Four Years

That’s how long I’ve been writing this blog. Longer than I spent on my PhD!

I started with the following short post in 2017:

I’ve got a few questions for you: Did you do the work? Did you show up at the library or the lab or the office? Did you overcome obstacles through the tough times? Did you learn, did you grow, did you develop?

If you did all of these during your PhD, how could you be in a bad position for the viva?

It’s understandable if you are nervous, but it’s no accident that you’ve got this far. Keep going.

I’ve written about a lot of different aspects of the viva in the last four years, over 1400 posts, but this remains a core message of the blog. The final two words of that first post resonate personally, particularly given the last year or so.

Keep going. That’s my overall plan for this blog. I’m proud that Viva Survivors has reached so many people over the last four years, but equally happy that it’s had such an impact on me personally and professionally. I’ve been thrilled in the last twelve months to use this platform to reach out and share webinars. I’m looking forward to sharing more exciting things in the coming months.

If this is your first post or your hundredth, thank you for reading!

If your viva is coming soon, keep going. You’ll do it.

If your viva is behind you, keep going. There’s even better stuff ahead.

And again, thank you for reading 🙂

The Standard

You need to have made a significant, original contribution with your research. Defining the standard for that is hard, but we can rule some things out. The standard is not…

  • …producing two papers during your PhD.
  • …having at least six chapters in your thesis.
  • …70,000 words.
  • …a minimum of 200 references in your bibliography.
  • …working yourself into a shell of your former self.
  • …perfection.

The standard is good enough.

Are your research and your thesis good enough? Are you good enough?

Good enough might still be tricky to define. Together you and your supervisors can establish some helpful criteria that can show you’re meeting the standard. It has to be discussed because every thesis is different, but figuring out what good enough means for your work, and knowing you’ve met the standard is a huge confidence boost for the viva.

“How Can I Help?”

If you’ve had your viva, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, ask these four words first, before you start to offer your story, your opinion or your advice. See what support someone needs. Get a sense of how they’re feeling.

If you’ve not had your viva yet, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, still ask how you can help. Your friend might need a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, someone to listen or someone to ask more questions to help them reflect.

You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.

Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.

 

Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

When You Speak In The Viva

Pause.

Breathe.

Think.

Every question is an opportunity, a prompt for you to share something. No tricks or traps, just invitations to add something to the discussion.

Pause.

Breathe.

Think.

There’s time in the viva. Enough for you to use it well. No rush, no hurry. Engage with your examiners’ questions.

Pause.

Breathe.

Think.

Be as certain as you can – not because you have to be right about everything, but because to do otherwise wouldn’t help you to present yourself and your work as best you can.

Pause.

Breathe.

Think.

One Bite At A Time

“How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time…

It’s an old joke or proverb, depending on how you look at it, but there’s certainly wisdom as well as eye-rolling.

You could never have done your PhD in a week. It takes years of slow, patient work. Learning, discovering, growing. You eat away at the problems of your research one bite at a time.

Getting ready for your viva is similar, but on a shorter timescale. A day of cramming is inferior compared to a few weeks of small tasks, getting ready by nibbling away at a finite to-do list, bit-by-bit. Confidence builds in the same way.

Slow, careful ways that lead to success.

Nervous & Confident

Nervous and confident aren’t polar opposites.

If you feel nervous about something – like, say, your viva – then you’re recognising it’s important. Nervous isn’t the same as being anxious or being worried, although it might not be comfortable. Nervous is a recognition of something in your future, not something inherently bad or to be feared. “This thing matters to me.”

Being confident about something – like, say, your viva – is believing with good reason that you have talent or knowledge to be able to deal with a future situation. “I can do this.”

Being confident about your success in the viva helps to put nervous feelings in perspective. Confidence helps to balance the discomfort of nervousness.

You could go around and around trying to figure out what triggers your nervousness, wondering what you could do to stop feeling nervous – or you could take steps to build your confidence for the viva. Reflect on your talent. Summarise your progress over years of work. Really think about all that you’ve done and know.

Feeling nervous before your viva isn’t bad, but being confident is very good!

Little Things, Big Differences

I’m still not going to reveal my secret bread recipe, but I’ll share some of the little things I’ve learned that help me bake a good loaf:

  • Blending different bread flours gives a better flavour than just having one type.
  • Ratios really matter! It took time, but I found that a strict connection between quantities of flour, yeast and oil really help. For every 100g of flour, use 2g of instant yeast and 5ml of olive oil
  • Knead less, prove more.
  • Longer proving in general seems to lead to better flavour. Dough that rests in the fridge overnight nearly always tastes better.

Whatever the recipe, for whatever the situation, tinker with the little things. Tinker, repeat and see what happens. The big ingredients or steps can take you so far, then the little things help you find big differences after that.

 

Back to your PhD and your viva.

What little things did you try in your PhD? How did they help? Where did you see great gains for trying small changes? And how could those small changes help you now in your viva?

What small things could you do now that might make a big difference for your viva?

The Middle

A lot of space is given to the origins of a research project in how we think about the viva and what you might need to talk about. How did you get started? What ideas influenced your first steps? What literature did you read?

Lots of space is also given to the outcomes of a PhD. What are your conclusions? What results helped you reach those conclusions? What’s the overall result of your thesis?

These two themes are important, but we mustn’t forget the middle of your PhD. The middle where you kept going. The middle where you most likely found your way past dead ends and small failures.

How did you get through the middle? What did you learn? How did you keep going – and how could you use that to keep going now?