Valuable

There are many ways to think about your thesis’ contribution.

Instead of coming up with a list of things you’ve done, start with why others might find something valuable in your research. What might they value? What would help them? What do they now know as a result of what you’ve done?

There are lots of things that could be valuable in research. Don’t compare your diamonds to other people’s. Look at why your work shines. What makes it valuable? What makes it special?

(you, for one thing)

If & Then

Hypothetical questions are a pain for PhD candidates thinking about their vivas.

If. If this happens, I’ll be stuck. If that happens, I won’t know what to do.

Except it’s not just if. There’s always a then. In worry, a candidate might not see it, but it’s always there. There is always a course of action. It might not be something you prefer. It might be tricky. It might be uncomfortable.

There is always something you can do.

  • If you find a typo, then you can correct it.
  • If you are forgetful, then you can write notes.
  • If you are worried about how to answer questions, then you can have a mock viva.
  • If you are concerned about your examiners, then you can research them.
  • If you aren’t sure about whether or not something is a normal part of the process, then you can check.

There are always hypothetical questions, and they always have actionable answers.

Onwards

After your viva there’s more to do. Not your corrections, not wrapping things up, not admin. Your PhD is coming to a close…

…and the rest of your life is right there waiting for you.

You’re not the same. Your PhD means something. What might it mean for you?

A change of title? A mark of respect? New opportunities? More money? More responsibility?

While you’re doing your PhD, it could feel like the most important thing you’ll ever do. Afterwards, as you go on, you have to find something else. So what will it be?

The Longcut

I like this term. The longcut is the anti-shortcut. The longcut doesn’t cut corners or take chances with success. It’s slow, patient and persistent.

You didn’t take shortcuts with your research. You didn’t take shortcuts with writing your thesis. When you come to get ready for the viva, you don’t want to take shortcuts, you want longcuts. You want to do good work that will help you be certain of being ready.

Don’t skim your thesis the day before. Don’t rely on the bare minimum. Don’t just think about what might happen.

If you’re busy, still make time. Think about what will make a difference, make a plan and do work to get yourself ready for success.

Take the longcut.

Beginning, Middle & End

You could be enthusiastic but untalented at the start of a PhD, and unsure but hardworking in the middle.

The only explanation for getting to the end is that you’ve done the work and done it well. It’s not an accident you’ve made it this far: you’ve done something that’s valuable, and you can only do it by being good at what you do.

The viva’s not a formality, it’s just one more challenge – a challenge you are fully capable of making a success.

The Secret About Viva Questions

They’re not always looking for answers.

Viva questions aren’t unfair, but they might not always be asked with the expectation of a definitive answer. It could be they simply start a discussion.

You might not know, your examiners might not know, maybe no-one knows “the answer”.

But you might have an idea or two. Or you might know why you don’t. Or you could discuss the topic with your examiners.

Another secret: you’re among the best people – possibly the best person in the world – to discuss the questions that are asked in your viva.

Before, During, After

Before, you could be nervous. During, you’re engaged. After, you’re relieved.

Before, you can practise. During, you’re doing it. After, you’ve achieved.

Before, you’re the candidate. During, you’re the expert. After, you’re Dr Somebody, PhD.

At different times you can think and feel and do and be different things.

At all times around the viva, at the end of your PhD journey, you’re where you’re supposed to be.

First Time PhD

In ten years of working with researchers I’ve met one person doing their second PhD. PhDs are fairly rare in the population; a person with two is like finding Bigfoot riding a unicorn!

For most candidates though, PhDs feel quite common. You’re around people all the time who either have them or want them. Often it can be easy to feel like maybe you’re not as good as others (hello impostor syndrome!). While you’re on track you’re not quite there yet. You see people who have succeeded and it’s easy to feel like you might not ever get there.

Well: give yourself a break!

It’s the first time you’ve done a PhD!

Whatever else you’ve done, whatever your achievements, interests or professional standing, this is a big deal. It’s important and it’s difficult – doubly difficult because usually you’re learning how to do research while doing it. Your process evolves while you do.

Appreciate that this is your first time. You don’t have to have all the answers. No-one expects the impossible.

If you feel like the PhD is beyond you, or the viva is out of reach, take a step back. Every day is an opportunity to get a little better, a little closer to “done,” but this is still your first time doing a PhD.

Pull The Lever, Take A Chance

A clatter of coins spills! I pulled the lever and now I’m rich, rich, rich!

Except I wasn’t. I was maybe ten and they weren’t coins, they were tokens. I grew up in a seaside town and there was a time when summer holidays meant stretching out pocket money in the arcade. I would jump from machine to machine, trying to find way to have just a little longer playing silly games.

The one-armed bandit could be fun for a time. Put your coin or token in, pull the arm down and watch the reels spin. Most of the time it was nothing. Sometimes it was a few pennies or a token back. Even rarer, an invitation to nudge a reel, see it drop but get nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes…

JACKPOT!

…and enough tokens to keep spinning the reels for another ten minutes.

There was no skill, no talent, not even any real work. You had to take part, put something in, but your effort and money were the same as anyone’s.

Alas, some candidates think the viva is a one-armed bandit, a game of total chance. Turn up, pull the lever and who knows what will happen. What questions will spin up? What sequence of opinions will your examiners have? What random outcome will it settle on?

It’s not random. It’s not by chance. Your work is built on purpose. There can be luck, but that’s guided by direction, by talent, by effort.

Your thesis isn’t just thrown together: it’s a statement. Your answers don’t just appear: they’re built on work and talent. Your examiners aren’t just winging it: they’ve been selected for a reason.

You probably will hit the jackpot in the viva, ding-ding-ding, you’ve passed! But it’s not by chance. It couldn’t just happen to anyone.

You’ve not just been lucky. You’ve not got this far by accident.

Unlucky For Some?

If the viva came down to luck, I’d be worried if mine was on Friday 13th! But it’s not about luck.

  • You’re not lucky if your thesis passes with minor corrections.
  • You’re not lucky if your examiners say nice things.
  • You’re not lucky if you feel good about your viva.

Your PhD comes down to effort, actions and talent: the things you do over a long period of time put you in a good position for the viva.

You can be fortunate, but that’s different. Fortunate is something good happening as a result of effort. You can be fortunate throughout your PhD as a result of the questions you ask, the risks you take and the good work you do. You’ll likely be fortunate in the viva, because of all the work that you’ve done, and the talent you bring with you.

It’s not likely that you’ll be unlucky (or lucky).