Thesis & Viva

A few loosely connected thoughts…

The viva is bigger in some ways than the thesis, but takes much less time (to read or write!).

A lot of focus is given to the viva, but without a good thesis you won’t pass your PhD.

Your thesis has to be good. Your viva has to go well. The former helps the latter.

Your thesis prompts the discussion for the viva, but doesn’t hold all the questions (or answers).

You don’t have a viva without a thesis first, and you don’t need to prepare for your viva until your thesis is finished.

Ten 1-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

Viva Prep!!!

Maybe you’re busy and overwhelmed, or don’t know where to start. Perhaps you only have a few moments in which you could get something done. Or simply you’re looking to be ready.

Here are ten tasks that will all help your viva prep, and each of which can be completed in a minute or less. Some are the first steps of bigger tasks, but can be compartmentalised and done to lay the foundations for future work:

  1. Google and bookmark your internal examiner’s staff page.
  2. Google and bookmark your external examiner’s staff page.
  3. Send a message to a group of researcher-friends to see who would be willing to help with asking you questions for practice.
  4. Stick a Post-it Note at the start of each chapter of your thesis.
  5. Find the regulations for thesis examination for your institution (this page might make that task even quicker).
  6. Find contact details for someone in your graduate school or doctoral college who could answer questions about the viva process.
  7. Gather up a pile of Post-it Notes, pens and stationery to help with viva prep.
  8. Sketch a basic calendar of the days between now and your viva.
  9. Check out the Resources page of this site!
  10. Write I DID THIS clearly on the abstract page of your thesis.

Simple searches and minor tasks all need doing – and only need doing once.

Viva prep takes more than ten minutes, but could begin idea number 10 – with clearly remembering and reinforcing to yourself that YOU have written your thesis. YOU did the work.

YOU are going to pass your viva.

What’s Left?

Do you have ideas that you didn’t have time to develop during your PhD?

Questions you maybe asked at the start that now at the end don’t have answers?

Or perhaps a section or chapter you were going to write but weren’t able to?

Review loose threads, unfinished projects and half-formed ideas as you prepare for the viva. The work at the edges could be of interest to your examiners, and you’ll be able to share it with them if you’ve spent a little time in preparation for that possibility.

More importantly, by contrast, you’ll see why the work that is finished got done. Ask yourself why unfinished projects didn’t make it, and you’ll get a sharper sense of why the work in your thesis got to completion – what was different about what made it in and what didn’t?

Ladders, No Snakes

I’ve been thinking about my mini-vivas resource recently, exploring how to do more with it, or make it more accessible. Naturally, this gets me thinking about other possibilities for game-like resources. I hope to have more to share with you over the summer.

I don’t think I’ll make a viva prep board game. If I did it would be like snakes and ladders – but without the snakes. Every action you take doing viva prep, big or small, moves you closer to the final square, Ready.

You may make an action that shoots you up a ladder to some higher place because it just makes a big difference. Or you may simply move a couple of spaces forward, on track, making progress.

But there are no snakes. There’s no traps or pitfalls to derail your progress and move you away from the finish. You’re only moving onwards and upwards, closer with each action to being ready for the viva.

With that in mind, what small steps are you taking? What big steps could you attempt? And what are the ladders that send you closer to being Ready?

Demo Discs

I’m old enough to remember demo discs: CDs or DVDs that came with gaming magazines and which allowed people to try new games or software before the full release.

(I’m actually old enough to remember demo cassettes, but let’s put that to one side as I start my six-month countdown to my forties…)

Demo discs gave fans the chance to try things. Here’s the first thirty minutes of the new game you’re excited for! Here’s something interesting to whet your appetite! Here’s a little something to get you used to this new thing!

Demo discs were useful to set expectations and raise interest. Demo discs are less common now due to digital downloads, but it’s possible to demo or trial all sorts of things in a useful way.

Like the viva!

A mock viva is a demo for the real thing: it can never be the same, it might be time-limited and you might only be able to trial it once, but it will help set your expectations.

A mini-viva is a demo for your viva: it focusses on specific parts of your work, it’s feature-limited as well as time-limited, but it’s also simple to get started. (user-friendly!)

A seminar is a demo for your viva: it’s not the same format, but showcases a lot of the elements that will go into your viva.

Explore your options for rehearsing for your viva. There are lots of demo options available to help you prepare.

Strange Circumstances

At the start of the year, having a viva conducted over video would have seemed strange. It certainly wasn’t typical. Now, it’s pretty much the only way they’re happening.

It’s normal to have just two examiners and you present – except when it’s not! Some universities have independent chairs in the room as part of their regulations, some departments regularly invite supervisors as observers as part of their practice. It’s normal to expect examiners to have PhDs as well, but sometimes they don’t.

Your viva, by itself, as an event, might seem strange to you. Unusual. Not the… normal way of doing things. It will certainly be different. Some of the strangeness may be coming from the formality, from the process, from the examiners, from the expectations. Some of it may be coming from you.

If the regulations say X, Y and Z but your situation doesn’t fit, you most likely will not be the first person to have encountered this difference. Vivas over video are normal now, but they were happening before the pandemic. They’re far more likely, at least for a time, but leaving aside the pressure of sudden changes, there were plenty of people around who could share experience of doing vivas over video.

Whatever your circumstances, strange or otherwise, if you need help to unpick what you could do or how you could act, there are people who can help. Check regulations, ask your graduate school, ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends. Ask me!

I think it’s normal for the viva to feel strange.

Scene Changes

I’m always fascinated by how movies switch perspective or place, or how they jump forward in time.

Sometimes they jump from one place to another, abruptly – you were here with these people, now you’re here with these people!

Sometimes a scene changes with a fade to black……………and then fade back up to the new place or time.

Star Wars is famous for the way it “wipes” to other scenes, a line moving across to take away the old and reveal somewhere new.

And there are movies that show somewhere new, but then also tell us something about where we are with a subtitle – a place or time, a year, a city, and so on.

All of these different techniques do different things. They direct attention, refocus, change expectations – and they make me think about the scene changes for a PhD.

  • How do you go from working perhaps every day to get a thesis finished to life post-submission?
  • How do you frame things now?
  • Is the change a gradual fade to black, or an abrupt stop?
  • Do you need subtitles, new information, a new framing?

Wherever you are in your journey towards thesis completion, or if you’re post-submission already and on the way to the viva, think about the scene changes around you. Unlike a movie, you’re in charge of them. They can be gradual changes, they can come with subtitles to help guide you; you might feel that you have to jump from one thing to another.

Remember that a lot of these things allow you to take some measure of control – maybe not a full Director’s Cut, but you have some authority!

The One And Only?

On the one hand, yes, the viva is your one and only opportunity. You have to do it, defend your thesis, engage with your examiners’ questions and discuss your work. You have to do it well enough to pass, and this is your chance to do it.

But on the other hand, it’s the latest opportunity you’ve had to do all these sorts of things. It’s not the first time you’ve talked about your work. It’s not the first time you’ve faced a challenge with your research. It’s not the first time you’ve had to really think about what you’re doing.

The viva is the latest challenge, for someone experienced at rising to meet challenges. It could be tough, it could be tricky, but it won’t be beyond you.

You’re the one and only person who could pass your viva.

It’s Never Just Luck

“Luck” during a PhD can only come from your working to be in a good space to begin with.

“Luck” with a result or an idea or the final state of your thesis is the result of work, not simple good fortune.

“Luck” in the viva’s outcome denies all you’ve done.

Don’t be so modest. Don’t downplay what you did, and what you can do. Yes, you may have been fortunate, but you still had to work for that opportunity or outcome!

Option Two

As a PhD candidate, I think you have two main strategies to manage how you feel about your viva.

Option One is to try and squash down any nerves that you feel. Take any worries and anxieties and just push them down, lock them away and avoid them at all. Don’t engage. I’ve seen viva success follow from this approach, but at a cost to candidates’ state of mind. I wouldn’t advise following Option One.

Option Two is to work to boost your confidence. Recognise your ability, work to prepare for the viva, notice your talent and where it comes from. Doing this will far outweigh any nervousness you feel.

Nervousness and confidence are not polar opposites – they’re different things all together. You can be nervous about the viva, because you recognise that it matters, yet confident in your success. You only have so much energy and effort available. Rather than focus on squashing away nerves, work to boost your confidence. Confidence will put your anxieties into perspective.

Option One: squash nerves.

Option Two: boost confidence.

Go with Option Two.