Want/Need

In the UK, wanting to be a PhD means needing to have a viva.

A lot could be done to help postgraduate researchers be prepared for the viva – even from the early stages of the PhD – if we helped people see that the viva is just another part of the process, like a literature review or an annual report or even a meeting with a supervisor. It’s just something that needs to happen.

And like lit reviews, reports and meetings, vivas are different for individuals too.

Unique, in fact.

There can be expectations and norms, but always differences. There’s lots and lots of general advice for PhDs based on useful structures that broadly apply – for writing, doing research, being a researcher – and then every PGR has to make sense of those for them, their research, their PhD.

You need all those things to be a PhD. You need your viva too. If you feel resistance towards it, for any reason, then you have to be responsible for working past it. What steps could you take to steer your perception towards the viva?

How can you see it not as some terrible thing, not perhaps even as the final milestone, but just one more necessary part of the process of becoming a PhD?

You Can’t Fake It

And you don’t need to, in order to pass the viva.

You must have done something right to get to submission. You must be capable.

Feeling nervous or being anxious are general human conditions. If you feel them for your viva you’re either recognising the importance of the event, or have a specific concern. Both of these things can be addressed, perhaps not perfectly, but you can do something.

Rather than cross your fingers and fake your way through the viva, be honest with yourself. If you’re nervous, what are you nervous about? What can you do to genuinely build your confidence? If you have a specific concern, what is it? What can you do about it, or who could help you?

Trying to fake your way through a forced smile will hurt more than working to make the situation better. You can’t have faked it to get to submission. Don’t start now.

(also, literally: you can’t fake being as good as you are – you must actually be pretty great!)

Is It A Big Deal?

The viva is a big deal because it’s what candidates need in order to pass their PhDs, which are pretty much the pinnacle of educational achievement!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because virtually every candidate passes…

The viva is a big deal because candidates have to work for at least three years usually in order to get to that stage, investing thousands of hours of work to get to submission!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t take that much to get ready for it…

The viva is a big deal because my friend said it was for them!

And my friend said it wasn’t for them, it was just another thing they had to do…

 

The viva is a big deal. And it isn’t.

The viva is important, and you have to pass, and that can set it up to be a great big deal – but the real big deal is YOU.

YOU put in the work to get to submission. YOU are the reason the viva is happening at all. YOU must have what it takes.

 

Three Simple Words

Are you prepared to say “I don’t know” in your viva?

There’s only so much information, knowledge and talent you can build up before your viva. You’ll have enough, but you might not have everything. Perfection isn’t required: but do you feel comfortable enough saying “I don’t know” so that you aren’t worried if you do need to say it?

To help build that comfort, and the confidence that goes with it:

  • Make opportunities where you can be asked real, relevant questions for your research, thesis and competence. You can’t predict in advance what questions you will be asked in the viva, or what questions will prompt a response of “I don’t know”. The more times you practise being in a similar situation to the viva, the more experience you will have and the better you will feel.
  • Review your work to convince yourself of how much you do know. You don’t know everything, but you know a lot. It would be impossible to write an exhaustive list of everything you don’t know, but you can reassure yourself that you have a good knowledge base.
  • Learn about viva expectations. Examiners could ask questions to which you can only respond “I don’t know” but they don’t do it out of malice or some attempt to belittle you or your work. They don’t ask unreasonable questions.

I don’t know what you might have to say “I don’t know” to. You can’t know that in advance either. But you can know that it is OK.

These three simple words don’t have to define you, your viva performance or how you feel going into the viva.

Better

How are you better now than when you started your PhD?

Because you must be: as talented as you were when you were accepted and began your programme, you must be even better now that you’re near the end. Progress and development can be hard to see without reflecting though, so I imagine there are times or situations where you still feel the same.

Here’s a short reflective exercise that I hope helps:

  • Make a list: five things that you can do now or know now that you didn’t when you started your PhD.
  • For each point: write a sentence for how this has helped you through your PhD (because it must have).
  • For each point: write a sentence to say something about how this helps you for the viva (because it will do).

What stands out to you? What helps you feel confident for your viva?

(that list can probably be much longer – start with five, and keep adding as more thoughts occur)

In Theory

It’s one thing to know all of your research really well, and to know generally what happens in the viva (expectations, structure and so on). You can have a good picture of it all in theory – but then stumble when you come to the reality of being asked questions and being forced to think, ponder, respond and engage.

So practise.

Mock vivas, meetings, seminars, presentations, conversations, impromptu Zoom-meetups, mini-vivas – take and find every opportunity you can to share your research and be asked questions about it.

Theory will only take you so far. Build confidence for the reality of the viva.

On Track

Even if this year has been bumpy, you’re still on track to succeed if you’ve submitted or are working to getting your thesis finished.

Being on track with your PhD means that you know where you’re going, even if you’re not quite sure how to get there. It means that you know you’ve got better – more skilled, more talented, more knowledgeable – and if you really reflect and review your progress you can see just how far you’ve come.

You’re on track because you’re still here, despite all of the problems, panics and frustrations that a PhD can throw at someone, despite all of the misery and pain that 2020 has brought up, you’re still here.

If you think there are any more bumps ahead, you can deal with them. Look ahead and plan if you need to, or wait for the moment to arrive and overcome as you’ve managed all of the other challenges of your doctorate.

You’re on track. Keep going.

Creativity Through Constraints

I’ve been a huge fan of the concept of “creativity through constraints” since I first heard it a few months after my PhD.

I would beat myself up all the time for not coming up with ideas, or for finding it tricky to start projects. “Being creative” sometimes feels like you have to be wholly original, or think of something really big. Creativity through constraints forces ideas out by adding parameters or barriers:

  • You have a page to tell your story. What do you write?
  • You only have £10 to spend on a present. What could you get?
  • You have a hard deadline to be finished by, no exceptions! What do you do?

Constraints are limits, but they don’t have to be limiting. In preparation for the viva, consider how you could use constraints to your advantage.

  • You have a page to summarise your thesis. What do you write?
  • You have a limit – because of work and other obligations – of how much time you can invest on prep each day. What do you prioritise?
  • Your supervisor can only meet you one or two times before your viva. What do you ask of them?

Constraints can encourage you to think creatively. Pressures can be stressful, but they can also steer you into focussing – or find interesting solutions to things that seem like problems at first. What constraints do you find on you at the moment? And what constraints might actually be useful for your viva preparation?

Help Is Everywhere

I didn’t have a Viva Survivor course or webinar to help me get ready for my viva. I didn’t know of any books on the topic, or think to look for them. I didn’t search for lists of questions, or blog posts on experiences or how to get ready. The academic community on Twitter hadn’t quite grown into the super-helpful space that it is now.

And there was no podcast with interviews of PhD graduates or blog with 1200+ posts to help candidates!

My point is not, Oh woe is me, I had it so much harder than you do today!

My point is not, I didn’t need anybody and you don’t!!

The point is, There is a wealth of help out there if you need it. Some of it is right here on this site. Some of it might be found in a friend of yours, and you just need to ask. Some of it could be a simple search away.

If you need help getting ready for your viva, it’s out there.

Go get it.

Story Focus

Your viva expectations are influenced by the stories you focus on.

  • If you focus only on one story, the latest story of viva success that you hear, for example, then your expectations could be quite narrow (even if they are positive).
  • If you focus only on one terrible story, a bad experience of a friend-of-a-friend, then you won’t hear something representative (and you’ll probably put a dent in your own confidence for the viva).
  • If you try to absorb all the stories you can you’ll probably find nothing to focus on! Instead you’ll have a general feeling that vivas are fine, but maybe less certainty about why.

To help yourself, ask a few people that you trust to share their experiences. Talk to your supervisor and other academics about the role and work of examiners. Find helpful common threads of viva stories to focus on.

And remember to focus on your story. How did you get this far? What did you do? What have you got that will help you to pass?