Ask Me Anything

Seriously. If you need to know something about the viva and you think I might have an answer or opinion or advice, please ask me. You can send me an email, or just tweet at me, I don’t bite!

I keep office hours, so I might not reply within five minutes or one day, but if you have a question about the viva then you can write to me and I will write back to you as soon as I can to try and help.

And I’m not the only one: there are people all around you who can help.

  • Ask your supervisor for help (that’s kind of their job).
  • Ask your graduate school for help (ditto).
  • Ask your friends and colleagues (not a job, but sort of a responsibility).

PhDs and vivas can be struggles – in a way, they’re supposed to be – but you don’t have to struggle through everything alone.

The Packet Mix Viva

There are clear contents: a candidate, a thesis, a research journey, some examiners, some preparation, some expectations.

Shake them all up, just add questions.

Unlike other packet mixes, you won’t know exactly how this confection will turn out in advance. You won’t know how long it will take to bake!

You can be pretty sure of the outcome. The ingredients are all there for a good viva.

Better Words

Being clear matters. Words help shape how we see and feel about things. Better words can help someone else understand what we mean, and can help us see things differently.

For example, in the last year I changed how I described one of the points in my viva prep session. I would talk about some of the help candidates could get from their supervisors after submission.

Previously I had said something about “…getting feedback after submission, not to resolve problems, but more feedback so that you can see what your supervisors think about the whole thesis and PhD journey, what their take is…” and so on.

I would see candidates understand eventually, but also see it took a while for people to get it. The notion of “feedback” was complicated; when someone hears feedback they expect that they would then have to make changes, but that’s not possible after submission.

The message was getting through, but it wasn’t as good as it could be – it wasn’t as clear as it needed to be.

After a few months’ reflection I changed my message. I now tell candidates they can help themselves by getting their supervisor to “…share their perspective on your work; what strengths do they see? How might someone do things differently?” And I use these words deliberately to emphasise that it is just seeking opinions rather than judgements, perspectives rather than feedback.

Over to you! What words could you use to better explain your research? How could you better describe how you feel about your viva? How could you help others understand your thesis contribution?

Reflect and think about the words you choose to use. How could you make them better?

Nervous or Excited

Like a lot of important things in life, candidates tend to be nervous or excited for their viva. Two sides of the same coin, the currency that marks out something as a big deal, and your viva is a big deal.

Which side of the coin is showing?

  • If you’re nervous, why? What has you that little bit concerned? And is it only a little bit, or something more? What could you do to help how you’re feeling?
  • If you’re excited, why? What sounds good to you? What are you doing to get ready to meet your examiners? Is there anything else you need?

Being nervous isn’t “bad”, but I’d personally prefer to be excited rather than nervous – generally it feels better! If you’re nervous, what could you do to flip the coin to excited?

Ask For Understanding

Friends and family members may not get it. “Viva?” they’ll say, “What’s that?”

While academic friends can offer tangible preparation with your thesis, friends and family can offer emotional support. They can offer space for you to get ready after a busy day. They could take on responsibilities to give you time to prepare.

But since they may not know what a viva is, or comprehend your research and struggles, you have to ask them for their understanding. If they haven’t known what you do for years, what can you tell them now to help them get the nature of the challenges ahead?

If you can help them see what you’re going through, they can help you get through it.

Before & After

Before your viva…

  • …ask graduate friends about their experiences.
  • …make a list of what you might expect.
  • …tell your friends and family what you need from them.

After your viva…

  • …share your experience with others to help them on their PhD journeys.
  • …see how your experience matched your expectations (or not!).
  • …thank your friends and family for their support.

And remember that, as important as it is, the viva – the “during” bit, in-between these two phases of your life – is a lot, lot shorter than the before or the after. Focus on it, be ready for it – but you’ll spend far more time getting ready before for your viva than being in it, and far longer after your viva as a PhD.

Stars and Black Holes

We can see stars directly. Some are big, some are small (relatively speaking), some are bright, some less so, but so long as nothing is in the way, they’re there. We can’t see black holes directly. They’re tricky, difficult to describe maybe, possibly destructive if we get too close and you don’t want your examiners to talk about them-

-oh, yeah, this is a thesis metaphor!

The stars are your contributions. They’re in your thesis, and so long as nothing is in the way (clunky writing, obscure terminology, confusing structure) your examiners and anyone else reading your thesis will see them. They might still have questions about them, but they will see clearly that there is something valuable there.

The black holes are things you can’t see clearly. Problems, Issues, Gaps – things you don’t want your examiners to ask about because it’s hard to talk about them. And you worry that once you’re in the conversational gravitational pull you won’t be able to escape the crushing forces at the heart of the matter!

The stars and black holes in your thesis are made up of the same stuff though: ideas.

Get back to ideas in your preparation. Stars or black holes, what are the ideas that make them up? Why do they matter in their respective way? How can you best describe them?

Get used to the brightness of your stars. Grow comfortable being in orbit of your black holes.

Bringing Prep Ideas Together

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography – a list of the most important references in your thesis’ bibliography – as a means to focus on what really matters and helps shape your work.

I like using Why-How-What – three simple starter questions – as a quick framework to explore ideas or frame a presentation.

Let’s put them together! First, create an edited bibliography, the top twenty or so references in your thesis. Consider the papers, books and sources that have helped you the most. Then, take a few minutes to explore each of these references using Why-How-What:

  • Why was this reference so important?
  • How does it add to the work you’ve done?
  • What do you most need to remember?

What other questions or approaches could you use to explore the essential parts of your bibliography?

Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.