In Theory

It’s one thing to know all of your research really well, and to know generally what happens in the viva (expectations, structure and so on). You can have a good picture of it all in theory – but then stumble when you come to the reality of being asked questions and being forced to think, ponder, respond and engage.

So practise.

Mock vivas, meetings, seminars, presentations, conversations, impromptu Zoom-meetups, mini-vivas – take and find every opportunity you can to share your research and be asked questions about it.

Theory will only take you so far. Build confidence for the reality of the viva.

On Track

Even if this year has been bumpy, you’re still on track to succeed if you’ve submitted or are working to getting your thesis finished.

Being on track with your PhD means that you know where you’re going, even if you’re not quite sure how to get there. It means that you know you’ve got better – more skilled, more talented, more knowledgeable – and if you really reflect and review your progress you can see just how far you’ve come.

You’re on track because you’re still here, despite all of the problems, panics and frustrations that a PhD can throw at someone, despite all of the misery and pain that 2020 has brought up, you’re still here.

If you think there are any more bumps ahead, you can deal with them. Look ahead and plan if you need to, or wait for the moment to arrive and overcome as you’ve managed all of the other challenges of your doctorate.

You’re on track. Keep going.

Creativity Through Constraints

I’ve been a huge fan of the concept of “creativity through constraints” since I first heard it a few months after my PhD.

I would beat myself up all the time for not coming up with ideas, or for finding it tricky to start projects. “Being creative” sometimes feels like you have to be wholly original, or think of something really big. Creativity through constraints forces ideas out by adding parameters or barriers:

  • You have a page to tell your story. What do you write?
  • You only have £10 to spend on a present. What could you get?
  • You have a hard deadline to be finished by, no exceptions! What do you do?

Constraints are limits, but they don’t have to be limiting. In preparation for the viva, consider how you could use constraints to your advantage.

  • You have a page to summarise your thesis. What do you write?
  • You have a limit – because of work and other obligations – of how much time you can invest on prep each day. What do you prioritise?
  • Your supervisor can only meet you one or two times before your viva. What do you ask of them?

Constraints can encourage you to think creatively. Pressures can be stressful, but they can also steer you into focussing – or find interesting solutions to things that seem like problems at first. What constraints do you find on you at the moment? And what constraints might actually be useful for your viva preparation?

Help Is Everywhere

I didn’t have a Viva Survivor course or webinar to help me get ready for my viva. I didn’t know of any books on the topic, or think to look for them. I didn’t search for lists of questions, or blog posts on experiences or how to get ready. The academic community on Twitter hadn’t quite grown into the super-helpful space that it is now.

And there was no podcast with interviews of PhD graduates or blog with 1200+ posts to help candidates!

My point is not, Oh woe is me, I had it so much harder than you do today!

My point is not, I didn’t need anybody and you don’t!!

The point is, There is a wealth of help out there if you need it. Some of it is right here on this site. Some of it might be found in a friend of yours, and you just need to ask. Some of it could be a simple search away.

If you need help getting ready for your viva, it’s out there.

Go get it.

Story Focus

Your viva expectations are influenced by the stories you focus on.

  • If you focus only on one story, the latest story of viva success that you hear, for example, then your expectations could be quite narrow (even if they are positive).
  • If you focus only on one terrible story, a bad experience of a friend-of-a-friend, then you won’t hear something representative (and you’ll probably put a dent in your own confidence for the viva).
  • If you try to absorb all the stories you can you’ll probably find nothing to focus on! Instead you’ll have a general feeling that vivas are fine, but maybe less certainty about why.

To help yourself, ask a few people that you trust to share their experiences. Talk to your supervisor and other academics about the role and work of examiners. Find helpful common threads of viva stories to focus on.

And remember to focus on your story. How did you get this far? What did you do? What have you got that will help you to pass?

Other Perspectives Help

I spent a long time indoors over the last six months or so. When I ventured back out again I decided I was going to explore my home town. Walk up and down roads I didn’t know. See every path of the lovely park I would normally walk through briskly. Me and my daughter would wander around making up stories about fairies and it was a lovely way to get back into the world.

One day a few weeks ago we were walking along when she called out, “Hello Little Pixie!” and then kept on walking.

“Who are you talking to?” I asked, and she pointed back to a tree stump next to the path, a tree stump I’d passed without a second glance.

There are little fairy houses all around the park. I must have walked past this tree stump a dozen times in the previous month and never noticed a little friend waving to us. I needed my daughter’s perspective to see it.

As you prepare for your viva, consider when you might need someone else’s perspective – not when you might benefit, but when you might need another point of view.

Consider:

  • What questions could someone else ask to help you prepare?
  • What experiences could a PhD graduate share with you to help set your expectations?
  • What feedback from a friend could help you to communicate your research better?
  • What perspective could someone bring to help you see your work a little differently?

That last one could be really helpful. Your examiners might have nothing but praise for your work, but they will still see it differently to you. Find help from other perspectives to help you feel confident for your viva.

Efficient Paths

There are no shortcuts to being ready for the viva. You can’t cheat your way to being prepared, but you can follow the example of others. The work could be tricky at times, but viva preparation is – in most regards – a solved problem.

You need to read your thesis. You need to mark it up to help you, and create summaries that help you unpick and capture what you’ve done. You need to know broadly what to expect. You need to get some practise for the event itself. You need to have a sense of self-confidence.

There are no shortcuts for these, but there are efficient paths: steps you can take that will help get the necessary work done. Talk to colleagues, read back through this blog, get a sense of what actions help – and think about how you can apply all of this to your situation.

Then take the first step along a path to being ready.

Snacks For The Video Viva

So your viva is going to be over video. That could feel rough at times, but there are some interesting possibilities too.

Why have a chocolate bar in your bag, like an in-person viva, when you could have a freshly baked biscuit on stand-by? Why have a half-cold cup of coffee for a few hours, when a friend or family member could be poised by the kettle if you have a break?

A viva over video can present some small logistical challenges, but it also provides opportunities to meet your needs. Snacks can be a little fancier, your space can be a little nicer. If your viva is over video, why don’t you do what you can to make things as close to your preference as possible? What could you do to make the space lovely for you?

What could you do to help you feel great about the occasion?

And So On

A question in the viva cannot prompt you to talk in minute detail about the sum of three or more years of work. Every response for every question that you are asked will take up a few hours at most.

A response could be short because that’s what it needs to be. It could leave details out because they aren’t as important as what you keep in. It could be incomplete because the complete details would take too long, or you don’t have them, or for some other reason.

A response may or may not be an answer to the question. It may or may not move the conversation in the direction you or your examiners want. It may be that you have to stop before you really want to, or just give an indication of what you mean, rather than the full picture.

Remember: you can always pause and think, and your examiners can always ask for more if they need it.

A Few Nevers

Never enough time in a PhD to do everything you could do, but usually enough time to do everything you need to do.

Never a way to prepare for every possible question in the viva, but certainly plenty of opportunities to be ready to respond to any question that comes up.

Never a chance for you to be the best, but only a need to be your own best.

 

Once we get away from “all” and “every” and “perfection” in the PhD and the viva, it’s not that hard to realise what “enough” looks like.

You are enough.