Dreamer, Realist, Critic

I’m a big fan of creative thinking tools. The Disney Method is one I like a lot. It forces you to break creative thinking into stages by adopting three personas:

  • Dreamer: think of as many ideas as possible; encourage brainstorming; remove constraints and see where thoughts take you.
  • Realist: think about what would work practically; explore within resources and deadlines; see what can be achieved.
  • Critic: think about what won’t work in your ideas; test them to destruction; find problems to solve.

At the end of this kind of process, ideas are stronger and more clearly defined. You can see whether or not they will actually be useful.

Maybe something like this could be a useful framing when it comes to look back over one’s research too:

  • Dreamer: what did you want to do when you started? What were your big goals? How high were you aiming?
  • Realist: what did you actually do during your PhD? How did you tame your objectives? In what ways did you have to adjust the scale of your ambitions?
  • Critic: where are the problems with what you’ve done? What could people object to? What would you do differently, and why?

You might not get these exact questions in the viva, but they might not be a million miles away either. Tools like this can be useful to unpick and explore. They can boost your confidence at going over your research in the viva.

Bonus questions: Which are you most like in your day-to-day, a Dreamer, a Realist or a Critic? How well does that work for you?

Coffee Break

Viva coming up? Offer to take your friends out for coffee. Buy their attention for the price of an americano, or if summer arrives a frappuccino.

There’s a lot you can do in forty minutes over a coffee.

If your friend has some understanding of your research then give them a good summary of what you’ve done; ask them for questions, what do they need to know? What wasn’t clear?

Are they a good friend? Give them a chapter or two to read ahead of time, and over a latte dive straight into questions. What do they want to know? What are their thoughts?

Really good friend? Give them your thesis draft a few weeks before and brace yourself for questions. You may need to buy them a muffin.

You can get some valuable help from friends over coffee. Chances to practise questions, opportunities to think some more about your work. Really valuable. Your friends get something valuable too: they get the chance to see someone who is close to the finish line. They can read your thesis and see a possible format for theirs. They can be inspired by you.

And they get coffee!

Short

In a workshop a few weeks ago someone asked, “How can you keep the viva short?”

I took a long pause before answering. My answer: “Not much.”

You can answer questions well – providing the information or analysis requested, explaining things and so on – but that doesn’t mean that you will shorten the viva. I’ve heard stories from people who had short afternoon vivas and knew their external had a pre-booked train to catch. It’s all anecdotal though.

I missed a more important question in that session. I could have asked the person, “Why do you want to keep the viva short?” I wonder now what was at the root of their question. Vivas take as long as they take. They vary in length for a host of reasons.

There’s no need to rush: you can take the time you need to answer questions well. Many people tell me they feel their vivas took no time at all, My four hour viva went by in an eyeblink. It’s all anecdotal though!

My advice? Focus on being prepared, don’t worry about how long it will take. You can’t influence the length of the viva, but you can steer how well you will perform.

Go!

We have a “go bag” packed in our house. In case of emergency it has water, a torch, change of clothes and so on all packed and ready.

What if you woke up late on viva day? What if you needed to get to your viva quickly?? What would be in your viva go bag???

Three things: your thesis, annotated to your heart’s content; pen and paper, so that you can make notes; water, because talking about research is thirsty work.

Those are the essentials; you can pack more if you need. What’s in your viva day kit?

Whimsy

Maybe we need a little more fun in viva prep. After all, just because something is fun, doesn’t mean that it’s not serving a serious purpose. One approach to viva prep is to try to explore your research or thesis in a new way. Here are seven whimsical questions that might help with that goal:

  • Can you write fifty words to describe your research without using the letter E?
  • Can you explain your thesis using fun metaphors?
  • Is it possible to describe how you would do your research with twice as many resources?
  • What you would cut from your research if you had only three-quarters of the time you had?
  • How would you have done your research if you were Batman?
  • Can you summarise your thesis in a haiku?
  • How would you draw your research with stick figures to explain it?

This is another workout exercise: it’s unlikely that your examiners will ask any of these in the viva. But if you use them in prep you stretch your thinking. You look at things in a new light. You find new ideas. And you might raise a smile too. What could be bad about that?

SMART Viva Prep

I’m a big fan of SMART, the acronym of criteria for effective goal-setting. There are various definitions; my personal flavour of SMART is Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve banged my head against a wall with a project, then realised it was because I wasn’t really defining what I was trying to do. SMART always brings me back on track.

Want to set a good plan in motion for your viva prep? Use SMART and the following questions to help frame your prep plans:

  • Specific: what exactly are you going to do? “Read my thesis” isn’t specific; read Chapters 2 and 3 is specific.
  • Measurable: how will you know when you’re done? It’s easy to keep going and going. What tells you to stop?
  • Advantages: why are you doing this? (hopefully easy in the context of viva prep!)
  • Realistic: is it do-able given your time and resources? It’s important not to try to squeeze too much in to a limited schedule.
  • Time-bound: how much time are you aiming to give to a task? And what will you do afterwards?

Being SMART will remove some of the challenges. You’ll still have to do the work, but you’re used to that by now. Plan your success.

Start

When is the best time to start viva prep? I don’t know, at least not for you.

I don’t know how long your thesis is, whether or not you have a partner or kids, whether or not you have a job, whether or not you’re applying for jobs. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about your prep already, how often you have presented at conferences, how comfortable you feel about answering questions about your research.

So I don’t know when you need to start preparing.

However, I do have some thoughts that might help you:

  • Take at least two weeks off after submission before you read your thesis again. You can then approach it with a fresh perspective.
  • Give yourself at least two weeks to prepare. You will feel better if you can take your time a little and spread out the work.
  • Block out a rough period in your diary when you think you will be preparing for the viva. It helps to visualise a project.
  • Think about what you want to do and estimate how long it might take. Then add 20%.
  • Look at the time period you blocked out and the tasks you want to do. Explore how you will break that up.
  • Ensure you make some time to practise answering questions alongside all the writing and thinking prep.

And: don’t stress about preparation. Think a little about what you need, take steps toward getting it done.

The Fourth Option

I’ve heard there are three common responses to anxiety or fear: freeze, fight or flight. Now, my PhD is in pure maths, so I have no idea if that’s 100% right, but it got me thinking about stress over questions in the viva. If an examiner asks a tough question or makes an observation that isn’t in line with the way you think, you could:

  • Freeze: mind goes blank, no idea what to do, just hold still and hope that they move on.
  • Fight: go to war with them, take no prisoners, do everything to bring their arguments to their knees.
  • Flight: try to umm and ahh your way free, take evasive action and hope you get out.

Fortunately, there’s another option: Figure it out. Take a pause, think about what’s actually been said; ask some more questions if need be. Make sure you understand what your examiner has said. Ask them why. Get as much information as you can, and then try to resolve the situation.

No need to panic, battle or run. Just think.

One Percent

What could you do to make your preparation for the viva better by 1%?

There’s a really great story and idea behind the aggregation of marginal gains (see here) but simply: small changes can add up to huge improvements. You don’t have to make a single massive difference, lots of small differences could be just as powerful. If you wanted to make a 1% difference to your viva prep, what could you do? What tools would you need? What questions could you ask? How big a change would you have to make in order to see huge improvements?

Some 1% ideas from me:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter. This will take two minutes but will make chapters and pages easier to find.
  • Use a sheet of paper to cover pages as you read through during prep. You won’t skim or skip sections, and will read everything.
  • Ask friends to surprise you with questions about your research. You’ll grow to feel more comfortable with unexpected questions.
  • Practise pausing before you answer a question. You’ll feel more confident about that small silence.

1% improvements add up. They don’t have to have huge time or opportunity costs to implement. What else could you do?

Six Whys

Why questions are the root of reflection. You have to take a step back and ponder. Here are six for viva preparation:

  1. Why were you attracted to your field of study?
  2. Why was your particular focus worth pursuing?
  3. Why were the methods you used the best fit for what you did?
  4. Why are you certain of the results you’ve found?
  5. Why is your interpretation of those results correct?
  6. Why is your research a significant contribution to your field?

Big questions. Take some time to think about these, maybe journal them or make some notes. They get at the core of your research.