Strange Circumstances

At the start of the year, having a viva conducted over video would have seemed strange. It certainly wasn’t typical. Now, it’s pretty much the only way they’re happening.

It’s normal to have just two examiners and you present – except when it’s not! Some universities have independent chairs in the room as part of their regulations, some departments regularly invite supervisors as observers as part of their practice. It’s normal to expect examiners to have PhDs as well, but sometimes they don’t.

Your viva, by itself, as an event, might seem strange to you. Unusual. Not the… normal way of doing things. It will certainly be different. Some of the strangeness may be coming from the formality, from the process, from the examiners, from the expectations. Some of it may be coming from you.

If the regulations say X, Y and Z but your situation doesn’t fit, you most likely will not be the first person to have encountered this difference. Vivas over video are normal now, but they were happening before the pandemic. They’re far more likely, at least for a time, but leaving aside the pressure of sudden changes, there were plenty of people around who could share experience of doing vivas over video.

Whatever your circumstances, strange or otherwise, if you need help to unpick what you could do or how you could act, there are people who can help. Check regulations, ask your graduate school, ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends. Ask me!

I think it’s normal for the viva to feel strange.

Scene Changes

I’m always fascinated by how movies switch perspective or place, or how they jump forward in time.

Sometimes they jump from one place to another, abruptly – you were here with these people, now you’re here with these people!

Sometimes a scene changes with a fade to black……………and then fade back up to the new place or time.

Star Wars is famous for the way it “wipes” to other scenes, a line moving across to take away the old and reveal somewhere new.

And there are movies that show somewhere new, but then also tell us something about where we are with a subtitle – a place or time, a year, a city, and so on.

All of these different techniques do different things. They direct attention, refocus, change expectations – and they make me think about the scene changes for a PhD.

  • How do you go from working perhaps every day to get a thesis finished to life post-submission?
  • How do you frame things now?
  • Is the change a gradual fade to black, or an abrupt stop?
  • Do you need subtitles, new information, a new framing?

Wherever you are in your journey towards thesis completion, or if you’re post-submission already and on the way to the viva, think about the scene changes around you. Unlike a movie, you’re in charge of them. They can be gradual changes, they can come with subtitles to help guide you; you might feel that you have to jump from one thing to another.

Remember that a lot of these things allow you to take some measure of control – maybe not a full Director’s Cut, but you have some authority!

The One And Only?

On the one hand, yes, the viva is your one and only opportunity. You have to do it, defend your thesis, engage with your examiners’ questions and discuss your work. You have to do it well enough to pass, and this is your chance to do it.

But on the other hand, it’s the latest opportunity you’ve had to do all these sorts of things. It’s not the first time you’ve talked about your work. It’s not the first time you’ve faced a challenge with your research. It’s not the first time you’ve had to really think about what you’re doing.

The viva is the latest challenge, for someone experienced at rising to meet challenges. It could be tough, it could be tricky, but it won’t be beyond you.

You’re the one and only person who could pass your viva.

It’s Never Just Luck

“Luck” during a PhD can only come from your working to be in a good space to begin with.

“Luck” with a result or an idea or the final state of your thesis is the result of work, not simple good fortune.

“Luck” in the viva’s outcome denies all you’ve done.

Don’t be so modest. Don’t downplay what you did, and what you can do. Yes, you may have been fortunate, but you still had to work for that opportunity or outcome!

Option Two

As a PhD candidate, I think you have two main strategies to manage how you feel about your viva.

Option One is to try and squash down any nerves that you feel. Take any worries and anxieties and just push them down, lock them away and avoid them at all. Don’t engage. I’ve seen viva success follow from this approach, but at a cost to candidates’ state of mind. I wouldn’t advise following Option One.

Option Two is to work to boost your confidence. Recognise your ability, work to prepare for the viva, notice your talent and where it comes from. Doing this will far outweigh any nervousness you feel.

Nervousness and confidence are not polar opposites – they’re different things all together. You can be nervous about the viva, because you recognise that it matters, yet confident in your success. You only have so much energy and effort available. Rather than focus on squashing away nerves, work to boost your confidence. Confidence will put your anxieties into perspective.

Option One: squash nerves.

Option Two: boost confidence.

Go with Option Two.

By The Numbers

How many papers have you read?

How many days did you show up to work?

How many times did you learn something?

How many hours did you put into your preparation?

How many opportunities did you take to present your work?

How many times have you had a good conversation about research?

How many times have you responded to tricky questions?

How often have you solved tricky problems?

How many times did you fail, but then later succeed?

How many times did you persevere when thing were tough?

How many hours have you invested into your PhD, into becoming good at what you do?

There’s no neat formula that takes all these numbers together to give you a confidence score or a grade. But taken together they must help you see you’re moving towards success.

What numbers help you feel confident for your viva?

Signposting

What can you do to keep reinforcing and reminding yourself about your talent? While viva preparation has to build on what you know, what you can do and how well you can respond in the viva, one key aspect of this preparation is reminding yourself that you are good.

Because you must be. You must be talented to have got as far as you have with your research.

I’m a fan of putting up signs. Signs are useful for the newcomer – giving directions, setting out expectations – but they’re also really useful for the experienced to reinforce culture or knowledge, or simply to remind and inspire.

I have a Post-it Note on my office wall that was given to me anonymously after a workshop years ago that makes me smile every time I see it:

It helps to have that reminder. I have a page full of prompts for blog posts on the wall, despite having a lot of experience now at writing regularly. An index card next to my desk asks me, “What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?”

What signs could you put up around your workspace as you get closer to your viva?

Key points to remember about your research? Details about examiners you don’t want to forget? Or maybe simple things to help you feel better and remember that you’re good at what you do?

At the end of 2019 my wife put this lovely piece of art up on the landing in our house:

It’s been very useful, particularly in the last six months, to be walking past this every day 🙂

What signs do you need? Where will you put them? What are they for?

Rumour Control

Rumours I have heard about the viva in the last ten years:

  • “It’s all decided in advance!”
  • “It’s a fix really: everyone passes so what’s the point?!”
  • “You can’t do anything to prepare because it’s always different!”
  • “It’s just a hazing ritual, examiners tearing years of work apart…”
  • “…actually, they’re usually alright…”

I’ve only seen evidence for the last rumour. The rest are either false or missing key contextual information.

The antidote for rumours is finding out more information: real, hard evidence from people with experience. Don’t be satisfied with surface fluff and secondhand stories.

Ask friends and colleagues who have been through the viva. You don’t need a dozen minute-by-minute accounts to get a real sense of what they’re like. Ask specific questions to get details to help shape your expectations.

Ask academics about their roles as examiners. What do they do? How do they approach it? How do they feel about the process? I’d be surprised if some weren’t as nervous as candidates are.

Get a grip on rumours by finding out more. Then, when your viva is past (and you’ve passed!) be a help to future PhD candidates by sharing the details of your viva experience.

Over time let’s get the viva rumours under control.

Relatively Few

Relatively few vivas are unchallenging, but relatively few are overwhelmingly unfair.

Relatively few vivas result in major corrections – and not too many result in no corrections either.

Relatively few candidates are unprepared; but there’s also not many candidates, relatively, who are able to respond perfectly.

(in fact, probably none can)

Relatively few examiners could match you for your knowledge of your work; are you one of the relatively few candidates who could match their examiners for general experience of academia?

When we consider all of these things together, we can see, I think, that relatively few of these are actually concerns for the viva. They don’t matter – in terms of you doing well, of you passing, and so on.

Relatively few vivas result in failure. There are many reasons why.

Beginner and Expert

You’ve been a beginner with your research. How well do you remember that?

  • What was it like to know a lot less than now?
  • What did you struggle with?
  • What were the breakthrough moments for you?

It’s important to think back to being a beginner – by contrast you will see the progress you have made since then.

Now you’re an expert. You’ll know that means you don’t know everything – perhaps at times you’re awkwardly, painfully aware of that.

That’s fine for your viva: expert as you are, you’re not expected to know everything.

You’ve been a beginner, you are an expert. You don’t know everything, but you know enough.

And you’re good enough.