Before & After

Before your viva…

  • …ask graduate friends about their experiences.
  • …make a list of what you might expect.
  • …tell your friends and family what you need from them.

After your viva…

  • …share your experience with others to help them on their PhD journeys.
  • …see how your experience matched your expectations (or not!).
  • …thank your friends and family for their support.

And remember that, as important as it is, the viva – the “during” bit, in-between these two phases of your life – is a lot, lot shorter than the before or the after. Focus on it, be ready for it – but you’ll spend far more time getting ready before for your viva than being in it, and far longer after your viva as a PhD.

Stars and Black Holes

We can see stars directly. Some are big, some are small (relatively speaking), some are bright, some less so, but so long as nothing is in the way, they’re there. We can’t see black holes directly. They’re tricky, difficult to describe maybe, possibly destructive if we get too close and you don’t want your examiners to talk about them-

-oh, yeah, this is a thesis metaphor!

The stars are your contributions. They’re in your thesis, and so long as nothing is in the way (clunky writing, obscure terminology, confusing structure) your examiners and anyone else reading your thesis will see them. They might still have questions about them, but they will see clearly that there is something valuable there.

The black holes are things you can’t see clearly. Problems, Issues, Gaps – things you don’t want your examiners to ask about because it’s hard to talk about them. And you worry that once you’re in the conversational gravitational pull you won’t be able to escape the crushing forces at the heart of the matter!

The stars and black holes in your thesis are made up of the same stuff though: ideas.

Get back to ideas in your preparation. Stars or black holes, what are the ideas that make them up? Why do they matter in their respective way? How can you best describe them?

Get used to the brightness of your stars. Grow comfortable being in orbit of your black holes.

Bringing Prep Ideas Together

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography – a list of the most important references in your thesis’ bibliography – as a means to focus on what really matters and helps shape your work.

I like using Why-How-What – three simple starter questions – as a quick framework to explore ideas or frame a presentation.

Let’s put them together! First, create an edited bibliography, the top twenty or so references in your thesis. Consider the papers, books and sources that have helped you the most. Then, take a few minutes to explore each of these references using Why-How-What:

  • Why was this reference so important?
  • How does it add to the work you’ve done?
  • What do you most need to remember?

What other questions or approaches could you use to explore the essential parts of your bibliography?

Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

Working Out Your Prep Priorities

There are lots of things a candidate could do to get ready for the viva. There’s a few things that they need to do. There’s only so much time in and amongst the realities of a busy life to get it all done.

You could feel bad about what you don’t do, but it’s far more useful to focus on what you can do. Focus on what you have done and need to do, rather than anything you’ve missed.

To start, focus on your priorities. You probably need to read your thesis; annotate it; do a little research into your examiners; write a summary or two; make opportunities to help you rehearse being in the viva.

Within that list though, you have your priorities – with a heavy emphasis on your! As you get closer to the viva, take a little time and reflect for yourself:

  • Where do you feel there are gaps in your preparation?
  • How could you address them?
  • What do you, realistically, have time to do?
  • Who can help you?
  • If you need more time, how could you make more time?

Jot everything down, make a few little lists and compare it to your schedule. Imagine that you can only do 80% of what you’ve written down. What doesn’t make the list? What comes first? What might you do if you have time?

And so, then, what are your real priorities?

There are core types of work that will help you get ready for your viva. There are many different ways candidates can engage with these activities. Every candidate has different needs, different pressures, and thus different priorities.

What are yours?

In Case Of Emergency

What if your external examiner cancels with a week to go?

What do you do if you get an email asking you for submission fees, and you’re sure that doesn’t apply to you?

What would you do if you broke your leg or just got sick a few days before your viva?

What do you do? Who do you call?

You can’t plan what you would do for every unexpected event – they’re unexpected, of course! But you can be a little prepared all the same. Spend two minutes as soon as possible, months before your viva if that’s where you are now: get a name, email address and phone number for someone at your university who could help in case anything unexpected, a real emergency, happens in the lead up to your viva.

Your supervisor might be the person to call, but equally it could be a member of staff in your Graduate School or Doctoral College. Figure out who the most likely person is, get their contact details written on a Post-it Note and put that away just in case.

You’ll never know when an emergency will strike, you can’t always know how it might be solved. But you can know who to contact first to help you.

All About Me!

It’s my birthday, and it dawned on me that I’ve put a lot of myself into the daily blog since I started it in 2017. I recorded an episode of the Viva Survivors Podcast a long time ago with my best friend interviewing me, but I’m all over the place in the blog, bits and pieces of me cut out and glued into this scrapbook of viva help.

So here are a few of my favourite posts where a part of me makes up the idea of the piece:

I don’t think you can do something like this, for nearly a thousand posts, without bits and pieces of yourself creeping in. I’m happy that I’m here and there throughout the blog. I hope you find these posts interesting, and in some cases entertaining too!

Now, while I go and celebrate not-quite-being-40-just-yet, if you have time reflect on what I’ve been reflecting: where can you find yourself in your work? Where are you in your thesis and your research?

Six Steps For Friction-free Prep

In preparing for the viva you have your thesis, your knowledge, your talent…

…and a lot of things potentially in your way, stopping you from getting ready! Busy days, family ties, worry, uncertainty over what to do – there’s lots to slow you down!

Thankfully, there’s a few simple steps you can take to remove the obstacles in your way:

  1. Make a plan. Just a short one, just an idea of when you need start, when you need to stop and what you need to do.
  2. Get your materials together. You need your thesis, some stationery, some paper and some papers you’ve referenced too. Get it all together, don’t leave things for later when you can procrastinate and avoid prep because you don’t have that paper you need.
  3. Find a prep space. It might be your dining table, it could be your office, it could be a cafe. But find a space that you can work well in.
  4. Tell others what you need. Probably, you need them to leave you alone from time to time! Get the space you need.
  5. Do at least one thing every day. Read a chapter, write a summary, check a reference – do something so it becomes a habit. Small tasks add up.
  6. Make a task list for your plan. What are all the tasks you have to get done? Cross them off as you go to see your progress as it happens.

Be practical. Don’t stay in your head with worries, doubts, procrastinations. Work better by removing things that create friction as you get ready to pass your viva.