When The Light Doesn’t Come On

About a week ago, first thing in the morning, I opened the fridge to get the milk to make the first cup of tea of the day.

The light in the fridge didn’t come on.

My brain performed a complicated dance of thoughts and feelings:

  • “Oh no, we have so much in the fridge and freezer that will be ruined!”
  • “We’ve had it for over seven years, so of course it’s out of warranty…”
  • “Wait, it’s the weekend! Where are we going to get a new one from?”
  • “Can we save any of the food? Will my mum have room in her freezer? Can we give some to neighbours?”
  • “A new one? What am I thinking jumping to that, can we afford to just buy a fridge-freezer?!”
  • “Ugh, I’ve not even had a cup of tea!!!”

And then a quiet part of my brain whispered… Check the button.

There’s a little button that is held in place by the fridge door when it’s closed. When it’s opened it pops out and the light comes on. I touched it and it popped out and the light came on. The fridge was fine.

The button had just stuck in place for a second. That’s all. No problem. No solution needed. No cause for panic.

 

“Problems” sometimes aren’t really problems, but our first instinct encountering a potentially difficult situation is to panic.

In the viva, an examiner asking a tricky question might not intend it to be hard. If they say they have a different opinion, they are not trying to ruin you. If you don’t know what to say to a question, or haven’t spotted a typo previously, or just go blank, there’s no need to panic. These are all situations that you can respond to in the viva, but they might not be problems at all.

If you’re asked a question in the viva and the light doesn’t come on, stop and check: is this a problem?

Out Of Your Comfort Zone?

I know what makes me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s possible to avoid things outside of my comfort zone; I’m self-employed so I have a certain degree of control about the kind of work I do, or the conditions I work in. Sometimes stepping out of my comfort zone is necessary though. For those situations I’ve had to figure out how I can best proceed; I’ve figured out how I can make the most of those situations even thought they’re not comfortable.

In some cases, like public speaking, I’ve even come to like something that was previously way out of my comfort zone!

It’s useful to figure out your comfort zones so you can work well, and especially useful for PGRs nearing the end of the PhD process. If the thought of the viva makes you feel uncomfortable then I think the best thing you can do is stretch yourself in advance. Stretch by presenting, by discussing, by working to build your confidence. Find more ways to practise, even small ways to get more experience and learn what you can do to make the situation better, more comfortable. Like me, you might even find a way to make the process more enjoyable for you.

Perhaps your viva will be closer to your comfort zone than you expect.

Scratch Your Itch

If I’m ever asked to give general advice for PhD candidates I suggest that they find some way to scratch their itch:

Find a nice little side project to your main research, something that might use your skills, talents or knowledge in a slightly different way. Find something that makes you smile to work on it. Find something perhaps even unconnected to your research but which helps you to make something or do something that helps others. If all it does is help you balance out your normal work time, then it’s time well spent.

There’s a place for itch-scratching in viva prep too. Make notes on the favourite parts of your thesis. Find interesting papers to read and challenge yourself with. Have coffee with friends to talk about the last few years or perhaps have a mini-viva. Even incentivise your prep with some kind of fun reward.

All of these sorts of things have a place in helping you get ready.

What could you do? What have you been putting off? What could you use to both scratch an itch – A new project? Answering a question to keep you thinking? Presenting your work? – and help you get ready?

Your Best

I’m preparing the blog for the end of the year and the start of 2021. My tradition is to do a few “best of” posts between Christmas and New Year, picking out prep ideas, reflections, short posts and the like – the things that stand out in over 350 days of writing. If any posts from this year have really resonated let me know! It might be interesting to do a day sharing reader choices.

But while I get thinking about the best posts of the year, consider that for the viva you need to bring the best of you – which hopefully won’t be too difficult because you must have been bringing that to your PhD for a long time.

Your best for your viva means being ready, being thorough, being willing to engage and think, doing something to build your confidence (if you need to) and recognising that you must be talented enough by now.

You’ve been doing your best for a long time. Clearly it’s worked.

Move Past Mistakes

Typos catch the eye. Muddled words bring distraction. Mistakes do matter, but for the most part only because they’ll be one more thing on the list of corrections.

When you see them during your prep – because it is when rather than if for the majority of candidates – make a note in a useful way for you, then move past them. Focus on what matters more. Focus on the stuff that your examiners will really want to talk about: your contribution, your choices, your knowledge and what makes you a capable researcher.

Contribution matters more than corrections.

Being Thankful

Every night before we put our daughter to bed, we share what we’re thankful for as a family. We’re thankful that we’ve had three meals that day, that something funny happened, that we’re part of a nice school community, that we read a good story, that we have a family… Big or small, serious and silly, we share what has helped that day be good (or what has been good in a hard day).

We’ve done this for three or four years I think, and it helps. It helps us not take things for granted.

It’s helped a lot this year.

I think it would have been a valuable thing to be aware of as I was finishing my PhD. It was easy to put a lot of pressure on myself, to doubt that things would go well in the viva (so many doubts!!), but I had a lot to be thankful for:

  • I could have been thankful that my supervisor was patient and supportive.
  • I could have been thankful that I had a community around me that cared.
  • I could have been thankful that I knew my examiners a little, so had some idea of how they would behave.
  • I could have been thankful that my thesis went in on time.
  • I could have been thankful that I had ample time to prepare.
  • I could have been thankful that I had results I was certain of.

But for the most part I read my thesis, made notes and wondered what my examiners would say. All of the above was true, but I didn’t recognise it. Simply reflecting on “What are you thankful for?” could have helped me appreciate some of it. I probably would have still been nervous, but perhaps with a little more perspective on how I’d got to the viva, and what that might mean. I think it would have helped me.

I offer it as a thought: when it comes to your PhD, your thesis, your viva – what are you thankful for?

 

Massive thanks to Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who was my guest on the podcast a long time ago! I spotted her daily practice of being thankful some years back on Twitter, and this inspired our family bedtime routine.

Aspects Of The Viva

There are lots of elements to the viva:

  • There is what’s presented in your thesis, the pre-requisite to being in the viva at all.
  • There is why you did it in the first place, a subject that often comes up in some form.
  • There is who you are, and to a lesser extent who your examiners are.
  • There is why you are there and what you have planned afterwards perhaps.
  • There is the logistics – how, when, where – and the expectations – the things that tend to happen and influence how people feel about the viva.
  • There is the beginning, middle, end and afterwards.
  • There is the dance between feeling excited and feeling worried.
  • There is the preparation, the support, the help – and then just you and your examiners.

There’s a lot to the viva. Focussing only on one element means you will miss something important in all the other aspects. But trying to focus on everything means you’ll also probably miss something.

Another aspect worth mentioning: they almost always result in success for the candidate. Whatever else you need to explore or reflect on for yourself, remember the most likely outcome for all your work.

I Do This

I got a new logo for my business a few months ago.

new logo, Nathan Ryder, helping PGRs become PhDs

I like it. For the longest time I struggled with how to explain what I did:

  • I’m a freelance skills trainer.
  • I’m a skills trainer for PhDs.
  • I’m a skills trainer and writer.
  • No, not with maths, I did a PhD in maths but I’m not a tutor…
  • I’m a researcher-developer.
  • I’m an independent researcher-developer.
  • I’m an independent researcher-developer and writer.

No. Simply: I help PGRs become PhDs.

Simple.

What do you do? How do you define what you do with your skills, your work, your research, or with the outcomes or mission?

When you can find greater clarity in explaining it to others, you might find some interesting or surprising things for yourself. Consider that, particularly as you prepare to explain who you are and what you do at your viva.

What do you do?