Done or Finished?

Two words that people use a lot around the end of the PhD.

Finished makes me think that something is over. But there’s always more! More experiments, more words, more questions. So I don’t like finished for a thesis, a viva or a PhD. There’s always something more that could be added.

(could, not should)

Done doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a bit too short, a bit final, a bit simple for the complex and messy nature of research.

The thesis, the viva, your PhD, they all mean something. Done and finished feel lacking.

The word I’m leaning towards is completed. Completed feels right. The thesis, the viva, your PhD can be completed. They have everything they need and it sounds like more of an achievement than simply being done.

If you’re on the path, I wish you all the best as you head to completion.


“How long will your work be seen as current?”

I don’t know how common this question is in the viva, but I think it is a fantastic question to explore in preparation.

Get a piece of paper and jot down notes for an hour. Turn the question around in many different ways.

You have to think about the history of your discipline. What’s lead up to your research? You have to reflect on the value of your thesis. You have to see what is happening in your field, and think about how your work has been received so far.

You might put an estimate on the length of time your work will be seen as novel or useful. It could be that five years from now there will be something else that occupies the scholars of your field. That’s fine. Recognise that your work is a part of the unfolding story of research.

Your work makes a contribution to the sum of human knowledge.

(it sounds grand but it’s true!)

♥ Your Thesis

I think you can love your viva, but probably only after the fact. Before it you can be excited, but you’ll still be wondering, “What if…?” about something. You can look forward to it, and it will probably go well, but you can’t love your viva until you’re all done.

Roses are red/Violets are blue/You’ve got this far/You’ve got this too!

You can only love the viva after the fact, but you can love your thesis and your research before you finish your PhD. Maybe you don’t feel that way now.

Find your reasons. Look for them. Don’t just read your work and try to memorise things. Look for reasons to be proud. Look for reasons to be happy. Look for reasons to shout from the rooftops that your thesis is amazing and you love it!

Get to the point where you ♥ your thesis and I think you’ll ♥ your viva too.


Perfectly Impossible

I got a note from an anonymous seminar participant:

I have written the perfect thesis. Should I worry about the viva?

If the first statement was true, I could see no reason why they should. If their thesis was perfect, really, why would they need to worry? If I had a perfect thesis, there wouldn’t be much point!

Small problem: there is no perfect thesis. Imperfection is inevitable. The perfect thesis is an impossibility.

But an imperfect thesis doesn’t automatically mean that someone should worry. They might anyway, because they have doubts, or questions, or 101 concerns. And there could be a problem in any imperfect thesis that leads to tough questions or tricky corrections: both are part of the process, neither “should” be worried about.

An imperfect thesis doesn’t mean you failed. It means that you didn’t achieve the impossible.

You have a thesis. You have you. You have everything you need to beat back your worries and succeed in the viva.

Engaging With Criticism

If your examiner tells you they don’t like something in your thesis you have options:

  • You could say sorry, and do whatever they say as a result.
  • You could stare them down, insist that you’re right, and see what happens.
  • You could argue with them and try to show you’re right.
  • You could discuss things, listen to what they have to say and put your best case forwards.
  • You could ask them, “Why do you think that?” and listen before responding.

And you could do a lot more. I’m not suggesting you could have 100% control over how you feel or what you would automatically say as a result of criticism. It can cut deep, you might not know what to do. But there are different options open to you.

How you engage with your examiners can lead to very different ways of being in the viva.

Significant Original Contribution

I’ve heard these three words used so many times to describe what a PhD needs to produce. I’ve said them myself thousands of times in workshops! But what do we mean when we say these words? What are we getting at? Checking the thesaurus gives some helpful ideas…

Significant: compelling, important, momentous, powerful, serious, rich…

Original: authentic, initial, first, beginning, pioneer, primary…

Contribution: addition, improvement, increase, augmentation, present, gifting…

Significant original contribution is nice shorthand to capture the result of a PhD’s journey. Go deeper into the words to remind yourself just how awesome your research is.

Tearing Off The Paper

About six weeks ago I watched as a dozen children almost went to war in my living room. The reason?

Pass The Parcel.

It was my daughter’s fifth birthday party, and she’d insisted on playing a lot of games, including Pass The Parcel. We decided it would be like Pass The Parcel from our childhoods, with a single prize in the centre, and no little prize with every layer.


The kids were in uproar. We told them there was just one in the centre, but they were confused. Wh- Why?! Where were the little prizes? Then I want to win the one in the centre! They were desperate to hold on to the parcel in case this layer was the layer. They stopped having fun. We thought it would be alright, they would see the fun in taking part, taking a layer off getting closer to the prize, but they didn’t. Wanting the prize was too much for them. In the end, we fudged the final round so a particularly desperate child won.

(I feared tears and physical violence if they didn’t)

I was thinking about this game of Pass The Parcel the other day and was reminded of my PhD, and research more generally.

Sometimes, you only get to tear the paper off; sometimes, you don’t get to the big answer, the thing you were looking for. You get closer, but not all the way to the prize.

And that’s fine, you learn, you grow and you move everyone in your field forward.

It can be hard though, doing a PhD, writing a thesis, preparing for the viva, to see it that way. It might be true, but will your examiners see it that way? Or will they focus solely on why you didn’t get to the end goal? Examiners appreciate that not every research journey ends at the point one might want. They’ll have the experience to recognise what you’ve done if you don’t reach the point you wanted.

Your job, if this is your situation, is to be able to talk about how far you went. How close you came. What the different layers you tore off were. How you might have done it differently. And what other steps someone might need to take to reach the prize.

Decode Your Thesis

My thesis was full of codewords: technical terms and jargon that would have been tough for the uninitiated to break.

Genus 2 manifold. Unoriented link. Plait presentation.

How coded is your thesis? Jargon can save on words and be a shorthand for precision. It can also keep people out – maybe even you!

Check your codewords during your viva preparation. Make a short glossary to be sure of your definitions. Decode tricky terms in the margins. Stick in Post-it Notes with concise explanations.

Unpicking the meaning of words can help you think about how to explain them even better.