Cast Your Mind Back

What did you not know at the start of your PhD that you know now?

What could you not do at the start of your PhD that you can do now?

You had to start somewhere. There had to be gaps you needed to bridge, things you needed to discover.

Reflecting on your progress should help with confidence for the viva, because you appreciate just how much you must have developed to get the work of your PhD done. You did it, and you must be good enough.

Still, when you look back it can raise the odd worried thought. Perhaps something is unfinished. Perhaps there are gaps in your knowledge. Perhaps there was more to do.

If you have unanswered questions or unpolished skills, it won’t be because you’re lazy. A PhD is long, but doesn’t give enough time to learn everything or become proficient in every method. Perfection is not the standard required for you, your thesis or your viva.

You did the work to get you this far, and you must be talented, you must be good enough. Look back to the start of your PhD to get a sense of just how far you have come.

The One And Only?

On the one hand, yes, the viva is your one and only opportunity. You have to do it, defend your thesis, engage with your examiners’ questions and discuss your work. You have to do it well enough to pass, and this is your chance to do it.

But on the other hand, it’s the latest opportunity you’ve had to do all these sorts of things. It’s not the first time you’ve talked about your work. It’s not the first time you’ve faced a challenge with your research. It’s not the first time you’ve had to really think about what you’re doing.

The viva is the latest challenge, for someone experienced at rising to meet challenges. It could be tough, it could be tricky, but it won’t be beyond you.

You’re the one and only person who could pass your viva.

Accumulated Awesomeness

This is what you take to the viva: a treasure chest you can open to respond to questions, think about your field and share what you know about your research. A hoard you have stored up day by day over the life of your PhD. You didn’t simply find it. You didn’t follow a map and it was waiting for you.

You earned what you’ve got: countless gold coins of accumulated awesomeness. Super-valuable and yours to use in the viva as you need to.

Day By Day

Over the course of a full-time PhD in the UK, a candidate will probably show up on seven to eight hundred days. I can well imagine this number goes up for a part-time PhD. A candidate shows up when they come to get something done: work on their research practically, learn something, share something or write something.

They show up when they come to do something that matters.

On most days it might not feel like much. Stuck in the middle of second year, you could feel as if you’re stuck in a loop. Wake up, do work, sleep, wake up, do work, sleep, and so on. But it all helps. It adds up. Over hundreds of days, bit by bit, you build talent. Reflect on them and you can build confidence too.

You won’t have hundreds of days between submission and the viva, but this day by day perspective still helps through preparation time. Do a little every day, and build up how ready you feel. Build up your confidence day by day.

Pay attention to when you show up and confidence will follow.

Final Chapter

Following Wednesday’s post, you could be a person, in a place, with a problem at the end of your PhD too. The mammoth task of submitting your thesis is done, but then you wonder:

  • What if my examiners don’t like something?
  • What if I’m wrong?
  • What if I forget everything?
  • What if I’m too nervous?
  • What if I go blank?
  • What if………

Sometimes you might have more than a hypothetical problem too. Maybe there’s a genuine error in a chapter. Perhaps you realise now there’s something else you wanted to say. You feel a gap in your knowledge.

None of these situations, hypothetical or definite, are insurmountable. None of them are beyond you.

Postgraduate researchers, as a rule, are are not just problem solvers: they are problem seekers. A PhD journey is built on finding problems to explore and (hopefully) solve. You have to. It’s not showing up for a 9-5, the same thing every day. No: you have to find problems, possibly problems that are beyond you at times, and rise to meet them.

Why should the end of your PhD, prep for the viva or the viva itself, be any different?

Of course there’ll be more problems. For someone like you, there will always be more problems to solve.

And for someone like you – capable, talented, knowledgeable – there will be answers too.

The final chapter of your PhD story sees you with obstacles still to overcome, challenges that may test you, but more capable than ever to meet them. Your story comes to a conclusion not simply with a person, in a place, with a problem.

It’s you, here, to get this done.

Go do it.

If Not Now, When?

This question has been rattling around in my head at Viva Survivor sessions lately. If someone says they’re not ready for their viva when they submit their thesis, gently challenge them with this question.

(gently!)

For some it will be a little nudge to think, “Oh, there’s still time. I’ve submitted, but I can take time over the coming weeks to get prepared. I’m not ready now… but I soon will be!”

For most candidates, I hope it would be a little nudge to think, “Oh… If I’ve got this far, there must be a reason… My work has to have something, or I wouldn’t have submitted…”

If you’re unsure whether or not you feel ready for your viva, gently challenge yourself with the question, and see how that nudges you.

Practically, when candidates submit their thesis they are capable of meeting the challenges they’ll find in their viva. There’s a big difference between being ready and feeling ready.

So, if you don’t feel ready now, when will you? More importantly, what could you do to help you find that state?

Leap

You’ve done everything you can, become everything you are, know everything you can and need to know.

Viva day comes and you have to leap and trust you’ll reach the other side. A day that’s different from all the others in your PhD life, but still just a day like any other.

You’ve got what you need. So now you come to it: a leap of faith, an act of confidence.

Of course you’ll reach the other side of your examiners’ questions and discussion. How could you not?

You Must Be This Tall To Ride

Amusement park signs have never bothered me.

I’m tall and I don’t like rollercoasters. Those signs with arrows indicating heights have always been for someone else. My daughter, however, is six, and tall for her age, but short for the signs. “You can’t go on this one, it’s not for you, not yet, not now.” Tears of frustration follow, until another diversion is found.

Frustration and sometimes tears show up around the end of a PhD too. Frustration brought on by fear, worry, anxiety – candidates wondering if they’ve hit the mark. Has their thesis passed the test? Have they done enough? It’s not wrong to wonder, it’s natural given how important everything is at that stage. The thesis, the PhD, the effort that goes into them – your efforts – they’re all important.

It takes time for children to grow so that they pass the arrow on a rollercoaster sign. Academia doesn’t print any signs like that, but they’re there, invisible, and probably behind you now as you head towards the end of your PhD…

You Must Be This Good To Viva.

And to get as far as you have, you must be good enough.

The Best Of The Best

It’s awards season. Great movies, shows, actors, directors, writers are all in competition. Five great people are up for this award, who will win?! Ten movies could all get that award – except, they can’t, only one can. Not just the best, but the best of the best.

Of course, PhD candidates don’t compete that way, not for their viva, not for their PhD, but language and mindset creep in.

You have to be better than good, better than great, you have to be perfect, you can’t make mistakes, you can’t go blank, you can’t slip up, you have to be better than anyone else!!!

To which I say, simply: no.

For the viva, for your PhD, you only have to be good. You have to be your best. Everything else is doubt and worry. We can’t sweep it away by saying “don’t worry.” You don’t have to focus on it either. Be your best. Be as good as you’ve become by the end of your PhD. Keep going.

And eventually, cross the stage and claim your prize.

Creation or Discovery

When I was a mathematician, some of my colleagues said maths research was like sculpture. A big block of stone was chipped away at until you had the art you were trying to make. You have to start with everything and keep working until you have the proof you wanted.

I was always fond of that analogy, and of the two philosophies that followed. One mathematician might say they were really creating the maths and results. Maths is an act of creation. Another mathematician would say the maths was already there, hidden, waiting to be revealed. In this way, maths is an act of discovery. I loved hearing different takes on this, and personally, when it comes to maths I’m on the side of discovery – the ideas are out there waiting to be found!

I’ve heard similar thoughts and feelings from people in other lines of research too. Often though, I notice people enthusiastically discussing this topic but missing something fundamental. Creation or discovery don’t happen by accident, only through work. Whether you create an equation or discover it, you do the work.

Whatever you have in your thesis, whatever kind of research you discuss in your viva, it only happens because you did it.