Mistakes Happen

They do.

Slips, errors, accidents, typos, absent-minded actions and more. There’s a worry for some candidates that examiners will not forgive mistakes. Perfection is not the standard for the thesis or the viva, but you can still wonder, “What will they think about X?”

Well, let’s assume that whenever you find out about X you can’t do anything to change it (because otherwise, you probably would and it wouldn’t be a worry). Maybe you know X happened while writing up; maybe you discover X when you’re preparing for the viva; perhaps you’re asked and only realise X in the viva. Essentially your next steps in all these cases are the same.

Simply think about the Why, How and What of the mistake:

  • Why did the mistake happen?
  • How could you do something about it?
  • What do you think you need to do about it now?

Mistakes happen, and sometimes you need to act to correct them. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge them. Reflect on the why, the how and the what to explore how you might respond to examiners’ questions about mistakes in the viva.

Why-How-What For Examiners

Long term readers will know that I like Why-How-What as a way to frame and explain ideas. I share it a lot in workshops when people ask me how they can explain what their research is about. I think it’s also useful to generate questions and unpick aspects of the viva process that worry people, and one of the biggest sources of worry for PhD candidates is the examiners themselves.

What do they do? What will they ask? How will they behave? What if….?

Instead of aiming at the worries, let’s start with three questions.

Why are they examining me? A basic one to start with, but important. They’re examining you because they’ve been chosen. They’re examining you because you’ve done something special. They’re examining you because that’s how PhDs are assessed in the UK. They’re examining you because they are supposed to.

How will they examine me? Professionally. There are rules and regulations. There are expectations. They’ll try to live up to them, and seek help beforehand if they need it. They will be asking you questions, but they don’t come to the viva with a malicious agenda. They’re not there to tear you or your work apart.

What will happen in the viva? A discussion. A series of questions that drives conversation and leads to a conclusion. They’re not there to torture you. Your examiners want the best possible outcome they can find for you, given your thesis and performance. They want you to pass as well as you can and they want your thesis to be the best representation of your research that it can be.

There are other ways that we can take these questions; different people might answer them differently. There aren’t full details about rules and regulations, about outcomes, about what the examiners will do to prepare, but that information is out there if these starter questions and answers do not comfort you enough.

If something about your examiners or how they conduct the viva troubles you then your next actions are to find out more, do more, so that you can get back to what’s important.

Why? How? What?

Five Day Thesis Breakdown

Your thesis is an expression of your research. But in the viva, and at any time when someone asks you about your work, you can’t just hand them this great book you’ve made and say, “Read it!”

I like thinking about ways to help candidates reflect on their work. I like exploring ways to help people explain their ideas concisely. Here’s a plan of how to spend five days in short activities to break down your thesis and your research contribution.

Day 1: Describe the Why-How-What of your PhD in a single page, no more than 300 words.

Day 2: Use Day 1’s page to write a single paragraph about your PhD. Try to keep it under 100 words. Remove the inessential.

Day 3: Use Day 2’s paragraph to write a sentence describing your PhD – no more than 20 words. You’ll never be able to say everything, so don’t try. What can you get across?

Day 4: Use the work of the previous three days to write down five words. What are the themes of your work? Think about where it all started, how you did it and what your outcomes are.

Day 5: Write down one word. The Big Picture. What is it that stands out?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you to describe your research in a single word, but they will ask you to talk about your work. An exercise like this can help you think about your PhD a lot before the viva. You might never say to someone, “In one word, my research is all about…” but I think you’ll get something valuable from following this process.

More Why-How-What

About six months ago I shared Why-How-What as a simple framework for talking about your research. There is a value in using interesting opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It boosts your confidence for when the moment comes that you have to talk about your research: you will find the words. I’ve had a few more ideas about how Why-How-What can help frame stories about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it:

  • Why did you start a PhD? How did you feel at the start? What did you think you would do?
  • Why was it worth exploring the area you did? How did you initially approach your research? What did you hope you would find?
  • Why were you up to the challenge of doing a PhD? How have you developed along the way? What can you now do that you couldn’t before?
  • Why had your topic not been covered in this way already? How did you spot that you could do something about it? What are some ways that it can be explored more in the future?

There are many, many more setups like this that could help get your thoughts in order. There are thousands of questions that could come up in the viva. You can’t prepare for them all, but you can take opportunities to think more and talk more about your work. It will help. You’ll find yourself in a better place when your viva day comes around.

Why-How-What

If you’re looking for a way to share a summary of your research, as you might in the viva, think Why-How-What:

  • Why is your topic worth researching?
  • How have you gone about researching it?
  • What have you found?

Every time you give a summary of your work you get to try new ways to communicate what’s important. These questions are only the beginning, you might want to elaborate. You have to start somewhere though.

First Thoughts

Here’s a quick reflective exercise for the end of the PhD. Take a sheet of paper, divide it into three:

  • In the top write WHY: why did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • In the middle write HOW: how did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • At the bottom write WHAT: what did you find during your PhD? Answer the question.

What were your motivations? How did you go about doing research? What were the results?