Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

Ask The Experts

Look around you. There are lots of experts, able to share ideas, advice, experience. All you have to do is ask.

Ask specific questions about viva experiences to learn what they’re like.

Ask your supervisor and other academics how they approach being examiners.

Ask your graduate school about regulations and expectations.

Ask friends and colleagues for helpful questions to practise.

And ask yourself who the real expert on your thesis must be.

Who knows more about your research than anyone else?

A Short Viva

I’m asked about short vivas in almost every Viva Survivor session:

  • What can I do to have a short viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour?

They’re not from a place of not wanting to be in the viva. It’s just simple worry. Nerves and anxiety running wild. I don’t blame people for these questions, but they are the wrong questions to ask about the viva experience. There really isn’t much one could do to dictate the length of the viva, or steer examiners away from questions.

But what could you do?

You could prepare. You could practise. You could decide to engage with your examiners and do your best.

Maybe we could simply change our questions:

  • What can I do to have a short viva? What can I do to have a good viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions? How can I best engage with my examiners’ questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour? How can I prepare to be at my best however long the viva is?

So what will you do?

 

Explore Your Thesis With VIVA

I’ve shared my VIVA tool a few times: an acronym for exploring your thesis chapter by chapter as a valuable viva preparation. My quick directions for someone to try this would be to divide a sheet into four sections, and then use a series of prompts to reflect:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the research?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what would you like to ask your examiners?

I’ve mentioned before that this is a good starting point for reflection. One could dig quite deep using the tool. These four areas cover a lot of ground in preparation too. There are other necessary things a candidate would need to explore – who their examiners are, checking recent literature, exploring how their research connects to the wider field – but even that last point might be explored a little by considering what is Valuable (to others).

If you are preparing for your viva, I’d encourage you to try VIVA to start your reflections and summary creation.

Explore the content of your chapters with a little direction and see where that leads your preparations.

Magic 8-Ball

There are plenty of people you can ask for advice and help about the viva – but there’s plenty of other ways you get help too.

Even a Magic 8-Ball could help! Here’s a partial transcript from a recent conversation that a PhD candidate had with theirs…

Magic 8-Ball, do you know a lot about the PhD viva? Without a doubt.

You have a doctorate?! Yes.

And you can answer pretty much any question I have about the viva too? Most likely.

OK, do you know what the outcome of my viva will be? Better not tell you now.

That’s fair I guess… But my examiners will have an idea, right? Yes – definitely.

Will they tell me if I’ve passed at the start of my viva? My sources say no.

I’ve heard they prepare quite thoroughly in general, is that right? You may rely on it.

Do you think my viva will be easy? Cannot predict now.

OK, but could I fail? Very doubtful.

I’ve heard that most people pass. Outlook good.

I’m just worried I’ll go blank. What could I do? Concentrate and ask again.

The questions won’t be too tough, right? My reply is no.

Will I get corrections though? It is certain.

I’ve heard that some people get no corrections though- Don’t count on it.

Hmmm. Is it possible for me to get ready for the viva even if I’m busy? As I see it, yes.

My examiners want to explore what I’ve done and what I can do, is that the short of it? It is decidedly so.

And if I’ve got this far through my PhD, I can do the viva too? Signs point to yes.

Start With Three Things

There’s a lot you can do to prepare for the viva – so much that at times it could feel overwhelming. Whatever you’re going to do, start with a limit of just three things to help you focus.

  • Ask your supervisor three questions to help you prepare – what would they be?
  • Put three bookmarks into your thesis – where would they go?
  • Check three papers you’ve referenced – which ones would they be?
  • Take three minutes to summarise your work – what would you say?
  • Think of three questions you would like to ask your examiners – what are they?

Three is just to start. You can invest more time, more questions, more effort after the first three, the most important three are done.

Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.

Probably Not

It’s the answer for many questions around the viva…

  • Will you remember everything?
  • Will you forget something important?
  • Will you go blank?
  • Will your examiners like everything?
  • Will they hate everything?
  • Will you demonstrate perfection?
  • Will you be cool, calm and collected?
  • Will your nerves get the best of you?
  • Would any of these things really make a difference on how things might go?

You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to recall everything; you don’t need to fret over forgetting or going blank; you shouldn’t expect your examiners to rip your work to shreds and you can’t realistically expect that they won’t have questions or comments.

You can be ready. You can have realistic expectations. You can go prepared to meet any challenges.

Will you face another challenge like this in your life? Probably not.

But will this be the biggest thing you ever do? Probably not.

The Tightrope

Let’s imagine you get good at walking on a tightrope that’s six inches off the ground. Weeks of practice, perfect balance, good footwork. You can do it in front of people with a smile on your face, step, step, step, all the way to the other side.

You’re brilliant.

So let’s put you twenty feet in the air. Walk the tightrope now. Just step, step, step to the other side. It’s exactly the same, you have the skills, you have the practice, so just get to it!

………but of course it’s not the same. Of course there’s a great big difference. Even with all the practice, even though the practical, physical skills being used are the same, the situation makes it very different. The potential outcomes make it very different.

 

Like the viva. The skills being used are the same as if you were in conversation with friends. The same as if you were answering a question after a conference talk, or in a meeting with your supervisor. You need to know about your work, about your field, and have what it takes to do research in an appropriate way. And you’ve got that covered. You have plenty of experience by the viva.

But there’s a big difference because it’s important.

It’s important, important in a way that coffee with friends is not. Way more important than just another meeting with your supervisor. Important because of the consequences.

None of that importance takes away from your skill, talent and knowledge though. You have all that practice. The importance doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

You’ve walked across the high wire many times during your PhD. You can do it one more time with your examiners watching.

Blinkered

Don’t be. After years of research and months of writing, it could be hard for you to see someone else’s point of view.

But it’s easy to imagine your examiners will see things differently to you. Maybe they have a relevant question you’ve not considered. Maybe they don’t quite get what you mean. Maybe a section of your thesis that is perfectly clear to you is only clear because of everything else you know.

Get other perspectives before the viva. You don’t have to change your perspective on your work, but it is really useful to consider others. Get feedback from your supervisor to see if there are other approaches or considerations you’ve discarded. Get questions from friends to help explore around your topic. Write summaries of your work to draw out ideas and make your thoughts concrete.

Don’t expect your examiners to know more than you, but don’t expect that you know every possible question or idea either.