Find The Words

My daughter will be seven in just over a week. I don’t know where the time has gone.

I’m an obnoxiously proud parent. Don’t get me started, or I’ll tell you all about how well she reads, how she loves to dance, and how mature she can be.

But she won’t eat vegetables. Soft carrots, a little broccoli and smooth hidden-veg sauces are the limits. Peas, corn, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, sprouts… We can’t put them near her!

As mature as I think she is, she’s still only not-quite-7. She can’t explain why she won’t try some vegetables, it’s beyond words for her.

Meanwhile, your viva worries and concerns are explainable. They might be uncomfortable, you might bristle at the thought of whatever it is, but you can put it into words. It’s good to do so. Then you can start to work past where you are.

For example, why do you worry about your examiners’ questions? All questions or just some? What in particular?

Or what do you not feel ready for? It won’t be everything – what exactly? And what could you do?

Once you find the words to describe what you don’t like or you don’t want for your viva you can start to find solutions. Once you find the words you can start to work your way to a better situation.

Passing Prestige

There are different outcomes to vivas, but in the grand scheme of things there’s no real hierarchy with them. We know this because when everything is complete you’re not awarded anything extra for how you pass.

Corrections, minor or major, are for most the necessary work for a pass. But there’s no special seal on your certificate for no corrections, no demerits for having to do more. No official commendation: you pass, and that’s that.

Passing is special enough, right?

7 Reasons Webinar, 10th September 2020

A bonus post for today! The short version: I’m running my 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva webinar this Thursday morning.

I love helping PhD candidates get ready for their viva. Earlier this year, during lockdown, I explored a few ways to reach out and help as much as I could. 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva resonated strongly with participants, and I’m delighted to be offering it again now.

A lot of candidates are told not to worry about their viva. They’re told that it will be fine. They don’t need to stress. And that isn’t helpful. It’s true, but it’s not helpful! Candidates need to know why they don’t need to worry. Candidates need to know what to do to help their concerns.

And that’s what 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva is all about.

If your viva is coming soon, or you’re curious about what you can do to help yourself, the webinar this Thursday, 10th September 2020, will probably help you. You’ll get a sense of what the viva is about, what you can do to prepare, realise what you’ve already done that helps you and more – plus have space to ask any questions that are particularly troubling you.

I think that every PhD candidate could benefit from this session. I’m really proud of what I’ve developed – of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?! 🙂 Don’t just take my word for it:

7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva is running this Thursday, 10th September 2020 at 11am. It’s 1-hour, live, and there are only 40 places. Registration is £10, but until midnight today (Monday 7th) there is an earlybird registration of £5. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll sign-up or tell someone you know who could get some help from this session.

Thanks for your attention 🙂

(and if you have any questions about the session, or about anything really, do get in touch!)

There’s Always Next Time

Until there isn’t.

There’s another opportunity to get things right, another test you can re-run, another day to spend on writing and editing. Until you hit the deadline, the submission date, the limit of your resources.

A fear I’ve heard around the viva is that there’s no next time to make it right. I hear the worry, and I know for most people there is no cause for concern. Most vivas don’t need a second time, most candidates are exactly where they need to be – the overwhelming majority of candidates in fact.

But saying, “Don’t worry,” never helps.

From the small to the large, from worry over responding well to a question to worry about passing at all, there are actions you can take to help yourself.

Worry alone won’t help. You have to work past it.

What can you do to be more ready to respond to questions?

What practise could help convince you that your thesis is good enough?

What reminders could help convince you that you are good enough?

There’s no next time after the viva. You have one opportunity to show what you know and what you can do. One opportunity after thousands of others.

This one is enough.

Your Contribution, Simply

To reach submission you must have made a contribution: you must have done something. Reflecting before the viva and making notes, even using a simple question, can be quite powerful.

To begin with, three simple questions: Why did you do it? How did you do it? What did you do?

If you’re looking to dig a little deeper with simple questions, consider the following:

  • Why is your contribution valuable?
  • How do you know your contribution makes a difference?
  • What does your contribution mean for others?

These are simple to ask, but could have complex responses. Notice too that they are aiming at the same thing – your contribution – but from different perspectives.

By reaching submission you must have done something. Use questions in your preparation to help you explore that something and find useful ways to think about it and share it with others.

Weird Differences

I’ve found a lot of interesting ideas and wisdom from TED Talks since I finished my PhD. One of the shortest, and most helpful for me, is Derek Sivers‘ talk (embedded below) which starts by comparing the way we might distinguish streets and blocks for finding where we are:

I think it’s a nice reminder that people, by culture or personality, might just see things differently to you.

Your internal might see a different interpretation of your data for example, not because you’re wrong and they’re right, but because they see something you didn’t. Your external might think a different method is more appropriate for your research problem, only because they’ve never used your method. Again, they’re not wrong, they’re probably not weird either – they just see things differently.

Ahead of your viva, consider what you’ve done: where could your work be different? Why is it the way that it is? And if it’s “weird,” why is that valid for what you’ve done during your PhD?

Would You Rather?

Would you rather have a long viva or a short one?

Would you rather know at the start exactly what your examiners thought of your thesis, or wait to discover it during the conversation of the viva?

Would you rather give a presentation at the start of your viva, or be asked a question by your examiners to start the process?

Would you rather have a guarantee that you won’t go blank at all, or a guarantee that your examiners will be nice?

Candidates might have preferences about all of these sorts of things, and more, but no way to simply get their preference. Wondering about whether preferences will be met is not unreasonable, but it is space in your mind that could be taken up with confidence, knowledge, expectations and more.

Would you rather focus on things that you could do something about for your viva, or questions that distract you?

Find Your Reasons

While there are general reasons why a PhD candidate will have got to submission, and general reasons why that candidate would pass their viva, personal reasons will be much more powerful. What are yours?

  • What have you learned that has brought you to where you are?
  • What have you achieved?
  • What keeps you going – particularly in 2020?

Find your reasons for why you will pass, and you find a source of confidence that will keep you going.

BOOST Your Mini-Viva

I like my mini-vivas resource, a tool to create valuable practice responding to questions before the viva.

I like the acronym BOOST for feedback – Balanced, Observed, Objective, Specific, Timely – a neat way to remember how to frame constructive feedback.

I’m always tinkering at the back of my mind with various resources, and have a notion these two might fit together quite well. As a starting place, how about the following sets of questions for feedback or reflection after a mini-viva?

If you use have a mini-viva by yourself, try these to help you reflect afterwards:

  • What stands out to you as a good response? What made it good?
  • What questions were challenging for you? Why?
  • What can you take away from this? How is that valuable to you?
  • What might you need to explore next?

If you have a friend help you by steering a mini-viva, then prompt them with the following to get feedback afterwards:

  • What did I communicate well? Why was it clear?
  • What did they not understand? What could I try?
  • What else did they want to know?
  • What other questions would they ask you now?

Having a mini-viva, giving a presentation, having a full mock viva – all of these things by themselves can be useful to give you a space to practise. You can “boost” the benefit you get with some targeted questions and reflections afterwards.

Problems & Opportunities

A problem is an opportunity in workclothes.

I love this phrase. It’s not always possible to remember the wisdom in it: it can be hard to find a solution when you’re stressed, or tired, or overwhelmed. Still, problems can be a great way to develop and to find value, and both reflection and forethought can be useful to stimulate ideas and problem-solving.

In your PhD, what did you learn because of the problems you faced?

When you had challenges, what solutions did you find?

In your prep, if you have only a little time, what could you focus on for the best outcome?

In your viva, if you were challenged, how could you rise to show your talent?

A problem is an opportunity in workclothes.

It’s not always possible to remember this, particularly if you find problems in your research. To begin with don’t sweep them away. Uncomfortable as it may be, sit with your problems, think about them. And then find the value that’s there.

What opportunities have your problems brought to you?

And what opportunities might you then find in the viva?

Perhaps an opportunity to show your talent. An opportunity to show what you learned. An opportunity to show why your research has value.