At the end of your PhD, you could say, “I don’t know how to run that type of an experiment,” or “I don’t know about that topic,” or “I never read that paper,” and feel bad…
…or you could choose to list all of the things you can do and know.
Sometimes listing what you don’t do or don’t know can be a way of finding your edges; for the viva, it’s better to look inside those boundaries first. Get a real sense of your mastery. What skills do you have? What knowledge have you learned? What ideas can you share?
Explore what you don’t do if you must. Lead with what you can do.
During my PhD I became aware of the Katamari Damacy series of video games. They’re odd games, really colourful, really lively music – I used to write for hours while listening to the soundtracks! – and lots of fun.
The basics are always the same in a Katamari Damacy game: you are the Prince, a tiny creature tasked with making stars by your father, the King of All Cosmos. Your only means to do this is to roll up things using a katamari, a sticky ball that gets bigger and bigger and can roll up larger things as it gets larger. Levels end when you have created a crazy kind-of-ball that your father then turns into a star!
But the King is eccentric and all-powerful. What he says goes, and if he doesn’t like your katamari then it won’t get to be a star. And he’ll blast you with his cosmic eye-beams as punishment for failure.
The Katamari Damacy games are WEIRD. To some people they make no sense. To some, you can explain what you’re doing and why and still they look at you as if you have gone insane. How is this fun? How does this work? Why would you do this? What’s the point of all this???
The very best game we could use as a metaphor for the PhD is Katamari Damacy.
Lots of people won’t get your PhD. Those who do will really get it. The skills for success at both can be learned, though there are bound to be failures along the way. The skills for success might seem odd compared with useful skills in other areas, but they are necessary to master. They take time. As you go along the ideas that go into your thesis get bigger and bigger. A small notion leads to big ideas, that lead in turn to bigger concepts and results. And when you get to the end your thesis is weighed up by some all-powerful cosmic god-creatures who decide if it passes!
…OK, so my little thesis falls down towards the end! Still, for me and my PhD, Katamari Damacy seems like a great fit. I rolled along for years adding layers of ideas to my thesis-ball, growing in scale and importance. I didn’t always know exactly where I was going or how I was going to get there, but I had purpose motivating me.
If you’re getting closer to submission, and the time when your Cosmic Examiners weigh up your contribution, think about how you got there. What were the steps you made along the way? What were the little ideas that you had and how did they get big? How did you roll your thesis bigger and bigger?
Most important of all, what makes your thesis a star? And what makes you a star?
One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.
We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!
We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.
We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?
We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.
In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.
Take a single sheet of paper, your thesis and half an hour to an hour and you can make something really useful for your viva prep. A summary of something, answers to a few key questions or thoughts on what makes your thesis special. Here are seven one-page ideas for viva preparation:
Write “What’s important?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet. You could do this for your whole thesis or go chapter-by-chapter if you want to have room for more details.
Write a page about your examiners and their interests. What do you know about them? What have they published recently and how might that connect with your work?
Use the VIVA tool to analyse a key chapter or your whole thesis. Explore different aspects of your work to bring useful ideas to the forefront.
Summarise the tricky parts of your research. Create a cheatsheet that details how you can explain difficulties.
Write “What’s my contribution?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet.
Create an edited bibliography. This might be a little tricky on a single sheet of paper, but could be done!
Write out responses to a mini-viva! Select a set of questions from here and divide your page up as directed.
One page of A4 and an hour isn’t going to be all you’ll need to get ready for the viva. You can use it as a helpful exercise one day though. Structure helps get the work done!
You may have heard of them, but they’re very rarely seen.
A viva that is less than an hour.
A viva that starts with the candidate being told they’ve passed.
A candidate who finishes just over two years after they started their PhD.
A viva where everything just slots into place, the candidate doesn’t have to check their thesis, is perfectly composed and responds to every question and query without hesitation.
These unicorn vivas happen, but they don’t happen a lot.
They sound like a dream, but the reality isn’t so bad: a good viva, a few hours and a few days of work to get things corrected afterwards. A confident candidate who can engage well with their examiners about a good thesis.
Leave the fairytales to one side. Prepare for a true story.
Whatever stage you’re at during your PhD, sooner or later you’ll be finished. For a lot of researchers I talk to this seems to come around much, much faster than they thought it would. Sooner than expected they get to their first draft, then submission, then the viva, then graduation.
Just like that, you’ll be done.
So before you get that far: what do you still want to do? What do you have to get done to feel happy with your PhD? And what could you do to make your path to completion enjoyable for you?