Three Lots of Three Whats

I like “Three Whats” – what, so what, now what – as a means to start reflections and forward thinking. Like many prompt and reflection tools, they have a much wider application.

For Preparation…

  • What will help you feel ready for the viva?
  • So what are you going to do?
  • Now what is your first step?

Giving A Summary Of Your Research…

  • What started your interest in this area?
  • So what was the result of your research?
  • Now what does that mean for others as a result?

Debriefing After A Mock Viva…

  • What did that feel like?
  • So what does that mean for the real viva?
  • Now what are you going to do?

I’m a huge fan of tools and frameworks. They’re useful for getting started, you don’t begin with a completely blank page.

What else could you apply the “Three Whats” to?

So what are you waiting for?

Now wh– I’ll stop!

Why Is It Called The Viva?

Viva voce, is often translated as living voice or word of mouth. In the viva you have to answer questions and engage with your examiners. You have to demonstrate that the expertise that created your thesis is lodged in your brain.

There are other terms – thesis defence, oral exam – but I don’t think we stick with viva for tradition’s sake. A special name makes it a special thing. It’s the viva and not something else because the name makes it more important.

Calling it the viva adds something to the special status of the final exam.

You’re special too to be there.

Bad Eggs

If you break eggs to make an omelette, you never really expect any of them will be rotten. There are processes in place that mean a box of six free range eggs on a supermarket shelf are as good as they can possibly be when you buy them. Treat them right and they’ll be fine when you need them.

A bad viva is like a bad egg: it’s a possibility, but it’s rare.

You shouldn’t expect your viva will be bad or you will fail. A good, successful viva isn’t a fluke, it’s the norm.

Expect to pass and work towards that outcome.

What Can You Do About Typos?

…Nothing really.

Your thesis won’t be perfect, but typos don’t mean serious consequences. Proofread your thesis as well as you can, but there will probably be some left. You won’t get them all. When you spot them between submission and the viva, underline them in your thesis or make a list.

Your examiners might make a list too; they’ll ask you to correct typos so that your thesis is better, but they don’t ask for corrections as any kind of punishment. Typos can distract a reader, but only a little.

You can’t do much about typos. Find them, if you can; correct them, when you have the chance. They shouldn’t be the focus for your attention. There’s more important things to do.

Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

The Culture Around Vivas

“People like us do things like this”

This phrase runs through my mind at least once per day. It’s Seth Godin‘s definition of culture, and I often bring it up when I tell people about the viva. It’s worth exploring to understand the process of the viva on the day, and to help you hone your expectations.

Vivas don’t just happen. There are regulations, but academics in your department have ideas about what a “good” viva might be. This is informed by practices of your department – the culture of your department. Maybe a “good” viva is two hours. Maybe it starts with certain questions. Maybe they like to explore certain topics. Maybe they proceed in a certain way. The definition of “good” will change over time, because the academics come to a shared idea of what a good viva is like.

People like your examiners do vivas like this.

And what does the phrase mean for you? You are talented, dedicated, you’ve done the work, you’re prepared…

People like you do things like passing the viva.

 

Postscript: I have a lot of things to be grateful to Seth Godin for since I first heard of him. Not least, he is the first person I heard of who shared a daily blog, with the goal of helping others and trying to be useful.

Two years ago today I started this little experiment by following his example. Over 700 posts later, I only wish I’d started sooner 🙂

The Opposite of Insignificant

To get your PhD and pass the viva you have to make a significant, original contribution to your field. Candidates fret and worry about whether their work is significant. Have they done enough? Is it good enough? It’s not hard to doubt. Significant varies by discipline and by thesis. Expectations vary too. How do you know what significant looks like?

Maybe instead of getting tied up in knots about whether your research is significant we should see if it is insignificant.

Insignificant. Adjective: too small to be worth consideration or meaningless. See also: unimportant, trivial, negligible, inconsequential, flimsy, pointless, worthless and irrelevant.

That’s not your work. That’s not you. Right?

Ask questions about what your examiners will want to talk about, wonder if they will have comments or criticisms – but don’t doubt your work is significant. It means something.

Significant varies, but insignificant is clear, and insignificant is not you.

First and Last

That’s what your viva is likely to be. Possibly your first and last time even being in a situation like the viva!

Focus on the first: you can’t expect to be perfect. No-one is perfect the first time they do something. You can prepare, you can be confident, but know that you don’t have to be some unattainable ideal.

Focus on the last: you’re almost done. You’re nearly there. The hardest work is behind you. You can do this. You’ve done everything else that’s got you this far.

Keep going!

What You Have

It’s not wrong to think about what you want or need for your viva. Better to focus first on what you already have to help you succeed.

You have a thesis.

You have experience.

You have regulations.

You have expectations.

You have examiners.

You have a supervisor.

You have colleagues.

You have friends.

You have talent – you must have this if your viva is coming up!

You have a lot to help you. Maybe you have doubts too, but you don’t want or need those. What are you going to use to work on beating them?

My Viva in a Haiku

Tired at the start,

Challenged throughout, but happy,

Four hours? Too quick!

 

I didn’t sleep well the night before, and my viva was a draining four hours – but it wasn’t bad, not really. My examiners had taken the time to read my thesis and think about it. They challenged me on how it was written but gave me respect. My viva was four hours long, and in a way, over too soon. Compared to the three-and-a-half years that lead to it, my viva was an anticlimax.

I wonder how you might describe yours in a haiku?

(more viva-related haiku here)