Solo Preparation

If your supervisor is busy or you don’t have a good relationship with them then you can still prepare for your viva. You don’t need them – or anyone else – to help you read your thesis, or annotate it, or check the regulations, or do many of the other valuable things you might do as part of your prep.

But a supervisor is uniquely placed to offer some useful help: feedback on your progress over the years and perhaps a mock viva. You could be prepared for the viva without these things, but they do help.

If you think you need these sorts of things but your supervisor isn’t the person to help you, then think about who else is in your circle. Colleagues, friends, and so on – who could help? Even if they can’t do exactly what your supervisor could, think about what they could offer.

Like the rest of the PhD, you’ll do most of the preparation for your viva by yourself – but you are not alone.

The Challenging Questions

Two types of questions can seem challenging: unexpected questions and tricky, topic-related questions.

You can’t prepare an answer for an unexpected question, but you can be prepared to answer. You can build confidence through a mock viva or by just finding situations where you can talk about your work and take questions. You’ll never predict every question, but you can at least get comfortable with thinking in those kinds of situations.

Tricky, topic-related questions could be more challenging to some candidates than unexpected questions. Tricky questions are the ones you’re aware of, or the aspects of your work that leads to them. They can seem challenging because there’s something there to focus on, something to worry about. Maybe it’s how you explain something, or a contentious detail, an idea that’s not 100% proved.

You can build your confidence for unexpected questions through practice, and you can improve how you think about tricky, topic-related questions through reflection and writing summaries. Take the topic apart, explore it and find the bits that you need to address. Thinking is good, but writing will help you shape those thoughts into something concrete.

Both types of question – the unexpected and the tricky, topic-related – can be challenging in the viva.

Thankfully, both types of question can be prepared for.

Fate Accomplished

“What determines your fate in the viva?” is one of the more unusual questions I’ve been asked in seminars.

  • Could it be your topic? Perhaps you need to choose something that resonates with your examiners and others.
  • In which case, could it be your examiners? Maybe you need the “right” ones to listen to you, read your work and ask the “right” questions.
  • So maybe the biggest element is your supervisors? Their mentoring helps develop you and your thesis over many years.
  • But then surely it has to be your thesis, right? A great thesis means you’ve shown yourself in a good light.

The common factor is you. You undertook the topic, you wrote your thesis, you worked with you supervisor and you’ll answer your examiners in the viva. It might be overreaching to claim you determine your fate in the viva, but you’re definitely the biggest factor of your own success.

(Apologies for the title! It just jumped out at me!)

Past, Present, Future

An upcoming viva, like any major life event, can come to dominate your day-to-day life. There’s likely nervousness, possibly excitement, a slight melancholy at another chapter of your life coming to a close. There’s wondering if you’re ready, wondering what will be asked, wondering how it will go…

The viva is important, but it’s not the biggest thing you’ll do in your life, or even in your PhD. If you feel like your viva is really starting to take over then you could:

  • look back at your PhD for evidence that you’re exactly where you need to be;
  • make a plan for the prep you’re going to do in the near future, and restrict it to only certain times;
  • think about everything you’re going to do after your PhD is done.

The viva is important, but it’s vital for your own wellbeing that you keep it in the proper perspective. Consider the past, the present and the future to keep you grounded and sure of your talent.

100% Wrong

It’s not likely, but if you find something that’s just wrong, then own up to it. Don’t lead with it in the viva, but go prepared. Make notes and figure out what would make it right. You don’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to have all the answers, but you can go with a sense of what you need to explain and explore things with your examiners.

Wrong doesn’t automatically mean you fail. Just because something isn’t right in your research, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Emerging Discussions

It’s possible to overthink about viva questions. Yes, you need to prepare for them; no, you can’t prepare for every question or anticipate everything that might come up.

Your examiners might not know which direction the conversation will flow either. They have questions, but not a script; they can’t see all possible twists and turns that you might take together.

The discussions will emerge from the questions they ask, and you can’t know them in advance…

…well, not exactly.

Their questions are a response to what you’ve set out in your thesis. This is the end point of the questions you’ve been asking yourself all through your PhD. So a good starting point to be ready for the emerging discussions in your viva is to return to your original questions.

Reflect on those, then think about how you might approach the viva’s questions.

1345 Days

That’s how long my PhD was, from the day I started to the day I had my viva. 1345 days is just over three and a half years. That’s a long time! I didn’t work every day. I took holidays, I had breaks, but still a large part of those 1345 days involved going to the office and working.

And thinking about my work on the train.

And in the gym.

In the shower.

While eating my breakfast, or watching TV.

1345 days might be longer than your PhD; it could be shorter in some cases.

But no-one gets to the viva without putting the hours in. No-one finishes a good thesis without working for it.

A thousand and more days really prepares you for the hundred or so minutes you defend your thesis.

Do You Want A Free E-book?

Six years ago, not too long after I started Viva Survivors, I published my first e-book on viva preparation, Fail Your Viva – Twelve Steps To Failing Your PhD (And Fifty-Eight Tips For Passing).

I wanted to share what I had learned up to that point about the viva and getting ready, but also really liked the humour of suggesting ideas to help someone to fail first. It’s a short book, but gets the point across, I hope!

Fail Your Viva was published six years ago today, and so to celebrate a little I’m making it 100% free for the next few days. There’s no strings, no catches, no follow-up emails, no marketing, no spam, no requests for reviews, nothing except the e-book. If you want it, simply go to this page on my Payhip store and use the code FAILSIX when prompted. That’s it!

This code is good until the end of Friday 25th January 2019, feel free to share it widely. If you read it, I hope it helps 🙂

One Minute Prep

No, you can’t prepare for your viva in just one minute, but there are tasks you can do to help your preparation which only take a minute. Most of them lay foundations for later, deeper work.

Here are ten ideas; some might seem like little things, but all will help!

  1. Stick Post-it Notes at the start of every chapter in your thesis.
  2. Take a minute to write down any questions that come to mind about your research.
  3. List keywords you associate with your contribution.
  4. Gather stationery to help annotate your thesis.
  5. Decide on whether or not to have a mock viva.
  6. Find your examiners’ staff pages on the internet and bookmark them.
  7. Record yourself describing why you wanted to explore your thesis topic.
  8. Message a friend to come for coffee with you and listen to you talk about your research.
  9. Think about what you need to feel confident for the viva.
  10. Subscribe to Viva Survivors and then get posts in your inbox every day!

The little things you do for prep can add up, just like in the rest of your PhD.

(and in life for that matter)