I have fond memories of my PhD, but also a background feeling that it could have been so much more than it was.
I could have been more pro-active; I realised quite late that I could set my own directions and goals. I could have achieved more. I spent a long time following dead ends and trying to force ideas and results to work, without stopping to see what the real underlying problems were with my research.
Maybe I could have worked better had I realised what my own underlying problems were.
Like me, you’re not perfect. Your research and thesis won’t be perfect. But focussing on the imperfections in advance of your viva probably won’t help you to get ready. Instead, acknowledge the things that could be better, make a note of anything that might need special attention and then start your prep centred on the things that you do well.
Start with your successes, your results, your talent, and use that to build on. Not everything can be amazing when you look back on your PhD, but hopefully there’s enough there to help you feel good for your viva.
If most vivas result in success, why would yours be any different?
If most candidates can get ready with only a little work, relative to the rest of their PhDs, what’s different for you?
If most people have a viva that’s two to three hours long, does it matter if yours is longer or shorter?
If most theses need correcting in some way, what’s the problem with you doing yours?
If you have a real response to any of these sort-of-rhetorical questions, then in most cases you’ll have to do something. You might have to work more, or get more help than most, or ask for support, or get clarification about how your viva can be made fair.
But for some candidates, you might simply have to think about what’s really going on for you. Think about what might be skewing your point of view, and explore what you could do to change your perspective.
Hold on to this: most vivas, the overwhelming majority, result in success.
Edison failed in his pursuit of a lightbulb 500 times, 1000 times or even 10,000 times depending on which (probably exaggerated!) account you read. What is certain is that he made mistakes, but he didn’t really fail because he kept pursuing. He tried things, probably believing for good reasons that he would be successful, but he was wrong a lot.
All of that wrong helped him to be ultimately right.
Now, hopefully you haven’t succeeded in spite of 10,000 mistakes during your PhD – but if you arrive at submission you must have made mistakes along the way. Things forgotten, things that didn’t work out, things you can’t explain, things that are wrong… Through all of that you’ve made it to success and submission. Mistakes are part of the PhD process, both of doing the research that becomes your thesis and of developing the skills that make you a capable researcher.
It’s fine to remember you made mistakes, but not helpful to dwell on them. Understand them, but not focus on them.
Determination is another part of the PhD process, wrapped around mistakes and setbacks and failures. Determination to see things through. If you make it through a difficult path to submission, then you’ve got the determination to prepare for and pass your viva.
This is the 1000th daily Viva Survivors blog post!
A friend said to me, “That’s crazy! What are you doing to celebrate?”
And I said, “….Erm…..”
Hmm. Nothing really.
That got me thinking about celebrating milestones in general. I remember when I submitted my thesis (both for the viva and for my final submisson) I was feeling great, but lots of friends were too busy to go out. They had their own theses to think about! The staff at my university’s admin building basically shrugged when I handed my thesis over to them.
Milestones, like submitting your thesis, passing your viva, doing your literature review, completing a project – making it to the end of a tough week! – should be acknowledged. They should be marked. They should be celebrated!
I’ve seen some good practice on Twitter of departments and graduate schools sending out virtual cheers when someone passes their viva. I’ve heard of stickers being given out from time to time. My favourite little celebration I heard of recently came from an Edinburgh PGR who told me she was given a lollipop for submitting.
That’s a very fancy lollipop!
Maybe your friends are busy, maybe admin staff will shrug, maybe you won’t get a fancy lollipop or shiny sticker…
So what are you going to do? Good work needs recognition. It helps reinforce you did it. You persevered. You got your PhD done. How will you celebrate? If celebrating doesn’t feel quite right, at least how will you mark it? Think about it and do something.
I decided to mark the 1000th Viva Survivors post with… this post! (And maybe some ice cream later!)