Spoilers

For years I’ve avoided spoilers. I remember racing home with the final three Harry Potter books on the days they were released, turning my phone off and reading until they were done – partly because I was desperate to know what happened, but also because I didn’t want anyone else to spoil them for me.

Spoiler Alert! A small number of vivas start with examiners telling the candidate that they’ve passed. Some examiners do it to reassure the candidate. Examiners who declare a pass at the start have good intentions, but universities would prefer examiners didn’t do it. It begs the question, “Is this an exam or not?”

After I’ve shared this possibility in workshops – usually because someone has said, “A friend of a friend was told they’d passed…” – I have to add that it’s not that likely and if it were your viva you would never know until it happens. You could spend all the time on the run up to the viva thinking, “Will they tell me at the start? Will they tell me at the start?” Is that helpful? I don’t think so.

You can’t control what your examiners will do in the viva or at the start.

Spoiler Alert! You can control what you do and how well you can be prepared.

Shhh

My friend Shaine kept his viva secret. In his final year he got married, wrote up his thesis, applied for and got a place on a teaching course, prepared for it, submitted his thesis and then prepared for the viva. He had a lot going on, and I guess he didn’t want people asking after one more thing. We only found out after he had passed.

It worked for him. Most people won’t keep the viva a total surprise from their friends, but I can understand why they might. As with many things, there are pros and cons. What will work for you? Think it through: do you want the help your friends could give, or the space that might help you to think? There’s no right or wrong. Think about what you need and do what will help you most.

Hours and Years

Two to three hours is pretty standard for a viva. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Two to three hours is the right neighbourhood.

Three to four years is pretty standard for a PhD. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Three to four years puts us in a meaningful ballpark.

People worry about “long” vivas. Mine was four hours. I’ve heard of the occasional six-hour viva. It can seem like a long time to be on and discuss your research. But you get to those hours of discussion after years of work. You’re in a good place.

Significant

A PhD thesis needs to have a significant, original contribution in it. So a postgraduate researcher needs to make a significant, original contribution for it. Significant, original contributions (to research, to knowledge, to the world) don’t grow on trees. They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t happen by accident.

If you’re feeling nervous or even afraid at the end of the PhD, weigh it against what you’ve done to get this far. The dedication and work you’ve put in tip the scales in your favour.

Bookmarked

If I gave you ten bookmarks to put in your thesis, where would you put them?

Do you go for the start of every chapter? This could make your thesis easier and quicker to navigate in the viva.

Do you find the ten most important sections of your thesis? This way you can find the thread of your research with no problem.

What if I gave you only seven? Or three?

One?

Of course, you’re not restricted on bookmarks or Post It notes. Questions can really help you to think. Cut through everything and find what matters most, both in your thesis and to you. What’s important about your thesis that you need to make it stand out, and why?

Not Lucky

Winning the lottery is lucky: you buy a ticket, or lots of them, and maybe yours is the one that wins. There’s no skill, it happens or not.

Winning a race is fortunate: you develop skill, and even if there are other skilled people taking part your skill wins out. It isn’t luck, because you didn’t leave it to chance.

One of these descriptions is like the viva, and one is not, despite both being about situations involving a great many people.

If you’re lucky, you did something but it wasn’t in your control really. It could have been anyone else who succeeded, and what you did didn’t particularly matter. If you’re fortunate, then something good has happened, but what you did made a difference. Success in the viva is fortunate, I think, because it comes down to your developing talent through the PhD and what you are able to show on the day.

This is how I put the line between lucky and fortunate; you might define them differently, but I think you take my point. If you’ve read a lot of posts on this blog then you’ll know it’s a recurring theme for me: success in your PhD and viva is down to your talent and is not just good luck. This is important for the story you tell yourself afterwards. Not “I was lucky with the questions I got,” but “I was fortunate that I had done the work and could answer their questions well.”

You’re fortunate, you’re not lucky.

Workout

An idea for Saturday: six minute viva prep workout! It’s playful, but there’s serious prep at work here too.

Got a voice recording app on your phone, tablet or computer? That’s all you need. Make sure you can keep an eye on a clock or timer.

There are four items on the following list for you to talk about. Focus on one at a time. Don’t worry if you say um or pause to think. Don’t worry if you say less or more than the indicated time. Just try.

Start recording.

  • Talk for one minute about why you got interested in your research area.
  • Talk for two minutes about the general thrust of your thesis.
  • Talk for two minutes about how you did your research.
  • Talk for one minute about the importance of your results.

All done? Set a reminder on your phone or calendar to come and listen back to the recording in two days.

When you listen back, what do you notice? What would you say more or? Less of? What did you forget?

Practice is key, but without reflection you don’t get all the benefits.

Thinking Through My Fingers

Isaac Asimov: “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

I found this in one of those quote lists that are everywhere. I like lists, but I love the gems buried in them, and this is a gem. Asimov’s insight is especially profound when it comes to the thesis. It takes a long time to write a thesis. When you sit down to write you don’t have to get it right first time. Sitting to write can help you clarify what you think. Getting something, anything, typed up can help you make the vague clear. It takes time, but when you’re finished and you submit, you’re telling your examiners that you think you’re on to a winner.

If you’ve submitted already, then this is the message you were sending. If you’ve not submitted yet, I think the opportunity here is asking yourself, “What would a winning thesis look like?” Aim yourself at the answer and do the work. Get thinking through your fingers.

Wrong

There’s always a chance you’ve missed something. Not a typo, not a passage that needs editing, but something wrong. Maybe something that is a problem.

It’s a very small chance though. Long odds.

There’s a greater chance that your examiners THINK there is something wrong, or that you’ve not acknowledged something they feel is really important. They might be right, but it’s not a good idea to just accept what they say, or for you to put your head down and insist that you are right.

Instead: ask them why. Why do they think you’ve made a mistake? What are their reasons? What’s their thinking? Because you know your thinking. Once you have both pictures, you can start to see what the reality might be. What sounds like a mountain-high hurdle could be a tiny speed bump. After thinking and talking it through, it may not even be a problem.

There’s a chance that you’re wrong, but given how far you’ve come, it’s much more likely that you’re right or know the way to right. Show your examiners.

Four Hours

My viva was four hours long. It was over in an eye-blink. I left my viva thinking, “What just happened?” I was tired because I had slept badly, and the viva was quite an involved discussion at times. Still, I was really surprised to find out four hours had gone by. I’ve heard similar stories from other PhD graduates: vivas that seemed to take no time at all despite clocks and watches clearly showing hours have passed.

Two/three/four hours at the end of years of research, learning and development – by comparison it really is an eye-blink. In the moment it could fly by, or there could be questions that drag on and on (I remember those too). But relative to all that you’ve done the viva is a tiny step in the PhD process: one of the final ones, but one at the end of a great deal of work by you. However long the viva is, you’re in a good place to meet the challenge.