It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

No Plans

It’s a public holiday in the UK. Unless your viva is 9am tomorrow you’re probably safe to relax for a day.

Rest. Take today for you.

Don’t read your thesis, scribble in margins, chat with your supervisor or look at one more paper.

Don’t make a big list of annotations to add to your thesis or commit your ten most valuable references to memory.

Don’t make a plan for the weeks leading up to your viva and what you might do over that period.

Rest is as important as all the reading, writing and rehearsing for the viva. You might need to do some or all of the things above in preparation but you don’t need to do it today.

The UnWords

Questions about viva expectations often lead towards the UnWords.

  • “What if examiners are unfair?”
  • “What if I’m unprepared?”
  • “What if I’m uncertain about a question?”
  • “What if what they want to know is unknown?”
  • “Will my examiners be unkind?”

It’s human to expect the worst. It’s normal given the rumours, myths and half-truths told about the viva for a PhD candidate to expect the worst. It doesn’t match the reality though.

Examiners have regulations and training in mind to make sure they’re fair. You can take time to be ready. Examiners are looking for engagement rather than answers. They’ve no interest in being unkind.

It’s natural to ask questions about the PhD viva. Thankfully the answers you’ll find will generally lead you away from expecting the worst.

Benefits and Space

In principle you can invite your supervisor to your viva. It’s up to you, there are plenty of benefits.

  • You could show them what you know and what you can do.
  • They could make notes on your behalf and give them to you afterwards. A good record of the discussion in the viva could be valuable.
  • You could feel supported: you could feel better that there is someone in your corner.

These are all possible benefits from your supervisor being at your viva – but you still might not want them there. It might feel too uncomfortable. The idea of it might make you nervous.

It’s not a bad idea to have them present but it might not be a good idea for you.

Say yes if you need some of the benefits. Say no if you need that space for yourself.

People Like You

People like us do things like this.

Seth Godin‘s definition of culture is useful to reflect on when unpicking expectations for the viva. How long are they? How do they start? What happens?

Regulations tell you some of the details, but the rest comes from looking at what examiners do because of how they are trained, their experience and also the practices of their department or discipline.

People like us do things like this.

What do you do? What do people like you do? What does the culture say about the kinds of things that a postgraduate researcher does?

  • Postgraduate researchers do things like becoming more skilled and knowledgeable.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like showing determination.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like getting ready for the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like passing the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like making a difference.

So what will you do? And what could you help your community – your us – do as you and they get ready for their viva?

7 Questions To Explore Your Contribution

The topic of what makes your thesis a significant, original contribution is going to come up in your viva.

Your examiners are not going to simply ask “What makes your work significant? What makes it original?” Reflecting on different questions can help you be prepared to respond when the topic comes up with whatever questions your examiners use.

Think, write notes or talk with others about the following:

  1. Why is your thesis valuable?
  2. Who might use your work?
  3. How is your research different from what’s been done before?
  4. What makes your research topic interesting?
  5. How would you summarise your contribution?
  6. How is your research special?
  7. Why did you want to explore this area?

Explore your contribution before the viva and you can be ready for exploring it in the viva.

Pause, Think, Respond

The three words to keep in mind when you are in your viva.

Pause: take a moment to check you understand the question.

Think: invest a little time into organising your thoughts.

Respond: start talking, being clear to yourself and your examiners.

  • Big question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Little question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Easy question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Hard question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Know the answer? Pause, think, respond.
  • Haven’t a clue? Pause, think, respond.

Pause because you don’t need to rush. Taking time will help how you think and what you say.

Think because that’s the only way to get the ideas that you need to come out right.

Respond because you might not always have an answer, but you can always find something appropriate to continue the conversation.

In your viva: pause, think, respond.

Sensible Prep

Getting ready for the viva involves big pieces of work and little tasks.

It could feel like there’s lots to do, maybe even too much, especially if you have other responsibilities. Start the process by getting everything out from your brain and onto a space you can track.

Write a list. Jot things down on a whiteboard. Start a new document and type anything that comes to mind.

Once you think you’ve got everything out, try to put some order in place. What comes first? What goes last? How could you fit this jigsaw of jobs together?

It’s possible to get ready for the viva by simply doing something productive for an hour per day for enough days.

It’s sensible to get ready for the viva by thinking a little, planning a little and then getting to work.

Where Are You?

I like asking this question at the start of a webinar. It’s fun to see whether people are in their university’s city or nearby, perhaps in another country or – in some cases – half the world away. It’s a gentle starter question before I ask about research or feelings, expectations and fears.

When you are trying to help a friend, you could start with the same question even if you have a different intent:

  • Where are you? As in, where on your PhD journey?
  • Where are you? As in, how far along are your preparations?
  • Where are you? As in, where’s your head at?

If you want to help, be gentle with your questions. Your friends might need help but not know how to ask or know what they need exactly. “Where are you?” starts a conversation and gives room for someone to respond.

If you think your friend might need help, ask where they are and then go join them.

Reach Out

If your viva is coming up, ask your friends, your colleagues and your supervisor for help. Think about what you need, think about when might be the right time to ask, be specific – but ask. They would want to help.

If you know someone with a viva coming up, get in touch with them. Are they OK? Instead of asking them what they need, offer what you can do. Be clear about how free you are and what you feel able to do.

Every candidate has to pass the viva with their own talent and thesis – but every candidate can also get ready with a helpful band of allies to get them there. Reach out and ask for help, or reach out and offer it.