Time To Finish

The viva is framed in lots of different ways.

It’s an exam. It’s a test. It’s a discussion. It’s the end of the PhD journey or the final challenge. You could be excited to be there or telling yourself, “Let’s get this over with…”

Another way to look at is that it’s just time to finish. It’s time. It’s the right time. Years of work, months of anticipation and build-up. New ideas and prospects ahead. You’ve done your PhD for long enough. It’s time to finish and go on to the next thing.

Two questions then: what will help you to finish your PhD well? What will help you to start whatever comes next in the best possible way?

The Ends

The end of your viva is not the end of your PhD.

The end of your bibliography doesn’t mean that there is nothing else to know.

The end of your thesis is not the end of the research that could be done.

The end of your PhD journey doesn’t mean that there isn’t more great work for you to do.

The end of your mock viva is not a finish to all the questions you could get in the real thing.

There are many endings around the conclusion of a PhD. Very few of them are final.

The end of your PhD is not the end of your story.

The End of the Beginning

The viva is the beginning of the end. Passing it is, I like to think, also the end of the beginning.

However you feel about your PhD journey, particularly if it has been challenging or coincided with the pandemic, it is coming to a close. You will reach your destination and find that you’ve still a long way to go.

Your PhD was just for starters. Where will you go from here?

You don’t need to have all the answers about this at your viva. You don’t need to explain your career plans to your examiners. But maybe you do have an idea. Maybe you have something you’re striving for.

Good. Go for it. Throughout your PhD, with all the challenges you’ve faced, you’ve survived. You’ve managed to keep going in difficult circumstances. And after you’re done, you’ll find more challenges but also more ability to face them.

Your PhD will be done soon, the opening act complete. The end of the beginning. So keep going.

And Then You’re Done

Finishing my PhD was a strange time. I remember a weird few weeks of tidying my desk, taking folders home on the train, clearing stuff into recycling, and then a gap of months of trying to figure out, “What now?”

How do you want things to change for you?

  • Will your PhD journey have a gradual conclusion, tidying up loose ends, leaving things in their right place while you prepare to start a new expedition?
  • Will it simply finish one day, a red line drawn across your calendar to mark the end of one era and the start of another?
  • Will it just change? Will you realise one day that you’ve moved on and you didn’t see it happen?

Finish your thesis, prepare for your viva, but spare a little thought for that Future-You, who will one day find that they’re done with their PhD.

What can you do to help prepare them for that situation?

A Good End

I’m a little wistful lately, remembering the final days of my PhD.

Not my viva, not corrections, but those last few days when I was packing things up. It is late-summer 2008. My office-mates are either on holiday or have heads down trying to get things done while the campus is quiet.

I had stacks of papers I’d never read, filed away into a box where they remain never-read. Notes for ideas that I thought I might get to, which stayed filed away until a few years ago when I recycled them. Drawers with odds and ends, emptied out now into containers so they could be sorted.

There was no celebration though; no marking of the occasion by me or anyone else. We’d had dinner after passing my viva; months later I’d celebrate graduation, being Dr Nathan, with my family. On those days of finishing though, there was just me, the excess clutter of my research being loaded into boxes and a collection of bittersweet feelings rattling around my brain.

Endings can be complicated and not always within our control. We can try though. My wish for you today is that you have a little space to think, to reflect and then to plan what the end of your PhD might be like.

Your PhD doesn’t end with your viva. Graduation is the epilogue to your story. What would be a good end for your PhD?

Finally!!!

There’s lots of Finally!!! moments at the end of a PhD.

Finally!!! My thesis is finished!

Finally!!! My viva is almost here!

Finally!!! I’ve passed my viva!

Finally!!! My corrections are done!

Finally!!! I’ve graduated! I’m finally, finally, done!

At each moment where you think Finally!!! take time to think: what got you this far? How far have you come?

And what can you do to get you to the next Finally!!!?

You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.