment during my PhD. It’s no exaggeration to say that this idea, when applied, helped me to write three chapters of my thesis. It was a tiny result that allowed many others. It came to me like magic.

But it wasn’t.

It was work.

It came after weeks of exploration. Lots of failed attempts. Dozens of diagrams, calculations and notes that went around and around. And then the answer came, after work has made it possible to see the connection.

Sometimes results or ideas in research seem to come out of nowhere. Conclusions jump out from a sea of ideas and data. They’re a product of work, not luck.

Look back over your PhD before the viva. Find your lightbulb moments, then deconstruct them. How did you get to that moment when the light came on?

Necessary, Broccoli

Necessary and broccoli are my two word nemeses: two words that I can’t reliably spell correctly. It bugs me. It frustrates me. It’s not every day that I have to write about vegetables, but necessary is… essential. Spellcheck can sort me out when typing, but I’m often writing longhand on a flipchart in front of twenty people. I don’t want to mess up.

Lately I’ve just been thinking “one C, two Cs” to help me remember. It’s not perfect. For the most part I’ve got my frustration under control. Necessary and broccoli are two little blips that I can deal with. While I can’t always remember how to spell those words, there’s a lot more that I can do – a lot more I can do really well.

I remember preparing for my viva. My mind drifted to all of the little things (and some big) that my examiners might focus on. I can remember the frustration on my part, “Why didn’t I do X? Why don’t I know Y? When will I ever understand Z?”

After spending so long working on something and wanting it to be good, it’s easy to focus on things that you could do better. It’s hard not to wonder what examiners will make of flaws, blips and rough edges in your research or your practice. Maybe there are ways to make X, Y or Z better, but if those are the things you focus on you’ll just lead your mind to doubt.

So what can you do? Focus on your strengths first.

Start a list of things that are great in your research. Results, writing, presentation, style, your ideas, your insights, your passion, your supervisor, that one meeting that one time where you made a great observation, whatever you can find.

Don’t dismiss weakness, but don’t let that be the guide. Every time you come to do some viva prep, take out the list, quickly read it, then see if you can add one or two more things.

You’ve done a lot of great work to get you to the viva.