And Then A Decade Passed

I passed my viva ten years ago today. It sparked an interest for me that I didn’t know would become a passion and a vocation…

…but a lot of my viva is gone from my memory now. I remember bits and pieces; that’s to be expected I guess.

I remember not sleeping very much the night before.

I remember feeling nervous but not too nervous.

I remember feeling surprised that my examiners asked questions during my presentation.

I remember my internal using the phrase “proof by gravity” and wished I had thought of it.

I remember wondering if everyone stood for their vivas (they don’t – I’ve never met anyone else who has).

I don’t remember 90% of the questions I got.

I don’t remember 95% of the corrections I got.

I don’t remember why I wore a sweater for my viva which was in one of the hottest rooms in the maths building.

I don’t remember who the first person was that I told the result to.

I don’t remember seeing my supervisor afterwards, but he must have been around.

It was a long time ago and a lot has happened since then. My viva was important, but it’s not the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Your viva will be a milestone, but you have to put it in perspective. There’s a lot you’ve done and a lot you will do that will probably matter more.

I remember feeling happy afterwards. I hope you will too.

Fading Letters

After nearly ten years since the end of my PhD, and countless times that my thesis has been in and out of the protective wrapper I keep it in, the gold letters on the spine are starting to gradually fade away.

Which got me thinking about the material in there. Is that disappearing too? How valuable is it now? Has it been superseded, extended, built on or ignored in favour of other things? I don’t know. I was a pure mathematician, and I think we like to think of ourselves as making permanent contributions to knowledge. Proof is proof!

Although I got there first, someone else could find something even more valuable. I’d be referenced (I hope) and my work would have served it’s purpose, but that’s that. Things change. Things move on.

How long will your accomplishments matter? How long until someone does something bigger, better or just different? It’s worth thinking about. It’s not self-defeating, it’s just honest. Help yourself define what your contribution really means. Why does it matter? And for how long?

And how might you frame that in the viva?

Five Day Thesis Breakdown

Your thesis is an expression of your research. But in the viva, and at any time when someone asks you about your work, you can’t just hand them this great book you’ve made and say, “Read it!”

I like thinking about ways to help candidates reflect on their work. I like exploring ways to help people explain their ideas concisely. Here’s a plan of how to spend five days in short activities to break down your thesis and your research contribution.

Day 1: Describe the Why-How-What of your PhD in a single page, no more than 300 words.

Day 2: Use Day 1’s page to write a single paragraph about your PhD. Try to keep it under 100 words. Remove the inessential.

Day 3: Use Day 2’s paragraph to write a sentence describing your PhD – no more than 20 words. You’ll never be able to say everything, so don’t try. What can you get across?

Day 4: Use the work of the previous three days to write down five words. What are the themes of your work? Think about where it all started, how you did it and what your outcomes are.

Day 5: Write down one word. The Big Picture. What is it that stands out?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you to describe your research in a single word, but they will ask you to talk about your work. An exercise like this can help you think about your PhD a lot before the viva. You might never say to someone, “In one word, my research is all about…” but I think you’ll get something valuable from following this process.

Breathe

Take a couple of breaths at the start as you sit down. Calm any nerves.

Take a breath whenever you get asked a question. Force a pause to compose your thoughts.

Mind starting to race? Take a few breaths. Need a second to make a note? Take one.

You will breathe throughout the viva of course. But remind yourself so you don’t get carried away with desperately answering questions. There’s time to breathe and time to think as you take a breath.

How Many Questions?

I was recently asked how many questions a candidate might get in the viva. What is the range like? wondered the nervous PhD. Was there a minimum or maximum number?

I tried to apply some logic to come up with some numbers, but gave up – the question is a red herring. Examiners will have a lot of questions in mind, some driven by your field, some by their interests, some by your thesis. They’ll have questions that you can expect, and some that you can’t. They’ll ask questions that they didn’t know to ask until you said something interesting in the viva too.

I don’t know how many questions will come up in advance of your viva: we could only know that after the fact.

If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know I have ideas about how you can prepare for questions though. Do a good piece of research, write a good thesis and spend some practising answering unexpected questions to build your confidence.

Listening To Others

I started this site almost six years ago for a lot of reasons: I thought it would be useful to share viva stories and help promote an understanding of what the viva was really like; I wanted to know more myself about the variety of experiences that people have; and I thought it would be an interesting and fun challenge.

There’s over sixty episodes in the podcast archive but over time, due to work pressure, family pressure and technology failure, it became less and less easy for me to record the podcast regularly. Then last year I switched my focus to publishing a post about the viva every day. I’m glad that it’s still there as an archive, and if I hadn’t started it I’m sure I would not be doing as much on the viva as I am now.

Of course, you don’t need a podcast to find out about the viva. Ask your colleagues. Find people who have recently had their viva in your field – in your department if you can – and see what their experiences are like. Ask them clear questions and look for details to build as good a picture as possible. You can be unsure about what your examiners might ask in the viva or think about your work, but there’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva unaware of what the process is generally like or the expectations for the event.

Listen. Ask. Learn. Be ready.

And having said all of that… I’m working to make the podcast return in the autumn! Stay tuned for more details… 🙂

One Step Closer

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by research, by writing up, by getting ready for the viva and the day itself. There are lots of things you could do to advance any one of those goals. Sometimes the problem is that there are lots of things you could do alongside many things you already have to do just to be a part of the world.

Start small then.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed then find one small thing you can do (not could, can), and do it. Move yourself one step closer to the finish line of submitting your thesis, or getting ready for the viva. It might not feel like much, but lots of small steps will bring you to your goal.

So what’s your first step going to be?

Perfect Examiners

Like the perfect thesis and the perfect viva, perfect examiners don’t exist.

You can make a list of things that might be ideal (an expert, an experienced academic) or preferable (someone who is nice, someone who could be a good reference), but they’ll never be perfect.

Steer their selection in conversation with your supervisor. Find out what you need to know about their work. Get ready to talk with some experienced academics about your PhD work.

They’ll be good, maybe great, but don’t put them on too high a pedestal.

Three Simple Hows For Viva Prep

On this blog and in my workshops I share a lot of viva prep ideas. No-one needs to follow all of my suggestions: my hope is that the ideas I share spark a path forward. The danger, sometimes, on being presented with lots of options, is that someone might think “I want to do it all!” or “I need to do it all!” or “Oh my gosh, how will I do it all?!”

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about all of the ideas for viva prep; today let me shift gears to give three questions I think can help anyone break down what they will do to prepare for their viva.

Three simple “how” questions:

  1. How much do you need to do?
  2. How much time do you have?
  3. How will you arrange it all?

Focus on you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. There are lots of options but only a few core areas to pay attention to.

Don’t make your viva prep complicated. Just ask three questions to get started.