Skeletons

Let’s make some assumptions about your PhD:

  • you didn’t plagiarise;
  • you didn’t falsify results;
  • you didn’t try to misrepresent anything in your work.

All fair? Then there can’t really be any skeletons in your research closet. Maybe there are realisations you feel you “should” have had sooner. Maybe there are questions or ideas that you groan at having considered. None of these are shameful secrets though. You might not feel like telling everyone about them, but they don’t disqualify you.

Fundamental question about your PhD: were you honest? Yes?

Good. Then everything else helped you learn. Your mistakes have helped you grow to be the talented researcher you most definitely are.

My Dinosaur Socks, My Purple Sweater

These are my two biggest confidence boosters, at least in the winter and early spring. Summer is on the way, and so my purple sweater will soon be folded and stored away. My dinosaur socks can still provide an extra layer of help to me; I have music and routines that help steer me – both when I deliver workshops and when I’m working at home – but as my sweater goes away I’ll be looking around for other helpful primers and reminders.

Confidence for the viva doesn’t solely depend on tricks, but it’s helpful to look for and find things that help you. It’s not just hoping things go well, but it’s not magic either. Explore: what will make the difference for you? What will help lead you to being your best self in the viva?

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.

Some Significant, Original Questions

A thesis needs to contain a significant, original contribution. A viva needs to have some exploration of this. So in preparation for the viva’s discussion, it makes sense to spend some time reflecting and exploring these factors.

On significant:

  • Why is your work valuable?
  • Who is it valuable to?
  • How would you describe the importance of your research?
  • What makes it special?
  • What makes it matter?

On original:

  • What aspects are novel?
  • In what ways is your work different?
  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • How does your work change your field?
  • How can you qualify the originality?

Not every useful viva prep question is typical of a question you might get in the viva. Not every question might prompt an answer for you. Some answers might overlap. The point is to get thinking and writing and see where this leads you.

The Three Rs of Viva Prep

I have a new pet theory.

The work involved in preparing for the viva can be summarised with three Rs: refreshing, reframing and rehearsing.

  • Refreshing: getting your head clearer about what you’ve done. Checking your thesis and what helped shape it.
  • Reframing: looking differently at your work. Exploring what it means and trying to see it from different perspectives.
  • Rehearsing: finding opportunities to practise what’s required of the viva. Finding ways to engage with questions and have useful conversations.

To be ready for the viva means spending time on tasks that allow these three things. Effective viva preparation involves improving your mental picture of your research, examining it from other perspectives, and investing time in preparing for being in the viva itself. Different viva prep tasks might require a combination of the Rs. Annotating your thesis, for example, might bridge between refreshing and reframing; a mock viva is largely about rehearsing, but could involve refreshing or reframing as well.

I’ll write more about the three Rs in the future. I don’t have a fully worked out model yet, but I’m excited about this concept for exploring viva preparation tasks. I’m hopeful that it will help me to better communicate what viva prep is all about.

Email me if you have questions or thoughts about this – it might help me to explain the idea better!

First Class Viva

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to fly first class, but I’ve been fortunate to travel first class by train a few times in the last year.

I’m a fan of first class. The seats are a little comfier, the carriage is a little nicer, and the free tea and biscuits are very nice. By comparison, most of the time when I travel in standard, the train is a little crowded, the tables a little smaller, the tea is expensive and I bring my own biscuits.

Of course, the train gets you to your destination, first class or standard. In reality the differences are all little. The seats aren’t that much bigger. The table isn’t made of gold. The conductor isn’t your butler. It’s just a few little things, but they add up to a big smile and a good experience.

I think the same is true for the viva. It won’t take 101 big things – or even 101 small things – to make your viva a great moment in your PhD journey. Think about what would make the difference for you, then think about what you could do to help your viva be great.

Make a little list, then see how you can make it a reality.

It won’t take a lot to make your viva a first class experience.

The Trade-Off

There are lots of people who can help with your viva preparations, but the two most useful groups are your supervisors and your colleagues. They can provide similar kinds of help with unpicking the research you’ve done, but they have different restrictions.

  • Your supervisors can give you depth of thought and feedback, but they are probably very busy.
  • Your colleagues may have great availability, but won’t have deep knowledge of your thesis.

So you have the trade-off, availability versus depth: you have to decide what will help you most.

If you need real detail, then you probably have to get help from your supervisors. So you might need to plan in advance how and when you’ll get help. If you really just need someone to listen, and your supervisor is time-pressured, then perhaps you can lean more on your colleagues in an ad-hoc way.

There are lots of things you can ask for from supervisors and colleagues. And you can use both groups to support your preparations, you don’t need to cut anyone out! As you submit your thesis, think: What’s left? What do you need? Who do you need?

A Better List Than Typos

During preparation, instead of listing thesis typos…

  • Take a sheet of paper.
  • Start reading your thesis.
  • Make a list of everything that makes you feel good.

Typos have to be fixed at some point; it’s more useful in prep to build and re-build your picture of what makes your thesis great.

This will help your confidence a lot more than being sure of all your spelling mistakes.

Two Hundred!

Every now and then I blink my eyes in amazement when I realise I’ve published so-many-hundred blog posts here. Last week I did something similar and celebrated delivering my 200th Viva Survivor session. I was first asked in 2009 to deliver a “viva survival” workshop, and for a few years it was just an occasional thing I did. I really enjoyed it, and got helpful feedback, but it wasn’t my passion.

Then something changed. I don’t know exactly what, but something hooked me, and Viva Survivor became the thing I looked forward to more than anything. I went from doing four or five in a year to doing ten. Then last year I did fifty! About two years ago this blog became an integral part of the feedback loop: ideas and questions from sessions become posts, posts help me to work out ideas that then help more people in the Viva Survivor sessions.

In two hundred sessions I’ve helped 3601 PhD candidates, travelled to universities all over the UK and found something that I’m eager to do forever. Thank you to everyone who’s invited me to share the session, everyone who I’ve met along the way and to all of you who read this blog and help me share ideas that help others get ready for their viva.

I’m already looking forward to session 300 🙂