Unforgettable

PhD graduates have rarely told me they’ve forgotten an important detail in the viva. Usually everything comes to mind when needed.

But nevermind others: if you’re worried that something important will slip your mind you can do things to help yourself. Just for starters:

  • Make notes, don’t just read and re-read your thesis.
  • Bookmark details, make it clear where you can find them.
  • Highlight important passages on pages.

Your examiners don’t expect you to commit three or more years of work to memory. The worry comes from you. The solution can too.

Making A Cup Of Tea

How do you make a cuppa?

I prefer it from a teapot, served in a cup with a saucer. I add milk after I’m sure it’s strong enough.

Most of the time though I make it in a mug, a couple of minutes steeping, quick stir, splash of milk, stir and take the teabag out.

I used to take two sugars! (can’t quite believe it)

And my mum often makes her tea in a cup but puts the milk in first, then the teabag and hot water. A great-aunt insisted you have to do it that way, to “scald the milk”.

The end result of these and so many other similar processes? A cup of tea. This one’s stronger, that one’s milkier, and some might not be to your taste at all, but they’re all undeniably cups of tea.

The most important question though is what does this have to do with vivas?

Some vivas are long, some are short. Some start with a presentation, while others are a long conversation from the start. Some will have an independent chair, some might have a supervisor present. Some people will relish the thought of their viva, some will tie themselves in knots for months in advance. Most will get minor corrections, some will get none.

And at the end of all of these variations you simply have a viva. Many possible differences, all producing something recognisable as the exam for the end of a PhD.

A Stone In Your Shoe

A little piece of grit just nudged your toe.

It’s a tiny pain, an annoyance, nothing serious but now you’ve felt it you can’t stop thinking about it. You have a choice:

  • Ignore it, just keep going. It’s a little thing and you can bear the discomfort.
  • Wiggle your toes. Push it to one side and wait ’til you’re done.
  • Take off your shoe. Bang the heel, see the stone fall to the back and pick it out.

Simply: you can ignore a little annoyance, spend the minimum effort to push it away or stop everything to resolve it. All three strategies have merit. All three can be applied to the end of your PhD, your viva prep and even in the viva.

  • Find a small mistake? Ignore it, make a note and fix it later, or drop what you’re doing and correct it.
  • Missing a reference? Ignore it, pencil it in your diary to sort out or go straight to your literature review and figure it out.
  • Critical comment in the viva? Ignore it, make a note and think about it, or ask your examiner for more so you can respond now.

There are pros and cons to all the approaches you can take when annoying little situations show up.

You have a choice about which one you pick.

The End Is Nigh!

I’ve met people who are doom-and-gloom because they’re near the end of the PhD. Typically this is because their viva is coming up, though there can be a host of reasons – general concern about examiners, wondering about corrections, worries about the future, and so on. It is worth spending effort to work on these issues. Figure out what’s troubling you, start to think about what you could do to work it out.

It’s also worth finding out more about general viva experiences and expectations. A lot gets said about the viva, not all of it good, not all of it true. Generally? The viva’s an interesting discussion about your work.

If you can find enough true stories of the viva, then perhaps other concerns might melt away.

14,400 Seconds

That was my viva. It sounds a lot, but it’s only four hours. Tick-tick-tick times 4800 and I was done!

I’ve met a handful of people with similar or longer vivas. Sometimes the viva is long, or can feel long, but often they just fly by no matter what the clock says.

And really: they don’t compare to the 20-something million seconds you’ve invested in your PhD.

A Non-Trivial Pursuit

Viva candidates pretty much have all the answers. That’s not because the viva is easy or the questions are predictable or because candidates can somehow prepare for every possibility. The viva’s not a quiz game.

Some questions in the viva might be trivial in the sense that they are easy for you to answer. The fact that something seems easy to you doesn’t diminish it in any way.

The viva generally is non-trivial. It’s not a game. Any ease you might feel with questions is down to your hard-earned talent.

Postscript

What message would you add to the end of your thesis?

You don’t have time to do every follow-up, or advance every idea. Perhaps you can leave that to someone else. Perhaps there is a new perspective that you have on the whole work, and a short note could set those thoughts out. Maybe there is a problem with something in your thesis, but you don’t quite know how to talk about it on the page. Or it could be that you just want to thank some people.

Reflect on your thesis. What postscript would you add?

PS: Now you’ve reflected on this, consider making some notes or even writing a message. Your examiners are unlikely to ask you anything like this directly, but this kind of reflection and review is useful to see what you think about your thesis now it’s done.

Prologue

People sometimes think of The Hobbit as just the prologue to The Lord Of The Rings.

The story of The Hobbit is barely a footnote in the first Lord Of The Rings movie. They take a few seconds to say “Bilbo found a magic ring” – but there’s so much more to it than that! Dwarves and trolls and fantastic expeditions, elves and a dragon and incredible heroism…

The Hobbit is an epic adventure. It’s not only so Bilbo can find the One Ring.

…we now cut from Nathan’s Book & Movie Review Corner, back to the Viva Survivors blog…

I think candidates sometimes forget that the time spent doing the PhD is not just the prologue. And your thesis is for more than passing the viva. It isn’t just there to please your examiners and pass an exam. It stands as a separate, lasting contribution. It means something.

The ways you change, the things you learn, the things you can do by the end – it’s epic, not just the prologue.

I love The Hobbit, but The Lord Of The Rings is the grander story. Your life after the PhD probably will be too.

A Lot To Celebrate

Celebration is a human fundamental. We’re wired to mark the important things, and finishing a PhD is a big one. There are lots of points where you can stop and say, “Woohoo!” and it’s useful to mark your progress.

Celebrate your first draft being done, then celebrate when you submit.

Do something to celebrate getting your viva date, because you’re one step closer to the finish line.

When you pass have as many celebrations as you like, one for each group you belong to – family, friends, colleagues, and so on – and then celebrate again when your corrections are complete.

There is a lot to celebrate. Celebrations don’t have to be big, but finishing your PhD is a big deal. Don’t play it down. Don’t focus solely on it being done and move on to the next thing.

Why does getting your PhD mean something to you? Celebrate it.