Gaps & Holes

At the start of your PhD you have gaps: the things your research seeks to address.

At the end of your PhD you have holes: the things you didn’t get to, couldn’t show or don’t know.

Both need some of your viva preparation time. Reflect on the research gap to better share it with your examiners. Explore the holes so you can talk about them confidently in the viva.

Your thesis and research are more than gaps and holes, of course, but both will matter in the viva.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Your examiners will want to talk about the strengths of your work in the viva. They’re there to talk to you about your contribution. Spend time in your prep thinking about what makes your work strong. How is it new? How does it make a difference? What makes it good? Why does it matter?

Your examiners might want to explore weaknesses. They might want to unpick clumsy sentences that don’t express what you had hoped. They may want to ask about limitations. The potential for improving on your research could be a rewarding topic of conversation. What could you do differently? Are you sure you’re right? Why?

Spend a little time thinking about your weaknesses. Spend much more time reflecting on your strengths. The background assumption for the viva is there is something valuable in what you’ve done – be ready to talk about your strengths!

Favourite Failures

I have failed many times.

Three years ago I spent a lot of effort and time developing an independent viva preparation workshop. I found a great venue and booked it three times upfront. I spent a lot of time and money making resources, promoting the events, and I got a lot of attention from people who said it was a great idea. Dozens of people expressed interest in going.

Then only four people came to the first session.

Only one person came to the second.

I cancelled the third session a few days before it was due to happen. No-one was signed up. Months of work and thousands of pounds. The idea just didn’t connect. It wasn’t what people wanted, or maybe I didn’t find a way to explain what it was.

In any case, my independent viva preparation workshop project had failed.

I remember during my PhD I spent months of time (thankfully not thousands of pounds) on calculations to prove something I thought was true. Hundreds of hours, hundreds of sheets of paper and in the end, I didn’t get the answer. I couldn’t find the answer. I couldn’t show that I was on track or that I had gone wrong.

I had failed in my research.

For some time, in both cases, I felt bad. I had failed, I hadn’t done what I set out to do.

But in both cases, I realised, I didn’t have nothing. For my PhD, I still got a chapter in my thesis. I was able to show the limits of calculating things in a certain way. I was able to improve on what was known previously. I didn’t have a final answer, but I had some new questions. I couldn’t tell you what happened in every case, but I was able to show some new examples.

My independent workshop idea didn’t work. That’s OK. It pushed me to do more and do better. I made lots of new resources, was able to share them, and started thinking about different ways I could deliver the session in universities. Ultimately that failure lead me to doing this daily blog. If I hadn’t explored the independent session, this blog wouldn’t be here.

Now, all of this isn’t simply looking for silver linings, or making lemonade from life’s lemons: it’s honestly reflecting that failures can still lead to later wins. Just because something didn’t work out the way you wanted, doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing.

So think: what didn’t work out in your PhD the way you wanted? What did you get even though you didn’t get the victory you were perhaps looking for? How could you communicate that to your examiners?

How can you convince yourself too?

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.

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.

Current

“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.