Big Things I Learned At My Viva

I find it helpful to look back on my viva now and then. A lot stands out to me that I wasn’t expecting at the time. As time goes by some realisations grow more important in my mind, so I thought today I’d share a few to think about for yours.

  • Comfortable clothes help a lot! You can look smart and be comfortable. You may want to dress to impress, but don’t wear shoes that are too tight or something that you find impossible to keep straight. Smart can be nice – but comfortable is what you need.
  • I was asked to give a presentation to start my viva. This was good for me. It forced key talking points and questions to be on my mind. Even if you’re not asked for a presentation (they’re not common) consider spending time thinking about what you would include. Or give a presentation for friends as part of your preparation for the viva.
  • I learned that vivas can be four hours long! Mine was. Yours could be, although it’s not very likely…
  • …which makes it all the more important that you ask other people about their experiences. You can’t predict your viva, but if you listen carefully to enough stories you can get a sense of what yours could be like.
  • Corrections aren’t a punishment. Examiners ask for them to try to help make your thesis better. I didn’t know that. I didn’t think my thesis would be perfect, but at the same time I hoped I wouldn’t be asked to make any changes. That’s unrealistic. As I later learned, most people are asked to do some kind of corrections. You probably will too.

A big learning point has only come with time and distance: my viva was important, my PhD was important and is important to me still – but neither of them are the most important things I’ll ever do. Take it seriously, of course, but you don’t need to obsess and worry.

And when you’re all done, take some time to reflect. What have you learned from your viva?

The Busy Final Year

In the final year of a PhD it’s not hard to get swept up in the emotions and actions of everything that you need to get done.

Finishing research, finishing writing-up, working towards whatever will come after the PhD and thinking about the viva – at times it can seem like there’s way too much to get done in a year. How do you prioritise? What do you do first? And how do you weave all of the other things you need to do into a packed schedule?

Full answers to those three questions could fill a book, but when it comes to thinking about the viva at least the answer is simple: do nearly nothing.

Nearly nothing.

At some point in your final year it’s good to have a chat with your supervisor about potential examiners. You can see what names are being suggested and probably suggest some of your own. It’s worth checking regulations around submission and the viva, so you know what’s what and can be sure of not getting any nasty surprises.

Before submission those are the only two things you must do for your viva in the final year. Preparation, making notes, mock vivas, summaries and the rest can wait until after submission.

There’s lots to do in the final year. Planning takes time – work takes time! But the viva doesn’t have to dominate your work until after submission. Make sure your attention and efforts are fixed where they will be most effective.

What Was Hard?

Was it reading everything you did to understand your discipline?

Was it finding ways to frame questions for your research?

Was it difficult getting to grips with methods and processes?

Was it tough to write your thesis?

Anything that’s hard at PhD level is valuable. It has to be. It’s either valuable because it’s practically hard, taking time to acquire skills or understanding, or it’s valuable because it’s original. Anything you’ve found hard during your PhD (even if you find it less difficult now) is valuable.

Valuable is a sign post leading in the direction of what makes your research significant: why it matters and what kind of a difference it makes. Take time before the viva to think about what was hard. You’ll unpick some of what you’ll need to talk about with your examiners.

7 Questions On The Journey

When your viva is a few days away, take thirty minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What was the first day of your PhD like?
  2. How about the end of your first month?
  3. What was it like at your transfer viva?
  4. How did you feel the first time you presented your research?
  5. And how about the most recent time?
  6. How did you feel at submission?
  7. How do you feel now you’re almost-prepared for the viva?

You have to improve over the course of doing a PhD. You change, but day-to-day you might not feel it. Take a little time before your viva to reflect on the beginning, middle and almost-end of your research journey. Just before the viva you might feel a little nervous, a little excited, but hopefully you can see that the last several years have been a process leading you to the talented, wonderful researcher you are now.

Lost & Found

You will almost certainly lose some things over the course of a PhD.

Probably you’ll lose track of good ideas. You’ll forget the name of an author. That little project you were going to do. That section you were going to write. Perhaps even a chapter that just won’t fit with everything else.

Whatever you lose or forget, don’t forget you will find far more than you lose.

Ideas that make a difference. Skill, talent, ability. A thesis that matters. Confidence in your self, I hope.

Think about what you’ve lost in preparation for the viva, but only a little; don’t forget that your examiners really want to hear about what you’ve found along the way.

Superstitions Are Stories

Stories can be very persuasive.

Do you have a story that says you need to do this or that in order to be ready for the viva? You might be unable to not listen. You might have to wear those socks or listen to a certain song in order to feel right to talk with your examiners.

Or do you have a story that says you can’t do certain things? You might need to avoid drinking coffee because you feel it makes you twitchy. You might need to avoid a colour because of an association you have with it.

Perhaps you even want to avoid walking under ladders, seeing black cats or scheduling your viva on Friday the 13th!

Superstitions are stories. They can feel true, but they are only stories we tell ourselves. Rather than do this or avoid that before the viva, perhaps it’s better for you to try to create some new true stories.

What’s the story of your PhD, for example?

How did you get from the start to where you are today?

What are the things you could do to boost your confidence?

What stories are you telling yourself before your viva?

Simple Instructions

Help for the viva can be summarised very simply.

  1. Before submission, do the work. Write a good thesis.
  2. After submission, read your thesis. Reflect and write on your research. Practise answering unexpected questions. Remind yourself that you must be talented.
  3. On the day, present your most confident self. Listen to questions, pause, respond as well as possible.

It’s simple, but not always easy.

Mistakes Happen

They do.

Slips, errors, accidents, typos, absent-minded actions and more. There’s a worry for some candidates that examiners will not forgive mistakes. Perfection is not the standard for the thesis or the viva, but you can still wonder, “What will they think about X?”

Well, let’s assume that whenever you find out about X you can’t do anything to change it (because otherwise, you probably would and it wouldn’t be a worry). Maybe you know X happened while writing up; maybe you discover X when you’re preparing for the viva; perhaps you’re asked and only realise X in the viva. Essentially your next steps in all these cases are the same.

Simply think about the Why, How and What of the mistake:

  • Why did the mistake happen?
  • How could you do something about it?
  • What do you think you need to do about it now?

Mistakes happen, and sometimes you need to act to correct them. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge them. Reflect on the why, the how and the what to explore how you might respond to examiners’ questions about mistakes in the viva.

Nowhere To Hide

A candidate told me they were afraid because they had nowhere to hide in the viva.

Examiners would have spent lots of time reading their thesis and so the candidate worried they would be unable to evade questions on the day.

Literally in the viva room as well, there is nowhere to hide. On viva day it’s just you and your examiners: talking, discussing, figuring out what the thesis means and what that then means for the end of your PhD.

So yes, nowhere to hide…

…but also no need to hide.

Why hide in the viva? You have your work, your thesis, your ideas, your know-how, your talent. Why would you need to hide?

Advice and Action

When I did my PhD there was very little help available for viva candidates. Now there is help everywhere.

There are scores of advice articles for the viva and probably hundreds of blog posts about personal experiences – you can find a link to some of them here!

Universities have staff who are there to answer questions, academics with experience who can tell you what’s what and resources to help get ready for the viva – it’s worth checking out what’s available at your institution!

And Viva Survivors has dozens of interviews with PhD graduates, lots of free resources – and over 850 daily posts of viva help!

There is a super-abundance of help for the viva out there. A wealth of information, ideas and advice that can be accessed by any PhD candidate who wants to know what the viva is about and what they can do to be ready.

So: what will you do to get ready?

Because now all of this help is out there, the only thing stopping you being ready is your decision about what you will do.