Fun Viva Prep

Just because the viva is serious, it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your preparations.

  • Buy some nice stationery to write notes on.
  • Use bright colours to highlight your thesis.
  • Have coffee with friends while you discuss your work.
  • Find interesting questions to answer about your thesis.
  • Consider unusual ways to summarise your research.
  • Host a prep party – a seminar with added cake!

Make your preparations fun and you probably make them easier to spend time on.

The Flatpack Viva

Thank you for taking the time to assemble your viva!

Be familiar with the instructions before you begin assembly: regulations, general expectations, thoughts on useful preparations, advice from friends, advice from the internet.

The viva requires a minimum of three to put together.

You will need your own tools.

Ensure all necessary components – research, thesis, candidate, examiners – are in good condition before you start.

As the volume of instructions about your viva can be great, perhaps consider summarising them on a single sheet of paper with a pen.

(paper and pen are not provided)

Note: the length of your finished viva will be different from pre-existing vivas due to natural variability of materials!

Your viva is simple to put together. Just follow the instructions.

Nervous Is Normal

I haven’t met many PhD graduates or future viva candidates who weren’t at least a little nervous. Nervous is very common; if you feel it before your viva then you’re in a pretty normal state.

But nervous doesn’t usually comfortable.

We can distinguish between good nerves and bad nerves, the former before a happy event, the latter before something unwanted. In both cases there’s probably a degree of importance with the event. Nervousness and importance are correlated, two factors braided together in life’s tapestry. What if… something unexpected happens? Or what will happen? What if something goes wrong?

So nervous is normal for the viva. Nervous is sort-of expected given the nature of the viva.

Nervous doesn’t have to be all you feel though. You can feel excited: the viva is one of the last big things to do before the end of your PhD. You can feel knowledgeable: you know your work and your thesis. You can feel talented: you must be capable to get this far.

You can feel confident you are in the right place, ready to act.

Nervous is normal for the viva. Many, many more emotions could be normal too.

Defending Your Work

In the viva it means supporting your thesis.

It means restating what you did, or replying to a question about a related aspect. It could be listening to another point of view and reconciling it with your work. It could be clearing up a mistaken belief that your examiner holds. It could be making your work clearer because it wasn’t clear in your thesis. It could be all of these things and other things besides.

Defending your work does not mean being defensive. Defensive is not listening. Defensive is thinking that you are right, no matter what. Defensive won’t help.

You could be angry or upset with a comment or question, you can feel what you feel – but you’ll serve your thesis and your viva better by defending your work, rather than by being defensive.

Listen to the question or comment. Check it against what you think and feel. Think about your response. Check it for emotion – you don’t need to be a robot, but be careful you’re not just reacting to a negative feeling.

Defend, not defensive.

The Last Thing

One of my favourite questions to ask final year PhD researchers is “What’s the biggest challenge in the way of you finishing?”

It’s good to focus. It’s good, even if it is something scary, to get it out in the open. Once it is acknowledged, it can be worked on. Once you’ve said, “This is the biggest, most important thing I still have to do,” then you can start to plan what actions need to be taken. Maybe you won’t work on it every day, but you know what your biggest priority is.

It could also be a good way to frame your viva preparation.

Maybe, “What is the most important thing I need to do before the viva?”

Or, “What is the biggest gap in my preparation?”

Or, maybe try asking yourself, “What’s the best thing I can do to continue my success?”

“Do It My Way”

Be cautious when someone tells you there’s only one way to get ready for the viva.

I think there are some really good principles in effective preparation. Read your thesis, annotate it, find opportunities to practise, and so on – but there are many ways you could do all of those things.

Some people will want a mock viva (and some candidates will feel they need one), while others will prefer simply talking with friends. I think it’s better for candidates to take their time to read their thesis, but because of preferences or other priorities that won’t be an option for some people.

Ask others about their experiences, ask for advice, but think twice when someone says, “Do it my way.” It will probably be well-intentioned, but it might not work for you. Think about how it fits your thesis, your preferences and the options you have at that time.

And be generous with your advice when sharing it, but understanding to know that what worked for you might not be appropriate for your friend.

Citing Examiners

You might cite them, you might not. It depends on lots of factors:

  • What work you’ve done;
  • The shape of your field and the number of people working in it;
  • Who your examiners are;
  • When they were suggested as potential examiners;
  • How the work they do intersects with the work you’ve done;
  • And many, many more reasons…

It’s neither intrinsically good or intrinsically bad for you to cite them. It’s not a requirement to cite publications by your examiners.

But if you have: make sure you check those papers again before your viva. Be sure you’re familiar with why you used them, how you used them and what they did for your thesis.

Thick-skinned About Your Thesis?

You have to expect your examiners might have criticisms. You can also expect they will be fair in the way they communicate them to you.

You don’t need to be particularly thick-skinned to take any critical comments – but you need to expect your examiners might have comments and corrections for you.

Perfection isn’t realistic, but neither is a totally critical appraisal of your research.

Getting Support For The Viva

It’s easier if you know what you need and what you want.

It’s easier if you know what people can offer and what they can’t.

It’s easier if you think about it in advance, instead of when time is tight.

It’s easier if you know what you want to feel like when you’re done preparing, and who might help you get to that point.

And it’s easier once you realise that there are lots of people who could help – who would help – if you just asked.