Picture This

Talk to graduates about their experiences in the viva and members of staff about what they do as examiners.

Then think about what it will be like to walk in.

See the room in your mind (you’ll know where it is).

Imagine the weight of what you take in your bag or hands (your thesis is there to help).

Feel a smile at the rightness of being there (you have earned this!).

See yourself answering questions and imagine your examiners being impressed (they will be!).

Expectations help build a picture of viva day.

Similar/Different

A thought: you and your examiners are more similar than you are different.

Similar: all researchers, all interested, all capable, all talented, all there in your viva for a good reason.

Different: they have more experience than you, you have more expertise than them. They’ve read your thesis, you wrote your thesis.

All of these points help the story of confidence you can tell yourself about the viva.

Synonyms for Corrections

There are lots of words we could use.

Revisions. Amendments. Tweaks. Updates.

All nouns, the thing itself, but you’re doing something when make your corrections. Often it’s framed as a final hurdle, grumble grumble, a bit more work from the examiners and the PhD process. I think the best word to focus on is “improvements” – your examiners have spotted some ways that you can make your thesis better.

Of course, ten years ago, when I started my corrections I did not think of them as improvements. I gritted my teeth and got to work, but felt frustrated. “Why do I have to do this now? Weren’t the last three and a half years enough?”

No. They weren’t. A few more weeks was all it took and my thesis was better as a result, and that’s the point of corrections. Your examiners want to help you make your thesis the best presentation of your research that it can be.

You might not feel that way when you get your list of corrections (or revisions, improvements and so on) but I hope you will by the end.

Ten years later I feel grateful my examiners gave me the opportunity to help my thesis be better.

Marginalia

Don’t fill the margins, footers and headers of your thesis until they are overflowing with notes.

Too much can be a distraction, just something else to read and decipher as you’re looking for something helpful.

A little goes a long way.

A little thought helps in the preparation, and a little note on the day can help you in the viva’s discussion.

Memory Box

My daughter’s just finished nursery and starts “Big School” in September. It seems only like yesterday that she was starting, but it was nearly two years. Time flies…

We’re helping her make a memory box of her time at nursery. Pictures and projects, toys and books, the keepsakes and mementoes that she wants to have, and it’s got me thinking about what I would put in my PhD memory box. It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I have fond memories but I know there are lots I will have forgotten now. I wish I had kept more of a diary or memory box, but I was too busy thinking “I’m done, what do I do next???”

For the end of the PhD I think it’s important to reinforce the idea that you haven’t just arrived at a destination as a passenger: you’ve worked to get there. What have you collected in your memory box along the way? What has helped? What helped you realise something new? What helped you get better? What do you just want to remember?

Time flies… Your story so far can help the story that’s coming, whether that’s your viva, your next job or whatever life has to throw at you. Find memories that help you and make them part of the story you remember.

Big Deal

Anyone who tells you the viva is no big deal is wrong. It comes at the end of years of research. It’s huge life achievement. It matters for many, many reasons.

Anyone who tells you the viva is the biggest deal ever is wrong. There’s more you will do, more you can be and more that matters more.

Also: anyone who tells you how to feel about your viva is wrong!

You get to decide how you feel and what it means to you.

The Unknowns

What you don’t know about your viva can be scary. It’s helpful to make a distinction between the three main types of unknowns:

  • There are things you can find out: the regulations for vivas at your university, what happened at your friends’ vivas, what your examiners’ recent publications are like.
  • There are things you can have expectations of: how long it might be, the sorts of questions that come up, the general outcomes and what they mean.
  • There are things you can’t know: how long your viva will be, what questions you’ll be asked or what your examiners will think of your thesis.

It’s clear with the first two kinds of unknowns that if you ask the right people the right questions you’ll find help. But there is no way of knowing how long your viva will be. There is no script available for questions. No report you can read about your examiners’ impressions.

Crucially, you have a choice about what you focus your attention on. Focus on the first two kinds of unknown. You’ll find confidence by getting answers to the questions you have, then perhaps realise that the third kind of unknown don’t matter that much.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

There’s a connection between how comfortable you are in the viva and how confident you are. I’ve written a lot before on getting comfortable with the thought of the kinds of questions you might get, but that’s not the full extent of what you can do to explore comfort and confidence for the viva. Instead of thinking in the abstract about process and possible questions, get really practical:

  • What is the room like? What’s the layout? What does it have in there that could be useful (whiteboard, flipchart etc)?
  • Where will the room’s windows be in relation to the sun during your viva?
  • What do you know about your examiners? How comfortable are you with your awareness of them and their work?
  • What are you wearing for the viva? How comfortable are you in that outfit?
  • What can you take with you or do on the day of the viva to make you more comfortable?

Answers are about comfort, but also lead in the direction of confidence. Your clothes can make you more confident; being sure about the viva room can make you more confident; being aware of your examiners can make you more confident.

Nodes

Viva coming up? Think about who you know and what they can do for you:

  • How can your supervisor help you prepare?
  • Who among your close colleagues has some way of helping?
  • Who do you know that could be a good choice for an examiner?
  • Do you know a student of your external, or someone who has worked with them?

You’re trying to find ways the nodes in your network can usefully add to your preparation. Drill into what your network looks like to see the practical things people can do. If it feels like you’re asking for a favour, well, that’s one side of networking: thinking about how you can get help from the people you know.

The other side, perhaps even more exciting, you get to think about how you can help other people when it’s their viva coming up. If you’ve not had yours yet you can still be a friend and help someone prep for theirs. Offer to chat with them, share your knowledge about some aspect of the field they’re less familiar with, even offer to read a chapter and ask questions.

If you’ve had your viva then share your experience around your network. Your viva story can help others realise that the viva is not some terrible doom awaiting them. Tell others what you did to prepare and what happened on the day. Ask them to do the same.

See how the help spreads through the nodes of your network.