The Knack

My dad passed away quite suddenly when I was 17. Today would have been his 70th birthday, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately.

When I was little my dad was often self-employed. He had been made redundant from his job when I and my sister were quite small. For most of our childhood he had a stall at markets around the North West and in Scotland. I remember bagging biscuits at our dining table from huge boxes. I remember bundling tea towels and dusters, taking five and folding them a certain way, throwing a rubber band around them to hold bundles together. Seriously, I remember those afternoons quite fondly.

In the summer holidays my dad would let me help with various games he ran at fairs and carnivals. My favourite game was one where you had to throw a small wooden ball into a metal bucket. The bucket was inside a wooden frame, painted to look like a clown’s mouth; you just stood at a distance and tried to throw the ball in. This was the 1980s, so it was only 20p for three balls, and the spectacular prize was a coconut!

I remember the call still, “Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!

It was not easy. For a start, the bucket was pitched at an angle that encouraged the ball to rebound. The balls were ping-pong sized and dense: if you threw too hard they would bounce right back out. If you threw too soft, you might not get the ball in the target at all. Overarm shots always span out.

Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!” he would call out and throw the ball and DING! there it would land. Most people paying their 20p had never tried it before, never thought of playing anything like this. It was just something fun to spend 20p on.

There was no great trick, there was no con involved: it was just really hard. My dad had the knack though. He’d mastered this really hard skill. He’d found a challenge he knew was tricky, but spent a lot of time practising. He could throw the ball just so and have it land in the bucket every time. He made it look effortless, but that’s because the effort had been put in over years.

I tried and tried, failing many times, but still remember the first time I got my own DING! I kept going, and while I wasn’t as precise as my dad, I started to reach a point where I could get the ball in the bucket consistently. Practice, experience, nothing more.

Back to the present: your PhD is hard, but there are aspects of it you make seem effortless to others. That’s not to say it’s not still hard to you, but you can do it. You’re practised, you’re experienced. At the viva you can answer a question and engage with a discussion nearly every time because you’ve done so much during your PhD.

After all this time you have the knack.

5 Questions To Ask Your Supervisor After Submission

When it comes to asking for help from your supervisor a lot of focus is given to mock vivas. While these can be valuable, there are other questions you could ask that will help a lot. Here are five valuable questions to ask your supervisor:

  1. What do you need to know about your examiners’ work? You may know a lot, or have ideas, but it’s good to get another perspective.
  2. Are there any parts of your research they think your examiners could challenge? That doesn’t mean something is wrong, but it’s good to get thinking.
  3. What do they see your most important contribution as being? Again, you’ll have your own thoughts, but their opinion counts.
  4. What are the most recent papers or developments in your field? Explore what you might have missed while writing up your thesis.
  5. What do they do when they examine a thesis? Find out if there is a process that is common in your field, or at least get some ideas of how examiners think about the viva.

Your supervisor’s help doesn’t stop at submission. You might have to pick your moment or negotiate a good meeting time to discuss some of these topics, but they could all help a lot with your viva preparation. Think about it, then ask for what will help you the most.

No Shortcuts

There’s no secret path that takes you to the end of the PhD.

There’s no list of amazing tips that dodges all of the work involved.

You can’t hack your way past the necessary steps that got your thesis finished.

And that’s good.

All of the work you put into the PhD makes you amazingly qualified for your viva. There’s no way of doing the PhD without putting the hours in. All of those hours help you when you sit down to talk with your examiners.

New Questions

When you’re preparing for the viva, if you just ask the same questions as before to unpick your research you won’t uncover anything new.

If you find new questions then you could find a new perspective. Find different questions, odd questions, unfamiliar questions and then perhaps you could find something interesting.

Something to focus on. Something to check. Something to change. Something to revise. Something to share.

Look for new questions, new opportunities to reflect on and think through your work.

Something great.

Future Focus

It can be hard to look past the end of the PhD.

Try to imagine graduating. Picture crossing the stage at graduation, if it helps. Picture shaking the hand of someone distinguished. It’s a symbol that says you did it. That moment is months away perhaps, maybe longer, but it’s out there.

You’ll get there.

Imagine future opportunities (some you could be working towards now, even before you submit or have your viva). A job, a business, a series of projects or maybe even just a long-awaited break.

You’ll get there.

You just have to keep doing the work now.

A focus on the future can help make the present more hopeful. If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re unsure, if you’re bored, or even happy but only thinking about the viva or getting your thesis, then think about the future.

Think, I’ll get there; so what do I do now?

After Your Viva…

…take ten minutes and talk to some future candidates in your department or network. Tell them about your viva experience. Set your focus on sharing what happened and what it felt like.

Share what sorts of questions you got. Share what surprised you. Share anything you can about the flow and format.

Your story is unique, but if more viva stories are shared perhaps the overall perception of the viva will shift a little. It will be less of an unknown. More people will have a sense of what it’s all about.

Share your viva story when you’re done.

Average and Typical

What is an average viva?

I get this question at least once a month. I struggle to answer.

I can’t talk about length, because while there is a skewing towards two hours across disciplines, the range is pretty big. It’s tricky to talk about the exact style of the exam; it is a semi-structured discussion but the nature of questions is going to vary a lot from discipline to discipline.

Examiners will be qualified and prepared, but they might not be experts – depending on your field there might not be an expert who can examine you. I suppose it is fair to say most people find out the result within thirty minutes of the end of the viva (after a short break). Most people are fairly happy with the corrections they’re asked to do.

But what is average?

Can we change the question? How about: what is typical for the viva?

Typically it comes at the end of a successful project. Typically the candidate has spent a significant period of time becoming experienced. Typically they’ve written a good thesis. Typically they’ve continued to build on all of this work in the period leading up to the viva by getting prepared.

There are lots of ways the variety of vivas struggle to come to some average. But typically? Typically, you’re up to the challenge.

Reflecting on the Edited Bibliography

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography as part of viva preparations: figuring out the core of your bibliography and where your research comes from.

You can go a step further than just making a list of your best references. Start with the following questions to really reflect on your research:

  1. Pick a paper. Why is it more valuable than many others in your bibliography?
  2. Which chapter is it most relevant to?
  3. How, explicitly, have you used it in furthering your work?
  4. What other papers does it connect up with in your edited bibliography?
  5. Are there any downsides to basing your work on this paper?
  6. Think about the whole list. How do these papers fit together?
  7. How many groups could you place them in, and how would you label them?
  8. What papers have you left out of your edited bibliography and why?
  9. If you could add one more paper to your edited bibliography, what would it be and why?

During your PhD, you dig into your field to help bring your research to life. During your viva prep, you can dig into your bibliography to help yourself even more.

Keep digging.

Two Weeks

Thesis done? Submitted?

Take at least two weeks off.

Take two weeks away from reading your thesis, making notes or trying to unpick what all that work has been about. There is plenty of time to prepare for the viva. If you feel like you must do something then check recent journals and stimulate your brain with some new ideas.

You don’t need to keep going with your thesis. In fact, you’ll probably see things with more clarity when you get some distance from your work.

Story Time

My sister got me some Story Cubes for my birthday last month. I’d played with some before, but never had a set to call my own. They’re great for playing little story-making games and just generally for helping ideas along.

Last week as I was having a little fun they fell into the following sequence:

My mind jumped to the viva straight away!

PhD candidates spend a long time learning enough to write their thesis. Things are going well, through good times and bad, then they look ahead and all they see is questions coming their way! Questions in the viva, questions about the viva, questions and questions and questions… But help is at hand. There’s lots of support. The end is a happy one.

People look for patterns. We all carry mindsets of what we know or believe to be true. We tell a story based on what we’ve seen before. Even if you have some doubts about the viva, about the process, about how best to prepare – think about what you know from your research. Think about how you got to this point.

Think about your story.

Postscript: I kept playing with the Story Cubes, and this was the next arrangement that came up…

I’m glad this doesn’t tell a viva story!