Letting Go

At some point you have to let go of your thesis. At some point it’s as good as it’s going to get. You can’t anticipate every comment you could get from examiners. You can’t write things in an effort to prevent questions. It doesn’t work that way.

For any kind of creative work – and a thesis is a creative work – there comes a point where you have to stop, be happy with what you’ve done and move on. Moving on after submission means preparing for the viva, using the solid foundations of your research and thesis.

Let go when you submit. You’ve done as much as you could possibly do.

There’s Always More

Worried about whether or not you’ve done enough prep? Worried if you find a reference after submission that seems like it would be a good addition to your thesis? Worried that there’s something else that you just have to do before the viva?

Whenever I get stressed out and think I need to read more or do more, I remember a little line from Ecclesiastes 12:12. Probably 2500 years old and still relevant:

“…There is no end to the writing of books, and too much study will wear you out.”

You could read one more paper. You could check one more detail. Make one more note. But do you really need to?

At some point you just have to stop. Weigh it against everything else you’ve done, and you’ll find the right point.

Don’t exhaust yourself just because you’ve found one more thing you could do.

Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?

Two Thesis Book Clubs

Two ideas that popped into my mind at a Viva Survivor workshop last week:

  1. If you and some colleagues are currently writing: go exploring in your department’s thesis collection. See what people have submitted in the last few years. Meet once a month to discuss what you’ve found. Perhaps you could all read a thesis per month or take it in turns. You might find something interesting but your goal should be to look at style, formatting, layout and argument construction. As a group, create a list of helpful thoughts for your own work. How can you best layout your thesis? How can you setup a good structure? and so on. Use this to make writing up better.
  2. If you’ve submitted and are preparing for the viva: invite some colleagues into a very special book club. Only one book involved: yours. If you have time, get them to read and think about a chapter per week, then invite them to ask you questions. If there isn’t time for a regular meeting, you could arrange a one-off event. Your friends get a copy of your thesis in advance to read, you give a short overview of your research at the start and then take questions.

As option two is geared solely around your thesis you might have to pay for some refreshments – but that’s a small investment compared to the benefits of valuable questions from your colleagues!

Love Letter For Your Thesis

Viva coming up? For one day, pause your usual preparation. Don’t analyse the contribution in each chapter. Don’t frantically search for typos. Don’t read through and worry what your examiners will say about this chapter or that choice.

Just take a page and write down what you love about your thesis.

What do you really love about it? What ideas do you adore? How does it make you happy? (it’s OK if “it’s done!” is the answer!)

What are you grateful for in your thesis? What inspires you? What can’t you wait to show others?

Find all the good stuff, and use that to motivate you for the rest of your prep and the viva.

Easter Eggs

Not the chocolate kind, the DVD extras. The secrets. The small, special things that only certain people will look for or notice.

My thesis had a few Easter Eggs. As a mathematician, it was about proving much stronger results than I needed for my theorems. As a metaphor, I needed to boil an egg, but what I did was write a cookbook called Everything Eggs: An Infinite Recipe Book With Yolks.

On a few occasions in my thesis I was able to include little things that were much more impressive once you looked closer. Little things, nice, but not necessary, but a contribution in their own way.

What are the things you’re proud of in your work even if others might not find them or know to look? Where are they hidden? Why did you do them? What do they mean?

Your thesis and research Easter Eggs could help or delight lots of people if they find them. Don’t forget them when you review your progress. They add something special to your research journey.

The Extra Mile

During my PhD I didn’t have to extend my algorithm to consider the HOMFLY polynomial…

…but I thought it was more useful than just writing it was possible in a discussion section.

I didn’t have to produce tables of plait presentations in my thesis…

…but I knew that no-one else had done it before and thought it might be helpful to someone.

When have you gone the extra mile in your PhD? When have you done something, big or small, that maybe wasn’t essential but which helped?

Make a list of what and why. Don’t play them down. They can show others your drive to do something valuable for your field.


A thesis has to have something new. It’s not just a collection of words. Ideas, facts, interpretation – whatever you could summarise it as, there’s something new in there. Something that wasn’t there before your PhD. Maybe something that could never have been done until now. Maybe something that could never have been done until YOU came along.

Don’t undersell the contribution you’ve made. It only exists in your thesis because of your efforts. As you prepare for the viva, take time to unpick the novelty of your work.