The Standard

You need to have made a significant, original contribution with your research. Defining the standard for that is hard, but we can rule some things out. The standard is not…

  • …producing two papers during your PhD.
  • …having at least six chapters in your thesis.
  • …70,000 words.
  • …a minimum of 200 references in your bibliography.
  • …working yourself into a shell of your former self.
  • …perfection.

The standard is good enough.

Are your research and your thesis good enough? Are you good enough?

Good enough might still be tricky to define. Together you and your supervisors can establish some helpful criteria that can show you’re meeting the standard. It has to be discussed because every thesis is different, but figuring out what good enough means for your work, and knowing you’ve met the standard is a huge confidence boost for the viva.

One Bite At A Time

“How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time…

It’s an old joke or proverb, depending on how you look at it, but there’s certainly wisdom as well as eye-rolling.

You could never have done your PhD in a week. It takes years of slow, patient work. Learning, discovering, growing. You eat away at the problems of your research one bite at a time.

Getting ready for your viva is similar, but on a shorter timescale. A day of cramming is inferior compared to a few weeks of small tasks, getting ready by nibbling away at a finite to-do list, bit-by-bit. Confidence builds in the same way.

Slow, careful ways that lead to success.

After The Viva

Thank your examiners.

Take some deep breaths.

Make a few notes about what just happened.

Make sure your supervisors know what just happened.

Call whoever you need to and let them know.

Take some more deep breaths.

Go find a way to celebrate.

And in and among all of those moments, have a minute for yourself to really take in what you’ve achieved in the viva. The almost-end of a long, long period of hard work and discovery. Don’t forget that it wouldn’t have been possible but for you.

You deserve every congratulation you receive.

A Contribution

You’ve not simply done something for the last couple of years: you’ve made a contribution, made something different, made something that changes what came before. Made something that matters. You don’t need a model answer or script to hand to describe what you’ve done for your examiners, but it will help you in the viva to have reflected on how your work makes a difference.

So, quite simply, what’s your thesis contribution?

Before your viva make notes, reflect on your contribution and tell others about it. Then you’ll be more confident discussing what you’ve done with your examiners when you have to defend your thesis.

Not An Imposter

That’s not you. Whatever your misgivings, self-doubts or nerves: you could only have got through a PhD to submission and be preparing for your viva if you were good enough. That’s the only way.

If you have a specific concern about your research, talk with your supervisor or a trusted colleague and explore why you’re concerned. If you’re concerned about the process of the viva then find out more, learn about regulations and general expectations to get a full picture. If you’re not sure if you’re ready then learn what it takes to be ready (it doesn’t take much).

If you’re nervous, you’re not missing something. You’re right where you’re supposed to be. Feeling nervous is a way of recognising that something is important, not that something is wrong. You’re not fake, you’re not deficient: you’re human. Do what you can to build your confidence. Count your achievements. Reflect on your talents and how they’ve grown through the PhD. Don’t look for things that could be better, look for things that are already good enough.

You’ve got this far because you are good enough. Keep going.

To Begin Again

What would you do differently if you were to start your PhD over?

Candidates have asked me about what they should say to this sort of question in the viva. It feels like it could be a trap: similar to interview questions asking people to talk about their failings or weaknesses.

Perhaps if you did something differently that’s the same as saying you got something wrong?

Maybe if you made a change you’re admitting there’s room for improvement?

I can understand the worry, but don’t think there is much to worry about. A question about starting again isn’t a trick or a trap: your examiners are trying to engage you. They want to know about what you’ve learned. There are many ways you could start to respond:

  • “Knowing what I know now, I’d start by exploring…”
  • “I’d save time as I wouldn’t have to learn how to…”
  • “I didn’t have the opportunity to research X; perhaps I’d start with that…”

You can’t start over. You can begin to explore just how far you’ve come – and what a difference that journey has made to you.

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?

You Can’t Do Everything

You couldn’t do everything during your PhD and you can’t now when it’s time to get ready for your viva.

Before you start your viva prep take half an hour to make a list:

  • Take ten minutes to write down everything you could possibly do to get ready. It will be too much.
  • Take five minutes to quickly rank ideas: how important are they? Which feels more necessary?
  • Take fifteen minutes to tidy up the list: writing bookmarks is not useful; writing add bookmarks to starts of chapters is better. Adding a detail about how this will help you is even better: add bookmarks to starts of chapters to help navigate thesis.

Use this list to help you as you make a plan for your prep; focus on what helps you the most.

You can’t do everything, but everything you do will help you.

Everything you do to get ready for your viva will be enough.

I Didn’t Do That One Thing

Not finishing a project or experiment doesn’t disqualify you from succeeding in your PhD. If you didn’t read a certain paper, or follow a line of thought to some kind of conclusion you don’t forfeit your viva. You might need to explain if something seems missing. That explanation might be best in your thesis, but it could also be required in your viva if your examiners ask about it.

The root question is always “Why?”

  • Why didn’t you do it?
  • Why didn’t you read that paper?
  • Why weren’t you able to finish?

Unless the answer is “I was lazy” then an honest response is what your examiners want:

  • “I didn’t know about that…”
  • “I focussed on something else…”
  • “I learned about it too late to include it…”

Develop your response further by talking about what you would have done or could have done, or what you might do differently. Talk about what you learned in the process.

In most cases, unless you were being lazy, “that one thing” will just be one more little thing in a big list of things that you might have done during your PhD.

As you get ready for your viva it’s probably better – for your preparation and your confidence – to focus on what you have done, rather than on what you could have done.