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)

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?