Onions

Peel an onion layer back carefully and there’s more underneath. Again and again, not infinitely but quite a way. It takes patience and effort to go down layer by layer.

The same’s true with your research. One can see the end result, but with patience and effort you can dig deep into what’s there. It’s built on a lot. You can ask why many times. So can your examiners. They can dig deep and explore motivations, assumptions, the fundamentals. It’s not for fun, it’s for their understanding and to show yours.

You can be ready for the viva by digging below the surface, prepare by examining the background. Test your assumptions. Remember why your work is valuable. You don’t need to go too deep though, going further and further, ad infinitum. That way lies a lot of tears.

Which brings us back to onions.

Expect The Unexpected

Hindsight is wonderful. Before my viva I worried about whether or not I would forget things in the moment; would I be able to explain this process or that proof, things I knew really well…

…what if, what if, what if…

It never occurred to me that my examiners might ask me questions that, well, had never occurred to me.

I didn’t expect that they would ask questions about the background of my field. I didn’t expect that they would ask questions to explore things which I thought were obviously true. I didn’t expect them to question why I had included a chapter exploring a topic that had produced negative results.

I didn’t expect that they would only ask a fraction of the questions that I had expected.

Your examiners will ask you questions you could plan for, but they will probably also ask questions that you can’t anticipate – because you’re not them, you think differently, have different experiences and knowledge and are approaching the viva with a different agenda.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be prepared for them.

  • Use the valuable opportunities of a mock viva or conversations with friends to get comfortable answering questions you haven’t considered before.
  • Read through your thesis and try to imagine how someone other than you might read it. What would they be thinking? What could they ask?
  • Realise that your examiners are not asking unexpected questions for fun: they’re exploring your work to drive the process of the viva.

It’s impossible to anticipate every question in the viva. It is possible to engage with every question that your examiners ask.

Record Your Mock Viva

I came across this tip while listening back to episodes of the podcast: if you have a mock viva, record it so that you can review it later.

Listen to check whether or not you paused to think about answers. Listen to think about whether or not there were other things you could say. Listen to see if, with hindsight, there were questions which surprised you or which you might want to practise further.

Listen to hear someone who is just around the corner from passing their viva.

Highly Unlikely

Twice recently I’ve been asked, “Is it possible to submit a perfect thesis but then fail your viva?” I’ve written about the impossibility of the perfect thesis in the past, so let’s modify it slightly: can you fail if your thesis is really good?

I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s got to be highly unlikely. Right? How do you submit a really good thesis? Only by doing really good research. You have to have built up a talent for asking and answering questions. You have to have built up a talent for doing practical research in your field. Even if you don’t like being in situations like you imagine the viva to be, you’re going to be able to meet the challenge.

Can you fail if your thesis is really good?

This question comes out of worry, anxiety and fear. Find the root concern and you can address the problem. Worried that you’re treading on an examiner’s research? Find out more about it, so that you know more. Anxious that your mind will go blank? Read your thesis carefully and make summaries to help you think it through. Afraid your examiners will have harsh comments? Ask friends about the tone of their vivas to reassure yourself.

It’s understandable to be worried. Find the cause and think about how to address it. Do that, and the question will disappear.

Interrogation/Inquisition

Candidates joke about these terms to describe the viva, but I think the joke masks real fears. They worry that examiners will come in and speak harshly, treat them or their thesis with a lack of respect. They worry that they will come in with an agenda, a pre-determined outcome based on “the right way” to do research.

I can’t say this never happens. I can say that I’ve not heard of many viva experiences that match this fear. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about their vivas, and it’s not come up much. Talk to people from your field about their viva experiences. You’ll find that there are ways that examiners generally behave. They’ve generally prepared well, read your thesis carefully and have fair questions in mind to drive a discussion.

Listen to stories and get it settled in your head: if your examiners disagree with an idea, a method, a conclusion, they will treat you with respect and they will be open to your explanations. They’re not interrogators or inquisitors.

Inevitable

If you’re doing a PhD, the viva is coming. It will happen. It is all about your work, your ideas and what they all mean. The viva reveals things, to your examiners and to you. Your examiners have read your thesis and are exploring something new to them; they’re exploring it with you, the researcher who did it.

However you feel now, today, there’s time to get ready. If your viva is two years away, you have time to explore good examiners. If your viva is tomorrow, you have time to make quick summaries or use questions to unpick your argument. If your submission is six months away you have time to review your thesis structure and explore if there’s any way to improve it. If you submitted a month ago, have time to carefully read your thesis.

Doing a PhD? Your viva is inevitable. But you can be ready when you reach that day. You have time.

Where Did I Hear That…?

I listen to a couple of podcasts quite regularly – The Tim Ferriss Show and Revisionist History are both favourites of mine – and on one recently I heard someone say something that lodged in my head as being quite useful:

Regular review readily resolve random readings.

Ironically, I can’t remember where I heard this! But it is definitely good advice. I lost track of the number of times during my PhD where I thought, “Oh, I know this, now where…” and just couldn’t find the reference. You are hopefully doing better than me. You are hopefully managing your references well.

As you’re preparing for your viva, think about how you can summarise your key references. Think about how you can make a good overview of the key points of your argument and your results. You have a lot of this floating in your head, but if you systematically review what you’ve done and where it comes from the information and ideas will be easier to access. Make time to review things several times. It doesn’t have to be every day, but consider making it a habit.

Think about how you might do all this in a way that works for you – then do it.

How To Juggle

One of my heroes, Seth Godin, describes in one of his books why people struggle when they learn to juggle. Wannabe jugglers focus so much on trying to catch balls that they don’t throw them enough. They want the catch to be perfect so they hesitate. The secret, as he shares it, is that you need to throw the ball a lot more and not worry about a perfect catch. Better to start the action first before worrying about how you’ll complete it. Seth’s really talking about projects, and fear, and hesitating before making something good. Every project is throwing the ball from right hand to left, a chance to do something well.

PhDs unfold over a long period of time. A PhD is like a big project, but it’s wrong to see it as a single throw of a ball. There’s so much more involved. Like juggling, you get good at doing the PhD by doing it. Reading more, writing more, doing more. Each step is a single throw. When you’re near submission or the viva you’ve caught the ball a lot. You must have become good at doing your research. You must have become good at being a researcher.

The viva is a big deal. It’s normal to be nervous. If you’re feeling uncertain, reflect on your skills. Reflect on your progress. Reflect on what exists now that didn’t exist when you started your PhD. Your thesis didn’t just happen: you’ve made a lot of catches.

Relevant

In preparing for the viva you get to choose what to focus on. You get to choose what to avoid. Make the choice consciously. The list of advice and practical points is long. It’s unlikely that you can do everything that people advise. You don’t need to do everything.

Listen to advice, but decide for yourself what’s relevant.

(and if your viva is a long way off, this is true for the PhD too)

Nervous and Excited

More candidates tell me they’re nervous rather than excited about their viva. Many who tell me that they’re nervous wish they could feel confident or excited about the big day. Today, for the first time, I can reveal my four step plan to deal with viva nerves!

A process for anyone who is nervous about the viva:

  1. What would move you one step closer to excited? What concrete action could you take?
  2. Go do it.
  3. Are you nervous about the viva? Go to Step 1. Are you no longer nervous? Go to Step 4.
  4. Congratulations!

…If only it were that easy. Nervous and excited are not binary states that you land in and stay in. One day you could wake up excited; two hours later you’re anxious and wondering, “What if…?”

Still, find steps that move you away from nervous and towards excited. Actions will help more than just thoughts. You can do more than hope you’re not too nervous.