The Puppet Problem

Or, Ideas That Have Not Found Their Moment…

For about three years, I have wanted to make a series of (hopefully funny) videos to help PGRs get ready for their viva. I would do these with a puppet co-star. Through a series of helpful suggestions I will calm “Pete the Panicking Postgrad” as I call him, and he’ll get ready for his viva.

For about three years I’ve been thinking about how to do this because the core idea makes me smile. A lot.

Maybe Pete’s not panicking, maybe he’s not a he, maybe it’s an animal, maybe it’s not even for the viva – but darn it, it makes me smile to think about doing a video (or seven) with a puppet!

I don’t own a puppet, I can’t throw my voice and I don’t know if there is an audience for PGR-related videos with puppets – but in some respects these are all minor problems. The idea just hasn’t found the right topic yet, the right moment, the right space to find fruition.

The same goes for my viva audiobook plans, my third book on viva help, a video course on viva prep, a regular Saturday morning viva webinar club! – the ideas are there, in some cases the foundations are good, but the moment isn’t right. My diary is too full. The resources aren’t there. I have other plans in motion.

How have you managed that during your PhD? How do you feel about your “puppet problems”? What have you not been able to take forward because the time is not quite right? Is there still a chance that you could do something with it before submission? If you don’t do it now, will it ever happen? And if it doesn’t, how will you feel about it?

I don’t have an easy answer for any of these, nor simple advice apart from suggesting you save your ideas somewhere just in case the moment does come. Maybe that moment will be in your viva, talking about future projects or potential developments on your research; maybe a year or two from now you’ll have a little time to take things further.

And maybe one day there will be a video of a puppet preparing for their viva…

I can dream 🙂

Promise & Potential

Two words to describe what you have when you start a PhD – in a way, the reasons why you were accepted on the programme.

You showed something, in your application or interview. You had some skills, some knowledge, some enthusiasm – some combination of all of these.

You didn’t have everything you needed to finish your PhD at the start, but you had the promise and potential to find success.

Consider, now that you’re probably closer to the end, what did you have when you began? And what do you have now?

Potential realised? How? What did you do to get this far? And how far might you go now that the end of your PhD is near?

Edison’s Mistakes

Edison failed in his pursuit of a lightbulb 500 times, 1000 times or even 10,000 times depending on which (probably exaggerated!) account you read. What is certain is that he made mistakes, but he didn’t really fail because he kept pursuing. He tried things, probably believing for good reasons that he would be successful, but he was wrong a lot.

All of that wrong helped him to be ultimately right.

Now, hopefully you haven’t succeeded in spite of 10,000 mistakes during your PhD – but if you arrive at submission you must have made mistakes along the way. Things forgotten, things that didn’t work out, things you can’t explain, things that are wrong… Through all of that you’ve made it to success and submission. Mistakes are part of the PhD process, both of doing the research that becomes your thesis and of developing the skills that make you a capable researcher.

It’s fine to remember you made mistakes, but not helpful to dwell on them. Understand them, but not focus on them.

Determination is another part of the PhD process, wrapped around mistakes and setbacks and failures. Determination to see things through. If you make it through a difficult path to submission, then you’ve got the determination to prepare for and pass your viva.

A Series of Choices

Are you going to spread out your viva prep over weeks or months, or do it all in a few days leading up to the viva?

Are you going to explore possibilities for your examiners in conversation with your supervisors, or leave the choice purely to them?

Are you going to be ready for your viva, or simply optimistic?

Are you going to respond to any and every question in the viva, or have questions in mind that you’d rather not discuss?

Are you open to being wrong about something, or certain that your research is right?

Some choices for the viva are easy, others aren’t. Some you have to make once, some you have to repeat. Some are conscious, some you won’t notice. Some have deadlines, some are fixed, and some you can change.

But they are there. They are your choices that lead you to the viva you’ll have and how you’ll engage with it.

Choose wisely.

You Have To Get Better

Think of three things that you’ve got better at by doing a PhD.

  • First list them: how would you specify these skills, processes or knowledge areas?
  • Write a few sentences for each about how you started your PhD: how would you qualify your ability or awareness then?
  • Write a few sentences for each about where you are now: how good are you today?
  • Write a few sentences for each about what made the difference: how did you get from where you were to where you are?

You have to get better at lots of things during a PhD, but progress and change can be so small day-by-day that it’s hard to see. Look back now, reflect and convince yourself.

Your development can be one of the roots of your confidence for your viva.

Falling Into Place

I think there’s a hope that everything just falls into place at the end of the PhD process.

A hope that everything just lines up perfectly like a big row of dominoes.

The idea you were missing hits the notion you needed to write, which completes the paragraph that was holding you up, so that the chapter which didn’t have a conclusion is finished, now your supervisor can give you feedback and your thesis gets submitted on time, and your examiners can judge everything to be right enough, and you enter the viva with a completely calm mind ready to respond – even to that one tricky question – and then you’ve passed and it’s done and you’ve finished.

The final domino falls over, you are a PhD.


But it won’t work like that.

Because you’ll miss a typo in the proofreading stage, meaning that that page is now a little muddled, and your supervisor will be rushed – because they will be at the moment – and while you’ll submit on time (probably), you’ll still feel a bit pressured because everyone’s feeling it, your examiners too, and they’ll be convinced by your thesis but still have questions you need to respond to, questions on the whys and hows and “What’s this?” – which you can reply to, because if you can’t, who can? – even that tricky question and you will pass, and it will be done and you will have finished.

The dominoes won’t be a neat straight line, but you’ll be a PhD.

It’ll be an explosion of fallen dominoes that somehow still make it to the end.

Things don’t just happen, everything won’t just fall into place. There’ll be friction and problems and despite all of that you’ll succeed. The imperfections won’t stop the clear outcome you’re on track for at this stage.

PhD and Viva Needs

The wonderful Jennifer Polk@FromPhDtoLife on Twitter, and someone you should definitely follow – prompted a neat little discussion a few months ago by asking “What do you need to be creative?

This got me thinking at the time about what I need to do this daily blog, which I could summarise as:

  1. My little book of ideas – where I capture ideas for posts
  2. A plan for a few weeks ahead of which posts will go on which days
  3. A “routine” for how/when I write – start of the week for first drafts; end of week for polishing
  4. Cups of tea!
  5. Creative stimulus – I need to keep my eyes and ears and brain open and carry my book around with me to capture ideas
  6. A deadline – a new post has to go out every day, but I tend to work at least ten days ahead. That time pressure works for me!

But not all of these are true needs. I need a certain level of caffeination, but I don’t really need a cup of tea next to me when I write. That’s more about ritual. I have a plan, but sometimes I get to a writing day and realise “I don’t think I have a handle on that topic today, I’ll have to write something else.” And then I have to.

What did you need to do your PhD? Which of those were real needs, and which were things that helped?

Which of them do you still need, in either sense, to help you prepare for your viva? And what else might you need?

These might seem like odd questions to ask, but your research didn’t just happen. Consciously or otherwise, you made the environment to help the work happen. What environment do you need now to help you be ready for your viva?


In the UK, wanting to be a PhD means needing to have a viva.

A lot could be done to help postgraduate researchers be prepared for the viva – even from the early stages of the PhD – if we helped people see that the viva is just another part of the process, like a literature review or an annual report or even a meeting with a supervisor. It’s just something that needs to happen.

And like lit reviews, reports and meetings, vivas are different for individuals too.

Unique, in fact.

There can be expectations and norms, but always differences. There’s lots and lots of general advice for PhDs based on useful structures that broadly apply – for writing, doing research, being a researcher – and then every PGR has to make sense of those for them, their research, their PhD.

You need all those things to be a PhD. You need your viva too. If you feel resistance towards it, for any reason, then you have to be responsible for working past it. What steps could you take to steer your perception towards the viva?

How can you see it not as some terrible thing, not perhaps even as the final milestone, but just one more necessary part of the process of becoming a PhD?

Is It A Big Deal?

The viva is a big deal because it’s what candidates need in order to pass their PhDs, which are pretty much the pinnacle of educational achievement!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because virtually every candidate passes…

The viva is a big deal because candidates have to work for at least three years usually in order to get to that stage, investing thousands of hours of work to get to submission!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t take that much to get ready for it…

The viva is a big deal because my friend said it was for them!

And my friend said it wasn’t for them, it was just another thing they had to do…


The viva is a big deal. And it isn’t.

The viva is important, and you have to pass, and that can set it up to be a great big deal – but the real big deal is YOU.

YOU put in the work to get to submission. YOU are the reason the viva is happening at all. YOU must have what it takes.


On Track

Even if this year has been bumpy, you’re still on track to succeed if you’ve submitted or are working to getting your thesis finished.

Being on track with your PhD means that you know where you’re going, even if you’re not quite sure how to get there. It means that you know you’ve got better – more skilled, more talented, more knowledgeable – and if you really reflect and review your progress you can see just how far you’ve come.

You’re on track because you’re still here, despite all of the problems, panics and frustrations that a PhD can throw at someone, despite all of the misery and pain that 2020 has brought up, you’re still here.

If you think there are any more bumps ahead, you can deal with them. Look ahead and plan if you need to, or wait for the moment to arrive and overcome as you’ve managed all of the other challenges of your doctorate.

You’re on track. Keep going.