Blank Feels Bad…

…but it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or wrong with the viva.

You go blank and it’s uncomfortable: doubt, anxiety or fear. It’s not that common an occurrence though.

In the unlikely event it happens, breathe. Pause. Take a sip of water. Ask yourself the question again, or think about what’s just been said. And whatever you need will come to you.

A momentary memory lapse or glitch is not comfortable, but it’s not the end of the world, even in the viva.

Five Minutes

To prepare for your viva you need time. A significant number of candidates may have a job or be applying for one when the viva comes around. Time is always a precious resource, but can feel quite pressured for some. While it’s still important to organise and have a decent amount of space to think, there are some valuable ways you can use small blocks of time in preparation for your viva.

  • Tidy your workspace.
  • Make a list of bigger tasks you need to do.
  • Write a 100-word summary of a chapter.
  • Make a list of papers you need to review.
  • Message someone to tell them how you’re doing.
  • Listen to a song that helps you to feel happy.
  • Write down what you’re going to do next and why that’s going to help.

Viva prep takes time, usually in blocks of more than five minutes, but little things add up. With five minutes you can make something to help yourself, setup future progress or prime yourself for the next big task.

What could you do?

Internal Vs External

Candidates focus on the distinction between internal and external examiners a lot. Have you heard these nuggets of examiner-related folk wisdom before?

  • Your external is likely to be more of an expert in your field than your internal.
  • Your internal will ask the easier questions.
  • Your external is going to take the lead.
  • Your internal is on your side.
  • Your external and internal will act differently.

They sound right, but from all of the conversations I’ve had about vivas, I’ve only seen some evidence to support the first point.

And really, when you break that down, it’s wholly dependent on the candidate, their research, their field and who is available in your department and elsewhere. The other four bits of wisdom sound like neat ways to sum up your examiners, but aren’t accurate and wouldn’t help all that much if they were.

Two simple truths that help:

  • First, your examiners are prepared: they read your thesis, are ready to examine you and are competent to do the examination.
  • Second, your internal is local: they know what the requirements are, and while they’re not on your side exactly, they are there to make sure it’s fair. (some institutions go a step further and have independent chairs in vivas, to ensure candidates get a fair exam).

Forget folk wisdom. Focus on what’s true about your examiners.

Me, Chocolate and Books

Boxes of bite-size chocolate frustrate me. I eat the treats I love first, Twixes and Twirls, then days later I open to find that all I have left are so-so Milky Ways and Mars… Finally I’m left with Bounty and Snickers that I won’t eat at all.

I look at my bookshelves and see similar behaviour. I look at my stacks of unread books and go for what attracts me most, or for a book I know I’ve enjoyed before. I push to the back of the queue any books that seem too big, too boring or just not right. I’ve had books on personal improvement, award-winning novels and sci-fi escapes in my library for years and always pushed them away. “I’ll get to them one day.” I go for the fun or the familiar. Save the rest for later.

If you’re preparing for your viva then it’s OK to focus on things you like about your research. You can make notes on things that are most rewarding or fulfilling to you. You can prepare for the questions or topics that you like most.

It’s your choice, but all of the other stuff is still there. Just because you don’t look at it, doesn’t mean that your examiners will avoid it too.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You might do the tricky stuff first, or you might set a particular time in your diary to look at it. But you have to do something.

You can’t always just have the fun stuff.

(having said all this, chocolate and books generally are fun and make excellent post-viva presents and rewards!)

Start With One

There’s a time and a place for detailed plans, complex strategies and exhaustive lists. But figuring out everything you need to plan or do or check is hard. And when you get a list together it can be overwhelming. Instead, start with one thing.

  • Start with one person who can tell you about their viva.
  • Start with one chapter of your thesis.
  • Start with one question to help you unpick your results.
  • Start with one paper that has been really helpful.
  • Start with one idea of how to explain your thesis.

There may be more to do. Once you start you have momentum. Keep going.