What’s Going To Stop You?

Nothing. Nothing is going to stop you now your viva is in sight.

You were good when you started your PhD, and have invested work and time into getting better. You’re good enough now.

You started with ideas and questions, and even if you don’t have full answers now, you know more and know enough now for your thesis and the PhD.

You’re reading this post, so whatever happened to you throughout 2020 and up to today – whenever you’re reading this – you endured. You worked around hardship, overcame challenges and more, whether it was fair or not.

You can make it through your viva now too.

You have got this far.

You did this.

Keep going.

Have Fun!

“Have fun!” is a better encouragement for the viva than “good luck” or “don’t worry”.

What if instead of wondering if your viva would go well, you just assumed that it was going to be enjoyable? Maybe then instead of asking yourself endless worried what if questions, you could ask:

  • How will I have fun with my viva?
  • What am I looking forward to discussing?
  • How can I make myself feel amazing?

Plenty of candidates enjoy their viva. Why not you?

I Didn’t Do That One Thing

Not finishing a project or experiment doesn’t disqualify you from succeeding in your PhD. If you didn’t read a certain paper, or follow a line of thought to some kind of conclusion you don’t forfeit your viva. You might need to explain if something seems missing. That explanation might be best in your thesis, but it could also be required in your viva if your examiners ask about it.

The root question is always “Why?”

  • Why didn’t you do it?
  • Why didn’t you read that paper?
  • Why weren’t you able to finish?

Unless the answer is “I was lazy” then an honest response is what your examiners want:

  • “I didn’t know about that…”
  • “I focussed on something else…”
  • “I learned about it too late to include it…”

Develop your response further by talking about what you would have done or could have done, or what you might do differently. Talk about what you learned in the process.

In most cases, unless you were being lazy, “that one thing” will just be one more little thing in a big list of things that you might have done during your PhD.

As you get ready for your viva it’s probably better – for your preparation and your confidence – to focus on what you have done, rather than on what you could have done.

Enough Time

The years of your PhD programme are enough time to do your research and develop yourself.

Several weeks of small tasks is enough preparation time to get yourself ready for your viva.

A matter of hours will be enough time to convince your examiners that you’ve done something significant and that you’re a capable researcher.

And while your PhD journey and thesis are impressive, after you’re done, you have enough time to go do something even more impressive!

So what will you do?

Familiar Faces

There are many qualities you might look for in examiners – their expertise, their reputation, their experience – but simply knowing that they are a real person (not just a name on a journal article) can be comforting when it comes to your viva.

If you can, try to make sure that your examiners are familiar to you. Aim for your internal to be someone you know from your department. Suggest that your external be someone you know from conferences.

The absence of strangers could help your viva feel less strange.

Sample Of One

You need to hear a few stories before a full picture of the viva comes into focus.

One bad story could convince you (wrongly) that you’re in for a bad time.

One good story wouldn’t explain enough of what to generally expect.

Listen to the stories of PhD graduates generally to get an overall sense of what happens. Ask two or three friends from your department about their vivas to begin to get a sense of the process, expectations and experiences that candidates have in the viva. Vivas are generally fine. They can be challenging but not negative, difficult but not something that needs to be endured.

A sample of one isn’t enough, but a few stories can help you feel good for the challenge ahead.

Connecting In A Video Viva

It makes a difference that you’re not in the same room as your examiners if you’re over Zoom. Delays due to a poor signal, tech failure or less body language to read could all make it harder to engage with your examiners. These factors might even create a sense that there’s something wrong with the viva.

You can make a positive difference too though. You can practise with friends or in a mock viva to get a feel for delays in communication and grow comfortable with the video format. You can explore options to help your tech situation. You can read your examiners’ work to help you connect with them. You can prepare for your viva to be as confident and ready as you can be for the situation. You can do a lot to build yourself up.

Don’t forget that whatever might interfere – tech, signal, the size of the screen on which you see your examiners – everyone involved wants the viva to go well. The online element shouldn’t interfere with any good will when it comes to connecting with your examiners, or interfere with the outcome of your viva.

More Things I Don’t Know

Two years ago I shared this little post about things I didn’t know about the viva. Two years on and I have thoughts about some of these!

  • What percentage of candidates fail their viva? Around 0.1% is my estimate, based on lots of conversations with doctoral college staff.
  • How well does a viva over Skype work compared to an in-person viva? What’s Skype…? Online vivas seem to work well, all things considered, and like anything just require a little adjusting to.

I’m still wondering about thesis-by-publication differences, and the vivas of full-time and part-time researchers.

I also realise that I don’t know for sure how common a presentation is at the start of the viva (they seem to be quite rare). It’s unclear whether or not the switch to Zoom vivas is going to be remain common in the long term. I don’t know if there is a universal viva prep help idea that can make a difference for every candidate (though I keep working on it!).

I’ve accepted that there will always be things I don’t know about the viva. Some I can find out, some I can explore and make sense of, and some things might always remain unknown. I can keep exploring a little but I also have to focus on what I do know, what I can share and how I can help.

Consider your research. There are things you don’t know. You can explore that a little, to be sure of what you don’t know and why – but keep your focus squarely on what you do know, how you can be certain, and how you can best share it with others.

There’s always more. But by now you must know enough.

Once Upon A Time

There’s a fairytale aspect to the viva.

Generally there’s a rhythm and sense of how one will unfold. More often than not, a clear sense of beginning, middle and end, patterns by which the story comes together.

Only a few important people in the story, a clear protagonist, a series of challenges – though thankfully no goblins, ogres, giants or trolls.

And like fairytales, when you ask around you discover that nearly every viva has a happy ending.

Contribution Matters

Not which papers you didn’t read, or which things you got stuck on. Not the title of your supervisor or the uni you did your undergrad at.

Your significant, original contribution matters. What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it?

Be prepared to have a conversation in your viva that explores this new, valuable something that you have. Consider what you could do in your preparation to help you explain, explore and share this contribution that you have made.