Viva Dreams, Viva Goals

What are your viva dreams? What would you really love it to be like?

Two hours or less? Great, smiling faces as you walk into the room? Examiners gushing praise at you? No questions?! No corrections?!

Some of that sounds nice.

But what can you really do about it?

What are your viva goals? What are you practically going to work towards?

Being prepared for the day? Presenting a confident, capable researcher to your examiners? Being prepared to listen and engage with questions? Showing your examiners what you can do well?

All possible.

A dream can inspire and motivate, but could be difficult (or impossible) to work towards.

Set goals instead: figure out what you can do, then make it a reality.

No Strangers

There are lots of possible examiner qualities candidates might prefer – an expert, someone you’ve cited, someone relatively new – but all of these are just preferences. There’s no right or wrong preference: it’s just how you feel. Reflect on your preferences and make some suggestions to your supervisor. See which names surface in the discussion.

My only other piece of advice for candidates would be to aim for examiners who aren’t strangers.

Aim for an internal who you have spoken to before. Aim for an external you have met at conferences. Aim for people who aren’t big question marks when you think about them and their work. Knowing even a little about your examiners can boost your confidence a lot for the viva.

4 Ways To Reflect On Your PhD Journey

What have you done? Where has it lead you? How will it help with what comes next? Here are four ideas to help with reflecting on your journey:

  1. Check your records: explore your written plans and meeting logs to see what your progress has looked like over the last few years. See what stands out to you.
  2. Reflect on a single question: what can you do now that you couldn’t when you started your PhD?
  3. Break down your contribution: make a bullet point list of what you have achieved. Make sure to include reasons for why something is a contribution. What makes it valuable? How did you make it happen?
  4. Draw a timeline: create a visual display of your PhD story. Highlight the milestones. What are your big moments of discovery? When can you see huge signs of improvement? What were the key events?

Take time to take stock. How did you get to where you are now?

Ask Your Community

It’s your responsibility to do your research; your responsibility to prepare for the viva; your responsibility to engage with your examiners and pass the viva.

But look around: there are lots and lots of people who can support you. They can’t do the work, they can’t do your prep, they can’t answer the questions on the day. They can do a lot to help you through it.

Ask your community for help. Ask colleagues for advice and their time. Ask family for help to give you the space you need. Ask your supervisor for feedback and insight. Ask your institution for help with understanding the regulations and expectations for your viva.

You have to do a lot to get through a PhD, but you don’t have to do it all alone.

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.

Upgraded

The viva at the end of the PhD is a unique set of circumstances in your doctoral journey – but there are other events like the viva.

Most candidates will have had to pass a transfer or upgrade viva at some point (for full time candidates this is often around the end of the first year). In some institutions and departments this might be like a mini-viva, testing everything that you’ve done to that point in a similar style to the end of the PhD viva. In some places, the transfer viva is more like a simple conversation.

(I remember two defining questions from mine: “What have you done?” and “Are you happy?”)

Your transfer viva might only have a superficial resemblance to the main viva, but you must have passed it to get to submission. That counts. You were upgraded.

And you must have answered difficult questions in meetings, after conference talks and while you were doing your research. You upgraded then too.

A lot of focus is given to your thesis and research, but it is worth remembering that a far greater output of your PhD journey is you.

A new you, a more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable you.

Upgraded.

Everyone Is Human

No-one is perfect. Everyone can make a mistake.

You can miss a typo in your thesis. You can mis-remember a reference in the viva. You can not-quite-catch the importance of a question.

Your examiners can not-quite-get a concept you write about. They could mis-hear you. They could not recognise a typo as a typo.

And they know you could be nervous. They could be nervous. Exams make a lot of people nervous. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, your thesis or the viva.

Everyone is human. Remember that and you’ll realise that the little human imperfections don’t add up to much compared to the achievement of your research, your development as a person and your talent on the day.

7 Tips For Completing Corrections

Most candidates will be asked to complete corrections after the viva.

Most candidates will have other things to do which could make doing corrections feel like a tricky task.

Being busy won’t excuse you from corrections; here are some ideas to help you get them done.

  1. Check the conditions of various viva outcomes in advance. How much time is given for different corrections? Factor that into your plans.
  2. Ask for a list of what your examiners expect after your viva is done. Nearly all examiners give this anyway; if you have any doubts, ask for a list of required amendments.
  3. Ask for clarification of what is expected. Ask your examiners for details of what might satisfy their requests (how much detail about a reference, say, or what wording they think is unclear).
  4. Check your current plans. If you have a month after your viva to complete all of your corrections, when could you schedule time to work?
  5. Check who needs to approve your corrections. Is it just to the satisfaction of your internal, or for your external as well? And what is the effective deadline?
  6. Make a quick plan. What are you going to do and when are you going to do it? Create a clear checklist so you can mark tasks off when they are completed.
  7. DO THE WORK! Once it is done then you’ll be over 99% finished with your PhD.

It is also useful to check what you need to do after your thesis is corrected. Some institutions have short periods between when corrections are approved and the final thesis submission. Be sure of the timeline so you are ready to meet your institution’s requirements.

Corrections are an opportunity to make your thesis as good as it can possibly be. After your viva, go do that. Get it done, then go on to the next great thing you’ll do with your life.

Off The Topic

It’s not impossible that a question or comment could seem irrelevant to you. It’s not impossible you could start responding to a question but go off topic from the discussion. However it happens, if you experience any confusion because you need to talk about something unexpected:

Stop.

Pause.

Think.

Think about what’s being asked or discussed. Then decide how you can best proceed.

In the case of off-topic questions from examiners, you might really believe a question is irrelevant. Totally off-topic, completely unimportant. You could say that…

…but will that help? It might be better to explore the topic and try to respond as well as you can, to begin with. You could still say you don’t think it’s all that important afterwards, but perhaps give it a little time first.