The Three Rs of Viva Prep

I have a new pet theory.

The work involved in preparing for the viva can be summarised with three Rs: refreshing, reframing and rehearsing.

  • Refreshing: getting your head clearer about what you’ve done. Checking your thesis and what helped shape it.
  • Reframing: looking differently at your work. Exploring what it means and trying to see it from different perspectives.
  • Rehearsing: finding opportunities to practise what’s required of the viva. Finding ways to engage with questions and have useful conversations.

To be ready for the viva means spending time on tasks that allow these three things. Effective viva preparation involves improving your mental picture of your research, examining it from other perspectives, and investing time in preparing for being in the viva itself. Different viva prep tasks might require a combination of the Rs. Annotating your thesis, for example, might bridge between refreshing and reframing; a mock viva is largely about rehearsing, but could involve refreshing or reframing as well.

I’ll write more about the three Rs in the future. I don’t have a fully worked out model yet, but I’m excited about this concept for exploring viva preparation tasks. I’m hopeful that it will help me to better communicate what viva prep is all about.

Email me if you have questions or thoughts about this – it might help me to explain the idea better!

First Class Viva

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to fly first class, but I’ve been fortunate to travel first class by train a few times in the last year.

I’m a fan of first class. The seats are a little comfier, the carriage is a little nicer, and the free tea and biscuits are very nice. By comparison, most of the time when I travel in standard, the train is a little crowded, the tables a little smaller, the tea is expensive and I bring my own biscuits.

Of course, the train gets you to your destination, first class or standard. In reality the differences are all little. The seats aren’t that much bigger. The table isn’t made of gold. The conductor isn’t your butler. It’s just a few little things, but they add up to a big smile and a good experience.

I think the same is true for the viva. It won’t take 101 big things – or even 101 small things – to make your viva a great moment in your PhD journey. Think about what would make the difference for you, then think about what you could do to help your viva be great.

Make a little list, then see how you can make it a reality.

It won’t take a lot to make your viva a first class experience.

The Trade-Off

There are lots of people who can help with your viva preparations, but the two most useful groups are your supervisors and your colleagues. They can provide similar kinds of help with unpicking the research you’ve done, but they have different restrictions.

  • Your supervisors can give you depth of thought and feedback, but they are probably very busy.
  • Your colleagues may have great availability, but won’t have deep knowledge of your thesis.

So you have the trade-off, availability versus depth: you have to decide what will help you most.

If you need real detail, then you probably have to get help from your supervisors. So you might need to plan in advance how and when you’ll get help. If you really just need someone to listen, and your supervisor is time-pressured, then perhaps you can lean more on your colleagues in an ad-hoc way.

There are lots of things you can ask for from supervisors and colleagues. And you can use both groups to support your preparations, you don’t need to cut anyone out! As you submit your thesis, think: What’s left? What do you need? Who do you need?

A Better List Than Typos

During preparation, instead of listing thesis typos…

  • Take a sheet of paper.
  • Start reading your thesis.
  • Make a list of everything that makes you feel good.

Typos have to be fixed at some point; it’s more useful in prep to build and re-build your picture of what makes your thesis great.

This will help your confidence a lot more than being sure of all your spelling mistakes.

Two Hundred!

Every now and then I blink my eyes in amazement when I realise I’ve published so-many-hundred blog posts here. Last week I did something similar and celebrated delivering my 200th Viva Survivor session. I was first asked in 2009 to deliver a “viva survival” workshop, and for a few years it was just an occasional thing I did. I really enjoyed it, and got helpful feedback, but it wasn’t my passion.

Then something changed. I don’t know exactly what, but something hooked me, and Viva Survivor became the thing I looked forward to more than anything. I went from doing four or five in a year to doing ten. Then last year I did fifty! About two years ago this blog became an integral part of the feedback loop: ideas and questions from sessions become posts, posts help me to work out ideas that then help more people in the Viva Survivor sessions.

In two hundred sessions I’ve helped 3601 PhD candidates, travelled to universities all over the UK and found something that I’m eager to do forever. Thank you to everyone who’s invited me to share the session, everyone who I’ve met along the way and to all of you who read this blog and help me share ideas that help others get ready for their viva.

I’m already looking forward to session 300 🙂

The Audience

An old and valuable piece of advice: when you prepare a presentation you should consider your audience. There’s a difference between a talk for your peers, and a talk for the layperson; a difference between a seminar for your supervisor and the main session at a conference.

This also applies with other parts of the PhD. Remember when writing your thesis and preparing for the viva, the audiences are not identical.

  • When writing your thesis, don’t write solely for your examiners.
  • When preparing for your viva, don’t just try to imagine what anyone might ask.

Reflect for yourself, “What can you do to best help your audience, both in your thesis and in your viva?”

Three Lots of Three Whats

I like “Three Whats” – what, so what, now what – as a means to start reflections and forward thinking. Like many prompt and reflection tools, they have a much wider application.

For Preparation…

  • What will help you feel ready for the viva?
  • So what are you going to do?
  • Now what is your first step?

Giving A Summary Of Your Research…

  • What started your interest in this area?
  • So what was the result of your research?
  • Now what does that mean for others as a result?

Debriefing After A Mock Viva…

  • What did that feel like?
  • So what does that mean for the real viva?
  • Now what are you going to do?

I’m a huge fan of tools and frameworks. They’re useful for getting started, you don’t begin with a completely blank page.

What else could you apply the “Three Whats” to?

So what are you waiting for?

Now wh– I’ll stop!

Why Is It Called The Viva?

Viva voce, is often translated as living voice or word of mouth. In the viva you have to answer questions and engage with your examiners. You have to demonstrate that the expertise that created your thesis is lodged in your brain.

There are other terms – thesis defence, oral exam – but I don’t think we stick with viva for tradition’s sake. A special name makes it a special thing. It’s the viva and not something else because the name makes it more important.

Calling it the viva adds something to the special status of the final exam.

You’re special too to be there.

Bad Eggs

If you break eggs to make an omelette, you never really expect any of them will be rotten. There are processes in place that mean a box of six free range eggs on a supermarket shelf are as good as they can possibly be when you buy them. Treat them right and they’ll be fine when you need them.

A bad viva is like a bad egg: it’s a possibility, but it’s rare.

You shouldn’t expect your viva will be bad or you will fail. A good, successful viva isn’t a fluke, it’s the norm.

Expect to pass and work towards that outcome.