Thick-skinned About Your Thesis?

You have to expect your examiners might have criticisms. You can also expect they will be fair in the way they communicate them to you.

You don’t need to be particularly thick-skinned to take any critical comments – but you need to expect your examiners might have comments and corrections for you.

Perfection isn’t realistic, but neither is a totally critical appraisal of your research.

Getting Support For The Viva

It’s easier if you know what you need and what you want.

It’s easier if you know what people can offer and what they can’t.

It’s easier if you think about it in advance, instead of when time is tight.

It’s easier if you know what you want to feel like when you’re done preparing, and who might help you get to that point.

And it’s easier once you realise that there are lots of people who could help – who would help – if you just asked.

The Right Way

One of the things I love about summertime is it feels right to treat yourself with a scone.

But it has to be a scone with jam and clotted cream. Scone cut open, jam first then clotted cream on top. Amazing! Best summertime treat ever. This is the right way to have a scone (even better with a very thin layer of salted butter before you put the jam on).

At least, I think it’s the right way.

Some people would say this way is heresy. You’reĀ supposed to have clotted cream first, then jam. And it’s not proper unless the scone has fruit in. Or is warm from the oven.

Everyone has their right way of having a scone in summertime.

Every candidate will have a picture of the right way to have a viva. Every institution will have regulations which goven the right way to run a viva. Every supervisor will have experience they could share which helps them to think about the right circumstances. Every pair of examiners will have ideas about the right way to examine a candidate.

There are lots of people and ideas connected to the right way for a viva to happen. It’s worth listening to all of these ideas, including your own intuition; see how they all compare and contrast, and find a set of useful expectations.

There are lots of things we might think of as wrong for the viva, and lots of good things we could reasonably expect. There’s no single right way though.

Unlike a scone with jam and clotted cream. Then there really is only one, right way.


Confidence Through Practice

As of last week I have delivered my Viva Survivor session 217 times. More than fifty of those were in 2018!

I feel confident with the session and how I deliver it partly because of the number of times I’ve done it. I rehearse things, I get to try things out, I get to play and tinker – I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of hours of doing it, thousands more thinking about the session and getting ready, doing things like this blog and so on.

I use this as an example in Viva Survivor when talking about confidence.

Confidence really can come through practice – not simply repetition, but deliberate practice, trial and error, learning, getting results, having setbacks, pushing on… My confidence with Viva Survivor is unshakeable.

You might have one mock viva before your real viva. You can’t have two hundred but you will have hundreds of good days of practice as a researcher. Hundreds of days of building your talent while you produce a thesis.

Find your confidence in all of the good work you must have done to get to submission.

A Useful Vision Of The Viva

What’s your vision of your viva?

Lewis Carroll is misquoted as having written, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” He didn’t write that, but it’s a neat way to summarise a short exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I think there’s a lot in there, when you reflect on it.

It’s really a warning.

If you don’t know what you want your viva to be like, it doesn’t matter what you do to prepare.

If you don’t know what vivas are like generally, you can’t know if your preparations are really useful.

If you don’t know what examiners are generally interested in, you can’t be sure you will be able to engage with them well in the viva.

Find out about the viva. Build a vision, then decide what you are going to do to make that vision a reality.

Perhaps, from another perspective – through the looking glass? – we can see Lewis Carroll’s unquote as,

“If you know where you’re going, you can find a way to get there.”

I’m convinced that’s true for the viva.

10 Questions To Reflect On Originality

Your thesis has to contain a significant, original contribution to knowledge.

When I work with researchers I tend to focus on “significant” a lot, but originality is a useful concept to dig into before the viva. I get the sense that a lot of candidates instinctively know they’ve done something original. Perhaps defining what makes it original can be trickier.

Reflecting on your research before the viva is a good thing. It can give new ideas, help you see other perspectives, come up with different ways of thinking about your research. Here are ten questions to help unpick what makes your work original:

  1. In what ways is your work different from previous research?
  2. How do you differ in your methods from other researchers?
  3. What is now known as a result of your work, that wasn’t known before?
  4. How could your work change opinions in your field?
  5. What can people do now as a result of your work?
  6. What new techniques or ideas can people see in your thesis?
  7. What ideas have you tested for the first time in your research?
  8. What new theories does your thesis propose?
  9. How does your work combine prior knowledge of your field?
  10. What does your thesis add to knowledge?

Write something or record yourself thinking about a question. See where it leads you. Review later to see how you now think about the original nature of your research. How could it help you share that originality with your examiners in the viva?

The Locus of Your Viva

Where will your viva take place? You’ll know in advance. Examiners don’t surprise candidates on the day with the examination room.

Since you’ll know before the big day, go and check it out. What is the space like? Are there any distractions you have to think about? Is there a whiteboard if you need one? Can you sit with your back to the clock? People feel comfortable in some spaces, and less so in others. What can you do to encourage the thought that the venue for your viva is good for you?

Remember that your viva really takes place in the discussion. So reflect: what can you do to make that space as comfortable as possible for you?

Questions You Might Not Know

A question you have not considered. A question that surprises you. A question that does not seem relevant.

These questions could be scary: if the goal of the viva is to engage in discussion then a question you have not considered could be terrifying.

But an unknown question does not mean the answer is unknown. A question you’ve not thought of before can still have a response.

You got to where you are by answering questions you didn’t know at some point.

You know a lot, you can do a lot. Answering questions is part of your skill set.

Where’s Your Focus?

Focus on perfection for the viva and you’ll be disappointed.

Having a focus for your preparations is useful. You can see gaps in your confidence, and set goals to bridge those gaps. There’s a lot you could do.

Pick a focus that helps.

You can focus on reading your thesis to learn it. You can focus on your examiners and their research. You can focus on getting feedback from your supervisor. You can focus on trying to answer questions well. You can focus on making your thesis useful by annotating it. You can focus on refreshing your memory of your bibliography. You can focus on asking your friends for help. You can focus on finding out as much as you can about viva experiences. You can focus on building your confidence for the day.

Pick a focus that helps.

Why Would I Be OK?

This is a question I didn’t realise I was asking myself before my viva.

All of my friends told me I would be fine. They’d passed their vivas, they told me I would pass mine. It would be OK.

Why? Why would it all be fine? Why would I be OK? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that most candidates pass – and pass with minor corrections. I had no idea.

I didn’t know what examiners did in the viva. I didn’t know if there was a format. Were there expectations for vivas? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what I might be asked about. I had a good understanding of everything I’d done, but I didn’t know if that would be enough. Would that match what my examiners wanted to know? I had no clue.

Everyone told me I would be OK. If I’d been a little more self-aware at the time I would have known to ask, “Why?”

Your viva can be fine. Find out more about what they’re like, find out what you can do to be ready. Then go and be fine.

You’ll be OK.