Ask

I love helping people prepare for the viva. One of the happiest parts of the workshops that I run, for me, is the opportunity to answer questions at the end. It’s important to answer questions (typically which are “what if…?” or “how do I…?”) because then people can move on. If you have an answer then you can step forward and do the really important stuff.

In general, ask more people more questions. Even if it’s not about getting a better picture of the viva. Ask your supervisor about your thesis. Ask them about your examiners. Ask your friends about their vivas, and be specific with your questions. Ask your family for help (whether that’s giving you space, taking on chores or putting the kids to bed).

You can ask me questions about the viva too. Send me an email, I’ll get back to you ASAP. I’ll keep a list of questions for future Q&A specials of the podcast. You can find two past episodes here.

If you don’t ask…

Day Off

If you spend every day between submission and the viva doing some effective viva prep, then you’ll be in a great position for the viva. If you do nothing between submission and the viva, you probably won’t be in a great position for the viva.

Do some viva prep regularly on the lead up to the viva. But if, say, on a Bank Holiday, you take a day off? You’ll be fine. If there’s no bank holiday in the period leading up to your viva, still take a few days off. Well-placed breaks are just as important as the hard work you put in towards a goal.

[inspired by #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs which Dr Kay Guccione tweets about a lot!]

In three seconds…

In three seconds…
…a photon travels almost 900 million metres.
…a Shinkansen moves over 250m.
…Usain Bolt is a third of the way to the finish line.
…in the viva you can feel like there’s an awkward pause in conversation.

Three seconds might not seem like a long time, but it’s all about perspective. Three seconds is the difference between victory and defeat in a race. In the viva, it’s not even a pause, but it can feel like forever.

In reality, it’s a few heartbeats while you put some thoughts in order and take a breath. Not too long, in fact not long at all. Take a quick pause to think in the viva and you’ll go a long way.

Typos

It’s good to catch as many typos as possible. It’s not always easy to see them, even with spellcheck running. And spellcheck can’t always see when you put words in the wrong order. Proofreading can be hard. Enlist some allies as early as possible to help read through and spot what you might look past.

If you’re reading through your thesis to prepare for your viva, don’t worry about miskates too much. If you find erors, you can always correkt them l8r.

Instead, focus on anything that seems vague. If you read something that you’ve written and think, “Hmm… What did I mean here?” then spend time unpacking what it’s all about. Typos aren’t vague: when you see a typo, you know what needs to be there. Passages that are vague are harder to crack: it may not be immediately obvious what needs to be there. But if you focus on the vague then you’ll be in a better position in the viva to talk about your research.

Done

The day comes, you click print, and you’ve finished your PhD! Except for the viva.

You have your viva, it goes well, and you’ve finished your PhD! Except for corrections.

You take the time, do the work, finish your corrections and now you’ve finished your PhD!

But you have to wait until graduation.

Finally the day comes, you cross the stage, shake a hand and NOW you’ve finished your PhD! You’re done!

What now?

Allies and Acknowledgements

I re-read my thesis a few months ago. One of the happiest parts for me was the acknowledgements page. It’s like a time capsule. Some of the people I namechecked were very good friends in that period. Some still are. Some I haven’t seen for years now. But they all played a part.

If you have people around you who help you be a better you I think it’s right to stand up and say, “These guys are awesome.” Don’t dash out your acknowledgements page in a quick ten minutes. Think about what you want to say and who you need to thank.

And remember that those people can still be allies as you prepare for your viva: asking questions, giving you space, distracting you, telling you about their experiences and helping you find perspective.

Play

Play never stops being important. Want to play let’s pretend? How would you explain your research to:
A five year old?
Your parents?
Your best friend?
Someone on the bus?
A well-educated person from the nineteenth century?
A well-educated person from the twenty-second century?
Your supervisor at the start of your PhD?
Your supervisor today?

Play is never just wasting time. Play helps to unpick the core of skills and ideas. Play at explaining your research. You might find something new and interesting.

The Power of Post Its

I love Post It notes. They’re like joyful paper. They can break big ideas up into smaller thoughts. They can help group disparate thoughts into larger concepts. They label. They highlight. They’re so so useful for viva prep.

Put a Post It at the start of every chapter and make your thesis easier to navigate. Read through and highlight the most important sections of your thesis. Use larger square Post Its to add notes and breakdown jargon. If you find anything that could be clearer when you re-read your research, use a Post It to make it clearer.

There are lots of useful things that you could do to prepare for your viva. Before you begin, get a selection of Post It notes.

Your Greatest Hits

Examiners and graduates tell me that the viva typically starts with a question like, “Can you tell us about the most important parts of your research?” or “What is your work all about?” It’s a question worth practicing when the opportunity presents.

It is a big question though, so if you’re preparing for the viva, here are five questions that will help unpick it.

When were you most engaged during your PhD?
What do you want people to refer to in your thesis?
What would you most like to build on?
Which of your chapters or results is closest to perfection and why?
What parts of your research are least important? (followed up by “What’s left in your thesis after this?”)

You’re a talented researcher to have the viva in your future. You can think of more questions which will help you unpick this possible viva-opener.

Just Another Day At The Office

Which is better, treating the viva as a Special, One Of A Kind, Big, Important, This-Is-It Event Day – or going to university like it’s a regular day? Is it better go in thinking that it’s make or break, or acting as if the outcome is certain? Hard questions to answer.

Better questions to answer: What is the story that you tell yourself about the viva? Is it a helpful narrative? Would it be better to change the story?