The Busy Final Year

In the final year of a PhD it’s not hard to get swept up in the emotions and actions of everything that you need to get done.

Finishing research, finishing writing-up, working towards whatever will come after the PhD and thinking about the viva – at times it can seem like there’s way too much to get done in a year. How do you prioritise? What do you do first? And how do you weave all of the other things you need to do into a packed schedule?

Full answers to those three questions could fill a book, but when it comes to thinking about the viva at least the answer is simple: do nearly nothing.

Nearly nothing.

At some point in your final year it’s good to have a chat with your supervisor about potential examiners. You can see what names are being suggested and probably suggest some of your own. It’s worth checking regulations around submission and the viva, so you know what’s what and can be sure of not getting any nasty surprises.

Before submission those are the only two things you must do for your viva in the final year. Preparation, making notes, mock vivas, summaries and the rest can wait until after submission.

There’s lots to do in the final year. Planning takes time – work takes time! But the viva doesn’t have to dominate your work until after submission. Make sure your attention and efforts are fixed where they will be most effective.

The Last Thing

One of my favourite questions to ask final year PhD researchers is “What’s the biggest challenge in the way of you finishing?”

It’s good to focus. It’s good, even if it is something scary, to get it out in the open. Once it is acknowledged, it can be worked on. Once you’ve said, “This is the biggest, most important thing I still have to do,” then you can start to plan what actions need to be taken. Maybe you won’t work on it every day, but you know what your biggest priority is.

It could also be a good way to frame your viva preparation.

Maybe, “What is the most important thing I need to do before the viva?”

Or, “What is the biggest gap in my preparation?”

Or, maybe try asking yourself, “What’s the best thing I can do to continue my success?”

Done or Finished?

Two words that people use a lot around the end of the PhD.

Finished makes me think that something is over. But there’s always more! More experiments, more words, more questions. So I don’t like finished for a thesis, a viva or a PhD. There’s always something more that could be added.

(could, not should)

Done doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a bit too short, a bit final, a bit simple for the complex and messy nature of research.

The thesis, the viva, your PhD, they all mean something. Done and finished feel lacking.

The word I’m leaning towards is completed. Completed feels right. The thesis, the viva, your PhD can be completed. They have everything they need and it sounds like more of an achievement than simply being done.

If you’re on the path, I wish you all the best as you head to completion.

The Path To The Viva

There is a weird disconnect for some people around submission. They imagine submission is like jumping over a ravine between here and there, between almost- and now-submitted. They take a breath and jump and hope it will all work out, hope they’ll land on the other side.

It’s really not a leap of faith though. It’s the same path to the viva they’ve been on for years.

At submission, you’re striding over a bridge, not jumping and hoping.

Checklist for Submission

I’m trying something a little different for the next few days’ posts. Each post will be a checklist of things to do for a different part of the viva process, starting today with the Checklist for Submission!

Are you just about to submit? Step back for a few minutes and see if you’ve covered everything:

  • I have written the best thesis I could.
  • I know who my examiners are likely to be.
  • I know the regulations and process for thesis submission.
  • I have a rough plan of the work I’ll do in preparation for the viva.
  • I have an approximate idea of when my viva is likely to be.

Checked all of these off? Then you’re ready to submit! Congratulations!

Tomorrow: Checklist for Viva Prep!

5 Questions To Ask Your Supervisor After Submission

When it comes to asking for help from your supervisor a lot of focus is given to mock vivas. While these can be valuable, there are other questions you could ask that will help a lot. Here are five valuable questions to ask your supervisor:

  1. What do you need to know about your examiners’ work? You may know a lot, or have ideas, but it’s good to get another perspective.
  2. Are there any parts of your research they think your examiners could challenge? That doesn’t mean something is wrong, but it’s good to get thinking.
  3. What do they see your most important contribution as being? Again, you’ll have your own thoughts, but their opinion counts.
  4. What are the most recent papers or developments in your field? Explore what you might have missed while writing up your thesis.
  5. What do they do when they examine a thesis? Find out if there is a process that is common in your field, or at least get some ideas of how examiners think about the viva.

Your supervisor’s help doesn’t stop at submission. You might have to pick your moment or negotiate a good meeting time to discuss some of these topics, but they could all help a lot with your viva preparation. Think about it, then ask for what will help you the most.

Submission Day

I was so happy I was buzzing!

I’d printed my three copies of my thesis. Bound them on the tricky hot-glue binder in my department. My paperwork was all in order. I was finally going to submit!

There was no queue at the university’s main admin hub. I walked right up to the desk and said, with a big smile, slightly nervous but really happy: “Hi, I’m here to submit my thesis!”

I remember what happened next so clearly.

The person behind the desk glanced at me and my stack of theses, and then called over her shoulder, “Bill, you’ve got another one.”

Bill came from the back office, checked the number of copies, looked at my form, signed it, said, “OK, thanks,” and was gone.

And that was it.

There was no congratulations. There were no pyrotechnics, no brass band, no huddle of people who wanted to know what it was like and what had just happened.

It was a milestone day for me, and just a day like any other for Bill.

It’s just my story, but I’ve heard others like it. The end of the PhD, from submission day to viva, can be anticlimactic. That doesn’t lessen your achievement. If you start to feel like it’s not really anything special, then reflect on what it was you set out to do. Reflect on what you’ve done along the way. Reflect on the journey rather than the destination.

Your PhD means something.

7 Questions To Answer At Submission

There’s a few key things it would be good to know around submission time. Questions which occur to candidates all of the time, but which I very rarely have answers for because they’re particular to their institution. If you’re submitting soon, find answers to these questions:

  1. In what time frame does your university hope to hold your viva after you submit?
  2. Under what circumstances would you be liable for fees after submission?
  3. Who will be in the room for the viva?
  4. What are the range of possible awards or results for the viva at your institution?
  5. In particular, how long are you given for minor corrections at your institution?
  6. What is the post-viva process at your institution?
  7. What are you unsure about when it comes to the logistics and process of the viva?

You’ll likely pick up answers to most of these questions by osmosis during your PhD. It’s within your power to find answers to all of them, and find out how things are done at your university.

If your answer to Question 7 is anything other than “nothing” then find someone who can help. It’s up to you.

Thinking Through My Fingers

Isaac Asimov: “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

I found this in one of those quote lists that are everywhere. I like lists, but I love the gems buried in them, and this is a gem. Asimov’s insight is especially profound when it comes to the thesis. It takes a long time to write a thesis. When you sit down to write you don’t have to get it right first time. Sitting to write can help you clarify what you think. Getting something, anything, typed up can help you make the vague clear. It takes time, but when you’re finished and you submit, you’re telling your examiners that you think you’re on to a winner.

If you’ve submitted already, then this is the message you were sending. If you’ve not submitted yet, I think the opportunity here is asking yourself, “What would a winning thesis look like?” Aim yourself at the answer and do the work. Get thinking through your fingers.