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13 Thoughts On 13 Years

If I had to sum up my post-PhD life, I would simply say:

“I am very fortunate.”

Thirteen years ago today I started a journey. I started a business that has been supported by friends, family and mentors, advised by colleagues and peers, inspired by random questions and chance encounters, encouraged and directed by feedback.

My work is not what it started out as. What I do has evolved a lot. It doesn’t feel like thirteen years.

(in a weird way it feels like forever)

Last week I had a chat with a PhD candidate who is thinking about becoming someone who independently supports researchers. There are lots of possible titles for this kind of work. Alternative academic. Freelance skills trainer. Academic coach. Independent researcher-developer.

There are lots of ways to say someone who helps.

We talked about what I do, how I do it, how I’ve done it and some of what I’ve learned. Afterwards I realised that there were things I’d missed out. There’s a lot I’ve learned over the last thirteen years. Some I learned from other people telling me. Some I learned from reading books or blog posts. Some I learned through hard experience.

This post isn’t advice. This isn’t the old hand telling the new person what to do. These are just thirteen thoughts for thirteen years. Over time these thoughts or beliefs have certainly helped me.

I hope that some of them might help someone else.

In the following points I use the word “you” a lot. I’m not telling “you” what to do. Really, I’m reminding myself…

1. Being clear helps. When you’re clear about what you do, you help yourself and others. When you’re clear in your speech and writing you communicate more effectively. When you’re clear in presenting you free up time for more interesting questions.

2. Saying no is necessary. You have to say no to possible clients. You have to say no so you have space to do work. You have to say no so you can figure out what you will say yes to. You have to say no when it is easy and when it is hard. If you don’t say no then you lead yourself to being overwhelmed.

3. You don’t need a full plan to start work. Waiting to have all the information, outputs and outcomes can mean you never start. It can mean ideas stagnate and enthusiasm wains. Make notes, plan if it’s important – but get started before you stop yourself completely.

4. You don’t need all the answers to be able to help someone. Perfectionism is a trap. You’ll never know enough to help everyone, but you can always help someone. If you know something that someone else doesn’t then you can help them.

5. Finding a practice amplifies ability. For example, you can be a good writer. Writing regularly helps. Publishing regularly helps. Having a consistent practice that requires you to complete something regularly will force habits to build, force skills, processes and routines to develop. It will help talent grow.

6. You need allies. Friends, co-workers, colleagues, peers, mentors, people who write newsletters, people you know from Twitter. You might know them personally or you might not. They could provide inspiration, share good practice, share ideas you agree with, provide insights you rebel against. And remember that if they help you, then you can probably help them.

7. Record your numbers. How many people do you help? How many blog posts do you write? How many seminars do you do? How many times per year do you show up? Recording statistics is one way of showing others (and yourself) that you are serious, that you are committed and that you do the work.

8. Thank everyone. If someone helps, say thank you. If someone asks you to help them, say thank you. Thank your audience. Thank someone who gives you feedback. Thank someone who offers a great opportunity, whether or not you say yes. By extension, find reasons to be thankful, regularly.

9. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills… Say no to requests that undervalue your experience, your knowledge and the work that you do.

10. …but “free” work can still help. Maybe say yes to working for free if it is on your terms and you can find a way to use it to improve yourself or your situation. Decide in advance under what conditions you would be willing to work for free. Decide what aspects of your work you would be willing to offer for free. By extension, decide on what you will not do for free.

11. You don’t get paid to do admin. You still have to do it. Email, filling in forms, sorting your bank accounts, creating files, setting up Zoom meetings… Figure out how you can streamline all of this as much as possible: templates, flow diagrams, copy and paste etc. Then price yourself accordingly. Someone might pay you for, say, a three-hour webinar, but you have to make sure that fee covers your setup and prep time, time spent writing emails and everything else.

12. Love what you do. This is different from “do what you love”. (you can have both)

13. Find a vision. Goals come and go. Circumstances change. The unthinkable becomes the everyday. Having a vision can keep you going throughout. Your vision is why you do what you do, both motivation and meaning. It helps you decide quickly between opportunities and keeps you honest. Find a vision and follow it.

I am very fortunate. I have had so much help. I still have a lot of support.

If I’ve worked with you – in any sense – in the last thirteen years, thank you.

Extra special thanks to Kay and CJ, my wife and daughter, who keep me going, who keep me inspired and who keep me smiling.

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This blog isn’t dead, but it has been dormant for a loooong time.

I’m updating the main pages during my summer break – there’s a great to do list of things I need to add, take away and just plain change – but at the back of my mind is a thought that’s come around many times:

I write and publish a daily blog about the viva… I wonder if I have anything else I’d like to share?

That might be what this space is for. The thoughts of a now 40-year old independent researcher-developer. Little things about what I do and what I’m thinking about.

No great plan. No big goal.

Let’s just see where it goes for now.

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Eight Years After Room 524

It dawned on me a few days ago that today is eight years since I started my life as a skills trainer. On September 15th 2008, I registered my business. I was a guy with a PhD in maths, a few ideas about what I might do as a freelancer, but no real clue. This was me:

My last day in the postgraduate office

I left behind Room 524, my workspace for nearly four years. One day I was working surrounded by interesting people who loved research. The next day I was working alone at the dining room table: What to do? How to start? It seems like yesterday sometimes, and also like another life. A lot has happened in eight years (I got married! I have a daughter!). Work highlights include:

I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people, and I know that I’ve learned a lot along the way. It’s not always easy to be a freelancer. There can be a lot of disappointments. But you can work to your values: it is very liberating to realise that you can step back from something that isn’t satisfying. You can say no to things that you think will get in the way, and say yes to things that excite you or you think can make a difference.

One of the things I like most is the freedom to do fun things, to play. You can do something “just because”. I have thoughts for more little experiments and “just because” ideas; let me know in the comments if you want to hear more.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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What does a great workshop need?

There are five things that great workshops need…

…and I hope my upcoming Viva Survivor workshop will meet all of these. After six years of running effective viva preparation workshops in universities around the UK, I took the plunge in June and ran an independent version. PhD candidates from around the UK – and beyond, someone flew in the night before! – came to the session to learn about how to prepare for the final hurdle of their PhD.

After the dust settled and I had time to think, I decided that I would run it again, with a couple of small tweaks, and so my next independent workshop will be 14th September 2016 at Ziferblat in Manchester. Like I said, I think all great workshops have five things that they need in order to be great – and I hope this workshop will have all five qualities.FYVwordle1

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Workshop Goodybag

My independent Viva Survivor workshop is on June 29th, and I’m really excited to share with you what participants will be getting on the day. I’ve been delivering this workshop for six years. There are a couple of handouts that I’ve used in the past, and on occasion universities have paid to provide ebooks for participants.

I know that the information and insight I deliver in the workshop is valuable for PGRs, but for my independent Viva Survivor I wanted to add to that by providing a really valuable participant pack. I did some brainstorming for this with my wife, and we’ve built a really great goodybag for each person that comes. Want to see some of the things that we’ve put together?

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Viva Survivor: In the beginning…

A common question!
A common question about the viva

In July 2010, quite out of the blue, I was asked if I could deliver a workshop on preparing for the viva at the University of Manchester. My viva was still quite fresh in my mind. At the time, I was trying to find my style as a facilitator. I’ll bet if I could look back at a video from the workshop I would cringe horribly! At that first workshop, I got people thinking about their research journey and thesis, the people around them who might be able to help and the kinds of things they could do to prepare.

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Books and the Workshop

My independent Viva Survivor workshop has helped me a lot and it’s not even run yet. It’s got me making very quick progress with some ideas I’ve been considering. With workshops run through universities there is a limit to what can be provided to participants in three hours or via handouts. I knew that I wanted to give participants at the independent workshop my ebooks to supplement their learning, but I’m also a print enthusiast despite my Kindle addiction.

A print copy of Fail Your Viva, my first book, seemed like it would be a valuable resource as part of the participant pack. I’ve been thinking for a couple of months that I would like to expand into print with my books, and I’ve had some experience through other new ventures of producing print runs. Deciding to do the independent workshop pushed me to get it done, and push past any barriers, real or imagined.

And I thought, “If you’re going to print thirty for a workshop, you may as well do a modest little print run to go along with it…”

The print run!
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Finding Ziferblat

My independent Viva Survivor workshop is taking place on June 29th at Ziferblat in Manchester. I’ve felt stuck about doing an independent workshop for a long time, partly because I couldn’t find a great venue. Fortunately, I went to Ziferblat in April, and Ziferblat is a really great venue:

  • It has good transport links, halfway between the two major train stations in Manchester, and there’s a good car park nearby too;
  • The staff there are really great and friendly;
  • There’s a wonderful range of refreshments;
  • It’s a beautiful space, and the private space that we’ll be using for the workshop is lovely.


Ziferblat does things a little differently from other venues; there’s a great cafe/public meeting space, and several fab private rooms. We’ll be in the Classroom, which is made out to look like an idyllic primary classroom of yesteryear – it feels right that a workshop about the pinnacle of formal education should go back to basics!

The atmosphere is wonderful at Ziferblat – as are the refreshments provided. No lukewarm tea urns or coffee jugs, no two-packs of biscuits. Proper coffee, proper tea, fruit juice, cake, biscuits and a heck of a lot more. And if you arrive early to take advantage of these or want to hang around afterwards you’ll be more than welcome.

This is where we’ll have our workshop. Viva Survivor can help ease viva anxieties, make sure you know what to do to prepare and answer all of your questions about the process. But if can only do that if you come along to Ziferblat. Are you coming? Check out the booking page soon, as there are only limited places available. Can you help me spread the word about the workshop by telling others who might be interested?

Thanks for reading – check back on Thursday for details of books that will be included in the participant packs for this workshop!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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Why am I doing an independent workshop?

I announced a few days ago that I’m delivering an independent viva preparation workshop in Manchester on June 29th. You can find full details and how to book at this page; I said that I’d be regularly blogging between now and the workshop about the process of preparing for it, and some of the cool things that I want to do and share at the event.

But first I think it’s right to say a little bit about why I’m doing this. Quite simply, I want to help PGRs prepare for the viva. I am fortunate to have directly helped around 2000 PhD candidates over the last six years through workshops that I have developed. I’m the fortunate one, because it’s helped me to find a passion and – I think – a talent, an area that I can do good in. It’s great to have something like that in my professional life, and part of my success has been down to helping people in this area. I’ve written two books on the topic, and run a podcast that I’m told really helps people, which is, again, a great feeling.

Still, there are a lot more PGRs that I could help, and I currently deliver workshops at less than 10% of the universities in the UK. An independent workshop is a way to connect with all of the PhD candidates who want some support in preparing for the viva but don’t know quite what to do or where to turn.

I also want to see if it can be done: is it possible for a small freelancer like me to deliver a workshop directly to PGRs? There are many freelancers like me who work with universities and PGRs, and I’m not the only one who wonders if it’s possible to do something like this. I’d love to show that it can be done. Delivering an independent workshop is an experiment and a challenge – and most importantly a chance for me to grow. Already I’m being stretched in how I manage the logistics of this, I’m developing original materials to support the workshop that I would never have thought to do in a university setting (but which now seem like such a good idea that I will probably start using them in my university workshops too!).

I like to scheme and dream, and I did that a lot during my PhD. It’s only since then that I’ve found I can actually put my schemes and dreams into reality. If you’re interested in learning how to prepare for the viva effectively then please check out my workshop; or if you know someone who has their viva coming up, then please share my workshop with them! And if you want to know more, then please get in touch, I’d be happy to chat about it with you.

Thanks for reading! More posts about the development of this exciting new project next week.

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)
PS – here’s a not so subtle hint of one of those resources that participants will receive at the workshop! Hopefully more details next week.


Coming Soon: Viva Survivor Workshop


For the longest time I’ve wanted to deliver an independent workshop to PGRs. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in universities, and I plan to keep doing that for a long time to come. But I wanted a new challenge and I wanted to share my Viva Survivor workshop with PGRs at institutions that I don’t routinely visit. It seemed like an intractable problem for a while, but then I found Ziferblat, a really great meeting space in Manchester.

Thus I present, Viva Survivor, a three hour viva preparation workshop in Manchester on the afternoon of June 29th 2016. Full details are at the Eventbrite booking page, but here’s the short version: Viva Survivor is a workshop designed to help PGRs effectively prepare for the viva. If you come then by the end of the session you will have

  • identified what examiners are looking for when they examine your thesis;
  • discussed the many ways that others can support your preparation;
  • explored valuable viva preparation methods;
  • established realistic expectations for your viva;
  • discussed common questions about the PhD viva.

I want to make this a really special session, I want people to leave knowing that they are set for the viva, that they know what to expect and what to do. I’m going to be providing excellent supporting materials, including ebooks, print books, handouts and some other interesting things – plus hopefully some things to make participants smile! And Ziferblat is going to be providing an excellent venue and refreshments for the day.

Sound good? I hope so. Please come! More details and booking is on the Eventbrite page; places are limited and while I want to run more of these in the future I have no dates or plans at the moment. Please share this with others, let them know that there is an independent workshop happening to help PhD students prepare for the viva. Come along and meet PGRs from other institutions, find out how to prepare and what to expect.

If you want to know more, then get in touch: drop me an email, tweet at me or leave a comment here! I’ll be posting a lot over the coming weeks about the details of the workshop, announcing things about the various parts that I’m excited about. If you want to know details today, then please contact me.

Thanks for reading, and if you can, please help me share this exciting new opportunity with others.

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)