The Pieces of the Viva Puzzle

There’s a lot of things wrapped up in the idea of a viva. It’s uncertain sometimes, what to do, how to be, what do you need, what do you have… Keeping track of all of the parts can feel hard.

Maybe it’s like a 1000-piece jigsaw without a picture to guide you. Hard, but not impossible. A challenge, but there are methods for solving the problem: find the corners, find the edges, group colours, start building it up, and so on.

With uncertainty you can’t always have step-by-step instructions, but you can have a method that moves you forward.

Remember: you’re already moving when your viva comes around. This isn’t the beginning, it’s the next step. So where are you? How did you get here? What could you do that would take you closer to ready? And what are you going to do next?

What are the final pieces for your viva puzzle?

Your First Choice

As you get closer to submission and the end of your PhD, it’s worth exploring possible examiners.

Who would be your number one pick for your external examiner? Why? What do they have that others don’t?

How about for your internal? Who in your department would be your top choice? Why?

You could suggest these people to your supervisor, and they might agree or not. It’s probably useful to have a couple of names in mind in case people are busy, and again, they might agree or not. Your first choice might be your examiners or not, but it doesn’t hurt to think about this at all.

  • If they are your examiners, then you’ve done work already for your viva prep. You’re one step closer to being ready.
  • If they’re not, then you’ve had the chance to practise exploring someone and their work. Now you can build on that for your viva preparations.

Nothing is wasted. It all helps. Your first choice might be the your examiner, or they could help you all the same if they’re not.

Atypical

There are regulations for vivas, and expectations for vivas, but all vivas are different. Some are more different than others.

My viva took four hours. That makes it different from most, by comparison a long viva.

I gave a presentation to start my viva. That made it different, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I was stood for all of my viva, which is really different! I started my presentation, and my examiners neatly segued into questions. I just stayed where I was by the chalkboard. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or wrong (although close I started to feel pretty tired towards the end). This was just how my viva was.

All vivas are different is another way of recognising that every viva is unique. Every viva is a custom, one-off examination process, that follows expectations and guidelines and academic culture, but is still unique.

Unique or different, this doesn’t mean bad. Just… different!

Some vivas are more different than others, but the purpose is always the same.

Make sure you know what the purpose of the viva is: what your examiners are there to do and what you are there to do. Know this before you get there and you’ll feel far more comfortable even if your viva is atypical.

Build Your Own Resources

Whenever I commit the time to make a resource, I’ve chosen to make something as broadly useful as possible. The tiny book of viva prep is designed to be useful to everyone. The list of thesis examination regulations took time to do because I was trying to find all of the regulations.

I hope PhD candidates find my resources useful. As part of your viva prep I strongly encourage you to make your own too. Write summaries of key chapters of your thesis. Create a list of key references in your bibliography. Annotate your thesis pages to make them even more useful. Write lists of key questions you’d like to ask your examiners if you had the opportunity.

There’s a place for lots of useful viva prep resources: broad resources to start the process, and highly focussed ones just for you. There are plenty of people, me included, who can help with the generally helpful pieces. Only you can create the specific ones to help you get to and through the viva.

Remember the resources you build now are built on years of work too: you’ve created a lot of resources to get this far.

Power Ups For The Viva

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of power ups for the viva!

  • Wearing the right outfit for you.
  • Having a mock viva.
  • Two cups of coffee.
  • Re-reading your methods chapter.
  • The right conversation with the right person.
  • Knowing the regulations.
  • Listening to music that helps you relax.
  • Doing something that helps you feel better.
  • Making notes about examiners.
  • Wearing your good day socks.

Some are common sense. Some make sense. Some seem like nonsense – but they only have to help you feel powered up for your viva, they don’t have to be for everyone.

Some you could do regularly to help. Others are one-offs. Some you have to wait for the viva to come around.

For some you can see the direct helpful link, and for others you can probably see that they’re helpful placebos, things that remind or encourage.

You might not be in total control of how you feel about your viva, but you’re not powerless either. What power ups will you choose to use?

Viva Of The Year

There’s no such prize, at least, as far as I’m aware! But it’s fun to think about the possible criteria a viva would have to satisfy to put it on a shortlist…

  • Would it have to have a substantial discussion – but not be too long?
  • Maybe it could only result in minimal corrections – but how would we quantify “minimal” since most vivas end with corrections being asked for?
  • Perhaps we’d have to consider everyone in the room and not just the candidate – what qualities would a Viva Of The Year nominee’s examiners have to satisfy?

And who would we get to judge this anyway?!

It’s fun to think about, but rather than focus on whether a viva or your viva is “the best”, it’s more useful to work on things you can do something about.

Learn about your examiners, and if you can, have a discussion with your supervisor about the selection and nomination process. Submit the best thesis you can, and spend a little time getting ready. Learn about viva expectations generally, and see what you can do to live up to your part of the process. Build your confidence, and go to your viva determined to engage fully with your examiners’ questions.

Your viva might not be viva of the year, but it could be a highlight of your year. What will you do to steer it towards that outcome?

Only Difficult

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

The viva is only difficult.

It’s a challenge, but not beyond you.

If it feels overwhelming, reflect a little on the challenges you’ve overcome during your PhD. How big were they? How challenging? How difficult? How many serious obstacles have you overcome to get to the viva?

The viva isn’t trivial, but it’s not impossible either. It’s only difficult.

And you can do difficult.

Interesting Times

I tend to write this blog many weeks in advance. As of today, Monday 16th March 2020, I have posts readied until April 5th, but today it felt right to pause and add an extra post.

The world is changing, quickly, and in some ways unpredictably.

Often, change seems gradual, perhaps so slow that we don’t even notice it happening. With some countries today in lockdown, social norms in flux, universities in the UK closing their doors for now, and all of this happening in the space of weeks, it’s difficult to see what happens next.

Last Friday I was in Bristol, delivering a Viva Survivor session, and in and amongst the questions about viva lengths, concerns about going blank or wondering what makes a good examiner, an important question came from the room:

What do I do if my viva is cancelled? I have a date, I’ve booked time off work to prepare, but it might be postponed or move online. What do I do? How can I get ready?

In that moment and since I have had a hundred and one thoughts about how to respond to this concern – a concern which must be going through a lot of PhD candidates’ minds right now. Here are a few:

  • If it’s cancelled, it will be re-arranged.
  • Your prep still counts. It adds to making you ready.
  • If you pause your prep, you can unpause later.
  • If your viva is online, you can make it work. Check details, check the systems involved.
  • If an examiner has to cancel, another will be found. Think about who else could meet the standard for a good examiner for you.

If you’re facing this situation won’t say “don’t worry”. That never helps. I’ll advise you to think – even if the timeline to your viva is now uncertain – think about what you can do today to make tomorrow better. Worry can’t be avoided, but worry won’t solve a situation. Your work will, your actions will. So what actions now will help you in the future for your viva? If you can’t yet act to reduce uncertainty, how can you act to increase your own confidence or talent?

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In the short term, it looks like I’m working from home for at least a few months. There will be challenges with that, but also, perhaps, the space for new ideas or opportunities. A Viva Survivor session I was to deliver in person next week is now going to be a webinar. I have never delivered a webinar before! So this will be a chance to learn, grow and develop. We’ll see where that leads. I’ll be using some of my time at home to make more resources and find more ways to help candidates get ready for their viva.

Potentially, the situation in the world means some of my work will be cancelled. As a self-employed person that’s a little unsettling, at times it feels a little scary. But I feel confident that things will work out eventually. If you can help me, do check out my Ko-fi page, consider becoming a follower or supporter there. Or if you’re looking for general, considered viva support, take a look at my ebooks. Little things will help, and if you can help me, I thank you.

But help others first. If someone around you has their viva coming up, and because of the situation in the world they’re extra-worried, extra-nervous, consider how you can support them. Consider what little actions could help them to feel just a little better, because it all adds up. And if no-one around you needs help with their viva, consider how else you can be a helper for those around you.

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

If Not Now, When?

This question has been rattling around in my head at Viva Survivor sessions lately. If someone says they’re not ready for their viva when they submit their thesis, gently challenge them with this question.

(gently!)

For some it will be a little nudge to think, “Oh, there’s still time. I’ve submitted, but I can take time over the coming weeks to get prepared. I’m not ready now… but I soon will be!”

For most candidates, I hope it would be a little nudge to think, “Oh… If I’ve got this far, there must be a reason… My work has to have something, or I wouldn’t have submitted…”

If you’re unsure whether or not you feel ready for your viva, gently challenge yourself with the question, and see how that nudges you.

Practically, when candidates submit their thesis they are capable of meeting the challenges they’ll find in their viva. There’s a big difference between being ready and feeling ready.

So, if you don’t feel ready now, when will you? More importantly, what could you do to help you find that state?

Riddles

While your examiners might feel inscrutable at times, they aren’t Sphinxes.

Questions aren’t obscure, topics aren’t hidden, and the purpose isn’t a game…

…or life-or-death!

Some examiner questions could be anticipated, but not all. While they might be tricky to answer, you can take your time. You’ll have your thesis with you too, a resource to give you lots of information at your fingertips.

And finally, if a question in the viva might feel like a riddle or a challenge, remember it might not have a single right answer. In some cases it will have only the best response you can give.

Maybe a response that only you can give.