The OK Thesis

Perfect is the enemy of done, but does it then follow that it’s fine to submit an “OK” thesis? One which you know has typos in? One which you know could be better? One which you know has things you could fix? It’s OK… It’s fine. It’s acceptable. It’ll do.

Is that OK?

Since most candidates will have a successful viva that leads to some form of corrections, it’s a natural question to ask if you could just submit your first, could-be-better, OK version of your thesis. There’s only so much time to do a PhD. There’s so much going on, especially recently. I can empathise with someone who would make the argument that they just have to get their thesis in now, and then fix anything later on.


If you know there are things that could be better – in terms of making sure your thesis communicates your research – it’s nearly always worth the extra effort before submission, the viva and corrections. If you’re tempted to let things slide, to rush something in, to say you’ll fix it later, I’d urge you to take another look. See what you can do.

If you have a deadline you cannot break, then at least prioritise the most important things to help your thesis be the best it could be.

You’ll never reach perfection, but your best is a lot better than OK.

Unclear or Wrong

You can’t – and shouldn’t – assume there are problems in your thesis. It’s worth checking through it carefully after submission. Read your thesis well to make sure that it holds up, that nothing has slipped through.

Find something unclear? What would make it clearer? Add a note of what you might say differently.

Find something wrong? Why is it wrong? What could you do to address it?

You can’t be perfect; you can be prepared.

A Better List Than Typos

During preparation, instead of listing thesis typos…

  • Take a sheet of paper.
  • Start reading your thesis.
  • Make a list of everything that makes you feel good.

Typos have to be fixed at some point; it’s more useful in prep to build and re-build your picture of what makes your thesis great.

This will help your confidence a lot more than being sure of all your spelling mistakes.

What Can You Do About Typos?

…Nothing really.

Your thesis won’t be perfect, but typos don’t mean serious consequences. Proofread your thesis as well as you can, but there will probably be some left. You won’t get them all. When you spot them between submission and the viva, underline them in your thesis or make a list.

Your examiners might make a list too; they’ll ask you to correct typos so that your thesis is better, but they don’t ask for corrections as any kind of punishment. Typos can distract a reader, but only a little.

You can’t do much about typos. Find them, if you can; correct them, when you have the chance. They shouldn’t be the focus for your attention. There’s more important things to do.

Almost Unavoidable

You only need to transpose one pair of letters in one sentence on one page in your thesis and you have a miskate mistake. A reference could be wrong or a diagram might need redrawing. Its likely you’ll have typos somewhere in your thesis. You could have words around switched switched around or paragraphs that need another edit.

You don’t do any of these on purpose, you want your thesis to be the best it can be. So do your examiners. Corrections aren’t a punishment or “just another part of the process”. Corrections are your examiners helping you find things to make your thesis even better. Perfect is a nice ideal, but better is the real goal.

Mistakes are almost unavoidable in the tens of thousands of words you’ll put in your thesis. Aiming for perfect won’t work. Aim for great, and after the viva you’ll get some help aiming for grater greater.

You Get Corrections Because…

…your thesis isn’t perfect. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.

You get corrections because you’ve probably never written a book before. The thesis you submit for your viva is the very best draft you could write.

Typos creep in. Style choices don’t quite work. You miss a reference or a full stop, a comma or the numbering of a figure.

You get corrections because you tried your very best, not because somehow you failed. Corrections aren’t failing. Corrections are part of the process.

Corrections are your examiners saying, “Here, take a look, this is how you could make this better.”

But never perfect. “Perfect is the enemy of done.” You can’t make it perfect. You can make it done.

You get corrections to get to done.

Necessary, Broccoli

Necessary and broccoli are my two word nemeses: two words that I can’t reliably spell correctly. It bugs me. It frustrates me. It’s not every day that I have to write about vegetables, but necessary is… essential. Spellcheck can sort me out when typing, but I’m often writing longhand on a flipchart in front of twenty people. I don’t want to mess up.

Lately I’ve just been thinking “one C, two Cs” to help me remember. It’s not perfect. For the most part I’ve got my frustration under control. Necessary and broccoli are two little blips that I can deal with. While I can’t always remember how to spell those words, there’s a lot more that I can do – a lot more I can do really well.

I remember preparing for my viva. My mind drifted to all of the little things (and some big) that my examiners might focus on. I can remember the frustration on my part, “Why didn’t I do X? Why don’t I know Y? When will I ever understand Z?”

After spending so long working on something and wanting it to be good, it’s easy to focus on things that you could do better. It’s hard not to wonder what examiners will make of flaws, blips and rough edges in your research or your practice. Maybe there are ways to make X, Y or Z better, but if those are the things you focus on you’ll just lead your mind to doubt.

So what can you do? Focus on your strengths first.

Start a list of things that are great in your research. Results, writing, presentation, style, your ideas, your insights, your passion, your supervisor, that one meeting that one time where you made a great observation, whatever you can find.

Don’t dismiss weakness, but don’t let that be the guide. Every time you come to do some viva prep, take out the list, quickly read it, then see if you can add one or two more things.

You’ve done a lot of great work to get you to the viva.


The Unimportant Bug Hunt

After submission, read your thesis long enough and you’ll eventually spot a typo. Go actively looking for them and you’ll get a decent list of things that you can correct after the viva.

…but is that really a good use of your viva prep time?

Focus on getting a good perspective on your whole thesis, practise how to articulate your research, find opportunities to think and learn more.

If you find typos along the way, fair enough, but don’t make that a goal.

Find The Vague

When you come to viva preparation time you will read and re-read your thesis. And you will find typos. That’s to be expected: spellcheck won’t catch everything, and neither will you. It’s not so bad though: make a note of them when you find them and you can correct later.

Instead of going on a typo hunt though, I’d recommend purposefully looking for vague sections of your thesis. Read your thesis carefully, line by line, and see what doesn’t quite make sense. What could be clearer? What might someone struggle with? Spend some time now making notes on that.

Your examiners can probably read past a typo, but they’ll notice something vague and be more likely to dig into it with you in the viva. If you find the vague ahead of time you’ll be more prepared in case it comes up, but you’ll also be better at explaining things in the future.


It’s good to catch as many typos as possible. It’s not always easy to see them, even with spellcheck running. And spellcheck can’t always see when you put words in the wrong order. Proofreading can be hard. Enlist some allies as early as possible to help read through and spot what you might look past.

If you’re reading through your thesis to prepare for your viva, don’t worry about miskates too much. If you find erors, you can always correkt them l8r.

Instead, focus on anything that seems vague. If you read something that you’ve written and think, “Hmm… What did I mean here?” then spend time unpacking what it’s all about. Typos aren’t vague: when you see a typo, you know what needs to be there. Passages that are vague are harder to crack: it may not be immediately obvious what needs to be there. But if you focus on the vague then you’ll be in a better position in the viva to talk about your research.