There is, rightly, a lot of emphasis on getting your PhD text written and submitted. That end-of-doctorate writing can be tough and it’s important that people do get as much help as they want and need to complete.
But of course handing in isn’t the end. There’s still the examination to go. The defence. The viva. And in between the submission and the viva is The Wait.
You know, I reckon there’s not enough said about the waiting that happens after you’ve handed in. Anticipating the viva to come. Not knowing what you’re going to be asked. Looking back over the text and seeing all the little typos. Identifying places where you could have said something else, something different, possibly something better. Worrying about whether its going to be minor or major corrections. Hoping, against the odds, it’s going to be no corrections at all. Waiting.
I’ve been very mindful of the wait recently because several of the PhDers I’ve worked with have been waiting. Like many of their peers, they did their PhDs during the pandemic. And in the UK, where there was industrial action, they’ve had to wait for a much longer time than usual for their viva. They’ve really not had optimal PhD-ing at all, and the additional waiting time has been really taxing for most.
So here’s the thing. What do you do while you’re in waiting? Well, you can’t really spend all of the time after submission preparing for the viva. Even at the best of times it’s a couple of months wait and usually more like three or four. And more for the UK folks. But let’s assume that your waiting time is at the quicker end. Two to three months. What do you do?
Well, I’m interested to know what your experience is. But I’ve seen people do the following:
- Apply for jobs and/or postdoc positions
- Write a publication plan and start on a paper or two
- Go back to work and start putting new learning into action.
These are all important and useful. Well yes, getting a job if you don’t have one is more than important, it’s VERY important. But there’s more to wait time than these three things.
Getting through the last stage of the PhD meant that you had to be pretty single-minded. Wait time is the time to stop that intense focus and self-discipline. Relax. Breathe.
Those of you who stopped looking after yourself, or whose bodies rebelled against the stress you were experiencing need to take some time to recover. Eat well. Exercise. Get a massage. Meditate. Whatever it takes.
And because it’s not just you who was doing a PhD – your loved ones were also part of the process – it’s equally important to reconnect with them. They deserve your undivided attention for a bit. And go out with friends – a lot – and don’t talk about the thesis any more than you can help. Although a little bit of practising the three sentence summary is allowed.
You may well have become a bit over attentive to all things academic too, so now is a good time to take up whatever it is you gave up doing when you were writing. And/or find a new interest. Take the time now to re/establish a new routine which allows for some recreation, for things that nourish and replenish.
And, if you have any money left – yes I know funding is nearly always an issue, at the end of the PhD I had a huge credit card debt too – try to go on a holiday. A change of scene can be very uplifting, and distract you from the uncertainty. Maybe you can find a cheap vacation option visiting friends or family.
One advantage of the wait. Waiting time gives you distance. And getting some distance on the research and the thesis means that you can come back at it afresh nearer viva time. But be kind to past you when you do. What past you did was the very best that could be done at the time.
You can of course do some preparation for the viva. When it gets near. But don’t get obsessive. You don’t have to note every page. Or even every section. Or anything at all.
You do have to remember that you know your stuff inside out and backwards. So tell yourself you are the expert in your research. Tell yourself you’re the expert, over and over again.
And you have to remember that you can never entirely predict what examiners are going to ask. Yes, you can do some thinking about the kinds of obvious questions that you are going to get about your warrant, contribution, methods and implications. But don’t get obsessive about it. Que sera and all that.
And finally. One more thing. While it can be helpful to talk to other people about their viva experiences, it can also be very unhelpful. There are lots of urban viva myths out there, and the occasional true story of a really bad time. But So. Many. Horror. Stories. Hearing about bad stuff is really not useful during wait time. Even well intended black humour can up your worry levels. You are already anxious. You don’t need to be made more so.
So first of all you need to keep telling yourself that this is your research and thesis not someone else’s. And you are the expert in this research, remember? Your examiners are your examiners, and they won’t behave the same way as other people’s.
And second, ask people not to tell you horror stories. Yes, they do need to share and debrief if they had a bad time. But just because they had a less than fab viva experience doesn’t mean you will have the same. Plenty of people actually ENJOY their viva. But horror storytellers are not being a good friend by over-sharing during your wait time. And if they do start with the scary stuff, tell them to stop. Tell them to go unburden somewhere else, with someone else. You want only constructive stories right now.
Third, check out http://viva-survivors.com. Sensible advice, no dramas.
Waiting is tricky. It can be hard. Your supervisors will be able to help you to locate the best things to think about, including what questions you are likely to be asked. But only you, and perhaps your nearest and dearest, can work out what you particularly need, now, to physically and emotionally manage wait time.
And wait time will be over. The viva will come and it will be what it will be. You will deal. You’ve done the hard graft. You know you are the expert in your research, remember that.
PS: R and B, your wait is over. Drs, you did good. C, M, S and J, hang in there. You’ll be fine. You are the experts in your research.