Entrance, Exit, Escape Route

A few practical questions for your viva day:

  • Where is your viva taking place?
  • Do you know what to expect from the building and room?
  • When do you need to be there?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • Where are you going when it is done?

Little things for the most part; less important than the viva and what you’ll need to do there. It makes sense though to answer these questions in advance. Know the room you’ll be in and check it out. Decide in advance what time you’re going to arrive and when you need to set off. Decide how you are going to get there. Explore your options. If you need to, ask a friend for a lift or to keep you company.

Have your escape route in mind for after the viva as well. You don’t need to have an exit strategy to really escape. It can be useful – after a period of thinking, discussing, wondering and maybe worrying, when you could be tired – to have a plan already. Where will you go? How will you get there? Who will you see?

Consider the logistics of your viva day beforehand to save energy and focus for the viva itself.

A Haiku For Submission

Done? Sort of… Almost.

Hard work done, but still ahead,

One challenge remains.

 

Submission is a milestone, but not the end of the journey. You’ve done most of the work of your PhD, but there are difficult things to come. If you’ve got as far as writing and completing your thesis then you’re more than capable of preparing for and passing your viva.

(more viva-related haiku here!)

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.

No Silly Questions

There are none about the viva. I’ve been asked:

  • “How many questions can I get wrong?”
  • “How can I guarantee I won’t get any corrections?”
  • “How can I make it as short as possible?”
  • “What if I get nervous and spill my coffee all over myself?”

I’ve really been asked that final question! None of these are silly questions. Questions about the viva tend to come from either not knowing about the process, regulations or expectations, or from being worried about the situation and how to pass. None of these questions are silly. It could be that a question is the wrong question to ask about a situation, maybe there is a better focus, but no questions are silly.

If you have a question but think, “Oh no, I’m being silly,” then you need to find the right person to ask. It could be your supervisor. It may be a friend who has already passed, or possibly your graduate school. It could be me! Whoever it is, get rid of your questions by trading them for answers.

More often than not you’ll then have to trade those answers for action you have to take, but that’s much better than either being in the dark or worrying.

 

Make A Timeline

Go back through your calendars, diaries, lab books, log books and records for the last few years of your PhD. Your memory can trick you sometimes. Sometimes you can forget what you did when – or even what you did at all.

Map out the years of your research. When did you ask that question? When did you complete that project? When did you give that great presentation? When did you find yourself becoming talented at something?

Mark it all down. By doing it you’ll help yourself in two ways. First, you’ll have explored more detail that you can share with your examiners in the viva. This will help you answer questions and engage in discussion.

Second, and in my opinion, more importantly, you’ll see just how far you’ve come. You’ll see the story of your talent: this is you. This didn’t just happen. You did this. You made all of this happen. You’ve had success. And you can continue that success in your viva.

The Measure of Viva Success

We need to change how we measure the viva and a candidate’s success.

Lots of questions are asked about the viva:

  • What corrections did you get?
  • How long was it?
  • What kind of corrections did you get?
  • Did you go blank?
  • How long did it take you to do the corrections?
  • What mistakes did they find?
  • Where did you go wrong?

That last question is underlying all of the above, of course. The story about vivas says corrections are bad, major corrections especially; a long viva is bad, for some value of “long” that someone else gets to determine; going blank or saying “I don’t know” is bad, and so are any mistakes.

I’m not trying to claim the opposite. In reality all these things are just part of the process, not “bad”. Some vivas are longer than others, some lead to more corrections than others. Some people will make mistakes along the way; they don’t typically lead to great problems.

I don’t have a foolproof plan to change this part of the viva narrative. All I have are some questions that might be more helpful to ask:

  • Did you pass?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What did your examiners like?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What did you enjoy?
  • What surprised you?
  • Where do you think you excelled?

If you ask these questions of graduates around you, their responses can help you prepare for your own viva. If we ask them more generally then people will start to notice the words and ideas that are associated with the viva. If enough questions like these are asked then maybe they will trickle down through future PhD cohorts and help them and how they think about their viva.

Eventually, change will come to the viva and the culture around it.

Change always comes.

We can do something to steer that change if we want to.

Four Mini-Vivas To Kickstart Your Viva Prep

A year ago I first shared 7776 Mini-Vivas, a resource to create useful summaries, reflections and conversations as part of viva prep. I love seeing people share the resource, and I continue to tinker with it to find other ways to share it.

Today, I’m simply presenting four mini-vivas for you to use. You could write the questions out on a sheet of paper and give yourself thirty minutes to an hour to write down some notes. You could give them to a friend to structure a conversation. You could record yourself talking about them and listen back afterwards to reflect.

All four could help you to reflect on what you’ve done for your PhD and what it means – two areas of conversation that are sure to come up in your viva.


Mini-Viva 1

  • What is your main research question?
  • How do you know your methods are valid?
  • How is your work related to your examiners’ research?
  • What questions have you been asked about your work previously?
  • What’s the impact of your work?

Mini-Viva 2

  • What are the three brightest parts of your research?
  • What influenced your methodology?
  • How did existing literature in the field influence you?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?

Mini-Viva 3

  • How would you define your thesis contribution?
  • Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  • What were some of the challenges you overcame during your PhD?
  • How would you summarise your main results?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Mini-Viva 4

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How would you describe your methodology?
  • How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What are you taking away from your PhD?

Remember to leave some time to come back to your reflections, whether written or recorded, to review what you think and see if more ideas come. You could also ask yourself “Why?” after most of these questions to prompt deeper reflection.

There’s another 7772 possible mini-vivas from the resource – you probably don’t need to use all of them as part of your viva prep!

Your Continuing Mission

I’ve always loved science-fiction. I really love Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was a child when I first watched it, and over thirty years later the best of it still has a special place in my heart. I was hooked when I saw planets and stars in the opening credits and heard Patrick Stewart’s opening narration:

Space… The final frontier…These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds…To seek out new life and new civilizations…To boldly go where no one has gone before!

The mission never ends. There are new things to learn and see and do, new ways to be tested – and all of the new experiences follow the one decision to explore.

The viva is part of your continuing mission. Your PhD is a journey of discovery. It’s right to think of the viva as one more step rather than a final chapter. It’s the next thing, not the last thing. Something new, something different, but not something beyond you. All of the talent from the rest of the journey is available to you; all you’ve learned and all you can do can help you to pass.

Make it so.

You Don’t Have To

You don’t have to have a mock viva.

You don’t have to have a conversation with your supervisor about your examiners.

You don’t have to read your thesis beforehand.

You don’t have to talk to people about their experiences.

You don’t have to ask for help.

You have to show up for the viva and do your best, but there is no list of things that you have to do.

There are lots of things that will help though. Everything mentioned above, just for starters. You don’t have to do everything, but you probably need to do something.

Ask yourself what you need, then get to it.

Follow The Leader

I don’t know there is much scope for candidates to lead in the viva. In the stories I have been told, I don’t hear tales of examiners sitting back and waiting for the candidate to direct questions, or steer them towards conclusions, or evade lines of discussion. It’s not for the candidate to dictate what happens (nor should it be up to examiners to dictate things either, of course). It’s for examiners to steer discussions, examiners to fairly ask questions, suggest ideas and examine the thesis and candidate.

As a candidate though, you can lead yourself. This isn’t a throwaway, simple, nice-sounding thing. You can lead. Set the tone for yourself. What do you expect? What standards are you aiming for? What direction do you want to go in as a researcher for the viva, and how are you going to get there? Ask yourself what “prepared” might feel like – then ask yourself what you are going to do to lead yourself towards feeling confident on the day?

You have to lead yourself. So what are you going to do?