Your Best Work

Where is it? How do you define best when it comes to your research?

  • What’s your best result?
  • What’s your best chapter?
  • What’s the best idea in your thesis?
  • What was the best talk you gave during your PhD?
  • What’s the best way you can prepare for your viva?

It’s vital to acknowledge that you have really good ideas in your work. You have achieved a lot to get this far. Don’t hide it or hide from it.

Dig deeper by asking yourself why after all of these questions.

And remember this is your best so far. Better is still ahead.

The Final Checklist

If you can mark off most of the following then you’re good to go for the viva:

  • I did everything I needed to for submission.
  • I’ve read my thesis at least once since submission.
  • I’ve checked out my examiners’ recent publications.
  • I’ve annotated my thesis in a useful way.
  • I’ve found opportunities to practise talking and answering questions.
  • I have a useful set of expectations about the viva.
  • I’ve written some helpful summaries of my thesis to make my thoughts clear.
  • I know when and where I’m going on viva day.
  • I’ve decided what I’ll wear.
  • I know how I’m going to get to my viva.
  • I know what I’m taking with me.
  • I am confident in my abilities as a researcher.

Gut feeling helps. Perfection is impossible. If you can get to submission, you’re most of the way to viva success. It takes only a little more.

Keep going!

7 One-Pagers For Prep

Take a single sheet of paper, your thesis and half an hour to an hour and you can make something really useful for your viva prep. A summary of something, answers to a few key questions or thoughts on what makes your thesis special. Here are seven one-page ideas for viva preparation:

  1. Write “What’s important?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet. You could do this for your whole thesis or go chapter-by-chapter if you want to have room for more details.
  2. Write a page about your examiners and their interests. What do you know about them? What have they published recently and how might that connect with your work?
  3. Use the VIVA tool to analyse a key chapter or your whole thesis. Explore different aspects of your work to bring useful ideas to the forefront.
  4. Summarise the tricky parts of your research. Create a cheatsheet that details how you can explain difficulties.
  5. Write “What’s my contribution?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet.
  6. Create an edited bibliography. This might be a little tricky on a single sheet of paper, but could be done!
  7. Write out responses to a mini-viva! Select a set of questions from here and divide your page up as directed.

One page of A4 and an hour isn’t going to be all you’ll need to get ready for the viva. You can use it as a helpful exercise one day though. Structure helps get the work done!

Unicorns

You may have heard of them, but they’re very rarely seen.

  • A viva that is less than an hour.
  • A viva that starts with the candidate being told they’ve passed.
  • A candidate who finishes just over two years after they started their PhD.
  • A viva where everything just slots into place, the candidate doesn’t have to check their thesis, is perfectly composed and responds to every question and query without hesitation.

These unicorn vivas happen, but they don’t happen a lot.

They sound like a dream, but the reality isn’t so bad: a good viva, a few hours and a few days of work to get things corrected afterwards. A confident candidate who can engage well with their examiners about a good thesis.

Leave the fairytales to one side. Prepare for a true story.

Expertise

Noun. Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.

You are the best in the world on the subject of your thesis.

You did the research. You wrote the thesis. Thousand and thousands of hours of work.

It will take people with expertise to read your thesis and get something from it.

No-one else will have the expertise that you do. That might not be enough to help you feel completely confident for your viva, but it’s a good starting point.

Just Like That

Whatever stage you’re at during your PhD, sooner or later you’ll be finished. For a lot of researchers I talk to this seems to come around much, much faster than they thought it would. Sooner than expected they get to their first draft, then submission, then the viva, then graduation.

Just like that, you’ll be done.

So before you get that far: what do you still want to do? What do you have to get done to feel happy with your PhD? And what could you do to make your path to completion enjoyable for you?

Pass It On

After your PhD, tell others what you learned. Not just the ideas in your thesis, but what you’ve learned about working well. What you can do now that you couldn’t before. What you learned at the viva even: what that experience was like for you and what you think it means.

Write it down so you don’t forget. Make a page in a journal to summarise how far you’ve come. Write a blog post. Give a talk before you leave your department. Do something to mark this change: you’re now a PhD!

Your story could help others write their own.

Looking For Mistakes

Your examiners have better, more important things to do than search your thesis for errors. It’s important – for the viva, and for any corrections – that they identify mistakes, but that’s not their focus. It’s much more useful to focus on your research and the contribution you’ve made than to just look for the “bad stuff”.

You have better, more important things to do in your preparation than search your thesis for mistakes. There probably are some – typos, little slips, references that aren’t up to date, passages that could be clearer – and it will help you in the viva and for your corrections to be aware of them. But if you make them your focus you will never stop finding things you could improve. It’s much better for you to put your attention on what makes your thesis good rather than what could make it better.

Don’t look for mistakes. Look for what matters.

Standing

I stopped telling people that I was stood for all of my four-hour viva.

I used to always tell candidates, but after a time I discovered that that aspect of my viva experience was so far removed from the norm that it would only serve to confuse people.

Or worry them!

I’ve never met anyone who has had a viva in the UK who was stood for all of the experience. When I started sharing my session with PhD candidates it grabbed attentions in a seminar room, but for all of the wrong reasons. Over time it dawned on me: this is true, this really happened, but it won’t help others to hear it. And other than being tired afterwards I don’t feel that it was a bad or good thing for me, it was just part of my viva experience.

It happened because I was giving a presentation and without really thinking about it I stayed at the blackboard while my examiners started asking questions. I responded and drew a diagram, and then a few hours later we took a break. And I was still there. And I stayed there. By that point it seemed right, and I didn’t know any different because I had never really asked my friends about their experiences.

Vivas have expectations, but vivas are all unique. Some stories will sound remarkably similar, and some will have curious aspects that are surprising. If you hear a story with a worrying element, don’t automatically think this is something you should expect. Dig into it. How did it happen? Why did it happen?

Think about the particulars if it still worries you: even if it happened for that other person, why should it happen to you?

Less Than

It’s not always easy to put exact numbers on the viva. Consider:

  • The number of mistakes in your thesis will be less than the number of good ideas you’ve had over the course of your PhD.
  • The number of minutes you spend in your viva will be less than the number of days you’ve spent on your research.
  • How long your examiners have spent preparing for your viva is less than how long you have spent in preparation.
  • The number of questions you’ll be asked in the viva is far less than the number you’ve already answered during your PhD.
  • A few hours in the viva is less than a few weeks preparing for it, which is a lot less than the years that go into your research.

Expectations help. Deciding where to focus helps.