Passing Your Viva with No Corrections: Towards an Outstanding PhD | Lex Academic Blog


The meaning we associate most immediately with ‘outstanding’ is perhaps that of ‘excellent’ or ‘first-rate’: an outstanding PhD is one that ranks high on some sort of classificatory scheme. But this meaning, I suspect, is derived from its more literal meaning, that of standing out from the crowd. Those PhDs that do this will indeed be the few that make it into the top tier of PhDs that are passed with ‘no corrections’ (cum laude or summa cum laude in other systems such as in Germany or the Netherlands) – but this quantitative feature is only a result of their qualitative merit: a truly outstanding PhD is one that stands out because of its original insight. It speaks for itself that such insight is firmly supported by thorough and sound research. But, by itself, thorough and sound research isn’t enough. An outstanding PhD is one that pushes boundaries, posits new challenges, and possibly even presents a view that turns things upside down.

Does this sound too daunting, too ambitious? I never set out to write a PhD with this particular goal in mind, but I’ve always had strong academic instincts and I’ve learned to trust them. I would never dream of telling anyone how to conduct their PhD research, but I was asked (for this blog) to outline how I ended up with ‘no corrections’ after my viva, and the best advice I can come up with is this: develop a nose for sniffing out a new point of view – one that will fascinate, stimulate, or otherwise make your reader sit up. But perhaps this now sounds too mundane? Isn’t the general criterion for being awarded a doctorate the requirement that your work needs to make an ‘original contribution to the scholarship’? And how useful is this advice of being original when it comes down to the practicalities of writing a thesis of 60,000–80,000 words? What follows is more a chronicle of my own journey, but hopefully it contains some tips that will work for others as well.

When facing that formidable blank page on which we’re supposed to make our new contribution to the field, most of us are very much aware of the freedom bestowed upon us. It’s easy, however, to underestimate the discipline that this freedom demands. Before anything else, I used to get down to doing the donkey work: getting to know the field inside out, spending hour upon hour, week upon week, reading through all material relevant to a particular topic. In my case (I work in ancient philosophy with a body of literature dating back over 2000 years), this sometimes took a couple of months. While it’s useful to be able to skim through texts, if you want to be aware of all nuances of a debate, nothing but very precise reading will do. While at it, making a map that sets out the lay of the land in detail is something that I found indispensable. In so doing, you usually begin to get a sense of where others have cut corners and which avenues remain unexplored. One shouldn’t be conceited and be too easily dismissive of very experienced scholars: read with charity and respect, take your predecessors seriously, and leave no stone unturned in following up references. On the other hand, I think it’s precisely this painstaking work that reveals the areas where rewarding progress can be made.

After all the detailed sifting through and mapping of the literature, I needed time to zoom out, to create thinking space, to mentally digest all the material taken in. Making an original contribution to an established and well-researched field of study is not always straightforward. Ideally, you don’t merely come up with incremental adjustments to pre-existing views. A valuable original contribution is one that is of sufficient depth that it puts a genuinely interesting alternative on the table. While it’s easy to say, ‘sit back, close your eyes, and think’, this is actually not so very easy to do. For a start, you might feel rather indulgent, folding your hands and withdrawing into thought. And how do you ensure that such thought is productive? While I don’t think that you can force innovative thought, I do think that you can create the right conditions for it: set time apart for reflection, find a quiet space to let your thoughts roam free and let your intellectual intuitions take over. Use your academic nose to sniff out that whiff of an idea, revelation, or inspiration. Anyone who’s had a PhD proposal accepted has convinced other academics of the potential of some exciting new idea. So trust yourself to develop and bring your own, original ideas into sharper focus.

Once I had found some new avenue or perspective that I thought promising, the real work began. Could I solve the puzzle that I now identified, or the difficulties that my particular point of view generated? While you normally have a hunch about the general direction in which the solution lies, don’t expect an immediate resolution of all obstacles that lie in your path. In my case, it often took several rounds of revision to get there – and even in the final version of my PhD not all questions had been answered. Having trained as a musician prior to undertaking a PhD in philosophy, I’ve found it helpful to compare the process of producing a final draft of a thesis chapter to accomplishing a memorable musical performance. In the end, one’s playing needn’t be perfect – but it does need to be gripping and to leave the audience with a sense of having experienced something special. And to achieve that, there will be several rounds of preparation before you’re concert ready (learning the notes, getting to grips with any technical challenges, developing the big emotive gestures, then putting it to rest for a while in order to approach it afresh the next time round). So, don’t insist on perfection straight away. Expect to refine and revise and leave these improvements to later drafts – when first getting your ideas on paper, simply get the main points across as clearly as possible. But at this point you might start to feel the pressure: how do you find the time for all these revisions?

One of the things that doing a PhD has taught me is to write fast. A first draft is just that, a first draft. You don’t need to write beautiful, sophisticated sentences; just get your ideas on paper swiftly and precisely. I found that settling into a particular writing routine helped me: first, I’d write out the entire chapter by hand on paper. This would, of course, not be a fully written up story; it was rather just the main steps in the argument in rough and ready sentences. Somehow, writing by hand seemed to come to me more easily: on screen I’d want fully fledged sentences consisting of at least subject, object, and predicate. But writing by hand, I found it much easier to allow myself to write less than fully articulated sentences that would merely convey the general gist of what I wished to say. Having done all the preparatory laborious mapping beforehand, the relevant points from the literature were ready to be plugged in where needed and the writing of the chapter by hand usually took only about one full day, resulting in eight to ten scribbled pages. Having achieved this first step would bring immense relief: the whole story was now out there, ink on paper. It might be rough and ready, but all the pieces of the puzzle had been connected up in writing (even if some loose ends could not be avoided). Then, feeling buoyant about having my ideas organised in some sort of coherent manner, I’d set myself a week to type up my handwritten version. Again, I didn’t insist on the perfect sentence or the perfect paragraph: all that could wait until a later stage. But as I wrote out my handwritten sheets, the work would bulk up automatically and before I knew it, I’d hit 10,000 words, ready to be discussed with my supervisor. I’d be able to discuss the debate in detail and present my own take on it in general outline and with at least all the steps of my argument laid out. This provided plenty of material for a fruitful discussion with my supervisor and an assessment of whether she thought that I was heading in the right direction or down a rabbit hole.

I was absolutely blessed with my supervisor: she was highly supportive of my explorations of new perspectives on age-old material, but she also didn’t shy away from pulling the reins tight when she thought I was heading for a dead end. More than once, I had to rewrite an entire chapter from an entirely new point of view – which meant facing that blank page again and writing it from scratch! As my supervisor used to say: ‘the wastepaper basket is your greatest friend’. That might sound dreadful – and I thought so too at first – but in the end it wasn’t. Having done the mapping of previous scholarship, this material remained at hand for a reshuffle and, having built up some routine in speedy writing, I found that the chapter could swiftly be rewritten by following the same procedure as before: writing by hand for a day, typing it up in a week. Of the seven chapters that I wrote for my thesis, two chapters were ditched entirely (hopefully to be revisited at some point in the near future), one was rewritten from scratch no less than four times, another twice, one received three rounds of extensive revisions, one had a single round of major revisions, and one (which ended up being the weakest part of the thesis) was revised only superficially.

One of the most important lessons all this rewriting taught me is that, while it might come in bursts, creative insight isn’t so very precious. There was no need to be overly attached to my initial ideas. If you create the right conditions (i.e. knowing the scholarship, allowing yourself to explore any hunches and research gaps that occur to you), ideas come regularly. All musicians know that ‘practice makes perfect’ – or rather, nearly perfect. Similarly, I’d say, regular practice works in relation to something seemingly so uncontrollable as creative insight.

I could not have written the PhD that I eventually did at the start of this journey. There’s no getting round the fact that, occasionally, the rewriting was tough, but the progress I could see in my work was also a great source of joy. The final polishing of each chapter took time and required meticulous precision in my articulation of ideas and referencing of work that I built upon. At this stage, the devil really is in the detail. If something is nagging you about a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t entirely fit, it is probably worth taking a closer look – and rewriting, yet again, that particular section. Even so, by this stage, the principal work has been done, and it can be intensely satisfying to see the overall narrative come together. For me personally, while the final months of my PhD were marked by great sadness as my supervisor unexpectedly passed away, it was strangely also a deeply fulfilling time as, in honour of her memory and encouraged by a wonderful second supervisor, the various parts finally fell into place.

So, in sum, for me the following strategy worked: putting in the hours to do detailed work on mapping existing scholarship, then creating some distance and taking the time to reflect, letting the creative juices flow. I’d sketch out my arguments without requiring perfection, writing fast, and writing and rewriting a lot. Practice helped: the more I wrote and the more I had to think over what I had written, the easier it became to rethink and rewrite material. Finally, once a chapter’s definitive take on a matter had been developed, I had to switch back into precision mode and be meticulous in the presentation of my thoughts. For what it’s worth, that was my recipe for a PhD that in the end was classified as outstanding.

But now some of you might be sceptical: didn’t I point to the nature of something ‘outstanding’ as being something that by definition is applicable to only a limited number? But just as I believe that every technically and musically gifted player can touch the listener with an individual performance full of expression, so I believe that every dedicated and creative doctoral candidate can write a thought-provoking and captivating PhD. To stand out from the crowd does not necessarily mean being a cut above the rest. It means contributing something that you have truly made your own and that draws in your audience.

Dr Hannah Laurens is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the British Society for the History of Philosophy (BSHP) and Lecturer at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Her research covers a broad range of topics in the History of Philosophy, from ‘nous’ (the intellect) and nature in Aristotle to salvation and ‘acquiescentia’ (contentment) in Spinoza. In 2018 she was awarded the BSHP Graduate Essay Prize for her paper on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics II.19 and from 2018 to 2021 she led a large-scale outreach project in the Netherlands on the radical Spinozist philosopher Adriaan Koerbagh (1633–1669). She received her PhD from the University of St Andrews.