Where You’re Meant To Be

For all the nerves you might feel, despite any knocks to confidence or worries about research, it’s worth remembering that if you are headed towards your viva date you are precisely where you’re meant to be.

You did the work. You learned. You grew. You got better. Your thesis is proof of that. It’s not perfect, and neither are you, but by now both of you are good enough to meet the standard.

If you don’t feel that, you’re the only one who can change that feeling. Find out more about the viva perhaps, work to boost your confidence, do the necessary work to get ready – and remember that this is where you’re meant to be.

Right here, right now, on track to succeeding in your viva.

How To Finish Well

Look back over the progress of your PhD journey. Your progress.

Realise that there is something new that now exists – and the only reason it does is because you made it happen.

Prepare for your viva carefully, invest time to make sure you are ready and confident.

Listen, think and respond to your examiners; make the most of your viva.

And when all of that is done, take a moment to think about what you take with you beyond your PhD. When it is finished it’s not the end for you and who you are now.

Side Quests

I love a good open world video game.

They often feature a big map to explore, an interesting story and characters to follow, missions to complete, a character to develop and more. What I like most of all is a world to fall into that’s different from our own.

Another common feature of these sorts of games is side quests: optional, shorter storylines that aren’t essential for completing the main game. If in the main story you’re hunting for clues or tracking down a villain, a side quest might involve simply helping someone out or collecting something you need.

Side quests also bestow rewards: more experience points to level up your character, a benefit that’s unobtainable somewhere else in the game or sometimes just a satisfying piece of the story or detail about the world.

Take some time to consider the side quests of your PhD journey as you prepare for your viva:

  • When have you productively diverted from the main path of your research?
  • How did that help you and what did you learn?
  • What have been the most rewarding times you’ve had during your PhD years?

The real world isn’t always like video games. We can’t see XP numbers. We can’t naturally apply stat boosts or perks. We have to reflect. We have to look back and see.

While you will have progressed through the main track of your PhD journey, you will have also benefitted from the side quests you’ve been on. In preparation for your viva, take some time to realise how you’ve got to where you are now.

Disrupted & Different

We’re in our third year of the pandemic changing our lives. After all this time it’s reasonable to assume, at least for the next few years, that it’s a topic that might come up in the viva. Your examiners will expect that your PhD journey will have been impacted in some way; it may be useful for them to ask about this in the viva to explore and explain aspects of your research or thesis.

In preparation, perhaps consider the following three questions and make some notes to clear your head on the topic:

  • Why was your research disrupted by the pandemic?
  • How did this have an impact?
  • What changes did you need to make to your plans?

Reflecting and writing can help prepare for possible questions. It can lessen worries by helping you see that your work is not diminished, just different as a result.

Everyone’s daily life has changed over the last few years. We’ll feel the impacts for some time to come. But in preparation for the viva you can clarify things so that you can talk more easily to your examiners about how the pandemic changed your PhD.

Alternative Routes

Things happen during a PhD. Deadlines slip, feedback is delayed or a promising idea reveals a sticky situation that has to be avoided. Plans change and alternatives must be found.

One way or another you get the research done. You get your thesis written and finally your viva is close at hand. While getting ready it can be useful to reflect on the paths not taken. Reflecting on alternatives can show why they were not taken, how your route was the right one or give you a fuller picture of the situation.

  • Some routes will not have worked and would never work. A poor idea or lack of time perhaps, or an idea that just wasn’t quite developed enough.
  • Some routes could have been perfect – but there were reasons why you didn’t take them. In preparation for potential questions in the viva, what were those reasons?
  • Some routes are only visible with hindsight. With the benefit of experience you know a less treacherous path or a shortcut to avoid obstacles.

Looking back at possibilities is helpful in preparation for the viva. It shows learning, it highlights your progress and helps you to demonstrate your ability as a researcher.

You’re near the end now. You can’t go back and take a different route. You can be aware of the alternatives and what they mean.

Stretches

When have you been stretched during your PhD? What projects or work have you done that was a challenge to your skills and knowledge?

I think it’s unhelpful to view the PhD (and the viva) as the most awesome and incredible challenge in the world ever™ – but it’s also unhelpful to not recognise the growth that happens through the challenges someone faces along the way.

Reflect on the challenges. Reflect on the stretches – when they happened, why they happened, what you learned. You couldn’t have got this far without becoming better. Whenever your viva is, remember that throughout your PhD you have become more than what you were at the start.

More talented. More skilled. More knowledgeable. More accomplished.

All the stretches along the way have helped you become who you are today. Remember that and be confident for the viva.

Suddenly September

Where does the time go?! Just like that autumn is around the corner, Christmas is really not that far away when you think about it and 2023 is within shouting distance!

Of course, there’s no suddenly about it. Day by day we move forward, the weeks pass, the months go by and then we’re at another mark on the calendar.

Little by little we “suddenly” find ourselves at September.

 

It’s helpful to keep this in mind for your viva too.

It doesn’t suddenly appear. You’re not going to suddenly be surprised by it.

It may feel like you’re all of a sudden at the viva – where did the last few years go?! – but it really is the case that you’ve worked your way to that place over a long period of time.

Day by day you work on your PhD. Week by week you find new things. Month by month you get better. Year by year you make something that sets you apart.

Practised, Not Perfect

Remember that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed in the viva.

Remember that you will have invested a lot of time, effort and energy into becoming practised at all the things necessary for you to succeed.

You have read, you have written, you have learned, you have developed the skills for a researcher in your field and a lot more.

You’re not perfect. You are practised.

And that’s enough.

For The Last Time

There’s a lot of attention given to the idea that the viva could be the last time that a candidate gets to really talk about their research.

Discussing your work with your examiners could be the final chance to do so – after that, even if you stay in academia maybe your conversations will be on new research and new ideas. If you move out of academia perhaps the viva will be the last chance to talk about your research.

Not a lot of attention is given to the truth that while the viva might be the last time to have a deep discussion about your PhD research, it will not be the first time. So many candidates are nervous thinking about the “final” time, without paying attention to the fact that they have done this many, many times before – and can be confident as a result.

Meetings, seminars, webinars, practical demonstrations, conversations and hour upon hour of deep thought about how best to explain things. If your viva is the last time you go to it plenty of experience to make the best of the occasion.

Every Day The Same

With hindsight my PhD journey feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day.

Every day was get up, go to the office, do some maths, go home, go to bed, get up, go to the office… And so on. There was a definite rhythm to things; my days and weeks punctuated with breaks, seminars and meetings at the same times.

Until submission! Until the viva! Two very different days, days when everything changes. No more repetition, and like the end of Groundhog Day, uncertainty – but positivity – about the future.

What will happen next? Who knows – but it won’t be the same as every other day.

I don’t mean to sound negative about my PhD. It was a formative time in my life; I didn’t find all the answers but at least I realised what I was missing. I had a good foundation to build on for life afterwards. However it was hard: every day the same, more or less. Work work work work work, and occasionally some results, then back to work.

I’m not negative, but it can be hard if your experience is similar to see the change in yourself. The development in your abilities, talents, knowledge and the contribution you make. If you don’t see that, by the time you reach submission day or viva day you might feel unprepared for the new challenges ahead.

Before your viva take a little time to reflect on your PhD journey. The thousand or more days of the PhD have made a difference to you.

What is that difference? How far have you come? And how does that set you up well for the viva and for life after the PhD?

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