Time Passing In The Viva

Candidates give a lot of focus to time in the viva. How long could it be? How short might it be? What do they feel like?

My four hours felt very short. The short break afterwards felt very long. Many graduates have told me similar stories over the years; however long their viva was, it felt like it flew by.

It’s useful to be aware of stories and expectations, but how long a viva is doesn’t really matter for the most part. You won’t know how long it will feel like until you’re there.

Rather than focus on how long it will be or will feel like, it’s better to focus on what you will do in the viva.

How will you respond to questions? What will you take with you? How do you want to engage with your examiners?

Supporting Your Supervisor

Your supervisor needs to support you after submission. Your supervisor is also probably really busy. The best way to get what you need from them is to be as specific and clear as possible.

Before submission, think about what you might need. A mock viva? General support or questions around particular parts of your research? Insight into examiners or the viva process? Explore what you might need before approaching your supervisor.

Before submission, ask about their schedule. When are they busy? Do they have times where they will be unavailable or less able to help? Find out what could get in the way of you accessing their support.

After submission, ask for help as clearly as you can and with as much notice as you can manage. Be specific in your requests, so your supervisor can respond and match your expectations as closely as possible. There may not be time to get everything you need, so consider what your priorities are and communicate them.

You need help from your supervisor to help you get ready for your viva. Support them and they can support you.

At The Last Minute

Don’t save your viva prep for the day before your viva.

Save that day for reminding yourself of your successes.

Save that day for reinforcing that you’ve come as far as you have by becoming more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable.

Save that day for remembering that you couldn’t have produced your thesis by being lucky – you must be good.

Save that day for relaxing.

Last minute viva prep can be stressful. Save those last minutes for looking back and simply reflecting. Remember that you’re good.

Expecting the Unexpected

It’s right to learn about viva expectations. Get a sense of what vivas are generally like, read the regulations, listen to the stories of your friends to build a picture for what your viva could be like. Get a sense of what to expect.

And expect that yours will not follow that plan at all.

You won’t get the same questions. It might not be the same length. You won’t get the same corrections. You might not get the same first question and you won’t face the same challenges.

There’s no contradiction. Vivas are unique, but not unknown or unknowable. Vivas have structures and follow patterns, but never repeat. Expect that yours will be similar to many others. Expect that yours will be different in ways you can’t predict.

And expect yourself to be ready for whatever you’re asked.

Invisible Work

My daughter was surprised when she came home and saw some new bookcases and a wardrobe in her bedroom. “Wow! How did you do this?!” She couldn’t quite get the hours of reading instructions, hammering, using tools and moving things to get it all in place.

It’s a little the same in academia I think. I remember being amazed at conferences that everyone else in the audience would be nodding along to talks. I could barely understand the ideas.

How are they getting all this? Why am I not getting it? How did that person talking figure this out?

At that early stage in my PhD I hadn’t had time to do the “invisible work” that could help me to understand. The background reading, the practice, the skill building, all the hours that go in to getting good at something.

Once you are good at something, it’s easy to forget about all that time you’ve invested, and simply focus on the end result. For passing the viva it’s essential to try to hold on to that awareness of time spent. Hold on to the understanding that you have invested all of that time and focus into work that has produced a good thesis and a good candidate.

You got this far because you did the work, even if everyone else sees only the end result.

The Hours

Viva prep can take between twenty and thirty hours of work when you consider all of the tasks that could be involved. In the time leading up to your viva, thirty minutes to an hour per day of viva prep could be enough to help you get ready.

It all depends on when you start and how much you need to do.

Start your prep with three weeks to go and spend thirty minutes or an hour each day doing something to help yourself and you’ll have no problem in making things right for the viva. You can take days off or find time to invest an extra hour maybe and the necessary work will seem to be done in no time.

By choice or inactivity you might start your prep with a few days to go. In this case you might have to spend six or seven hours per day on viva prep. It’s not ideal, but it might just be what you have to do.

I think it’s far better to plan for the situation, just a little. Prep for your prep. Take some time to figure out how to make getting ready as unhurried and as stress-free as possible.

You have to put in the hours to be ready for the viva – but you can decide how and when you invest those hours.

Disrupted

There have always been candidates whose plans have been disrupted during their PhD journey. A project finds itself without the resources it needs. A plan loses support. Something just doesn’t work out the way it was expected. Every PhD candidate has faced little bumps and hiccups. In the thesis and at the viva, if they need to, the candidate can explain this usually very simply: why something was disrupted, how it had an impact, what the outcome was or what changes needed to be made.

But in the last year, every PhD candidate has faced disruption. It’s not a matter of if, but how much? Perhaps even how often? And so as submission or the viva approaches for Pandemic-PhDs, it’s not unexpected or unreasonable for candidates to be concerned about discussion around disruption. Perhaps in video vivas for the next few years it’s not a case of if examiners will ask about pandemic disruption, but when that line of questioning will start.

The response is still the same, more or less, even though it might be describing a much bigger disruption than candidates in years past. You can explore how you might make this response by reflecting in advance of the viva:

  • Why was your research disrupted?
  • How did it have an impact?
  • What was the outcome, or what changes did you make?

As with typical starter questions like “Can you summarise your research?” or “How did you get interested?” being asked about disruption due to the pandemic is a simple question to ask. It’s a natural, human question to ask. Your examiners aren’t testing you, they’re not trying to find ways that you should have done more. It’s a chance to reflect – and possibly an opportunity to show how your determination has helped you to get through.

“How was your research disrupted?” is a simple question, but for some it could also be a really difficult question to respond to. It’s sometimes too easy to sit at a distance and think about “disruption” in the abstract. For some candidates the last year may have been devastation rather than disruption. Reflect, prepare as best you can, be ready to share what you can in the viva.

Remember that whatever has happened in the last year you have managed to keep going. That counts for a lot.

Key Examiner Expectations

Expect your examiners to be professional.

In the same way that a candidate can be expected to get ready for the viva, expect that your examiners will do what they need to be ready to examine you.

If they’re a relatively new academic then they will receive training to be an examiner. They’ll rely on their colleagues to help them explore the role. If they’re a little disconnected from your area or topic of research, they will do their homework in advance of the viva.

An examiner might not know everything about your field before they read your thesis, but they will learn enough to be a good examiner for you. If they’re busy they will make the time. If they’re uncertain, they will dig deeper.

If they’ve said yes to being your examiner then you can expect they will be working to do the job well.

Avoiding Corrections

If you go for a walk on a rainy day you can step around as puddles as much as you like, but your shoes are probably going to get pretty wet. That’s just what happens. You can’t avoid it.

If you submit a PhD thesis you can proofread and edit for months beforehand, but your examiners will probably find something for you to correct. That’s just what happens. You can’t avoid it.

If your shoes get wet on a rainy day then there’s simple steps you can take afterwards to dry them.

It’s the same with corrections. You’re given a list. You know why your examiners are asking for the corrections: to help make your thesis the best it could be. Not perfect, but the best that anyone could reasonably expect. To complete them you make a plan, work carefully and get them done.

You should obviously work to submit the best thesis you can, but you can’t do much to avoid corrections.

Answers and Responses

An answer is a kind of response. An answer is grounded in truth or a compelling argument. An answer could be what you offer after a question…

…if the question is part of a quiz. But the viva isn’t a quiz. It’s not an interview. It’s not even a question-and-answer session.

The viva is a discussion, steered by the questions of your examiners and the responses you offer. A response could be an answer depending on the question – but it could also be an opinion you offer, an idea that you share, a question to clarify a point or a hunch that you feel. There’s a place for answers in the viva, but you might not have an answer for every question.

However, given your knowledge, your skills, your work and your experience, it’s reasonable to expect that you could respond to every question.