The Verdict

After my viva, after a short break in my office, my internal examiner came to collect me by saying, “Nathan, it’s time for your sentence,” as if I was a man in court on my way to see the judge.

He meant it as a joke, but it didn’t feel like a joke for a moment or two!

You can’t pick what words others might use to describe your viva. Maybe you prefer the result. The outcome? The verdict? The level of corrections? The ending?

You can’t pick what words others use, but you can help yourself by choosing yours. What words are helping you (or not) when you think about your viva?

Lying to yourself won’t help, but you can choose to think of passes and outcomes rather than corrections and verdicts.

And sentences!

The Default Viva

Not the worst, not the best.

Not amazing, not terrible.

No great corrections needed, friendly comments but no effusive praise.

Lots of amazingly good or heart-stoppingly bad things could happen at your viva, but they probably won’t.

It will most likely be a good day rather than bad, but it probably won’t change your life by itself. It may not live up to the hype that you and others have built it up to.

The viva is an exam. It’s a conversation. It’s a test. It’s a pass. And it comes after years and years of effort, thought and feeling. If it doesn’t live up to your great expectations it’s probably because very little could, compared to what you’ve already done.

You may not get the amazing, award-winning, fantabulous viva.

You get the default viva. The basic model.

And that will be alright.

Acting On Your Worries

In life there are problems you can do something practical about, and there are problems that can only concern you. Realising you can do nothing to change a situation or problem doesn’t make it go away, or give you some kind of special awareness of it, but it can free you to work on problems that could respond to action.

So, as your viva gets closer, make a list of problems that worry you: your thesis, your research, your knowledge, your talent, your examiners, the viva, everything.

Then for each of these things ask yourself if you can really do something about it. Is this a problem that can be resolved or improved?

If it is, what could you do? Then what will you do? Great! Make the situation better.

If it can’t be resolved or improved, if it just is, then what will you do?

You could obsess about it, you could keep exploring to find a solution, or you could try to find a way to cope with it. Maybe all you could do is know it’s an issue, but choose to focus on things you can improve. That’s not necessarily easy, but it might be for the best.

Take time to see what’s really going on for you around viva time. It’s not always easy to change how you feel, but you do get to decide how you act.

A Spectrum of Experience

I have complicated feelings about my viva. It was fine, it went well, but it wasn’t totally enjoyable for me; that has nothing to do with my examiners.

It was “bad” that I didn’t sleep well the night before. I got about three hours sleep; I had some nerves and adrenaline going in but a great background tiredness.

And then my viva was four hours long.

I started it tired.

I ended it exhausted.

And everything else about my viva was good: not good by comparison, but good!

My examiners were fair with their questions. They had clearly prepared. They had opinions, but asked me to contribute rather than just pass a decision. They didn’t like how two of my chapters were written, but discussed them with me rather than simply give me corrections.

My viva was four hours long, and I was shattered by the end, but in many ways it felt like it was over much too quickly. It was an anticlimax, as was the end of my PhD. I don’t think that’s universal, but I know I’m not unique in thinking that. After all, a viva is only part of one day: pressured, important, full of the good and maybe a little “bad” – but still only a few hours compared to more than a thousand days you might spend pursuing a PhD.

If your viva is in the future, ask others about theirs: ask for the good and the bad, and look for the balance that might help set your own expectations. If your viva is in the past, tell others: share the details that make up the picture. How did you feel? Why was that?

Exploring Prep Ideas

The final flourishes that complete a piece of art. Shining your shoes before an interview. Proofreading and checking one last time.

All of these sorts of things can only make little differences, because the big difference has already been made (you’ve painted something, been accepted for interview, written something).

Viva preparation is the little differences you make to get ready; responses to things you see as gaps or absences in your readyness.

Make a list of the gaps, then explore each and think about what you could do. Why-How-What makes a nice structure for this exploration:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • How might you address it?
  • What will you do?

Explore what stands out to you as possible areas or tasks for viva preparation. Prioritise them if you’re busy: do the things that will have the biggest impact. Remember that this preparation is building on something that’s already pretty accomplished.

The Pieces of the Viva Puzzle

There’s a lot of things wrapped up in the idea of a viva. It’s uncertain sometimes, what to do, how to be, what do you need, what do you have… Keeping track of all of the parts can feel hard.

Maybe it’s like a 1000-piece jigsaw without a picture to guide you. Hard, but not impossible. A challenge, but there are methods for solving the problem: find the corners, find the edges, group colours, start building it up, and so on.

With uncertainty you can’t always have step-by-step instructions, but you can have a method that moves you forward.

Remember: you’re already moving when your viva comes around. This isn’t the beginning, it’s the next step. So where are you? How did you get here? What could you do that would take you closer to ready? And what are you going to do next?

What are the final pieces for your viva puzzle?

Your First Choice

As you get closer to submission and the end of your PhD, it’s worth exploring possible examiners.

Who would be your number one pick for your external examiner? Why? What do they have that others don’t?

How about for your internal? Who in your department would be your top choice? Why?

You could suggest these people to your supervisor, and they might agree or not. It’s probably useful to have a couple of names in mind in case people are busy, and again, they might agree or not. Your first choice might be your examiners or not, but it doesn’t hurt to think about this at all.

  • If they are your examiners, then you’ve done work already for your viva prep. You’re one step closer to being ready.
  • If they’re not, then you’ve had the chance to practise exploring someone and their work. Now you can build on that for your viva preparations.

Nothing is wasted. It all helps. Your first choice might be the your examiner, or they could help you all the same if they’re not.

Atypical

There are regulations for vivas, and expectations for vivas, but all vivas are different. Some are more different than others.

My viva took four hours. That makes it different from most, by comparison a long viva.

I gave a presentation to start my viva. That made it different, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I was stood for all of my viva, which is really different! I started my presentation, and my examiners neatly segued into questions. I just stayed where I was by the chalkboard. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or wrong (although close I started to feel pretty tired towards the end). This was just how my viva was.

All vivas are different is another way of recognising that every viva is unique. Every viva is a custom, one-off examination process, that follows expectations and guidelines and academic culture, but is still unique.

Unique or different, this doesn’t mean bad. Just… different!

Some vivas are more different than others, but the purpose is always the same.

Make sure you know what the purpose of the viva is: what your examiners are there to do and what you are there to do. Know this before you get there and you’ll feel far more comfortable even if your viva is atypical.

Build Your Own Resources

Whenever I commit the time to make a resource, I’ve chosen to make something as broadly useful as possible. The tiny book of viva prep is designed to be useful to everyone. The list of thesis examination regulations took time to do because I was trying to find all of the regulations.

I hope PhD candidates find my resources useful. As part of your viva prep I strongly encourage you to make your own too. Write summaries of key chapters of your thesis. Create a list of key references in your bibliography. Annotate your thesis pages to make them even more useful. Write lists of key questions you’d like to ask your examiners if you had the opportunity.

There’s a place for lots of useful viva prep resources: broad resources to start the process, and highly focussed ones just for you. There are plenty of people, me included, who can help with the generally helpful pieces. Only you can create the specific ones to help you get to and through the viva.

Remember the resources you build now are built on years of work too: you’ve created a lot of resources to get this far.

Power Ups For The Viva

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of power ups for the viva!

  • Wearing the right outfit for you.
  • Having a mock viva.
  • Two cups of coffee.
  • Re-reading your methods chapter.
  • The right conversation with the right person.
  • Knowing the regulations.
  • Listening to music that helps you relax.
  • Doing something that helps you feel better.
  • Making notes about examiners.
  • Wearing your good day socks.

Some are common sense. Some make sense. Some seem like nonsense – but they only have to help you feel powered up for your viva, they don’t have to be for everyone.

Some you could do regularly to help. Others are one-offs. Some you have to wait for the viva to come around.

For some you can see the direct helpful link, and for others you can probably see that they’re helpful placebos, things that remind or encourage.

You might not be in total control of how you feel about your viva, but you’re not powerless either. What power ups will you choose to use?