The End of the Viva

As with every aspect of the PhD and the viva, there is a variety of experiences for the end, but several common stories.

Candidates might be asked if they have any questions or comments. Then when all the talking is done, examiners most commonly ask the candidate to leave the room so that they can have a quick chat. While the candidate waits nearby, perhaps nervously, perhaps not, the examiners confer and make a firm decision. They check they’ve got satisfactory answers to all of the things they needed to raise, and talk about the viva and what they think of it all.

The length of the wait varies. One person told me they waited two minutes and were called back; another told me they waited half an hour, and while there were no problems they had really started to worry! Ten to twenty minutes is seen as a reasonable length of time for examiners to chat.

Typically, examiners give the result then. They tell the candidate what the outcome is and what that means. If corrections are involved they might say a little about them. Examiners might need time to put a full list together. While minor corrections is the most likely outcome, it’s important to know in advance what all the outcomes mean. How much time is given? What is the process for getting examiners to certify that corrections have been completed?

The viva is not the end of the PhD. The end of the viva is not the end of the PhD. It can seem like there’s always something to do. But you’re getting close. Compared to everything that’s come before, you’ve not got far to go.

Fortunate

If things work out during your PhD, that’s not simply luck. You have to work for it. If you get the most fantastic results or the brightest ideas they come to you only through effort.

Which means that when you get to submission and then the viva, it’s not simply luck. You HAVE worked for it. The end result of a good thesis and a good candidate for the viva is due to your effort.

You’re fortunate, not lucky. If your hard work has produced results this far then what would stop your fortune continuing to the viva?

Done or Finished?

Two words that people use a lot around the end of the PhD.

Finished makes me think that something is over. But there’s always more! More experiments, more words, more questions. So I don’t like finished for a thesis, a viva or a PhD. There’s always something more that could be added.

(could, not should)

Done doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a bit too short, a bit final, a bit simple for the complex and messy nature of research.

The thesis, the viva, your PhD, they all mean something. Done and finished feel lacking.

The word I’m leaning towards is completed. Completed feels right. The thesis, the viva, your PhD can be completed. They have everything they need and it sounds like more of an achievement than simply being done.

If you’re on the path, I wish you all the best as you head to completion.

Not The Point

Sir Ken Robinson’s work on education and creativity has changed the world. His TED talks have been seen by hundreds of millions of people, and his words, ideas and humour have impacted so many more. His first TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” was a revelation to me when I saw it for the first time, shortly after I finished my PhD. I’ve listened to it so many times since then that I think there are parts I could perform if I were of a mind to.

I was listening to it again the other day, when a passage jumped out at me. From the transcript:

If you were to visit education as an alien and say “What’s it for, public education?” I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there.

And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. Another form of life.

And of course he’s right, the point of education isn’t to make university professors. There are important elements in any system or idea. They might be crucial, but they’re not the point. In many situations we often mistake something important for the point.

Yes, the viva is important, but it’s not the point of the PhD process.

A Haiku About Finishing

Not bad, good or strange…

P-h-Done! Or bittersweet?

How will you feel?

 

The viva and the end of the PhD can stir up a lot of emotions. You don’t have to feel one thing or another, there’s no right answer or way. But perhaps don’t just let it pass by. Take a minute or two to think about what the end of your PhD means, how you feel and what’s next.

My personal hope for PhD graduates is that they realise they’ve just reached the top of a mountain in finishing their PhD, in passing their viva…

…and when they look around they see higher peaks and greater challenges they might now go after… 🙂

 

(more occasional haiku here!)

Enough Is Enough

What if I hadn’t done enough? What if I needed more results? What if my examiners didn’t see what I saw in my work?

After years of work and months of writing up, as my page count crept towards 200, I started to think that maybe I needed more. A good friend showed me his thesis and it was like a tombstone. I worried until he showed me that the second half of his thesis was appendices of data. Then I worried when he told me that a colleague down the hall had passed her viva with a thesis that was less than sixty pages.

Oh no. What if my writing style is just really waffly and overlong? What if, like my italicised questions, they just go on and on and on and on…

My doubts faded. Of course, it dawned on me, that every thesis is different, naturally. It’s hard to quantify “significant” in the face of the variety of research that people do. There may be broad expectations in your discipline, in terms of style and structure and so on, and it’s worth learning as much as you can about those.

How do you know though? How do you know – or maybe a better word is believe – when you’ve done enough work? When you have enough results? How do you believe?

You have to look at it all. You have to get a sense both from others and yourself that the work you have done matters. You have to reflect on the fact that your thesis may be big or small, have five chapters or nine, and it is just different from everyone elses…

…and like everyone else who has come before, the reason you are here and you are going to pass your viva is because you can’t just be lucky. You can’t just show up and get the right answers or right ideas blindly. You have to be good. You have to do good work. And you have to have done that for a long time.

You have to have enough to be submitting.

You have to have enough to be preparing for the viva.

And that’s what can give you enough confidence that your work matters, you are good, and you will pass.

Enough is enough.

Debrief

If your PhD is anything like mine – or, come to think of it, any PhD I know – it has been full of ups and downs, both at work and in your personal life. The viva marks the end of a great big part of your life. A PhD is made from triumphs and victories, mistakes and missteps, everything that has happened has either helped you get over the finish line or at least not thwarted your ambition.

You’re done! (or at least you will be once you’ve done your corrections and you’ve graduated, officially)

So: what will you take away from all of this? Not just in terms of the research contribution, but you, personally: what have you learned? How have you grown? How have you changed as a person?

By the end of my PhD I was confident that I could do big things. I believed in my talent as a mathematician and at being able to solve problems. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a mathematician any more. I’d enjoyed my PhD, but was pretty certain I’d gone as far as I could in my field. I was looking for my next challenge.

How about you?

As your PhD draws to a conclusion, make time to reflect on what it all means. You get a certificate to mark the success of your PhD. It’s up to you to debrief yourself. Figure out what you’ve learned from the endeavour, and what it means for your future.

Pride & Achievements

Make a list of everything you’ve done that makes you feel proud. Think about all of the achievements in your PhD. Reflect on why they matter to you.

Within that list you’ll find the strengths of your work. You’ll see your research’s contributions. You made those contributions.

Make your list. Reflect on all you’ve done. Think about why you could be confident to meet the challenges of your viva.

Whatever Comes Next

Remember at the end of your PhD – after the viva is done, after the corrections are finished, when you can breathe – take a moment to pause.

Whatever you do afterwards – whether you’re returning to a role you’ve had before, continuing with research in some form, going on to some new challenge – take time to unpack what you’ve got from your PhD.

Whatever comes next, you can meet that challenge in a new way.

Whatever comes next, you have talent that you didn’t have before.

Whatever comes next, you can draw on your experience, your grit and your commitment to getting something big done.

Your PhD is a big deal. Now go do the next big deal.

No More

The viva means no more.

No more time. No more writing. No more reading. No more meetings. No more experiments or interviews or models. No more prep. No more re-reading. No more wondering about what will or won’t come up.

No more…

…or enough?

After all of your PhD, enough time. Enough writing. Enough reading. Enough meetings. Enough experiments, enough interviews, enough models. Enough prep. Enough re-reading. Enough wondering about what will or won’t come up.

There’s a point where it’s all enough.

You’re getting there.