What You Can Do

You can write a good thesis.

You can make yourself prepared for your viva.

You can know what to expect from your examiners.

You can know what to expect from the viva.

You can learn about remote vivas, if that’s likely to be the scenario for your viva.

You can build your confidence to balance out your worries.

You can’t be perfect, but you can do your best.

You can be good enough for your viva.

Who Do You Need To Convince In Your Viva?

I think it’s you.

Your examiners have your thesis already. It’s possible they have questions about this or that, but if you’ve got to submission and the viva your work must be good enough. Perhaps a detail isn’t quite right, or a paragraph could be made clearer, but you don’t get to submission by accident.

But do you believe that? Where are your doubts when it comes to the viva? What do you need to convince yourself of? How could you do it?

You need to discuss your research with your examiners. You need to explain your thesis and your decisions to them. You might have to defend those decisions in some cases, adding additional support to your arguments and ideas.

But you need to convince yourself: you are the right person for this. You are talented. You are good enough.

You are.

Remote Vivas

Virtual vivas, Skype vivas, Zoom vivas – I see lots of names being used for the same thing. The current situation in the world means some vivas will be delayed, and others will necessarily happen online. Remote vivas are needed, a sudden change in procedure, and so naturally that creates a space for worry and concern.

Thankfully, while previously rare, remote vivas aren’t new. There are people who can help you understand what might be ahead if your viva is in the near future.

Find academics and ask them about what doing a remote viva is like, what they might have to take into account. Ask PhD graduates who have had their viva over video, and see what that felt like. Set your expectations, and check if there is anything special you might need to prepare for. See if there was anything that surprised them – that perhaps now doesn’t have to surprise you!

A few weeks ago, when universities started closing their doors, I asked for help on Twitter. I knew a little about remote vivas, but it was more on the technical help side – check the software beforehand, check regulations, and so on. Thanks to the generous contributions of many Twitter users I was able to curate a thread of help starting here:

There are lots of valuable points here! If your viva is likely to be sometime in 2020, it’s probably worth taking a look.

By the end of the year, perhaps, universities will be opening their doors again. But it won’t hurt you to find out a little more. It’s always been useful for candidates to check expectations; it’s hard to prepare and feel confident if you don’t have a handle on what’s ahead.

Now particularly, when the backdrop of the world is a little more scary and uncertain, it’s important to bring your viva into focus. See what it might be like, as clearly as you can, and you can make your viva a little less scary and uncertain.

Taking Stock

Today is the last day of the tax year in the UK, and time for me to take stock of things. I’m asking myself questions like:

How much came in? How much went out? How many invoices? Do I have all my receipts?

I need to answer these in order to fill out my tax return. But there are other questions I need to prompt myself with:

How many seminars did I deliver? To how many people? At how many universities?

I need to earn money, but I want to serve others. So it helps me to look into those details too and take stock. Nevermind the number of words I write here too! And there are still more questions I need to ask, because there are other important aspects of my life too:

How many hours did I work? When did I take breaks? When did I work overtime? When did I have proper holidays?

There are many, many more questions I could ask, which would take this little life and business and put it under the microscope. The answers would be useful for some people (including me) and interpreting those could help prompt future action (thinking about holiday times or working hours in the past can influence or change practices in the future, for example).

Taking stock is important. It’s essential before the viva.

You’ve asked a lot of questions to get you to where you are. Now, more questions are needed.

Some will come from your examiners, and you can prepare for them even if you can’t know what they will be necessarily. You can get practised through a mock viva or seminar, building your confidence for meeting them. You can ask yourself more questions to explore your research from new perspectives.

What have you done? How did you get here? What matters more?

You could use many questions to unpick and explore your research. Start with some big ones. Find a way to capture your thoughts rather than simply losing them to abstraction. And maybe share them with others to find opportunities to explore them more deeply.

The Most Helpful Question

Why?

If you don’t know something in the viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel stuck during your prep, “Why?”

If your supervisor makes a suggestion and you’re not sure about it, ask them “Why?”

Or if your external says they’re not convinced by something in your thesis, ask them “Why?”

(politely, of course!)

The single most helpful question to have on the tip of your tongue, for reflections, for preparation, for meetings, for discussions and in the viva is “Why?” It opens things up, prompts, allows for exploration and probes to the heart of everything. It may not always lead to “the answer” but always generates a response.

Keep it in mind for your submission, preparation and the viva.

Do Chapters Get Equal Focus?

Yes and no.

Every chapter in your thesis will be read by your examiners. Everything will be considered.

In reading it though, examiners may find things they particularly want to focus on in their thinking and then in the viva. There may be elements they need to spend more time on. You may have chapters about difficult, tangled-up topics. You could have results that rebut long-held beliefs. Some chapters might just mean more to your discipline, to the thesis or to you.

Yes, all your chapters will be considerd, but in the viva some may have more time spent on them than others.

And that’s OK!

Viva Prep Basics

In my Viva Survivor sessions I cover a lot of different topics, including a good half an hour on practical steps to take between submission and the viva.

Here’s the 1-minute version!

  • Read Your Thesis. No excuses, don’t skim, read it once, refresh your memory. When do you need to start this?
  • Annotate Your Thesis. Highlight, bookmarks, margins. What can you add to upgrade your thesis for the viva?
  • Create Summaries. Take a step back, reflect, then capture something about your work. What questions or topics need your focus?
  • Check Recent Literature. Take a little time to see what has been published recently. Where would you check?
  • Research Your Examiners. Explore their recent publications and interests. How big a task is this for you?
  • Find Opportunities To Rehearse. Mock vivas, conversations with friends and seminars can all help. Who do you need to ask for help?

Spend a little time on all of these areas and you’ll do a lot to help get ready for your viva.

Check Your Story

Essential on April Fool’s Day, and equally important if your viva is coming up.

Think about the story you tell yourself (and others) about your research journey. How did you get where you are?

I was lucky…

…it just sort of happened…

…I happened to notice…

…I just worked at it…

Little word choices can become focal points of the story.

“I just worked at it,” doesn’t do justice to your story. You worked and you worked and you worked at it. You kept going. You learned, you developed. You didn’t simply notice something, you saw it because you were looking. Things don’t just happen, you created opportunities.

Check your story: make sure the words you use are true, of course, but tell the best version of the story that you can. One that others will listen to with interest, and one that will also help you feel you’re ready for your viva.

5 Meetings To Have Before Your Viva

Getting together with others can make a big difference to your viva.

  1. Have a meeting with your supervisor to discuss possible examiners before submission.
  2. Ask a friend for coffee to talk about your research.
  3. Sit down with friends and family to help them understand what you’ll be going through.
  4. Pop in and see your researcher-developers to see what courses or resources might help.
  5. Arrange a mock viva with your supervisor to have a useful rehearsal for the real thing.

Perhaps meeting is too strong a word for some of these ideas, too formal maybe. Still, you don’t have to get to the viva by yourself: ask others for help and they will give it.

You have to do the viva alone, but plenty of other people can help you get there. Explore what you need and ask for what you need most.

Viva Survivors: Getting Creative

The last two weeks have been almost the definition of interesting times. Lots of changes in a short period. I feel some days like my head is swimming with the adjustment. I hope wherever you are, you’re keeping well.

I’ve seen some lovely, generous offerings from the global academic community on Twitter, and while I was frantically changing my work patterns and materials for online delivery, I was wondering what I could share to help…

I’m starting with Viva Survivors: Getting Creative – a free 1-hour session on creative and fun viva prep that I’ll be running over Zoom on Wednesday 8th April 2020. If you’re looking to kickstart your viva prep with a smile, or you don’t know how to start, or you feel blocked because of everything going on, this session is for you. In 1 hour we’ll cover the basics of viva prep, what it’s really for, and five creative responses. If you have questions about the viva or prep, this is a chance to get some answers too.

Full details are at the link and places are limited to sixty attendees. The session is free, but if you want to attend I’d encourage you to register soon. I hope to offer this or something like it again, but don’t have firm plans for future sessions at the moment. Ping me on Twitter or drop me an email if you have a question.

Stay well and safe, and take a look at Viva Survivors: Getting Creative!

Keep going.

Nathan