I like SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – as a simple tool that provides a lot of direction for thinking. I’ve written about it before but today I want to explore how it could help you think about you as a candidate for your viva day.
Strengths: What are you strengths as a candidate? What do you know well? How can you use that to your advantage?
Weaknesses: Where do you feel weak? Why? What steps could you take to support yourself, if you need to?
Opportunities: Where are there opportunities for you in the viva? What questions could you ask your examiners? How could you make the most of the situation?
Threats: What could have a negative impact on your viva day? What’s beyond your control? What steps could you take to minimise the impact?
The threats are already minimal in the viva; perhaps think about how you will get there, and decide in advance what you will take. There are lots of opportunities to get useful insights from your examiners. They have experience that you can use, ideas that could help you if your plans are to stay in academia, for example. You might have weaknesses, but they can’t be terrible because you would never have got this far if they were. Think about what you might do to help you feel confident despite them.
Remember that you and your work have real strengths. Your work is good. You are good.
There’s a place for honest feedback and difficult questions in viva preparation. Criticism can help too, but all of this has to be in proportion with encouragement. Look for people who can help you see that it is all going to be fine.
What friends could let you know about their good viva experiences?
What questions could you ask your supervisor to get them to talk about you contribution and your talent?
How could friends and family members outside of the university support you?
Look back over the last few years. Reflect on your story. What events and achievements can you find that encourage you for your viva?
I remember knocking on my supervisor’s office door thirty minutes before my viva to check a mathematical definition.
I know of people who took the day off before their viva and just relaxed.
Some candidates will be checking notes almost until they go into the viva room.
It helps, as with writing the thesis, to decide in advance what you are going to do. Make a decision about what “enough” preparation looks like. What are the tasks you will complete? What needs to get done? I would suggest allowing for a little relaxation time the day before to relax your mind; perhaps you can make a special plan to do something nice, if your schedule allows?
You can stop when you’re done, and you get to decide when that is. Make that decision. Otherwise you may just keep nervously doing more and more until you start the viva.
You don’t have to carry everything around in your brain for the viva. You can make notes. You can make plans. You can clear out the clutter and make sense of your ideas. When you start to prepare, write down a list of all the things you think you’ll do in preparation, then organise them.
Underline typos in your thesis as you find them (or make a list) so you don’t have to remember them. Add useful notes in the margins to help you. Write lists of questions you could ask your examiners. Summarise anything valuable or anything difficult about your work that you can think of.
You don’t have to remember everything. Lists, notes and summaries can reduce the burden on your brain for more useful thinking!
At the end of your PhD, you could say, “I don’t know how to run that type of an experiment,” or “I don’t know about that topic,” or “I never read that paper,” and feel bad…
…or you could choose to list all of the things you can do and know.
Sometimes listing what you don’t do or don’t know can be a way of finding your edges; for the viva, it’s better to look inside those boundaries first. Get a real sense of your mastery. What skills do you have? What knowledge have you learned? What ideas can you share?
Explore what you don’t do if you must. Lead with what you can do.
During my PhD I became aware of the Katamari Damacy series of video games. They’re odd games, really colourful, really lively music – I used to write for hours while listening to the soundtracks! – and lots of fun.
The basics are always the same in a Katamari Damacy game: you are the Prince, a tiny creature tasked with making stars by your father, the King of All Cosmos. Your only means to do this is to roll up things using a katamari, a sticky ball that gets bigger and bigger and can roll up larger things as it gets larger. Levels end when you have created a crazy kind-of-ball that your father then turns into a star!
But the King is eccentric and all-powerful. What he says goes, and if he doesn’t like your katamari then it won’t get to be a star. And he’ll blast you with his cosmic eye-beams as punishment for failure.
The Katamari Damacy games are WEIRD. To some people they make no sense. To some, you can explain what you’re doing and why and still they look at you as if you have gone insane. How is this fun? How does this work? Why would you do this? What’s the point of all this???
The very best game we could use as a metaphor for the PhD is Katamari Damacy.
Lots of people won’t get your PhD. Those who do will really get it. The skills for success at both can be learned, though there are bound to be failures along the way. The skills for success might seem odd compared with useful skills in other areas, but they are necessary to master. They take time. As you go along the ideas that go into your thesis get bigger and bigger. A small notion leads to big ideas, that lead in turn to bigger concepts and results. And when you get to the end your thesis is weighed up by some all-powerful cosmic god-creatures who decide if it passes!
…OK, so my little thesis falls down towards the end! Still, for me and my PhD, Katamari Damacy seems like a great fit. I rolled along for years adding layers of ideas to my thesis-ball, growing in scale and importance. I didn’t always know exactly where I was going or how I was going to get there, but I had purpose motivating me.
If you’re getting closer to submission, and the time when your Cosmic Examiners weigh up your contribution, think about how you got there. What were the steps you made along the way? What were the little ideas that you had and how did they get big? How did you roll your thesis bigger and bigger?
Most important of all, what makes your thesis a star? And what makes you a star?
One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.
We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!
We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.
We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?
We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.
In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.