Survive & Thrive

Let’s start with dictionary definitions:

  • Survive: manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.
  • Thrive: grow, develop and be successful.

I get into conversations on a semi-regular basis about whether or not survive is the right verb for the viva. Thrive sounds good. Thrive sounds better than survive in many ways. Perhaps it would be better to rebrand, both myself and my advice…?

I don’t think so: for one thing, “viva survivor” rhymes and there’s nothing quite like a good rhyme for latching into someone’s memory!

Secondly, more importantly, I don’t think survive and thrive are mutually exclusive. Why not do both in the viva? Who says you can’t manage to keep going in difficult circumstances to grow, develop and be successful?

The viva is an exam and a conversation. You play the dual role of expert and student. You can be prepared for it and yet unaware of what exactly is going to happen. The viva is lots of things, all at once.

There’s room for you to survive and thrive.

Luck and the Viva

Luck could be a factor in your viva, some strange twist of fate that determines the eventual outcome. But in the same way that sunlight and water stimulates plant growth more than playing Mozart, there are other factors that are far more important. For example:

  • The work you did in your PhD;
  • Getting help from others;
  • Knowing what to expect from the viva;
  • Taking steps to prepare for it;
  • Feeling confident about your ability.

Don’t rely on luck winning through for you; instead, focus on factors that you can actually influence to steer your success.

Hope is not a strategy; luck is not a resource.

A Simple Start

No candidate needs to have an opening statement prepared for their viva – with the obvious exception being people specifically asked to prepare a presentation! But if you want something in mind to help you feel confident, take time to reflect and practise with the following three questions:

  • Why did you do your PhD?
  • How did you do your research?
  • What have you got in your thesis?

You don’t need a monologue. You don’t need a script. Together, these three questions can provide a helpful reflection to help your confidence grow, and give a simple start to your viva.

You won’t know for certain what question you’ll be asked first, or where the discussion will begin, but between them, these three questions will plant a lot of seeds for how you might respond.

Unavoidable

The viva is unavoidable for a PhD candidate in the UK, but despite rumours and misgivings, a truly negative outcome is far from unavoidable. You can find out what to expect, both the regulations and experiences of friends; you can take time to prepare, to know your work well and reflect on the talent that’s made it.

There’s always a place for doubt about the outcome with something important, a space for nervousness to creep in, but that doesn’t mean some terrible result for your viva. Learn more about what vivas are like and you can give perspective to your concerns.

You can avoid being unprepared for your viva – and once you move past extreme possibilities brought on by worry, you’ll hopefully see that the only unavoidable event in your near future is viva success.

Highs & Lows

No project, period or PhD is super-excellent all the time, or super-terrible for that matter.

There’s ups and downs, highs and lows. I can remember some of mine from my PhD days…

Highs from my PhD:

  • Realising the fundamental structure of the first algorithm I created.
  • Winning a poster prize from my department.
  • Realising a key step of a proof before my supervisor – and being able to explain it to him.
  • Being asked to help with two residential skills workshops…
  • …and being invited back to help again after I did a good job the first time!

Lows from my PhD:

  • Postponing two months of supervisory meetings because I was ashamed I hadn’t solved something.
  • Comparing myself to office-mates who seemed so much more capable than me.
  • Not finding an answer to the problem in my seventh chapter.
  • Being super-anxious before every presentation I did.
  • Not admitting when I didn’t understand things.

What have yours been during your PhD? As you get closer to the viva, perhaps make a list of highs and a list of lows. File the lows list away – don’t throw it away, just don’t give it your attention. It doesn’t define you.

Keep the highs list to hand. Give it your attention from time to time through your preparation. You can find confidence from considering the highs of your PhD.

Postscript: this is another variation on the Make Two Lists approach of the wonderful Seth Godin! Credit where credit is due 🙂

Post-postscript: my viva doesn’t feature on either of my lists. I don’t think I know anyone who would put their viva on a list of PhD-highs or PhD-lows. Something to keep in mind maybe…

What’s It Worth?

Your PhD could be worth all the hours and money you have invested.

It could be worth a particular job that you’re aiming for.

It could be several papers you can publish when you’re done.

Or it could just be something you did for a while, not that important in the future – something fun to tell the grandkids about one day.

(“No, no, I’m not that kind of doctor…”)

Whatever it’s worth personally now, or whatever it could be worth in the future, it’s worth finishing it well. Take a step back as you near submission to know what you need to do to pass the viva. It doesn’t take much to prepare and there are lots of people who could help you.

Whatever your PhD is worth to you, it won’t cost a lot to be ready for your viva and secure your success.

Does The Viva Matter?

Yes.

You won’t get your PhD without passing, so it matters.

It may be that your examiners have very few issues with your thesis, no problems to tackle, but they still have to have a good discussion with you. The PhD is for you – the thesis is part of the proof that you have hit a certain high standard. So while the thesis could be convincing, you have to be too.

You have to pass on the day, but you already have to have passed many other challenges. You have to pass, but really you have to already be able to pass to get to the viva.

The viva matters, but don’t forget the journey you’ve completed to get there.

Awesome Anticlimax

I love hearing stories about vivas that were transformatively awesome for the candidate. Not only did they pass, not only did it go well, not only was it enjoyable – it was AMAZING!!!

I love hearing them, but occasionally there is still that little twinge of sadness thinking about my own. I passed, it went well, it wasn’t unenjoyable, but it wasn’t awesome. It wasn’t amazing. If anything it was an anticlimax.

I remember thinking afterwards, “Was that it?”

I think now, particularly if your viva is over video and you’re without a peer community around you to help you celebrate, there’s a chance that your viva could lean towards being an anticlimax rather than totally awesome. By comparison to 2020, the viva – this thing that gets hyped so much for so many reasons and in so many ways – might seem to drop in terms of significance.

Maybe. On the day, or the day after, or the week that follows, however long, there might be a time where your viva feels like an anticlimactic end to your PhD.

But pride will follow eventually.

You’ll recognise the achievement. You’ll realise, as you finally take a breath after it all, that this is something amazing.

I hope your viva is awesome, but if on the day it doesn’t quite hit the heights you were hoping for, I hope that the anticlimax is short-lived, and the awesomeness finds you soon.

Fractions

A PhD typically takes at least three years. A viva typically takes three hours at most.

Writing a thesis could take months of effort. Preparation for the viva takes maybe a few dozen hours.

The viva takes a fraction of the time you spend preparing for it. Preparation takes a fraction of the time spent writing your thesis – which in turn is only a fraction of the time you spend working towards your doctorate.

The fractions matter, but not as much as the whole they are part of: the viva is important, prep is important, but the real difference that helps you pass your PhD comes from the work you do over a long period of time.

Viva Expectations: Facts & Feelings

There are two kinds of expectations you might have for your viva, facts and feelings. In the swirl of thoughts about the end of the PhD, and anticipation for what might happen, it can be difficult to determine whether an expectation is one or the other.

Is it a fact that vivas are long, or is that a feeling?

Are you certain your examiners will be looking for problems or do you just believe it?

Reflect on whatever expectations you have. What do you think you know about the viva?

Which are facts? What do they then mean for your viva?

Which are feelings? What do they tell you about what you might need to do?

What can you do to fine-tune your expectations, to know more facts and to have better feelings for the viva?