How to write well: solving problems of expression

Writing is about solving problems of expression.

The difficulty of the problem depends upon the difficulty of the idea you want to express. Some thoughts are easy to put into words; the ideas you know well, have confidence in and have explained before. Other ideas take much more work, maybe because the thought isn’t fully clear to you, or because it is a subtle point or requires deep insight. These take much more thought, effort and time.

If you only write fast, then you will only be able to write about the things that come easily to mind, and you will never be able to reach those deeper insights, nor be able to express those difficult concepts adequately. It you only write fast, then you are denying yourself the opportunity to solve those more difficult (and often important) problems of expression.

A lot of writers get frustrated if they can’t maintain the same pace, but in order to write well – and to cover the full range of difficulty – you must allow your pace to vary with the difficulty of the ideas you are trying to express at any given time.

 

See also:
How to find your writing flow
How to overcome writer’s block

How to read a journal article

We all know that reading the literature is essential, but it’s not enough to just sit and read a stack of articles. Reading journal articles is a skill and, like any other skill, how you approach it makes a big difference. So it’s not just a question of how to read a journal article, but how to learn how to do it.

When you’re an experienced academic, reading journal articles is relatively easy. This is because you already have knowledge of the field and enough experience to recognise the significance and quality of the work. In other words, you can see where an individual paper sits in the wider context.

But as a PhD student, initially at least, you don’t have that experience. So, while plenty of academics have written guides on how to read journal articles, you can’t necessarily follow the same process as them (yet).

General principle:

While you can learn a lot from experts, the processes they follow now aren’t always the best ways to train your own skills. This is because their processes rely on prior experience.

How to learn to read an academic journal article

Instead of focusing on how to read an individual article, let’s think about what you’re actually trying to achieve. Are you trying to build your knowledge of the field? Or trying to understand a specific technical point? Are you trying to find a gap in the literature? Depending on the answer, the papers you choose to read, and what parts of those papers you focus on, should be different.

Of these, the first aim should be to build some knowledge of the field. How do you do this without drowning in thousands of sources?

1. Identify the most influential sources

Journal articles can be divided into two main categories; there are groundbreaking, influential papers that change the way the field thinks or operates, then there are incremental papers that just add a little bit, but don’t have a huge impact.

If you understand the influential, groundbreaking work, this gives you a foundation for understanding the incremental work that followed. Fortunately, there are relatively few of these groundbreaking papers and they are easy to identify (because they are highly cited).

Try to find around 5 highly influential sources related to a specific topic. If you can understand;

  • what they discovered/ invented/ proposed
  • what problem this discovery/ invention/ proposal attempted to solve

Then you have a good start. However, there’s a problem…

If you look just at those original sources, they might be very hard to understand. Simply re-reading them won’t necessarily help, because academic articles usually assume a lot of pre-existing knowledge.

2. Focus on the concepts you identify, not the sources

If you’ve identified important developments in the field, but don’t really understand them, you now have a new aim; to find sources that explain those concepts.

Primary research articles may not be the best things to focus on, because they aren’t written to teach. Instead, look for textbooks, review articles, Wikipedia pages, YouTube videos, or people in your institution you can ask.

You can go back to the original source later. For now it’s enough to know where the idea came from, while looking elsewhere for an initial explanation.

3. How did these concepts influence the field?

A key part of understanding the literature is understanding trends in your field. So what effect did these influential papers have?

For example, did a particular theory spark a bitter debate in the field? Did a particular invention open up new possibilities for research? Or did a particular discovery reshape the fundamental understanding of some phenomenon?

This gives you an initial, broad context for understanding some of the finer detail contained within the literature. But equally importantly it gives a focus to your reading; a specific, achievable aim that isn’t too overwhelming.

4. How to read journal articles for context

You can strengthen this contextual knowledge by reading the introductions of recent papers. Every research article starts with a brief overview of the background and current state of the art, so reading just the introductions of a few recent journal articles is a great way to get a quick summary of what’s happening in the field.

You may find that a lot of them say more or less the same thing. In this case, you know what the field considers to be important. Or if you see they all say contradictory things, you know that there is no consensus in the field.

Again, the aim determines how you read the individual journal articles and what you focus on.

5. Get some practical experience

It isn’t enough to know how to read a journal article. You will find that it gets much easier to read and understand once you have some practical research experience. It’s by doing research yourself and making mistakes that you’re able to spot problems in the published literature and to really appreciate the best work that’s been done.

Reading helps with the practical work, but the practical work helps reading too.

How to read a journal article once you’ve got a bit of experience

Once you’ve built up some broader contextual knowledge, you can think about how to read a journal article in isolation.

Many people advise reading the abstract first, then the conclusion, then going back to the introduction. The exact order varies (and this one advises skipping the abstract altogether), but it’s basically a way of systematically assessing whether the article is worth reading in depth.

Again, though, I’d say that how you read should depend on what you want to achieve and what led you to the article in the first place. Context is everything. You might read differently depending on whether you’ve just done a search that gave you 5000 results and need to filter through them, or you’ve done a search that resulted in 5. In the former case, filtering by title initially is the only way to go. In the latter case, slow down and read everything.

If you found a paper because you’ve noticed a lot of relevant sources referring to it, it’s probably best to treat it like one of the ground-breaking papers, but also noting what the authors you have already read are saying about it.

So you have to adapt, but as a general approach to reading journal articles…

Read the introduction first

I would usually advise reading the introduction first. The introduction should set out what the paper aims to do, and if you skip this then nothing else will make sense.

The first thing to look for is what problem they are working on. If it isn’t clear, or if the problem isn’t interesting to you, move on to the next article.

What you do next depends on the immediate relevance to your project

Key point:

Different literature will be useful to you at different times, depending on what you are trying to achieve. You may re-visit some sources several times throughout your PhD, and what isn’t relevant or useful now may become useful later.

If the work seems highly relevant to what you are doing, or helps you to solve a current problem in your research, either slow down and read carefully, or if you don’t have time, put it to one side but make sure you have a way of remembering where to find it later.

You don’t have to summarize everything

Some say that you should summarize everything you read, but I don’t think this is the most important thing to do. It’s possible to fill fifty notebooks with summaries, but that isn’t the same as having knowledge.

What you need is a picture of the literature (the key discoveries, most relevant articles and the trends in the field) which you carry in your head at all times. Then you where to look to find relevant sources to fill in some details when you need to.

What I did in my own PhD was build up collections of literature around certain topics. I put printed copies into ring-binders by sub topic. Any notes were taken in the margins of the paper, so they stayed in context with the whole text.

I knew which were crucial to my work and I knew which were most influential. I also knew the kinds of problems that were being worked on in the field, and what techniques were being used, and I knew where to look to find details when relevant.

See also:
How to write a compelling literature review
How to filter the academic literature

 

The “Good” PhD Student

B has always been a Good Student, getting A’s all the way since the first day of school. Diligent and organised, B always had perfect attendance, took good notes and started assignments long before they were due. Now doing a PhD, B is frustrated by a lack of progress despite all the carefully constructed plans. Nothing seems to be good enough and now it’s hard to find the motivation or focus to do anything.

M has also always been a Good Student and is also frustrated, but instead of losing motivation has become the model of the busy academic. Sleeping just 4 hours per night, M will sacrifice everything to do what they think their supervisor expects, but, again, nothing seems to be good enough. Despite being exhausted, believes that working harder for longer is the answer.

B and are reacting differently to the stress of a PhD, but the root of their frustration is the same.

Most PhD students have done exceptionally well throughout the course of their education. Starting from a very young age, they have been told they are good because of their academic ability. For a small child, this kind of praise can entangle itself with their self-esteem; only if I do well and get recognition do I have value. This is a deeply unhealthy and unhelpful belief.

So often, students ask me, “what if my supervisor doesn’t like this?” or “what if the examiner wants to see x?”. It is a source of deep anxiety to them, not knowing what to do to get the approval of the teacher.

If you start from a position of seeking approval, you’ll never get it. Your work will be driven by fear and insecurity rather than curiosity. Your work might be adequate, but you’ll never take the risks required to do anything truly interesting.

Stop trying to be a good PhD student

You are enough already. You don’t need a PhD to have value. You’ll feel good for a few weeks, maybe, after you pass your defence, but then what?

Don’t worry about what the examiner wants to see. Focus on what you are most interested in instead.

Be curious. Focus on the problems and questions that arise in your work and see them as puzzles to solve. It’s all just a game and it has no relationship to your value as a person.

See also:
A PhD is not everything
The invincible mindset
How to write a PhD thesis you can defend easily
By darwin Bell from San Francisco, USA – Lolly in the skyUploaded by SunOfErat, CC BY 2.0, Link

PhD impostor syndrome

During my PhD, there were times when I felt I shouldn’t be there. Some of the other students in the research group were ridiculously smart, and while I was struggling to get even the roughest of results, they were publishing article after article and presenting their work at international conferences. Many of them had done their undergraduate degrees at the same university, so their supervisors had known who they were recruiting, but I had moved from Sheffield to Nottingham and always had the slight feeling that I had bluffed my way in and would, eventually, be found out. This is the impostor syndrome, and is a common problem among PhD students.

If you’re working day after day in pursuit of a goal, part of you must believe it’s possible. But the contradiction between the belief and the doubt—the forces pulling in two opposite directions—creates a stress that can stop you working to the best of your ability, which in turn reinforces the doubt.

Because impostor-like feelings are so common, it’s easy to dismiss them as just something that everyone goes through. I don’t think it’s enough to say “everybody goes through this, just believe in yourself, keep going and it will be OK”. I think it’s better to examine the ideas behind the impostor syndrome and how they affect your work, then think about whether there’s a more effective way of approaching it.

Although I present some ideas for dealing with impostor syndrome below, I want to make very clear that persistent feelings of unworthyness (or worthlessness) can be a sign of depression, and it would be deeply irresponsible to pretend that I have a solution to this other than seeking qualified help (speak to your doctor or your university counseling service).

Self-Expectations

If you feel like you aren’t good enough, how good do you think you should be? At a recent talk I gave in Sheffield, one student said that “to get a PhD means you are the world’s leading expert in your topic.” While that’s a kind of almost true, in that nobody else knows your project like you do, if taken literally it’s a near-impossible expectation to live up to.

It’s healthier, and more accurate, to think of a PhD as a beginner’s qualification. It is during your PhD that you develop basic research skills, which you can then develop further should you continue in academia. Maybe you can become the world’s leading expert in something, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and a hell of a lot longer than your PhD to build that experience and reputation.

Even when you graduate you will still be a relative beginner, so what matters is not how good you are now, but how your skills develop over time.

Ability is not fixed—it is almost always possible to improve upon whatever talents you have, but in order to do so you have to consciously work on the uncomfortable boundaries of your skills. This is only possible if you acknowledge where those limits are.

Impostor syndrome vs beginner mindset

Impostors, by definition, hide their identity. In the context of a PhD, this means hiding any insecurity or weakness in knowledge; avoiding asking the “stupid question”, avoiding mistakes, avoiding risk and avoiding difficulty. It is a state motivated by fear, by the avoidance of a negative outcome, but it actually makes the negative outcome more likely.

Sometimes it’s worth embracing the very thing you fear the most. Rather than avoiding being found out, why not be open about what you don’t know?

If you think of yourself as a beginner, the question is no longer whether you are good enough, but how to get better. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being enthusiastically open about your weaknesses, it frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. This is a much more positive outlook.

Really, it’s about identifying problems you can do something about. If you can specify a skill that you need to strengthen, and specific actions to strengthen that skill, this is something you can focus on instead of the vague and destructive sense of unbelonging.

Inflatable decoy tank, used by the US army. By United States Army - http://www.psywarrior.com/DeceptionH.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4129519
Inflatable decoy tank, used by the US army. By United States Armyhttp://www.psywarrior.com/DeceptionH.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4129519

How to design outstanding powerpoint slides

Whether it’s a major international conference, a small group meeting or a thesis defence, presentations are an essential part your work. If done well, the PowerPoint slides you use can serve as a strong visual reinforcement to the words you speak, but doing them well is very difficult.

Most people will know basic principles like, “don’t put too much text on the screen”, but designing good slides is a bit more complicated than that.

What you see on your screen is not what the audience will see

If you use a fairly modern laptop, the screen is probably pretty good in terms of resolution, brightness and contrast, but if you’re presenting to an audience of more than about three, you won’t be using your laptop screen. It’s highly unlikely that the projector you use will produce as clear an image as the one you’re looking at while you’re creating your slides.

The room layout also plays a role. In dedicated lecture theatres with banked rows of seats, most of the audience will have an unobstructed view of the screen. Often, though, you’ll be presenting in a multi-purpose room with rows of seats at the same height, meaning most people only have a partial view.

You have to bear these less-than-ideal conditions in mind if you want to be sure that everybody can see and read the content of your slides.

Avoid fancy backgrounds on your slides

I always use a plain white or black background to give maximum possible contrast with the text.

White is a little easier to work with (especially if I want to print the slides) and is my usual choice, but I’ve experimented with black so that if I walk in front of the screen I don’t get blinded by the projector.

While a subtle background colour can look OK, it doesn’t add anything of value. I would avoid using a colour gradient (they may look OK on your screen, but can appear stripey on a lower quality projection), and I would especially avoid using a photo or any kind of complicated texture.

Use sans-serif typography

Because the screen is so much larger than that of your computer, you will probably be able to see the individual pixels in the image. This can make serif fonts look a bit crappy as they tend to have finer detailing at the pixel level.

Sans serif fonts are generally simpler, with less fine detailing and nice sharp edges. Arial or helvetica are safe choices.

Zoom out

You also need to make sure your text is large enough to be read easily from the back of a large room. If you’re sitting close to your screen you’ll be able to read quite small text. But imagine you are at the back of a large lecture theatre; will that text still be legible?

One way to make sure your text is readable is to zoom out while you’re designing your slides. I usually set the zoom to 40% to get a sense of what it might look like to an audience member at the back of the room. (Go to the “view” tab, select “zoom” and set to 40%). If you can’t still read your text, or if it’s difficult to read, it’s too small.

Use the top half of the slide

Unless you are preparing a presentation specifically for a venue where you know the audience has an unobstructed view, try just using the top half of the slide.

This limits how much information you can include on each slide, but that may be a good thing if you tend to overload slides with text.

obstructed-view

Make sure figures are legible

Make sure any text in your figures is legible. This may mean using a larger font than you would in print, and again, sans serif.

Don’t use video or animation unless you absolutely have to

Sometimes the work can only be shown using video, but so often this leads to technical problems (especially if you are using the in-house computer rather than your own). If you’re presenting at a conference and you absolutely have to show a video, test it before the talk (either in a break or at the start of the day), and prepare a series of still images you can use as a backup.

The built-in PowerPoint animations for slide transitions and making text fly in from the edge of the screen are pointless.

Breaking the typical PowerPoint slide format

All the points I’ve given so far put constraints on your design, but you can still be creative within those constraints.

The typical PowerPoint format of a title followed by a bulleted list is a bit dull. It also tends to give more space than is really necessary to the title.

example-slides

The same information can be presented in different and interesting ways if you break free from the typical PowerPoint layout. In the second example above, the title is made smaller and pushed up into the corner, giving more space for the important content. The vertical line adds a little bit of visual interest and ties the title and content together. In the bottom example, the division into two aspects is emphasised. Both are more interesting than the typical layout (top), without being overly complicated.

To do this, use the “blank” slide layout and use text boxes paced wherever you want the text.

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

More important than the slides is proper preparation.

Practice your talk (speak out loud; scanning through the slides doesn’t count) and make sure;

  • it fits the time available
  • you know your own slides and aren’t surprised when you move to the next one
  • you know exactly what your opening and closing statements are (you may want to script these)

Also remember that you probably can’t include everything in the time you have. Leave some things out, and let the audience ask questions if they want more detail.

See Also:

How to design figures for your PhD thesis

By Winky from Oxford, England - Flickr, CC BY 2.0
bo By Winky from Oxford, EnglandFlickr, CC BY 2.0

How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

This post is an ultra-condensed summary of what I consider to be the most important tips for PhD students. For a more complete guide, check out the book!

1. Choose who you work with carefully

When applying for a PhD, many students think only about whether or not a particular institution will accept them into a PhD programme, but you must also consider whether the institution, research group and supervisor is right for you. Who you choose to work with will have a huge effect on your PhD experience and your chances of success.

2. See yourself as a beginner

Most people who do PhDs will have done very well during the preceding stages of their education, and so start with very high expectations of themselves. But a PhD is not the pinnacle of the education system, it is the entrance qualification to the world of professional academic research.

You may have achieved exceptional grades in previous studies, but there is a big difference between studying for exams and doing coursework, and conducting professional (i.e. publishable) academic research. In the professional academic world, you are a beginner. Your job then is to develop the skills required, rather than to show how good you are.

3. Start early, make mistakes

Many PhD students are afraid to make mistakes, possibly because mistakes are penalised in undergraduate exams. One way to avoid mistakes is to spend months or years reading, writing and planning, but without actually doing any of the practical research. No matter how well you plan, if you have no practical experience of your research methodology then it’s highly likely you will do it badly. If the first time you do the practical work is your only chance to gather data, you’re screwed.

Instead, start getting practical experience as early as possible. Accept that mistakes are inevitable, so try to make them while you still have the opportunity to correct them.

4. Analyse early

If you start practical work early, by testing your methodology on a small scale, you can then practice analysis too.

All too often, students leave analysis to the very end. This means that they have to learn how to do the analysis while carrying it out on a huge data set under severe time-pressure.

Far better to learn analytical techniques on a small scale, and build the competence and confidence to work with your data before you have to do it on a large scale.

5. Get to know the literature

This is a tough one. The sheer number of sources available can be overwhelming, but there are ways to manage it.

Obviously you will need to read a lot, but you shouldn’t just think about volume. Some sources are more useful than others, and different sources will be useful to you at different times, depending on what you want to achieve.

I would recommend starting with just a few (no more than 5) highly-cited papers and taking the time to understand:

  • what they did
  • how they did it
  • why they did it that way
  • why it is significant

Start slow. It may take some time to fully understand, and you may have to look up some terminology, but you will get faster as your knowledge grows.

(see this post on literature and lit reviews)

6. Don’t obsess over productivity

If you aren’t making the progress you want to make, it’s only natural to worry about productivity; to set up timetables and goals and deadlines in an attempt to take control and get more done.

Although productivity techniques work sometimes, there are other times when they don’t. If – or rather when – something goes wrong in your research, then your progress will be determined by your ability to creatively problem-solve, not your ability to plan.

Knowing when and how to switch between the creative and productive modes is a crucial skill. Read this post for a more detailed explanation.

7. Give yourself time to think

As your workload and the complexity of your research increase, you might feel like you have to do more and do it faster. But if you do everything as fast as you can, you will never think of anything beyond the obvious, because you will always take the first option that comes to mind.

Giving yourself time to think is not productive in a measurable way, but it is an essential part of problem-solving.

8. Be decisive

Without a set syllabus to follow, you will have to make your own decisions about what you do. When doing original research, there are often multiple possible courses of action, and no way of knowing which is best. Sometimes you just have to decide and take action, otherwise you’ll go nowhere!

This is especially important in the final year before submission.

9. Be adaptable

Sometimes you will make the wrong decision, and invest time and effort in something that turns out to be useless. Or you will try your best at something and it won’t work. Or your equipment will break… It is the nature of research that things go wrong, constantly, and how you react in such circumstances will determine your chances of success.

If you shrink in the face of frustration, if you take it personally and think you are a failure, you won’t be in a good frame of mind to find a solution (and you’ll likely find an excuse to check email as a way of avoiding the problem). But if you are able to summon enthusiasm and creativity in response to the challenge, you will be much more able to adapt in response to challenging circumstances.

10. Separate writing for yourself from writing for an audience

Writing is a means of recording information either for yourself or for someone else.

Writing for yourself means making notes: recording ideas, things you’ve done or ideas you have. Nobody else needs to see your notes, so they just need to make sense to you. Writing for an audience is different. The purpose is not to “write and see what comes out”, but to carefully communicate ideas you have already given due consideration.

Too many people get lost in writing because they mix these two things up, writing thousands upon thousands of words as exploration, then trying to edit into a something that makes sense to a reader. This serves neither purpose well- the exploration is constrained by the formal, linear structure of a document, and the communication is poor because the structure is a total mess.

Your job as a writer is to guide the reader. If you don’t know where you are going, it will be very difficult to follow you. Explore ideas and connections between them first (I use pen and paper for this), then start constructing your formal writing with the structure of your argument already in mind. A logical argument cannot emerge from editing if it isn’t already there.

See also: writing your way to a PhD

Bonus tip: remember, a PhD is not everything

I sometimes hear from students saying things like, “if I fail, my life is over”. This just isn’t true.

While you are immersed in it, a PhD might seem all-consuming, but there is a whole world of possibilities for you outside. There are other challenges to take on and other ways to contribute to the world than this weird, highly specialised qualification.

Do your best, but don’t let it define your life. Ultimately, it’s not that important!

By Pi.1415926535 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17802584
By Pi.1415926535Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17802584

A PhD is not everything

This is a sample from the book “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”.

A PhD is not everything_Page_1

Getting through a PhD takes a level of dedication, determination and resilience only possible if you really want to succeed, and there may be times when you have to do absolutely whatever is necessary to get the work done.

Sometime in my third year, work began on a new, multi-million-pound nanoscience centre attached to the physics building. This was very exciting for the department, but meant that the equipment in my lab kept picking up mechanical vibrations from the construction work. There was no other option but to run the experiments at night.

Working a twelve-hour shift is hard, but it’s even harder when you work in an underground optics lab with black-painted walls, with the constant noise of running vacuum-pumps in the background and nobody to talk to but the vending machine. It wasn’t much fun, but it needed to be done.

So you have to commit, but there is one absolutely crucial caveat; the PhD is not everything. Even if you invest all your energy in the process, you must not invest your entire sense of self-worth in the outcome.

If you fail, it is not the worst thing that can happen, and if you pass, it is not the greatest. There are many challenges, successes and failures in life, of which the PhD is just one.

Failing a PhD is no worse than going through a relationship breakup after several years; unpleasant – certainly – and perhaps for a while it might feel devastating, but it happens all the time and people recover.

It is no worse than an athlete training day after day, year after year, shedding blood and sweat and tears, sacrificing everything to become world champion only to lose in the final. Heart-breaking – maybe – but some dreams just don’t come true, even if you give it your best. It doesn’t mean your life is over, and it doesn’t make you a failure.

There are always other challenges to take on, other things to achieve. They may be hard to imagine if all you can see right now is your PhD, but they are there if you look for them.

Getting a PhD signifies nothing about your value as a person, and it signifies nothing about your intelligence (I have known a fair few feckless academics). Having a PhD does not guarantee you will find a job, and not getting one doesn’t mean you won’t.

The importance of success and the consequences of failure aren’t as great as you might think.

How to prepare for your thesis defence

What’s the best way to prepare for your thesis defence?

The tips below will help you in the final few weeks before the exam, but the real preparation begins as soon as you start your PhD. Talking to people and discussing your work regularly over a long period of time is the best preparation. Don’t let your thesis defence be the first time you get feedback on your work!

Know the format of your thesis defence

The format of a thesis defence varies from country to country. Having studied in the UK, my viva-voce defence was essentially an interview with one internal and one external examiner. In other countries, it’s common to have public examinations with a whole panel of examiners and an audience of colleagues, family and friends.

The first and most obvious tip then is to make sure you know what the format of your exam will be; whether you will have to prepare a presentation and so on.

Prepare and practice your presentation

If you have to give a presentation, check any time restrictions so you can prepare accordingly. You don’t want to show up with 100 slides for a 15-minute presentation, nor do you want to show up with 10 slides for a 1-hour presentation.

The most important thing to do for any presentation is to practice so that;

  • You know the material inside out
  • You know how long it takes
  • You can refine the presentation

You can practice on your own and with an audience, and you should do both if possible. Practising on your own and speaking out loud to an empty room may feel silly, but overcoming that discomfort is good preparation for the discomfort of facing an actual audience.

Practising with an audience of peers is then a good way of getting feedback and finding out what questions people ask.

See also: How to design outstanding powerpoint sides

The dreaded “awkward question”

Whether you have to give a presentation or not, one of the scariest aspects of the defence is the possibility of being asked a question you can’t answer.

It’s tempting to try to read a ton of literature to prepare for this, but since it’s very difficult to predict what the examiners will ask and it’s impossible to read everything, this approach isn’t always effective or reassuring (it might make you realise how much you don’t know).

There will always be gaps in your knowledge, but actually, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer to an awkward question- you can still respond in a way that will make the examiners happy.

When you don’t know the answer…

You aren’t expected to know everything. Sometimes, an examiner will ask a question they don’t know the answer to, either out of interest (since you are the expert in your research) or because they want to see how you think.

While it is OK, sometimes, to just say “I don’t know”, you could also say something like, “I don’t know, but I would think that […] because of x and y, but you would need to do […] in order to find out”. This shows that you have the ability to think as an academic.

Core content

Of course, there is some core content which you will be expected to know well, but this is set by you, not the examiner. To a large extent, the content of the examination is determined by the content in your thesis.

When you choose what to cover in your thesis you are choosing your battleground for the thesis defence, so the best strategy is to stick to the material you know best in your writing!

Make sure you have read through your complete thesis at least once before your defence, so you know what you have written about.

Dealing with nerves

You will be nervous before your examination. You will almost certainly get an adrenaline rush which can set your heart racing, give you sweaty palms, make your stomach churn and make you want to go to the toilet 10 times in 20 minutes. This is normal!

The worst part is the waiting before you start because there isn’t much you can do to use up all that nervous energy! But once the defence starts, you can do some things to keep it under control.

Slow down

One symptom of nerves is to talk really fast and to try to show how much you know and speak in this kind of long stream of consciousness that diverges away from the question until you forget what the actual question was but then you don’t know how to get back to the point and so you just keep talking and that makes you more nervous and how are you going to get off this train of thought…

Try to deliberately slow down, and give yourself time to breathe.

Try to remember the question, and come back to the point.

Once you have answered, stop talking!

The examiners expect you to be nervous

Remember that the examiners expect you to be a bit nervous in your thesis defence, and they will help you through if necessary.

It is OK to ask them to repeat or clarify a question. It is OK to pause to think. It is OK to take a sip of water if you need to!

Ultimately…

Success or failure is determined mainly by the content of your thesis. If your research is good, and you actually did the work, it is highly unlikely that a nervous performance in your defence will lead to failure.

Generally speaking, once your thesis is submitted, there isn’t much you can do to affect the outcome (positively or negatively).

Read through your thesis, read up on one or two key points if necessary, practice your presentation, and trust that whatever happens you will be OK.

Good luck!

See also:

How to write a thesis you can defend easily

Why some perfectionism is a good thing

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “just get words down on the page; don’t worry about detail, and don’t think too much”. This is often given as a way of overcoming writers block, or the “fear of the blank page”.

Perfectionism is seen as a bad thing, because it can lead to constant and never-ending revision of every sentence.

But in academic writing, accuracy of expression matters, and there are some things you need to get right.

Crucial ideas

If you write a sentence starting, “the purpose of this study is…” then it is absolutely essential to express yourself accurately, because the examiner will judge everything that follows based on their understanding of that one sentence.

Be patient. It is worth spending some time to perfect it.

Deep concepts

Your pace should vary naturally with the difficulty of the concepts you are writing about. Obviously, difficult ideas take more time and work to express in writing than easier ones. So if you only write fast, you can only cover easy concepts. If you have to slow down to think and find the right words, that’s OK.

Be patient. It’s worth spending time to clarify the idea.

perfectionismDeal with problems as they arise

I think of writing as a problem-solving process; finding solutions to problems of expression.

There are always difficult problems to solve, which break up the flow of the writing, but it is is important to try to solve these as they arise.

If you put yourself under pressure to keep producing and jump to writing about something else, then all you are doing is saving all the difficult stuff for later (when you might be under immense time-pressure).

So try to stay with the problem a little longer. Be patient. It’s worth spending time to find a solution.

The sweet spot

Total perfectionism, where nothing is ever good enough, is clearly a bad thing. But total carelessness is a bad thing too.

The ideal approach lies somewhere between the extremes, where it’s OK to take care over your writing. It’s OK to slow down and think. And sometimes it really is OK, even necessary, to be a little bit perfectionist.