How To Write Your PhD Thesis Without Going Insane

Next Wednesday (Nov 6) the School of Physics & Astronomy will host a lunchtime seminar — at 1:00 pm in C12 in the main Physics Building — given by James Hayton, with the wonderfully descriptive title of “How To Write Your PhD Thesis Without Going Insane”. If my rapidly depleting and deteriorating memory doesn’t fail me, it’s been four years too long since Dr. Hayton last visited the School. I had the honour of supervising James’ (far-from-unchallenging*) PhD work and I always look forward immensely to his talks: engaging, entertaining, and essential listening for PhD students researchers and their supervisors alike**.

Here’s a brief description of the talk:

Writing is an essential skill for any PhD student (or professional academic). But writing can also be a significant source of stress. In fact, stress is so common that many people assume that it’s supposed to be stressful and you just have to suffer your way through.

But one of the reasons why writing is seen as so stressful is that very few people are trained to do it well. With the right approach, you can transform your writing from a barrier to work through into a powerful tool to help you communicate your research

In this talk, you’ll learn 3 key aspects of writing to help you communicate clearly and confidently, write a better thesis, faster, and maybe even enjoy the process.

…and a bio from James himself:

I completed my PhD in Physics here at Nottingham way back in 2007. Unlike many of my colleagues, I actually enjoyed the writing process, not only finishing writing in just 3 months, but  passing my viva with zero corrections.

I went on to two postdoc contracts in France and Spain before starting to coach PhD students in 2010. Since then, I’ve worked with hundreds of individual students and trained thousands more through webinars and online courses. I also published “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” in 2015.

Here’s James in action at Edinburgh five years ago. On Wednesday, I’m told that we’ll be getting a new, improved, revised, and revigorated version…***


*James was always a pleasure to work with, even during the most frustrating moments. It was the physics and instrument design/construction that were the challenging bits…

** Although James and I have ever-so-slightly diverging views on the value of a mock viva

*** …of the talk. (And possibly James.)

Vying with the viva

This week’s Times Higher Education‘s cover feature is “Lighting The Way“, on the theme of PhD supervision. Along with five other academics, across a range of disciplines, I was invited by Paul Jump to contribute my thoughts on the role of the PhD supervisor. The editorial (by John Gill) sums up my central point as “the fundamental responsibility [of the PhD supervisor] is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.” That’s a fair summary. I also reiterated my commitment to referring to PhD researchers, rather than PhD students, in line with Jeff Ollerton’s important suggestion.

I’ve had the “Vying with the Viva” title of this post stuck in my head for a little while now and the publication of the Times Higher article seems as timely a moment as any to jot down some tips for PhD students  researchers who are preparing for a viva voce examination. I should first say that just about everything you need to know about doing a PhD is covered in a wonderful book by an alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, James Hayton, whose PhD it was my absolute pleasure to supervise. I cannot recommend that book highly enough (and not only because it demonstrates that Dr. Hayton managed to survive my supervision and come out the other side relatively unscathed, if perhaps swearing a little more often than is strictly necessary.) James also has a great blog, website, and series of videos on the many peaks and pitfalls of doing a PhD.

I thought, however, that it might be helpful for those about to undertake a viva to hear from someone who has examined PhD candidates (as both external and internal examiner) at the rate of about three or four per year (on average) over the last couple of decades. At this point in my career, I have also been primary supervisor for a total of twenty-six students. (Twenty-two have completed their thesis to date. The remaining four are in 1st year (Oli), 2nd year (Joe), and the final year (Alex and Filipe) of their PhD project, respectively.)*

I should stress that what I write below is UK- and Ireland-centric and is from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist/nanoscientist (although I could also just about get away with calling myself a chemical physicist/physical chemist, given the research we do.) The examples chosen obviously reflect my research background and examining experience but the advice is, I would say, broadly applicable for all disciplines.

My own viva, back on a snowy January morning in 1994 — with the wonderfully-monickered Iggy McGovern, physicist and poet, as my external examiner** — was very similar in style to those I’ve since attended as examiner rather than candidate. The PhD researcher sits on one side of a table, with the examiners — one from a different university (the external), the other from the same university as the candidate — seated opposite. Sometimes (though very, very rarely in my experience), the PhD supervisor will also attend, and in Ireland it’s more common to have a moderator in place to ensure that the candidate and examiners don’t come to blows. (Joke. Usually.)

OK, on with those tips for a successful viva (in no particular order)…

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

3. Have a practice viva. Excuse my hammering home the message quite as bluntly as this but if I were forced at gunpoint to give only one piece of advice it would be the following: ask your PhD supervisor to do a mock viva with you and do not take “no” for an answer. If there’s another academic member of staff or postdoc willing to be involved, all the better — they can take the role of the internal examiner and your PhD supervisor can pretend to be the external. They should aim to grill you mercilessly. And if it takes two or three attempts at the mock viva to fully prepare you for the real thing, so be it. (The mock need only take an hour or less. That’s enough, generally, to identify where there might be issues.)

We do this in our group at Nottingham for every PhD researcher (a couple of weeks before their actual viva) and we do not hold back. They leave the mock viva feeling somewhat shell-shocked but that’s entirely the point: it’s much better to come to terms with key gaps in knowledge or understanding before the actual viva. And in the end, most of our alumni find that the real viva was a piece of cake compared to the mock.

4. Every word in your thesis is examinable.  Do not simply rearrange the words in a textbook or a review article when it comes to writing the background material. Know what those words mean. For example, if you’re an experimentalist, don’t write about particular functionals used in density functional theory (DFT) if you have absolutely no idea what a functional is (and how it differs from a function). Or, if you’re a theorist, don’t wax lyrical about phase errors in a phase-locked loop if you haven’t a clue as to how a PLL does what it does. (These are both examples I’ve encountered when I’ve been external examiner.)  And it goes without saying that you don’t cut and paste from that article or textbook. That’s plagiarism. Even if it’s just one sentence. And, no, “I couldn’t word it better than it was written” isn’t an excuse. But you know that.

5. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. Obviously, try not to reply to each question you’re asked with “I haven’t a clue” but you are not expected to know the answer to everything. Indeed, the examiner is often asking because they don’t know.  If you start rambling you can very easily start digging yourself a hole out of which it’s sometimes difficult to crawl. I certainly did this in my own viva because I chatter when I’m nervous.

6. Don’t neglect the fundamentals. This is where most PhD candidates come unstuck. There seems to be a perception that the viva will focus on the minutiae of the most arcane technical detail in your research over which you have probably lost many nights of sleep. The overwhelming odds are that your examiner won’t even have noticed this aspect of your work. They’ll focus on the much bigger picture. (See also #7.)

If your PhD is on simulating intermolecular interactions, for example, be damn sure that you are completely au fait with those pair potentials due to Morse and Lennard-Jones that you covered all the way back in Year 1 or Year 2 of your undergraduate degree. Similarly, if you’ve been determining forces from a potential energy landscape measured by an atomic force microscope, ensure that you have slightly more than a passing familiarity with scalar and vector fields. Dig out those undergrad vector calculus notes and make sure you understand how force and potential are related, for one.

You can’t, of course, prepare for every question. But it’s worth thinking carefully about which key principles of physics/chemistry underpin your research. (We’ll take the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as given. You can, of course, state the 1st and 2nd laws with confidence, right?) In the case of my viva, Prof. McGovern took me from vibration isolation for a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), to the eddy current damping exploited in most STMs, to Faraday’s law of induction. (Thanks for that, Iggy.)

7. Think big. I tend to start the vivas I do with a simple question along the lines of “Why did you do a PhD?” or “Which aspect of your work is the most important/you’re most proud of?” or “Explain your work in a few sentences and in language that a GCSE student could understand.” My aim is to try to put the candidate at their ease. This backfires sometimes, however, because the candidate clearly is not expecting a general question of this type. Sometimes they are completely flummoxed.

A key part of the viva process is to ascertain the extent to which you understand the broader context of your work. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value does it have in terms of pushing your field of study forward? You need to sweat the small stuff, to borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, but you also need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

8. “My supervisor told me to do it” is never, ever, ever the right answer. You’re being examined to assess your ability to be an independent researcher. If you don’t know why you did a particular experiment or calculation the way you did, find out right now. And ask yourself whether that really was the best way to do things. (I should note that I’ve been given “My supervisor told me to do it” as a reply on significantly more than one occasion.)

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Look up your examiners’ group web pages and publications. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the research they’ve done. Unless something has gone badly astray in the examiner selection process, their research area is not going to be light years from yours. Do your homework and you might even be able to preempt a question or two.

10. We are almost always on your side. Yes, there are one or two complete bastards out there who are deeply insecure and unpleasant individuals; they’ll take pleasure in attempting to humiliate a candidate during a viva. I’ve not encountered one of these (thus far) but I’ve certainly heard from postdocs who have had to suffer arrogant, patronising, and, in the worst cases, bullying PhD examiners.

To put this in context, however I have now done somewhere between sixty and seventy vivas (as external or internal examiner) over the course of my career to date and I’ve not encountered this type of behaviour. I would also very much hope, of course, that I have not made any of the PhD candidates I have examined feel as if they were being patronised (or worse.) We examiners want you to pass!

11. Try to enjoy yourself. Despite receiving quite a grilling from Prof. McGovern, I enjoyed my viva. It’s nerve-wracking, of course, but when you’re talking about the research you love with someone who is genuinely interested in the work, it can also be exhilarating.

No, really. It can.

I’ll leave you with a wonderfully affecting Sixty Symbols video that follows my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, James Clewett, through his viva experience…

To quote James,

“In the end…it was a very comfortable… very enjoyable experience. It was something that, in hindsight, I’d do it again.”

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

* Thank you Mike, Mick, Li, Rich, Fiona, Matt, Andy, Manu, James, Adam, Pete, Cong, Rosanna, Haya, Sam, Julian, Cristina, Ioannis, Morten, Jeremy, Simon, Alex, Filipe, Joe, and Oli.

** It was a lot of fun to work with Iggy seventeen years after my viva on this video: