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.

Chekhov’s Thesis

My wife and I are both writers. We’re also fans of stories: if we’re watching a mystery film, we try to figure it out. If we’re reading a sci-fi novel we’re thinking about how problems might be solved. If there are zombies involved we think about how we might get away!

And we cannot help but see Chekhov’s gun everywhere. Any time a the story makes a point of drawing attention to something we just know it is going to either be a problem or solve one later.

If a character says that they were a gymnast in high school, we know they’ll be backflipping out of danger before the end.

If someone remarks that their car is low on petrol, that means we know they are not going to reach their destination.

The movie Home Alone has Chekhov’s gold tooth!

Quite rightly, your viva has Chekhov’s thesis – OK, it’s your thesis, but the principle holds: it’s there to be used. It’s not just a ticket to get into the viva. It’s a resource that you can rely on to help you. At any point you can check something, clarify details and be sure of what you’ve presented.

In the earlier acts of your PhD you laid out your research in your thesis. In the final act, you can use it if you need to.

Who? You!

Doctor Who was first broadcast fifty-five years ago today. Given my past posts on superheroes, it should come as no surprise I’m a fan. One of the highlights of my time recording interviews for the Viva Survivors Podcast was interviewing Tatiana, whose love of Doctor Who helped her through her PhD.

The Doctor is a time-travelling alien who helps people. They’ve taken on the name as a signifier. It tells people something about themselves. It’s not the name they’ve always had; it’s something that marks them out because of what they’ve done and what they intend to do.

That’s a little like you, right? After your viva, you’re a doctor. You did the work, so you get to be a doctor. That title means something.

Being a doctor, like being the Doctor, sets expectations. People make assumptions about what PhDs are like, what they do and what they “should” do. I think it’s better to set your own expectations. You’re talented to have achieved what you have. Keep being talented: expect yourself to do good things, but pick the things you want to be good at.

Whenever an actor is ready to step down from playing the Doctor, the character regenerates into a new persona. Passing your viva, getting your doctorate is similar. You’re the same underneath, but there’s also something different about you now.

What will be different? And what will you do with the difference?

Off The Treadmill

Turn up at 8:30, start work by 9, check the list to see what edits need doing, start work, check every half hour or so that I’ve saved and the new pdf works, break at 11, back to work, lunch around 1, back to work, type-type, edit-edit, keep going and pack up around 4:30.

Come back the next day and do it all again.

That was pretty much the last six months of my PhD. Every day I got on the thesis-finishing-treadmill. The structure helped, working towards getting it done, a plan to follow.

The first few weeks after submission I felt adrift. No job at that time, no plans on what to do next, and no idea really what to do to prepare for the viva.

If this is you when you get off the treadmill – or if you feel overwhelmed because there’s so much other non-PhD/non-viva stuff to do – then put a little more structure around things. Not a lot; find a new little treadmill to get you going.

When will you sit down and prepare for your viva? What time, and where? For how long? Thing about what you think you need to do to feel happy and ready.

Then start.

On The Cusp

The run-up to submission, viva prep, the day of the viva, finishing corrections…

They all feel like almost the end. But there’s always another step, or so it seems – until one day there isn’t and you’re done!

As the end of the PhD looms you really are on the cusp of something wonderful.

What’s the final step for you? The last stretch? The last things you need to do?

Make a list, then get them done.

What Are Your Plans?

My examiners didn’t ask me what I was going to do after my PhD, but I know candidates who were asked in theirs. Had I been asked, I probably would have been stumped by the question. No idea. The thoughts that lead me on to my current path came months later. It might have been useful to have some ideas that I could have shared in the viva, had it come up.

(the only ideas I had about future plans were related to how I might develop my thesis research, what directions or improvements could be made with more time, different resources, etc)

Being asked about plans can be scary, but remember: it doesn’t have to be final.

A plan doesn’t have to commit you. A plan is potential. A plan is a sequence that you could follow, not one that you are following or even one that you will. You don’t have to have the best plan. You don’t have to have all of the ideas worked out. You just need something.

So: what’s your something? If you don’t know, maybe a better question to think about and answer is “Post-viva, what do I want?”