Profiteroles & Preparation

A good hour of viva preparation is like a short stack of profiteroles.

What? What are you talking about?

Consider a profiterole.

A little globe of choux pastry, a delicious cream centre and a set chocolate top.

Take a few for a dessert. Separate parts that combine into something more.

But eat too many and you’ll be sick.

……..O-kay, and viva preparation?

Consider preparation for the viva.

All you need is a little structure: targeted tasks aimed at reflection, checking ideas and annotating your thesis.

Do several small pieces of prep – annotate a chapter, reflect on a question, check on a paper – and the benefit you get builds up.

Do too much and you’ll get tired and confused. You can undo your good efforts by doing too much.


See, profiteroles and preparation!

…….OK, you just about saved this blog post……..

Two or three profiteroles of viva preparation is enough for any sitting. When you’ve done a few small tasks, take a break before you do more.

(from the mind that tried to make something of salmon swimming as an analogy for the PhD!)

A Really Cool Post-Viva Idea

Last month I came across a lovely idea by Dr Kay Guccione: Corrections Club!

I love the idea of a dedicated space and time in a university’s calendar that says, “Come here and get it finished!”

Even if you’ve got more to do than will fit in a couple of hours, this will help along the way. If you’re not at the University of Sheffield like Kay, see if you can set something going at your own institution. It only takes a couple of people to start something awesome.

Turn up, get to work and celebrate with others that you’ve all almost passed the final finish line for your PhD!

Off The Treadmill

Turn up at 8:30, start work by 9, check the list to see what edits need doing, start work, check every half hour or so that I’ve saved and the new pdf works, break at 11, back to work, lunch around 1, back to work, type-type, edit-edit, keep going and pack up around 4:30.

Come back the next day and do it all again.

That was pretty much the last six months of my PhD. Every day I got on the thesis-finishing-treadmill. The structure helped, working towards getting it done, a plan to follow.

The first few weeks after submission I felt adrift. No job at that time, no plans on what to do next, and no idea really what to do to prepare for the viva.

If this is you when you get off the treadmill – or if you feel overwhelmed because there’s so much other non-PhD/non-viva stuff to do – then put a little more structure around things. Not a lot; find a new little treadmill to get you going.

When will you sit down and prepare for your viva? What time, and where? For how long? Thing about what you think you need to do to feel happy and ready.

Then start.

On The Cusp

The run-up to submission, viva prep, the day of the viva, finishing corrections…

They all feel like almost the end. But there’s always another step, or so it seems – until one day there isn’t and you’re done!

As the end of the PhD looms you really are on the cusp of something wonderful.

What’s the final step for you? The last stretch? The last things you need to do?

Make a list, then get them done.

What Are Your Plans?

My examiners didn’t ask me what I was going to do after my PhD, but I know candidates who were asked in theirs. Had I been asked, I probably would have been stumped by the question. No idea. The thoughts that lead me on to my current path came months later. It might have been useful to have some ideas that I could have shared in the viva, had it come up.

(the only ideas I had about future plans were related to how I might develop my thesis research, what directions or improvements could be made with more time, different resources, etc)

Being asked about plans can be scary, but remember: it doesn’t have to be final.

A plan doesn’t have to commit you. A plan is potential. A plan is a sequence that you could follow, not one that you are following or even one that you will. You don’t have to have the best plan. You don’t have to have all of the ideas worked out. You just need something.

So: what’s your something? If you don’t know, maybe a better question to think about and answer is “Post-viva, what do I want?”

Eight Useful Reflection Starter Questions

I encourage candidates to reflect on their research, their examiners’ publications and think about how these things connect. It’s useful advice but at the same time a little vague. What concrete steps can candidates take? It isn’t always clear to know what to think or do, so here are eight questions to get the process of digging deeper started:

  1. What are your examiners known for?
  2. If you have cited them, how have you used or been influenced by their work?
  3. How do you think your work connects with theirs?
  4. What is your research contribution?
  5. What are your examiners’ recent contributions?
  6. What would you like to ask them about their work?
  7. What do you think they would like to ask you about your work?
  8. What do you hope they will take from your research?

Saying “reflect” is easy; doing it can be hard. Use these questions to start the process, and if you find other questions that help then share them.

New! Viva Regulations page

A frequent comment at my Viva Survivor sessions from candidates is that they don’t know where to find the actual examination regulations for their institution: the document(s) that specify exactly what they can expect from the process and their examiners. What’s needed for submission and by when? Who will be in the room on the day? What does minor corrections mean at their university?

I could always give some general assistance, but didn’t know where exactly where they would be able to find this information. So I decided to find out…

…for every university in the UK.

If you’re looking for your institution’s regulations then check the Viva Regulations page on this site: a list of every university in the UK with a doctoral programme and links to the regulations for most of them. There’s just under twenty at the time of writing which I couldn’t find, but I’ll keep looking. It took me a long time searching around to find many of these, and it will take some time to maintain it, but I figured it was a useful resource to make. I hope you find it helpful!

Want to know what your university expects from the viva process and from you? Click and find out!

And if there’s any other kind of resource that you think would be useful then let me know. It may be something I can work on 🙂

Easy, Hard, Challenging

Don’t worry about whether or not your viva will be easy or hard. Who knows what you’ll feel like on the day, in the moment?

Prepare for a challenge. Two people have read your thesis and are ready to ask you all about it. This isn’t trivial, an elevator conversation or dinner party chit-chat. It’s there to explore what you’ve done, what you could have done and what all that means.

On the day you could find this easy or hard, but it will still be a challenge.

It’s still a challenge even if you are necessarily talented.

The Path To The Viva

There is a weird disconnect for some people around submission. They imagine submission is like jumping over a ravine between here and there, between almost- and now-submitted. They take a breath and jump and hope it will all work out, hope they’ll land on the other side.

It’s really not a leap of faith though. It’s the same path to the viva they’ve been on for years.

At submission, you’re striding over a bridge, not jumping and hoping.

Six Stories

A recurring theme on the blog is that stories matter – and sharing stories of viva experiences will help change the culture in postgraduate researcher communities. Here are six episodes of the podcast that share some good, useful stories of the PhD and the viva:

  • Dr Fiona Noble: a great episode supported by three generous blog posts Fiona wrote about the different stages of the end of her PhD.
  • Dr Tatiana Porto: one of the longest episodes of the podcast, and also one of my favourites. Tatiana and I talk about how Doctor Who helped her through the PhD.
  • Dr Katy Shaw: I’ve interviewed Katy several times for special episodes on academic jobs and early career research too!
  • Dr Fiona Whelan: Fiona describes some stressful elements of her viva, as well as the positive outcomes. Check out her site about life after the PhD too, Beyond The Doctorate.
  • Dr Laura Bonnett: I talk with Laura about what happened when her examiners didn’t agree on the outcome of her viva, and how that situation was resolved.
  • Dr Nathan Ryder: Me! Another story about viva experiences, it just happens to be mine.

I believe that the more we share stories about the viva, the more we will improve the expectations, the culture and the perception of the viva. New episodes of the podcast will hopefully appear in 2019, but if you know of more stories or helpful articles, then let me know. It all helps.