Easy or Hard?

Questions in the viva do not fall neatly into one of two piles.

Easy and hard are relative terms that don’t help to describe the questions that prompt the kind of discussion found in the viva.

An easy question for one candidate could be very hard for another.

An easy-to-ask question could have a very hard-to-formulate response.

A hard question could have been considered many times before by a candidate, while an easy question has no certain response.

Best to get away from labels of easy and hard completely.

Questions in the viva can be challenging or not. In either case, they are there to drive the discussion. They’re asked with an expectation of a response from the candidate. You can’t predict what questions you will be asked before your viva, but you can prepare yourself to respond to whatever question your examiners bring to you.

Examiner Maybes

Maybe they’re nice. Maybe they’re a bit unknown to you. Maybe they have a special interest in your research area.

Your examiners might be experts. They could be among the many people you’ve cited in your thesis. Maybe they know your supervisors; they’re friends, more than professional colleagues.

There are lots of possibilities for examiners – and lots of certainties too.

They will have prepared. They will be ready. They will have questions. They will have expectations for you, the viva and themselves.

They will not have been randomly selected – supervisor friends or not, experts or otherwise – they will have been asked for a reason. They will have been selected as a good choice.

Best choice? Perhaps. Capable? Certainly.

Find out who they are and you can help yourself as you prepare for your viva.

On Thanksgiving

I don’t have much to add to the post I shared about a year ago on Thanksgiving.

Simply: Being thankful really helps.

Like last year, being thankful has really helped me and my family throughout 2021. The special occasion of Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in the UK, but the act of giving thanks is a valuable one.

What are you thankful for about your PhD journey?

If you’re getting ready for your viva what are you thankful for in your prep?

Being thankful for things that have gone well or worked out, for the resources and means to do well, for supporters big and small – all of these can help with feeling good for the viva. Being thankful helps to put things into perspective and can help remind you that things do go well – when things are hard, there are good things happening.

Bibliography Focus

Your thesis’ bibliography might contain hundreds of references. While you will have used all of these to shape and inform your research, it’s impossible for you to remember every detail. Your examiners won’t expect that from you either. They’re not unreasonable, but they will want to see evidence that you know your stuff.

What could you do in preparation?

  • You could take another look at the references that have helped build up your methods.
  • You could be sure of how sources containing important information have helped your research.
  • You could look again at any references you disagree with – to be sure you’re certain why you disagree with them.
  • You could create an edited bibliography: a top twenty list of the most useful papers that you’ve cited.

You don’t need to do all of these. You might need to do something else. But you need to do something to bring your bibliography into focus before your viva.

Time For Confidence

Here and there throughout the many Viva Survivors daily blog posts you’ll find clear hints that I’m a fan of science fiction. 58 years ago today was the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who.

In their fantastic TARDIS timeship, the Doctor and their companions travel through all time and space – but they don’t always get where they mean to. They often get close, but the TARDIS is tricky to control. The console is presented as having hundreds of buttons, levers, switches, bells, bits and bobs that make it do what it needs to. Even if you’re 1000 years old (or more) and exceptionally talented it would take a lot to make it work right every time.

Controlling the TARDIS makes me think of confidence.

A person can be really talented, but feeling good and capable – feeling self confident – could be a difficult thing. It’s not one button to press but many switches to manage. What you do, what you don’t do, what you think about or don’t think about, even what you wear – so many things can influence confidence. But you can get there; you can land close to where you need to be.

And for your viva you really need to. You’re talented, you’ve done the work, you’ve proven already that you’re a capable researcher. Now you need to do what you can to feel confident and show your examiners your best self.

Don’t start thinking about this the day before your viva. Confidence needs action over a long period of time – thankfully not 1000+ years – but you can steer yourself to how you want to feel.

Find confidence for your viva and pretty soon there’ll be one more person with the title “Doctor”…


Postscript: If you’re looking for more Timelord-inspired help, one of my favourite episodes of the old Viva Survivors Podcast was with Dr Tatiana Porto – who talked about how Doctor Who helped with her PhD journey!

The Key Expectation

There are lots of things we could expect of the viva. A particular length, certain questions, the tone of the discussion, the expertise of the examiners…

And the most fundamental expectation: that the candidate is up to the task. That they have done the work. They have written a good thesis. They are a capable researcher.

If your viva is near, or submission is soon, it’s reasonable to expect you are up to the task.

It’s also common to feel that you’re not. It’s common to be nervous, anxious or worried that you are missing something.

If you feel doubts about your ability then take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions:

What am I really worried about? What can I do to work past that worry? And could I really have got this far if I wasn’t good enough?

You can’t simply be lucky. You’re expected to be good.

And really, you must be good by this stage.

For I Made No Haste…

A few years ago, I read “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. Part of the memoir, available free here from Project Gutenberg, is Thoreau describing how he built a cabin for himself. This was a place of solitude to work and think.

I was enjoying the turns of phrase and descriptions of life when part of a sentence made me gasp as if a light had come on:

“…for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it…”

For several years I’ve been returning to this phrase. The last year and a half have seen many changes. This phrase, for some reason, keeps me reflecting.

I think of all the times when I have rushed to get things done. All the time when I have tried to cram more things into an already busy week. All the times when I have worked to be finished with a task – so I can then go and do more.

Instead… Why not make the most of my work? Why not prioritise doing my work well rather than seeing it simply done? Why not see it as a chance to grow and develop than an output or outcome to be finished?

Thoreau was writing in a very different era, but there’s wisdom in his words.

So for viva prep, why not make the most of the time to learn a little more? Why not use the opportunity to be sure you’re ready?

For the viva, why not approach it with an attitude of eagerness? Why not think about how to make the most of the opportunity? This is a chance to talk with two people who have read your thesis and are eager to talk with you, not just an exam to pass.

Of course on your PhD journey, like anything else in your life, there are pressures and drivers. There are things you have to get done.

But how can you do the work and make the most of it? And how can you remove the need for haste so you can make the most of it?

A Place For Everything

You can work to make your viva environment as helpful as possible for you.

If you’re working from home for your viva, what could you do in the space you’ll work in? How can you be comfortable? What do you need? How do you need to arrange the resources you’ll use?

If you are in a seminar room, when do you need to check the space before the viva? What do you need for your viva and what do you want for it? Can you minimise distractions? And are there things that you need but which you can’t provide yourself, like a flipchart stand or whiteboard?

You probably can’t have everything “just so” of course. You have to do your best. Whether you have a video viva or an in-person viva, make sure you create the best space you can for your conversation with your examiners.

Vivas & Job Interviews

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being “like a job interview”…

  • You dress a little smarter than the everyday probably.
  • You expect to be challenged by the questions you’ll be asked.
  • As much as you prepare, you know you can’t anticipate everything.
  • Like job interviews, it helps to treat a viva as something serious.

The success rate for a candidate is much higher in a viva though – because you’re not competing with anyone else. You’re trying to demonstrate what you’ve achieved and what you’re capable of, but not to be better than someone else.

It’s understandable to think of the viva as being like a job interview but there are better mindsets and better reflections to make of the viva. Understand what the viva is like, understand what it’s for, understand what you need to be and do.

When it comes to passing your viva, you’re the right person for the job.

No Time

If it feels like getting ready for your viva is a lot of pressure, or if you feel like you already have a lot of priorities, then start small.

Do one thing. Find thirty minutes to read and commit to it, rather than rush and hurry to get it done. Make a small window in your busy life to make some notes. Ask a friend to spare half an hour to listen and ask questions.

If it feels like there is no time you still have to prep. Ask for help. Get support from friends and family to free you up to do the necessary work for getting ready.

If you only have a little time you still won’t need a lot to get ready for the viva.

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