Start Again

What would you do if you could start your PhD again?

Would you follow the same process, explore the same topics? Would you want to take on something different?

Would you look for other ideas, dodge methods that didn’t work or papers that weren’t helpful?

How would you steer someone starting a PhD in your discipline?

Take twenty minutes to reflect on these questions. Make some notes to get the thoughts out. They’re not exhaustive by any means, but the answers can help you think before the viva about what you’ve learned about being a researcher through your PhD.

Stressors

It’s not nice to feel stressed or anxious. Trying to unpick why you feel that way can sometimes feel like a difficult task too. What if, by paying attention to it, you end up feeling even more stressed? I know that’s been the case for me in the past. I’ll find something stressful, focus on it, and then find myself unable to take that focus away. What happens? More stress!

I think, though, part of the problem for me has always been to focus on thinking it through. Reflection is good, but it only becomes useful if it leads to action.

There are lots of reasons you could feel stressed about the viva, and it is good to unpick why you might feel that way. But then you have to do something about it.

Worried you’ll forget something? Why? I feel I have a poor memory! OK, what could you do about it? Read my thesis, make some summaries.

Nervous about getting questions about your contribution? Why? What if my examiners are critical?! OK, what could you do about it? Explore the value of what I’ve found through my research.

Concerned about explaining your results? Why? They’re tricky! OK, what could you do about it? Have a mock viva and prompt supervisor to ask questions about that chapter.

It’s not nice to feel stressed or nervous, but those feelings don’t tend to just go away by themselves. Ask yourself why you feel that way, then think about what you could do to improve things. Then do it. Keep doing it. You might not be able to get rid of every stressful thought, but you’ll do something to build your confidence and talent for the viva.

No Rush

There’s no rush necessary in your viva preparations or in the viva UNLESS you make it that way.

Fail to think through what you need to do and you might make things pressured. Fail to prepare for how you’ll act on the day and you can feel that you need to blurt out answers and not think when you engage with your examiners. You don’t need to rush unless you create a situation where that’s the only thing left that you can do.

You have the responsibility, no-one else, but it doesn’t take a lot to live up to that responsibility.

Plan the weeks leading up to the viva. This doesn’t have to be hour-by-hour, just think about the kinds of tasks you’ll do and when you might do them. You can’t plan for every minute of the viva, but you can think about how you will react. Think about being in there. Think about being asked questions. Think about how you might respond.

And think about how, unhurried, you can present your best and most confident self on the day.

What Do You Want Them To Ask?

As part of your viva prep spend ten minutes listing everything you’d like your examiners to ask.

Reflect for each one: why do you want them to ask about that thing?

Do you feel confident? Why?

Do you feel happy? Why?

Do you feel proud? Why?

It’s useful to dig into things that trouble you and ask why. Once you’ve unpicked the feeling you can start to do something about it.

It’s just as useful to reflect on the things you’re happy with. You can build confidence for the viva on those whys as well.

It’s Personal

How do you feel? Happy, sad, excited, nervous, elated, terrified – that mix of emotions could be all in one hour.

I ask PhD candidates how they feel, but their response is a snapshot, that moment or how they’ve felt recently.

In all aspects of the viva there are expectations: generally they last this long, generally candidates get these corrections and so on.

But there are always unique features. Your thesis is unique. You are unique. Your viva isn’t “just another viva” – it’s yours! No-one else feels the way you do.

And there’s nothing wrong with how you feel. You can’t cut yourself off from how you feel about your viva and nor should you.

Your examiners will have questions for you. Some of them could be critical. They might not agree with you. They might not like something in your thesis.

I find candidates worry about this possibility too. How would you feel? After everything you’ve invested in getting this far, if an examiner doesn’t like something, how do you respond? What’s the right way?

Candidates ask, “How do I not take it personally?”

How can you not take it personally? It is personal. You can say it’s just about the work: the work is a reflection of you. That’s the output of your time, effort and talents. The viva is personal, examiners’ questions will feel personal, even the “good” ones.

So don’t deny it. Use it.

Think back over everything you’ve done. Think about what you’ve done to get this far. Think about what you know, what you can do, what you believe. All of this helps. Whatever question comes your way, however it connects with you emotionally, you are the best person in the world to answer it.

The viva is personal, it has to be. It’s YOUR viva.

Not A Sprint

I got that advice a lot during my PhD. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I had to pace myself for the long journey to success.

The viva’s not a sprint but it’s also not a marathon either. It’s not a race of any kind, you’re not being tested on how fast you answer but on how well you answer.

Don’t rush. Rushing to answer a question isn’t going to help you, your thesis or your research.

Pause. Breathe. It’s not a race, but the end of your journey is near.

First Time Examiners

I meet candidates who worry because one of their examiners is a new academic:

“What if they don’t know enough? What if they are really thorough? What if they do something wrong?”

Not unreasonable concerns, but to candidates who feel like this I’d say, “How do you think that examiner feels?”

Personally, I imagine first time examiners are nervous, maybe even a bit stressed. The viva is important. They have to read and understand, summarise and comment, question and steer the discussions. They have to examine!

A first time examiner will have training, they’ll have colleagues they can ask for help and their own viva to influence them, but this is the first time they’ve been asked to do it. Whether it’s an academic’s first time or fifty-first time being an examiner they always want it to go as well as it possibly can.

When I imagine how an examiner might feel and what they might do for the viva, what I imagine is very close to how I think candidates feel and what they do. They’re both talented, both might be a little nervous, generally, but because they want it to go well they’ll both be prepared.

Almost Unavoidable

You only need to transpose one pair of letters in one sentence on one page in your thesis and you have a miskate mistake. A reference could be wrong or a diagram might need redrawing. Its likely you’ll have typos somewhere in your thesis. You could have words around switched switched around or paragraphs that need another edit.

You don’t do any of these on purpose, you want your thesis to be the best it can be. So do your examiners. Corrections aren’t a punishment or “just another part of the process”. Corrections are your examiners helping you find things to make your thesis even better. Perfect is a nice ideal, but better is the real goal.

Mistakes are almost unavoidable in the tens of thousands of words you’ll put in your thesis. Aiming for perfect won’t work. Aim for great, and after the viva you’ll get some help aiming for grater greater.

Answering New Questions

Every step of the PhD has new questions, from the first time you read a paper through to the end of your viva. Answers don’t always come immediately. They might take a little time and thought, or during the PhD real, practical research to bring an answer to life. Sometimes there are no answers: you can offer ideas, theories or reasons why no answer comes to mind.

New questions aren’t a problem by the end of the PhD. Questions can be unexpected, but your mechanism for answering – the knowledge, the talent, the skill at thinking things through – is the best it could be.

Any time you get one, a new question is an opportunity for demonstrating what you can do.

 

Isn’t One Viva Enough?

“Do I really need to have a mock?”

I get this question from nervous PhD candidates. They’re nervous about the actual viva and that carries through to any idea of a rehearsal. They’ve heard of mocks and all they can think is that it is one more thing to worry about.

No-one needs a mock viva in the way they need oxygen. You can get by without it. But there are good reasons to have one.

A mock viva can help bring a little confidence through practise. It’ll never be the same as the real one, but it allows you to be in a similar sort of space. Your supervisor might offer, but you should feel alright about asking. It’s a reasonable request to make. You’ll need to give a little notice to set it up, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Afterwards you’ll probably have some questions and answers to reflect on, but you’ll have a little more comfort for being in your real viva.

One viva is enough – but the mock isn’t a second viva. It’s a rehearsal, a practice, a sort-of-but-not-really-viva. Make the most of the opportunity if you have one.