Obvious Afterwards

I’d say a good 75% of my PhD results seemed obvious afterwards:

  • A clever solution for a programming problem.
  • An insight into the way a particular bit of maths worked.
  • A step in a proof that seemed inscrutable beforehand.

All obvious afterwards and in some cases very simple to explain to others. I remember two pages of my thesis that describe a process which took me upwards of 100 pages of notes to figure out the first time! 100 pages to figure out notation, to understand with near-endless diagrams what was happening, capture intermittent steps to show what was working and so on. Two pages in my thesis.

The rough work, long thinking and difficult days that lead to simplicity and “obvious” answers in your thesis or research are worth remembering. The outcome and answers matter, but don’t lose sight of the work – and the person who did it!

Promise & Potential

Two words to describe what you have when you start a PhD – in a way, the reasons why you were accepted on the programme.

You showed something, in your application or interview. You had some skills, some knowledge, some enthusiasm – some combination of all of these.

You didn’t have everything you needed to finish your PhD at the start, but you had the promise and potential to find success.

Consider, now that you’re probably closer to the end, what did you have when you began? And what do you have now?

Potential realised? How? What did you do to get this far? And how far might you go now that the end of your PhD is near?

Edison’s Mistakes

Edison failed in his pursuit of a lightbulb 500 times, 1000 times or even 10,000 times depending on which (probably exaggerated!) account you read. What is certain is that he made mistakes, but he didn’t really fail because he kept pursuing. He tried things, probably believing for good reasons that he would be successful, but he was wrong a lot.

All of that wrong helped him to be ultimately right.

Now, hopefully you haven’t succeeded in spite of 10,000 mistakes during your PhD – but if you arrive at submission you must have made mistakes along the way. Things forgotten, things that didn’t work out, things you can’t explain, things that are wrong… Through all of that you’ve made it to success and submission. Mistakes are part of the PhD process, both of doing the research that becomes your thesis and of developing the skills that make you a capable researcher.

It’s fine to remember you made mistakes, but not helpful to dwell on them. Understand them, but not focus on them.

Determination is another part of the PhD process, wrapped around mistakes and setbacks and failures. Determination to see things through. If you make it through a difficult path to submission, then you’ve got the determination to prepare for and pass your viva.

Thinking Caps

I’ve always liked the idea of putting a thinking cap on: doing something to particularly stimulate ideas or cleverness. There are times when I’ve worn a baseball cap as I sit down to write or work on something tough. I know it doesn’t make the ideas come any easier: it’s a reminder though, something to help signify what I want to be true, “I’m here to get this done, and I can do it.”

Let me be clear: in all the hundreds of viva stories I’ve heard of, I’ve never heard any where someone wore a hat to their viva!

But I have heard stories of musical playlists that help the candidate feel reassured.

I’ve heard of outfit choices that help people feel better.

I wore a pair of my good day socks for mine!

Thinking caps are probably out. But what else could you do reaffirm for yourself that you’re at your viva to pass? What else can help you feel confident?

A Thimbleful of Courage

A little bravery goes a long way. Yes, the unexpected question could scare you, or an honest mistake that seems huge, but you have talent, you have knowledge, you have your thesis.

This should lead to a confidence that you must be good. Good enough to meet with your examiners and defend your work. The tiniest amount of courage will see you through. The smallest reserve in the face of worry or fear. You can find it.

It’s normal to be nervous in anticipation of an important event like the viva. Find your courage. Be brave.

If you could get to submission, you can get through the viva.

You Have To Get Better

Think of three things that you’ve got better at by doing a PhD.

  • First list them: how would you specify these skills, processes or knowledge areas?
  • Write a few sentences for each about how you started your PhD: how would you qualify your ability or awareness then?
  • Write a few sentences for each about where you are now: how good are you today?
  • Write a few sentences for each about what made the difference: how did you get from where you were to where you are?

You have to get better at lots of things during a PhD, but progress and change can be so small day-by-day that it’s hard to see. Look back now, reflect and convince yourself.

Your development can be one of the roots of your confidence for your viva.

Falling Into Place

I think there’s a hope that everything just falls into place at the end of the PhD process.

A hope that everything just lines up perfectly like a big row of dominoes.

The idea you were missing hits the notion you needed to write, which completes the paragraph that was holding you up, so that the chapter which didn’t have a conclusion is finished, now your supervisor can give you feedback and your thesis gets submitted on time, and your examiners can judge everything to be right enough, and you enter the viva with a completely calm mind ready to respond – even to that one tricky question – and then you’ve passed and it’s done and you’ve finished.

The final domino falls over, you are a PhD.


But it won’t work like that.

Because you’ll miss a typo in the proofreading stage, meaning that that page is now a little muddled, and your supervisor will be rushed – because they will be at the moment – and while you’ll submit on time (probably), you’ll still feel a bit pressured because everyone’s feeling it, your examiners too, and they’ll be convinced by your thesis but still have questions you need to respond to, questions on the whys and hows and “What’s this?” – which you can reply to, because if you can’t, who can? – even that tricky question and you will pass, and it will be done and you will have finished.

The dominoes won’t be a neat straight line, but you’ll be a PhD.

It’ll be an explosion of fallen dominoes that somehow still make it to the end.

Things don’t just happen, everything won’t just fall into place. There’ll be friction and problems and despite all of that you’ll succeed. The imperfections won’t stop the clear outcome you’re on track for at this stage.

The Changing Whys

Why did you start your PhD?

Why did you keep going?

Why did you make progress?

Why were you ready to submit when you did?

Why are you going to be ready for your viva?

You had your reasons that got you started in your research. While those might change as you keep going, you still have your whys as you head to the finish.

Circumstances for your viva might change, pressures might rise up that you were not expecting. Keep a hold of your whys – why you’re doing your PhD, the fundamentals – and you’ll get through.

(remember the definition of survive)

Answers & Questions

Practice for the viva, through a mock viva, a mini-viva, a meeting or even just a chat with friends, is essential: you have to build confidence that you can respond to questions. But even more important is building confidence that you have the ability to do well in the viva.

You don’t know what answers or responses you’ll need in the viva; you can’t know for certain what questions will be asked. But with confidence you can be certain that you can respond to every question that you’re asked.

You can do this.

You Can’t Fake It

And you don’t need to, in order to pass the viva.

You must have done something right to get to submission. You must be capable.

Feeling nervous or being anxious are general human conditions. If you feel them for your viva you’re either recognising the importance of the event, or have a specific concern. Both of these things can be addressed, perhaps not perfectly, but you can do something.

Rather than cross your fingers and fake your way through the viva, be honest with yourself. If you’re nervous, what are you nervous about? What can you do to genuinely build your confidence? If you have a specific concern, what is it? What can you do about it, or who could help you?

Trying to fake your way through a forced smile will hurt more than working to make the situation better. You can’t have faked it to get to submission. Don’t start now.

(also, literally: you can’t fake being as good as you are – you must actually be pretty great!)