PhD complete!

Pre-viva nerves and post-viva tips!


I am writing this with 2 days to go until my viva…! But in all likelihood will post this after the verdict and probably only if it’s a good one!! ***Spoiler alert: I passed!***

Past viva experiences

I submitted my thesis way back in April, and since day one of my PhD have been highly anxious about the final hurdle – the viva. I have had a number of vivas during my undergraduate degree – for 3rd and 4th year projects and a literature project, most of which I came out (almost) in tears, over-analysing the questions I stumbled on, but actually did really well in all of them. During my PhD, at the end of my first year, I also had a viva based on my first year report. This was with my supervisor at the time and a research fellow from my group as the second examiner. We went through chapter by chapter and discussed the content as well as next steps and how to improve. There was a lot of room for improvement, and I rewrote some parts of the report.

Whilst my previous viva experiences have, in general, been positive, I cannot help but dread my PhD viva. Yes, I am relatively confident with my research and results but it is the unknown that scares me most. There is a level of background knowledge required but I am unsure how each of my examiners interpret this level and also which points stand out most to them. That aspect of the unknown is what I fear most. Something I consider trivial knowledge may be something which sparks a discussion, or something which I had not even considered or theory I haven’t revisited they may deem essential.

Viva preparation

In the 16 weeks (!!!) since submission I have had some down-time, taking 2 weeks off post-submission to recover, earlier this month I spent a week on a sunny beach holiday, lazing pool-side with plenty of food and drink, and have spent the past two weeks, since the date was confirmed, frantically scrutinising every minute detail of my thesis. In between, a month or so after submission I reread the thesis chapter by chapter, annotated and marked with post-its but I spent most of my time on other research projects, updating websites and writing a paper. I do feel that I have put in a lot of time preparing for my viva, revising and making my thesis useful and easy to navigate on the day.

In my final writing month, I also attended ‘Viva survivor‘, a viva preparation workshop, which gave me more insight about what to expect on the day and talking with other PhD students in the same situation was reassuring. Nathan Ryder who runs the workshop, also runs a podcast, interviewing people about their viva experience and other related viva worries. Finally, after the workshop I bought one of his two ebooks, ‘Fail Your Viva – Twelve Steps To Failing Your PhD’ and cannot recommend this enough. One night last week when I was having a major stress but couldn’t focus on the thesis itself, I reread the book over about an hour and it washed away my worries and gave me some final tips for the final prep!

With only a few hours of work I can squeeze in today, and a full final day tomorrow, I should get on! I will finalise this post post-viva.


I passed!!!! It was a long morning waiting for the viva itself and almost four hours of discussion and the verdict was pass with minor corrections! Phew!

I was very anxious and nervous (petrified) on the day but I knew that I had done everything I could to prepare. Again, I highly recommend attending a workshop, talking to other people who have been through the viva experience in your field and reading up as much as possible to know what to expect!  Also talking through your research with other students, postdocs, your supervisor, friends, family, or anyone that will listen really, is invaluable. Here are a few tips I feel, in hindsight, are most useful:

  1. Focus on what you have written!
    I spent a lot of time re-reading background material as I was unsure what would be asked but, as expected, most discussions are about points you have written and your results! Try to re-read your thesis with fresh eyes, from the perspective of your examiners! Have you explained a term? What is the main point of this section? Is it clear?
  2. Don’t panic!
    I intended to write down each question and note useful points before answering during the viva however after a few minutes, I didn’t keep this up. At times when I needed a second to think, I took a sip of water, consulted my notes, or re-read the point being referred to before answering.
  3. Move on!
    Do not dwell on points you may have stumbled on! During a short break half-way through, I started to reflect on the viva so far and started to worry. This was not useful!! There was still a lot to get through, the focus should be on the current discussion!

Finally, now the viva is over, I have scheduled some time to relax (in between corrections!) with lots of summer plans before starting the next new adventure in Germany!

Research Hacks

To complement my recent blog posts Apps to boost your productivity and Increase your Research Impact, I have rediscovered a series of videos which summarise different ways that technology can be used to enhance your research! In addition to Research Hacks, the Learn Hacks series provides a few further resources aimed at student.

See the Research Hacks blog with a link to the videos here: Research Hacks – Short videos to help academics work smarter and maximise their impact and reach.

Academic writing resources

Academic writing can be a daunting task whether it’s papers, applications, conference notes or a chapter of your thesis. Whilst writing my thesis I attended as many seminars, talks and workshops as I could catered towards PhD students and researchers. Here’s a few tips and resources from these sessions which may be of use!

Getting started!

Plan your writing

Make a skeleton
Looking at a blank screen? Don’t know where to start? Make a list of your chapters or sections in your document. Adding headers with bullet points of what you plan to include can quickly amount to several pages, then, turning bullets into sentences and paragraphs is far easier.

Start with what you know
A lot of chapters may need checking values, acquiring or making images, reading papers, etc. I regret starting with the more challenging chapters as writing about what you know, your method, results gives you an extra burst of motivation and confidence. Maybe writing one paragraph of your research before reading complicated theory is the way to go.

Eat that frog!
When planning your day, the ‘Eat that frog’ concept by Brian Tracy aims to get the task you are most likely to procrastinate on, or the ‘worst’ task of the day out the way first thing in the morning, before you even have time to think about it. Then you can move through your day with ease! Read more about it here.

Project management
In my post Apps to boost your productivity, I list task management apps. If you have many sections or chapters to write, these apps may help you to plan your time effectively.
A potential use for these is to break down major tasks such as “Write Chapter 1” into many chunks which you can mark off to monitor your progress, such as list the papers to read, images to gather, sections to start, etc. Each time a task is complete, mark it off and move to the next one!

Schedule time to write

Write little and often
Aiming to write for a full day, or a full draft can be intimidating. Fitting small bursts of writing in, whether a few sentences, a paragraph or more can help you make progress.

Academic writing retreats
I discovered writing retreats half way through writing my thesis during Academic writing month (AcWriMo) and found them invaluable! Spending a morning, afternoon or full day writing in a quiet room with other people who are also writing helped me to really focus and get several thousand words down!
University of Sheffield organise monthly writing retreats (this webpage also contains lots of good resources!) but if you want to write more often then why not set up your own group with colleagues who also need time away to write!
The retreat is dedicated to writing: writing your intentions for the session, short discussion, write 1 hour, break 15 mins, writing 1 hour, write how you did, short discussion, or something similar! You can then see how many words it’s possible to write within this time and hopefully this will motivate you to write in short bursts often!

Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique can be used to stay focused on your task of writing, breaking into 25 minute bursts and recording your progress. There are many apps and websites to help you with this, get searching!

Shut up and write Tuesdays, @SUWTues 
Similar to writing retreats, Shut up and write Tuesdays is a virtual community of academic writers who write on Tuesdays! I only discovered this recently so haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. But whether you want to join them, or read some tips and advice, take a look at their twitter.

The Writing Process


Read relevant papers
The best way to improve your writing style is to write more! But reading papers can be beneficial to improve your scientific language, familiarise yourself with the structure of papers and scientific writing style.

Manchester phrasebank
If you are stuck for words, Manchester phrasebank offers many phrases to help you get started, whether it’s an introduction, discussion of results or describing key concepts, there are plenty of resources on this website to help you make progress.

Choose a suitable word processor
There are many different options when it comes to word processors for academic writing.
Personally, I have used LaTeX for many years now, as is typical in my field. For papers, a skeleton document is often provided with style files for the specific journal.
Writing a major document I would recommend using some kind of version management software so that you can, at any time, revert back to a previous version or see what changes you have made, particularly useful for monitoring your progress!
I used svn to commit my TeX files and keep track of different versions, whilst github is another option with the same features.
Managing versions is also possible with Word, and GoogleDocs. Alternatively, Dropbox offers extended version history at an additional cost. Just gain a little experience on how it works before relying on it!


Reference Manager Software
As mentioned in Increase your Research Impact, on top of being a social network, Mendeley is a reference management tool which allows you upload and categorise papers which you may need to reference at a later date. I am yet to try using Mendeley for this purpose but there are many articles online with tips on how to use Mendeley as a citation tool, or other options for reference manager software!

Writing my thesis, I exported references as BibTeX items from online databases (eg. arxiv, Inspire, CDS) . Google scholar also offers this feature. I added all references to a single bib file with a useful, searchable name. I have used BibDesk in the past as a reference manager for Mac OSX, which allows you to upload papers to each entry and add additional details.

Reading references
When writing, your list of references soon accumulates… One very useful tip about reading references is to add a post-it (or note in your reference manager software) to each paper you read with a one-sentence summary about the main points and key words which might help you identify the paper at a later time. I used different colour post-it notes corresponding to each chapter with just a few words identifying key points, results or sections of use to help me, particularly when double-checking a value!

“Day off”

Using your list of tasks, tired days can still be productive by choosing less intense tasks to do however, don’t forget the importance of down time, doing things you enjoy, catching up with friends and SLEEP!


Increase your Research Impact

“Is my research making an impact?” is a question we all face as research scientists. Whether answering is for your own motivation, grant applications or public engagement, it is important to understand the outcomes and outputs of our research.

As a funded PhD student, I have recently had my first encounter with reporting the impact of my research and listing my publications, conferences I have attended, outcomes of my PhD, outreach events and so on. My immediate response to this was “ARGH WHAT DO I WRITE?” but after talking to other researchers with impact report writing experience and reviewing my CV that I had recently written, it was actually quite straightforward.

To make this even simpler, there are many different online profiles which allow you to upload your publications, interact with other researchers and which generate metrics to give you immediate insight into the impact of your research. The Impactstory blog offers a November Impact Challenge to introduce researchers to the many platforms available to increase research impact, visibility, professional networks and provide the tools to better evaluate impact.

Going through the blog posts, I have tried to summarise some of the useful tips and have set up several online profiles to test. The main points of the challenge focus on:

  • Find/upload your publications and citations
    Tools: Google scholar, Mendeley,, Researchgate
  • Follow updates of research of colleagues and new publications in your field
    Tools: Google scholar, Mendeley,, Researchgate, LinkedIn
  • Promote your research
    Tools: social media, blogs, press
  • Track your impact
    Tools: Google Analytics, Google scholar, Mendeley,, Researchgate, …

Researchgate and are very similar platforms, with the ability to upload/search for your publications, follow other researchers in your field, and read publications. They both also provide metrics with how many times your publications have been read, cited, etc.

Before signing up, it may be useful to see who within your network has profiles on each site, as I found that my publications were more accessible (ie. more people in my group/field) using Researchgate.

Mendeley is a free reference manager and social network which again allows you to upload or search for publications and use as a citation tool. I was unable to find many papers within my research interests, by using the “Particle physics” search. This suggests that I would need to manually upload interesting papers and my publications however the database has many, many papers covering a wide range of fields which may be useful for your research topic.

Google scholar profile searches automatically for online publications, adding them to your profile and notifying you when you have new citations or new publications. It is quite a basic platform, but for a list of publications and number of citations, very effective.

The above tools are all new to me. One problem I found is that there are no links between the individual platforms and no way to export your publications as a list. It would be very useful to be able to extract publications claimed on Google scholar and import to Researchgate or Mendeley rather than having to upload each publication individually.
EDIT 11/06/16: It’s really simple… goto your profile, click export, select all, ta-da!  
I find that Google scholar contains a more complete list of my publications.
When searching for my publications within Researchgate, I was able to “claim my profile” and it then provided many suggestions of other papers I am listed as an author however I had to sift through these, as it was also suggesting many papers with authors of similar names, which is the case also with Google scholar.

In contrast to testing new tools, I have been using LinkedIn for quite some time. I must admit I do not use it to its full potential and probably need to update my profile but it has some great features and allows you to connect with your professional network, write posts, list your publications, experience, skills and search for jobs. The difference between LinkedIn and the previously mentioned platforms is that it is designed to expand your professional network and increase your  visibility. It can be useful to get updates of the research of colleagues, but as most of the information is added manually, it is likely that many contacts do not keep this up to date. I’m not sure whether LinkedIn can be synced with the above platforms to automatically update your list of publications/skills/experience as they are added elsewhere.

Other ways to increase your impact from the Impactstory challenge include:

  • Set up an academic website
  • Science blogging
  • Social media
  • Data repository, software sharing (github), slideshare
  • Peer reviews

Finally, ORCID is another useful tool which assigns you a unique researcher identifier to allow people to find your publications using this ID. It can be beneficial if you have a common name or if you change your name. Again, I don’t yet see a way to import or sync your publications from Researchgate or Google scholar with ORCID but there are several search options, most of which require an additional account. [Edit: see edit above to export from Google scholar!]

I have had a very brief test of some of the platforms listed here. I’m sure there are numerous features which I am yet to discover. I would prefer if publications/citations could sync across the different platforms but as a basic insight into your publications, outcomes and widening your professional network, these networks might be a good starting point. For a complete list and introduction to setting up profiles, see Day 1 of the Impact challenge.

Do you use any of the above platforms? What features do you find most useful?

Academic blogs

Are you trying to write your thesis but don’t know where to start? Or are you just starting or are mid-way through your PhD and feeling a little lost? Here are a few blogs which I wish I’d found earlier in my PhD which I can recommend for those moments you need reassurance or motivation.

James Hayton is a former physicist and since his PhD has written a book and regular blog posts about research and writing as a PhD student. He offers tips and advice particularly about the writing process and is a valuable source if you’re just starting out and don’t know what to expect, or even if you are in the final stages of writing up!

The Thesis Whisperer  hosts blog contributions written by former and current PhD students. It includes a vast range of resources, tips and advice from people who have been through the process themselves. Also The Research Whisperer is dedicated to research in academia.

Gradhacker (now blogging from here) features blog posts from graduate students covering a wide range of topics and Times Higher Education includes news and blogs which are often interesting for researchers.

The University of Sheffield Think Ahead Blog is written by the Researcher Professional Development team and offers relevant tips and advice for researchers. (Check your University or institute for similar websites!)

The Thesis Whisper also includes a post with a list of PhD blogs to follow!

There are also a few blogs which offer particle physics specific tips, such as for LaTeX, ROOT, or other programming languages. The blogs I have come across include:

[Note: I will add to this list on finding more websites, or if you have found any suggestions please send them my way!]

Quantum diaries
 follows the lives of particle physicists in both their work and daily lives. And PHD comics provides some light entertainment and relief when waiting for code to compile!

Image from University of Brighton