A Week Of Prep

Let’s say you’re a few weeks away from your viva. You’ve read your thesis and it feels familiar. You’re busy with life outside of your thesis. You want to be prepared for your viva, you feel the need to do something this coming week, but you don’t know what.

Block out an hour for each evening of the week ahead and try the following:

  • Monday: annotate your thesis. Put a Post-it at the start of every chapter, and anywhere in your thesis that is important. Highlight important passages or references to make them stand out. Make your thesis more useful for you.
  • Tuesday: create an edited bibliography. Explore which are the most essential references, and capture a little detail for each to explore why it matters so much.
  • Wednesday: have a mini-viva. Either write notes about each of the questions or capture your thoughts with a voice-recording app.
  • Thursday: use the VIVA tool to analyse a chapter of your thesis. Pick a good one, and spend fifteen minutes for each of the four prompts to explore the chapter.
  • Friday: reflect on your mini-viva from Wednesday. What details would you add? What stands out from your mini-viva?
  • Saturday: switch to mornings. Meet a friend for coffee or an early lunch. Get them to ask you relevant questions about your research.
  • Sunday: take only 15 minutes to review what you’ve done. What has helped this week? How are you feeling about your viva? Now map out the week ahead. What are you going to do to continue your preparations?

This post is a little idea of how you could break your week up, doing different, useful tasks to prepare for the viva. Customise in a suitable way for you.

Don’t drift to your viva; go towards it with purpose.

Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

Breaking Down Survive

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. Despite negative associations it is the perfect verb to describe the mode of action for a viva candidate. Every part of the definition matters.

  • …manage… Not struggle. No almost. Manage.
  • …to keep going… Already in motion. Already moving in a good direction.
  • …in difficult circumstances… Not impossible. Not unknown. Not unknowable. Difficult.

If you’re feeling unsure or uncertain, more like survive-no-matter-what than survive-as-defined, then explore:

  • …manage… What could you do now to plan for the viva?
  • …to keep going… What have you done well to get you this far?
  • …in difficult circumstances… Who could you ask for more information about these circumstances?

And when you know what you need to: keep going!

Counting Down The Days

Advent calendars are neat ways to lead up to Christmas. A little fun, a little reminder that something nice is coming. A way to build up excitement.

Often viva candidates do the opposite when leading up to their viva. Where an advent calendar increases – 1st December, 2nd December and so on – candidates count down. Only three weeks left. Only ten days left. Only two days left. For most, probably a way to build up discomfort or worry.

It is important to keep track of the days if you’re preparing. There’s no need to rush preparations, but you still need to get what you need to do finished. Instead of marking days down though – seven left, six to go – write down what you did each day. Like an advent calendar, reveal the gift you’re giving to yourself.

Every day, as you lead up to the viva, record what you’re doing to get yourself ready. Provide evidence for yourself that you are a capable, talented researcher, not just someone counting down the days.

The Welcome Mat

I love visiting friends who have a mat by their front door, big letters: WELCOME.

We’re glad you’re here. You’re supposed to be. Come in, join us.

I’ve never heard of a viva that had a welcome mat. I wish they did.

If it’s viva day, then you are supposed to be there. You did something good to get your thesis finished and your examiners are expecting you.

You are welcome.

SWOT For Viva Day

I like SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – as a simple tool that provides a lot of direction for thinking. I’ve written about it before but today I want to explore how it could help you think about you as a candidate for your viva day.

  • Strengths: What are you strengths as a candidate? What do you know well? How can you use that to your advantage?
  • Weaknesses: Where do you feel weak? Why? What steps could you take to support yourself, if you need to?
  • Opportunities: Where are there opportunities for you in the viva? What questions could you ask your examiners? How could you make the most of the situation?
  • Threats: What could have a negative impact on your viva day? What’s beyond your control? What steps could you take to minimise the impact?

The threats are already minimal in the viva; perhaps think about how you will get there, and decide in advance what you will take. There are lots of opportunities to get useful insights from your examiners. They have experience that you can use, ideas that could help you if your plans are to stay in academia, for example. You might have weaknesses, but they can’t be terrible because you would never have got this far if they were. Think about what you might do to help you feel confident despite them.

Remember that you and your work have real strengths. Your work is good. You are good.

Find Encouragement

There’s a place for honest feedback and difficult questions in viva preparation. Criticism can help too, but all of this has to be in proportion with encouragement. Look for people who can help you see that it is all going to be fine.

  • What friends could let you know about their good viva experiences?
  • What questions could you ask your supervisor to get them to talk about you contribution and your talent?
  • How could friends and family members outside of the university support you?

Look back over the last few years. Reflect on your story. What events and achievements can you find that encourage you for your viva?

When Do You Stop?

I remember knocking on my supervisor’s office door thirty minutes before my viva to check a mathematical definition.

I know of people who took the day off before their viva and just relaxed.

Some candidates will be checking notes almost until they go into the viva room.

It helps, as with writing the thesis, to decide in advance what you are going to do. Make a decision about what “enough” preparation looks like. What are the tasks you will complete? What needs to get done? I would suggest allowing for a little relaxation time the day before to relax your mind; perhaps you can make a special plan to do something nice, if your schedule allows?

You can stop when you’re done, and you get to decide when that is. Make that decision. Otherwise you may just keep nervously doing more and more until you start the viva.

Empty Your Head

You don’t have to carry everything around in your brain for the viva. You can make notes. You can make plans. You can clear out the clutter and make sense of your ideas. When you start to prepare, write down a list of all the things you think you’ll do in preparation, then organise them.

Underline typos in your thesis as you find them (or make a list) so you don’t have to remember them. Add useful notes in the margins to help you. Write lists of questions you could ask your examiners. Summarise anything valuable or anything difficult about your work that you can think of.

You don’t have to remember everything. Lists, notes and summaries can reduce the burden on your brain for more useful thinking!