A PhD typically takes at least three years. A viva typically takes three hours at most.
Writing a thesis could take months of effort. Preparation for the viva takes maybe a few dozen hours.
The viva takes a fraction of the time you spend preparing for it. Preparation takes a fraction of the time spent writing your thesis – which in turn is only a fraction of the time you spend working towards your doctorate.
The fractions matter, but not as much as the whole they are part of: the viva is important, prep is important, but the real difference that helps you pass your PhD comes from the work you do over a long period of time.
There are two kinds of expectations you might have for your viva, facts and feelings. In the swirl of thoughts about the end of the PhD, and anticipation for what might happen, it can be difficult to determine whether an expectation is one or the other.
Is it a fact that vivas are long, or is that a feeling?
Are you certain your examiners will be looking for problems or do you just believe it?
Reflect on whatever expectations you have. What do you think you know about the viva?
Which are facts? What do they then mean for your viva?
Which are feelings? What do they tell you about what you might need to do?
What can you do to fine-tune your expectations, to know more facts and to have better feelings for the viva?
I’m a big fan of the Comfort, Stretch, Panic way of framing challenges. If something is well within your capabilities, it belongs to the first category; if it requires more effort but you can approach it with some confidence then it’s a Stretch. And if it fills you with Panic, then perhaps it’s not something to try for just now.
I think a lot of PhD candidates worry that their viva will be firmly in the Panic Zone. They’re concerned that questions will be beyond them, that pressure will break them, that perhaps the relationships in the room (or over video) will make them feel awful.
It doesn’t matter that most vivas go well – hindsight is great – but what about now? What about when someone is headed for the viva?
Candidates anticipating panic need to stretch themselves. Hoping that questions won’t be too tough won’t help defeat panic. Avoiding more difficult challenges is a way to store up pressure for later. Viva preparation should involve stretching.
For the pre-panic candidate, find new ways to reflect on your work; take time to rehearse for the viva; be open to developing yourself just that little bit more – it might only take a little stretch. Stretching now might help a candidate see that the viva doesn’t have to be a cause for panic.
In fact, it might even be a comfortable experience.
Perfect is the enemy of done, but does it then follow that it’s fine to submit an “OK” thesis? One which you know has typos in? One which you know could be better? One which you know has things you could fix? It’s OK… It’s fine. It’s acceptable. It’ll do.
Is that OK?
Since most candidates will have a successful viva that leads to some form of corrections, it’s a natural question to ask if you could just submit your first, could-be-better, OK version of your thesis. There’s only so much time to do a PhD. There’s so much going on, especially recently. I can empathise with someone who would make the argument that they just have to get their thesis in now, and then fix anything later on.
If you know there are things that could be better – in terms of making sure your thesis communicates your research – it’s nearly always worth the extra effort before submission, the viva and corrections. If you’re tempted to let things slide, to rush something in, to say you’ll fix it later, I’d urge you to take another look. See what you can do.
If you have a deadline you cannot break, then at least prioritise the most important things to help your thesis be the best it could be.
You’ll never reach perfection, but your best is a lot better than OK.
What did you not know at the start of your PhD that you know now?
What could you not do at the start of your PhD that you can do now?
You had to start somewhere. There had to be gaps you needed to bridge, things you needed to discover.
Reflecting on your progress should help with confidence for the viva, because you appreciate just how much you must have developed to get the work of your PhD done. You did it, and you must be good enough.
Still, when you look back it can raise the odd worried thought. Perhaps something is unfinished. Perhaps there are gaps in your knowledge. Perhaps there was more to do.
If you have unanswered questions or unpolished skills, it won’t be because you’re lazy. A PhD is long, but doesn’t give enough time to learn everything or become proficient in every method. Perfection is not the standard required for you, your thesis or your viva.
You did the work to get you this far, and you must be talented, you must be good enough. Look back to the start of your PhD to get a sense of just how far you have come.
On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.
Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!
My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.
The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:
“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”
“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.
You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?
What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?
We watched every episode of two series, bought books about them, played with toys, looked through cards, role-played being in the world…
(she drove this process)
Pokémon has the famous tagline, “gotta catch ’em all” – which refers to collecting all the different creatures in the world of Pokémon. It’s an attitude I see expressed all the time around PhDs and the viva. People think they have to catch every typo before they submit. Anticipate every question. Read every paper. Perform every test. Do everything for their research, their thesis and their viva.
And none of this is possible. This is fine. You’re not expected to have done everything. Perfection is not the standard.
In case you ever confuse Pokémon and PhDs, remember:
My computer won’t put a fancy background behind me when I Zoom. A friend has a green screen to help with their work, and I’ve been mulling over buying one for a few weeks now. I like the idea of having something really interesting behind me, or to play with video editing, changing the background for fun or to make a point.
Maybe “green screen thinking” could help with preparing for the viva too. How can you change your perspective on your work? How can you alter the background to what you’re doing?
Can you imagine yourself in the role of an examiner?
Can you change perspective to someone who has found a fault, or thinks the opposite of you?
What would it be like if you were new to your thesis? What would be tough?
With the metaphorical press of a button can you shift perspective? Maybe you would find something valuable for your preparation.
There are lots of myths about the viva: they’re impossible to really prepare for, they’re unfair, unknowable, harsh, a hazing, and not that fun.
There is lots that is true about the viva: the vast majority of people pass, regulations and expectations can be found out quite easily, preparation is possible, examiners don’t aim to be harsh – and a viva might not always be fun but it’s usually fine.
Myths circulate among PGR (candidate) communities. The truth is known in PhD (graduate) circles.
You have to ask the right people to find out the truth about the viva.
I mentioned yesterday that it’s ten years since I started doing work on the viva, but it’s nearly twelve years since I became an independent researcher-developer. That’s a lot of paperwork and notes, and when you sort through it you find things that you don’t need, things you might need, things you’d forgotten about and things that just might be useful…
Like a note on an old creative thinking workshop plan, not for top tips or processes, but for things that help creativity. Things that are personal to everyone, but which if you get right can really make a difference in outcomes. These four factors that help are Location, Atmosphere, Behaviour and Resources – and all of them can help viva prep too!
Location: where will you do your prep?
Atmosphere: will your prep space be silent or have a soundtrack?
Behaviour: how are you approaching your work?
Resources: what do you need to support you?
By themselves they aren’t viva prep – you still have to read your thesis, make notes, practise and so on. But how you do something can have as big an impact as what you do. How can you tailor your situation and strategy to help you prepare well?