Remembering Sir Ken Robinson

One day in late-August I found myself bursting into tears while casually browsing through a friend’s Facebook posts. They’d shared a short memorial post, and that was how I learned that Sir Ken Robinson had passed away. I cried reading the news, and felt upset for weeks afterwards.

Today would have been his 71st birthday. I never met him, but after finishing my PhD it was his voice that started me on the path I’ve been on ever since. His 2006 TED Talk connected with me in a profound way. Over the following years I read his books, pre-ordered them when he published more, scoured YouTube for more talks and reflected on his message, his presentation style, his wit and his passion.

Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent” was a framing that helped me as I explored how I could help researchers in the space I’d found myself in. His encouragement to try things, even uncertain things – “you won’t find anything original unless you’re willing to be wrong” – helped me to develop my work, my business and myself.

If you’ve never heard of Sir Ken Robinson before, I’d encourage you to learn more about him, his incredible life story and the great work that he did. We’ll feel his impact for a long time to come.

And for you, for today, I’d encourage reflection on your talents. By this stage in your PhD journey, you must be talented in many ways. How do you define your talents? What makes you certain of them? How will they help you find success in your viva?

And what might you do with your talents after your PhD is completed?

Testing Your Talent

That’s what the viva is all about. How good is your research? How well did you do it? How well do you know it and your field? And just how good are you?

It’s a test that doesn’t require perfection to pass. Preparation will help you get ready, but remember: you can’t have got to submission by being merely lucky, and you can’t have done the work unless you were good.

The viva might test you, but your talent will help you succeed.

One More Day

Another chance to show up, do good work, show and share your knowledge, your ability, your insight.

By the viva you will have had hundreds and hundreds of days where you have done this. So while it’s an important day, and it’s essential that you do show up with your knowledge, your ability and your insight, it’s overwhelmingly likely that that’s exactly what you will do.

Because it’s an important day, you might show up with some nervousness or worries too. That’s fine. You can handle them for your viva day, for one more day. Draw confidence from the fact that you couldn’t have got this far without doing something well (whatever that particular something might be for you, your research and your thesis).

One more day. You can do it.

Information & Insights

You’ll have a lot of information that can help you in the viva. Ideas, questions, answers, reading, references, facts and figures. You’ll need to know a lot of things to get you to the viva, and of course, to get you through the viva.

As essential as these things are, remember that your examiners will be more interested in the insights that you have: how you think about a topic rather than simply what you know about a topic. What conclusions you reached, rather than simply the results you got.

The viva is not simply a test of what you remember. What do you know?

Telling Tales

If you tell yourself you’re lucky, you might come to think that you don’t deserve to pass your viva.

If you tell yourself there were things you could have done better, you might come to believe that your research isn’t that great.

If you tell yourself to be worried about your examiners, then you’ll probably build up your anxiety for the viva.

If you tell yourself that the viva’s all a bit of a mystery, then you’ll likely be afraid of what might happen.

Stories steer our reality. Personal expectations for the viva are influenced by the experiences that graduates and academics share, but these take root in the tales that we tell about ourselves. The tales you tell yourself about your progress, talent and imagined futures can dominate how you feel and act now.

So if you tell yourself you’re fortunate, you’ll know that you’ve found success through hard work.

If you tell yourself what worked well in your research, you’ll find a way to share that with others.

If you tell yourself that your examiners want to have a good discussion, then you’ll smile and thank them for their questions. (hopefully!)

And if you tell yourself that you’re talented, that you’ve not got this far by mistake or blind luck, then whatever you’re asked in the viva you can be confident you’ll rise to the challenge.

Share Your How

In preparation for your viva, explain to your researcher friends how you did your PhD. Share what processes and methods you followed. Tell them about the research that you built on. Explain why your ideas went in the direction they did.

As you’re doing this you’re getting practice for the kinds of thinking you might need in your viva. Pay attention to the questions your friends ask in response.

  • Can you be clearer in how you communicate your methods?
  • Were there alternate approaches you could take?
  • Are there processes or literature that you decided not to follow?

Build your responses into your thinking for when you next share your how, whether that’s your viva or telling someone else who’s excited to know how you’ve done this amazing work.

Obvious Afterwards

I’d say a good 75% of my PhD results seemed obvious afterwards:

  • A clever solution for a programming problem.
  • An insight into the way a particular bit of maths worked.
  • A step in a proof that seemed inscrutable beforehand.

All obvious afterwards and in some cases very simple to explain to others. I remember two pages of my thesis that describe a process which took me upwards of 100 pages of notes to figure out the first time! 100 pages to figure out notation, to understand with near-endless diagrams what was happening, capture intermittent steps to show what was working and so on. Two pages in my thesis.

The rough work, long thinking and difficult days that lead to simplicity and “obvious” answers in your thesis or research are worth remembering. The outcome and answers matter, but don’t lose sight of the work – and the person who did it!

Promise & Potential

Two words to describe what you have when you start a PhD – in a way, the reasons why you were accepted on the programme.

You showed something, in your application or interview. You had some skills, some knowledge, some enthusiasm – some combination of all of these.

You didn’t have everything you needed to finish your PhD at the start, but you had the promise and potential to find success.

Consider, now that you’re probably closer to the end, what did you have when you began? And what do you have now?

Potential realised? How? What did you do to get this far? And how far might you go now that the end of your PhD is near?

Edison’s Mistakes

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.

Better

How are you better now than when you started your PhD?

Because you must be: as talented as you were when you were accepted and began your programme, you must be even better now that you’re near the end. Progress and development can be hard to see without reflecting though, so I imagine there are times or situations where you still feel the same.

Here’s a short reflective exercise that I hope helps:

  • Make a list: five things that you can do now or know now that you didn’t when you started your PhD.
  • For each point: write a sentence for how this has helped you through your PhD (because it must have).
  • For each point: write a sentence to say something about how this helps you for the viva (because it will do).

What stands out to you? What helps you feel confident for your viva?

(that list can probably be much longer – start with five, and keep adding as more thoughts occur)

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