New Questions

When you’re preparing for the viva, if you just ask the same questions as before to unpick your research you won’t uncover anything new.

If you find new questions then you could find a new perspective. Find different questions, odd questions, unfamiliar questions and then perhaps you could find something interesting.

Something to focus on. Something to check. Something to change. Something to revise. Something to share.

Look for new questions, new opportunities to reflect on and think through your work.

Something great.

Future Focus

It can be hard to look past the end of the PhD.

Try to imagine graduating. Picture crossing the stage at graduation, if it helps. Picture shaking the hand of someone distinguished. It’s a symbol that says you did it. That moment is months away perhaps, maybe longer, but it’s out there.

You’ll get there.

Imagine future opportunities (some you could be working towards now, even before you submit or have your viva). A job, a business, a series of projects or maybe even just a long-awaited break.

You’ll get there.

You just have to keep doing the work now.

A focus on the future can help make the present more hopeful. If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re unsure, if you’re bored, or even happy but only thinking about the viva or getting your thesis, then think about the future.

Think, I’ll get there; so what do I do now?

After Your Viva…

…take ten minutes and talk to some future candidates in your department or network. Tell them about your viva experience. Set your focus on sharing what happened and what it felt like.

Share what sorts of questions you got. Share what surprised you. Share anything you can about the flow and format.

Your story is unique, but if more viva stories are shared perhaps the overall perception of the viva will shift a little. It will be less of an unknown. More people will have a sense of what it’s all about.

Share your viva story when you’re done.

Average and Typical

What is an average viva?

I get this question at least once a month. I struggle to answer.

I can’t talk about length, because while there is a skewing towards two hours across disciplines, the range is pretty big. It’s tricky to talk about the exact style of the exam; it is a semi-structured discussion but the nature of questions is going to vary a lot from discipline to discipline.

Examiners will be qualified and prepared, but they might not be experts – depending on your field there might not be an expert who can examine you. I suppose it is fair to say most people find out the result within thirty minutes of the end of the viva (after a short break). Most people are fairly happy with the corrections they’re asked to do.

But what is average?

Can we change the question? How about: what is typical for the viva?

Typically it comes at the end of a successful project. Typically the candidate has spent a significant period of time becoming experienced. Typically they’ve written a good thesis. Typically they’ve continued to build on all of this work in the period leading up to the viva by getting prepared.

There are lots of ways the variety of vivas struggle to come to some average. But typically? Typically, you’re up to the challenge.

Reflecting on the Edited Bibliography

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography as part of viva preparations: figuring out the core of your bibliography and where your research comes from.

You can go a step further than just making a list of your best references. Start with the following questions to really reflect on your research:

  1. Pick a paper. Why is it more valuable than many others in your bibliography?
  2. Which chapter is it most relevant to?
  3. How, explicitly, have you used it in furthering your work?
  4. What other papers does it connect up with in your edited bibliography?
  5. Are there any downsides to basing your work on this paper?
  6. Think about the whole list. How do these papers fit together?
  7. How many groups could you place them in, and how would you label them?
  8. What papers have you left out of your edited bibliography and why?
  9. If you could add one more paper to your edited bibliography, what would it be and why?

During your PhD, you dig into your field to help bring your research to life. During your viva prep, you can dig into your bibliography to help yourself even more.

Keep digging.

Two Weeks

Thesis done? Submitted?

Take at least two weeks off.

Take two weeks away from reading your thesis, making notes or trying to unpick what all that work has been about. There is plenty of time to prepare for the viva. If you feel like you must do something then check recent journals and stimulate your brain with some new ideas.

You don’t need to keep going with your thesis. In fact, you’ll probably see things with more clarity when you get some distance from your work.

Story Time

My sister got me some Story Cubes for my birthday last month. I’d played with some before, but never had a set to call my own. They’re great for playing little story-making games and just generally for helping ideas along.

Last week as I was having a little fun they fell into the following sequence:

My mind jumped to the viva straight away!

PhD candidates spend a long time learning enough to write their thesis. Things are going well, through good times and bad, then they look ahead and all they see is questions coming their way! Questions in the viva, questions about the viva, questions and questions and questions… But help is at hand. There’s lots of support. The end is a happy one.

People look for patterns. We all carry mindsets of what we know or believe to be true. We tell a story based on what we’ve seen before. Even if you have some doubts about the viva, about the process, about how best to prepare – think about what you know from your research. Think about how you got to this point.

Think about your story.

Postscript: I kept playing with the Story Cubes, and this was the next arrangement that came up…

I’m glad this doesn’t tell a viva story!

Small Projects

This post on small projects has been in my mind for several years. It’s worth a read! I like the idea that it can be both more productive and more effective to work on creating small things rather than undertaking massive endeavours. For example, I see Viva Survivors as a series of small projects under one umbrella, rather than one big behemoth.

I’ve been casting my mind around for a while on other small projects for the site, and at the time of writing have the following in my to-do queue:

  • Add tags and keywords to every post from the daily blog.
  • Curate a few lists of posts on similar themes.
  • Produce pages for each of the books that I have available (rather than only a single hub page).
  • Produce a new season of the podcast, approx 8 episodes that become available at the same time, like an album!
  • Create a few more Pocketmod tiny books, and several more minicast episodes.

Small projects are manageable. Even if you don’t have time to work on something immediately, you can see most of the parts and see where the challenges are. It’s the opposite of most research projects, where often you can’t appreciate everything until you’re already in it.

Viva prep can be a series of small projects, and none of them have to be over-taxing to complete. Reading your thesis and marking it up in a useful way is a small project. Creating summaries to draw out your thoughts is a couple of small projects. A mock viva or presentation to give you opportunity to think and talk is a small project. It all helps.

For your thesis, you had to think big. Maybe for your viva prep it’s useful to think small.

Terms & Conditions Apply

A pass in the viva is not typically no strings attached. Most candidates have to complete some kind of corrections. These can mean different requirements at different institutions.

You can’t know what corrections you might get in advance, but you can find out what conditions they’ll have to be done under. How long is given to complete them? Who do you have to get approval from? When corrections are complete, how long do you have in order to get your final, complete thesis submitted? How long from then until you’ll have graduated?

Find out now.

Not Favours

It could be that you need a little help from others to get ready for the viva. Help with thinking and talking; questions about process and experience; maybe even proofreading or practical on-the-day logistics.

You have to defend your work solo, but there really are lots of ways others can help you prepare. Get clear in your mind about what you need, ask and explain why (if you need to), and be prepared to compromise.

It could also be the case that you see a friend who needs help. A candidate who needs someone to talk to; a colleague who needs someone to listen; a friend who has a problem that they can’t see past.

It’s OK to ask for help when you need it; it’s good to offer help when you can.