You Have Passed

It’s a minute before your viva starts. You’re probably a little nervous. Ready but recognising the importance.

As you begin remember you have passed…

  • …whatever requirements you had to in order to get on to your research programme…
  • …the difficult first months of a doctorate when you have to figure so much out…
  • …all reports, upgrade and transfer vivas along the way…
  • …probable scrutiny in the eyes of your peers by giving conference talks or paper…
  • …your supervisors’ standards by meeting them many times…
  • …your own doubts and concerns, or enough of them, to get the work done…

…and now you have one more thing to pass.

Given that you’ve passed so much already, it’s fair to assume that you’re going to pass this one too.

So go pass.

Your Best

I’m preparing the blog for the end of the year and the start of 2021. My tradition is to do a few “best of” posts between Christmas and New Year, picking out prep ideas, reflections, short posts and the like – the things that stand out in over 350 days of writing. If any posts from this year have really resonated let me know! It might be interesting to do a day sharing reader choices.

But while I get thinking about the best posts of the year, consider that for the viva you need to bring the best of you – which hopefully won’t be too difficult because you must have been bringing that to your PhD for a long time.

Your best for your viva means being ready, being thorough, being willing to engage and think, doing something to build your confidence (if you need to) and recognising that you must be talented enough by now.

You’ve been doing your best for a long time. Clearly it’s worked.

Being Thankful

Every night before we put our daughter to bed, we share what we’re thankful for as a family. We’re thankful that we’ve had three meals that day, that something funny happened, that we’re part of a nice school community, that we read a good story, that we have a family… Big or small, serious and silly, we share what has helped that day be good (or what has been good in a hard day).

We’ve done this for three or four years I think, and it helps. It helps us not take things for granted.

It’s helped a lot this year.

I think it would have been a valuable thing to be aware of as I was finishing my PhD. It was easy to put a lot of pressure on myself, to doubt that things would go well in the viva (so many doubts!!), but I had a lot to be thankful for:

  • I could have been thankful that my supervisor was patient and supportive.
  • I could have been thankful that I had a community around me that cared.
  • I could have been thankful that I knew my examiners a little, so had some idea of how they would behave.
  • I could have been thankful that my thesis went in on time.
  • I could have been thankful that I had ample time to prepare.
  • I could have been thankful that I had results I was certain of.

But for the most part I read my thesis, made notes and wondered what my examiners would say. All of the above was true, but I didn’t recognise it. Simply reflecting on “What are you thankful for?” could have helped me appreciate some of it. I probably would have still been nervous, but perhaps with a little more perspective on how I’d got to the viva, and what that might mean. I think it would have helped me.

I offer it as a thought: when it comes to your PhD, your thesis, your viva – what are you thankful for?

 

Massive thanks to Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who was my guest on the podcast a long time ago! I spotted her daily practice of being thankful some years back on Twitter, and this inspired our family bedtime routine.

More More More

I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day life of my pure maths PhD now. I remember little sparks, breakthroughs, and the feeling of being “in the zone” while trying to figure something out.

I also remember, as my PhD went on, the growing feeling that there was always more I could do.

There were more ways to apply the ideas I had developed.

There were more papers to read to find more methods for exploring my field.

There were more questions to ask, and more answers to be found – more to explore.

Even though of course there was a limit to how much I could accomplish throughout my PhD, there would always be more things I could do. And in preparation for my viva, while I invested a lot of time, I could have done even more. I could have spent thirty minutes more each day, an extra day of reading papers or an afternoon checking over the details of a chapter.

I think this generalises further: even with time pressures, life pressures and so on, candidates have to recognise that there will be more things they could explore or do than they have done; however much time they spend getting ready there will be more that they could do which would help them.

And we all have to take a deep breath at some point and say “No. This is enough.” You have to find a way to do that for your research and your thesis. For your viva prep, making a list in advance of what needs to be done could be helpful. Break down what will be enough for getting ready, then work towards it.

There is always going to be more, and there also has to be enough.

One More Day

Another chance to show up, do good work, show and share your knowledge, your ability, your insight.

By the viva you will have had hundreds and hundreds of days where you have done this. So while it’s an important day, and it’s essential that you do show up with your knowledge, your ability and your insight, it’s overwhelmingly likely that that’s exactly what you will do.

Because it’s an important day, you might show up with some nervousness or worries too. That’s fine. You can handle them for your viva day, for one more day. Draw confidence from the fact that you couldn’t have got this far without doing something well (whatever that particular something might be for you, your research and your thesis).

One more day. You can do it.

I Do This

I got a new logo for my business a few months ago.

new logo, Nathan Ryder, helping PGRs become PhDs

I like it. For the longest time I struggled with how to explain what I did:

  • I’m a freelance skills trainer.
  • I’m a skills trainer for PhDs.
  • I’m a skills trainer and writer.
  • No, not with maths, I did a PhD in maths but I’m not a tutor…
  • I’m a researcher-developer.
  • I’m an independent researcher-developer.
  • I’m an independent researcher-developer and writer.

No. Simply: I help PGRs become PhDs.

Simple.

What do you do? How do you define what you do with your skills, your work, your research, or with the outcomes or mission?

When you can find greater clarity in explaining it to others, you might find some interesting or surprising things for yourself. Consider that, particularly as you prepare to explain who you are and what you do at your viva.

What do you do?

Most

If most vivas result in success, why would yours be any different?

If most candidates can get ready with only a little work, relative to the rest of their PhDs, what’s different for you?

If most people have a viva that’s two to three hours long, does it matter if yours is longer or shorter?

If most theses need correcting in some way, what’s the problem with you doing yours?

 

If you have a real response to any of these sort-of-rhetorical questions, then in most cases you’ll have to do something. You might have to work more, or get more help than most, or ask for support, or get clarification about how your viva can be made fair.

But for some candidates, you might simply have to think about what’s really going on for you. Think about what might be skewing your point of view, and explore what you could do to change your perspective.

Hold on to this: most vivas, the overwhelming majority, result in success.

No Hurry, No Pause

The work of Tim Ferriss has helped me a lot over the last decade. I’ve enjoyed all of his books, but one of his must-read posts that I keep returning to is “Testing The Impossible: 17 Questions That Changed My Life” from 2016.

While the post is about business and lifestyle design, re-reading it for the 73rd time today I’m struck by how so many of the questions resonate with my view on viva preparation too:

  • If I could only work 2 hours per week on my business, what would I do? Leaving business aside, the time restriction is an excellent provocation. What do you need to do first?
  • Am I hunting antelope or field mice? This makes me think of obsessing over typos and what-ifs. You could hunt for endless little things, or focus preparation efforts on the larger “antelope” that will provide you with more!
  • What would this look like if it were easy? A simple prompt. How could your preparations be easy? What conditions would you need? Now which of those can you create?
  • No hurry, no pause. As Tim notes, not a question! But something that has stuck with me personally, and which I think applies really well to viva prep. A little planning before submission goes a really long way. A little organisation makes your preparation come together nicely, stress-free. You might be anxious about your viva still, but your preparation will not be a contributing factor.

I thoroughly recommend the article. See how it might prompt you to reflect on your preparations before the viva. Look for ways to make the process as valuable as it can be.

Unstuck

For anything you were stuck on during your PhD, reflect:

  • What was the problem? Why was it a problem and why was it worth solving?
  • What were you stuck on? What caused the issue? What was the stickiest point?
  • How did you get unstuck? What helped? What did you realise?
  • What was the outcome? How did this help you? And why does any of this stand out to you now?

Being stuck doesn’t feel great. Getting past it is a sign that you have learned, developed, grown. You know more, you can do more.

Positive signs for the viva.

Interesting Decisions

Seth Godin writes recently of “the magic of trade-offs” – an idea that resonated with my own memories of doing a PhD.

  • I remember writing only a few paragraphs about an application for one of my results, because I knew my time would be better spent developing something else new.
  • I remember the pride when I worked out a neat method that saved a lot of calculation time in an algorithm – because I’d previously decided to wait and explore more before checking with my supervisor, though this was uncertain when I started my plan.
  • And I remember the trade-off (that paid off) when I decided to not apply for jobs as I was getting close to submission, to save my time and attention for getting my thesis as good as it could be.

I’m sure you must have made trade-offs in the process of doing a PhD. Another way of looking at trade-offs is that someone makes an interesting decision. There may be no right or wrong, but for now this is the choice. A consequence, doing a PhD, might be that other options are closed to you as a result of your interesting decision.

And another consequence might be that your examiners ask you to talk about or defend your interesting decisions in the viva. Not because you’re right or wrong, or because your examiners are – but because your decisions are interesting. They’re worth talking about and exploring.

In preparation for your viva, review your interesting decisions. Where did you trade-off different things? How did you make those decisions? What were your reasons?

And do you still think it was the right thing to do?