A Conundrum

Every viva is a custom exam to examine one particular person and their thesis. But every viva takes place according to practices that are consistent across the UK, and according to regulations and expectations that are consistent with an institution.

Different and the same.

Taken together this creates a slightly head-scratching puzzle, but not an impossible one. To solve it for yourself, first check your university’s regulations to see what to expect broadly. Then talk to friends to get a sense of what their vivas were like.

Finally, realise that your own will be unique. The expectations create an environment for you to thrive in. The variety comes from you and your work, not from a lack of rigour.

Problem solved.

It’s Not A Game Of Simon Says

There’s lots of advice about how to prepare for the viva. I’m personally responsible for sharing a lot. But none of it is beyond question. For a long time in workshops I shared a few approaches to making paper-based summaries, then realised that not everyone might like to write things longhand. That was simply my preference.

There are core areas to focus on for viva prep, but there is no right way to work on any of these areas. Your goal ahead of the viva, like any other PhD candidate, is to feel prepared. You have to figure out your own path to get there.

Listen to others, but don’t follow blindly.

Top Ten Top Fives

I often encourage people to use “top fives” to start a summary or reflection. Get a list of five going and you have something to build on. There’s a lot you can think about when you’re preparing for the viva, so here’s my top ten list of top five topics!

  1. Top Five Contributions To Your Field That You’ve Made!
  2. Top Five Papers That You’ve Referenced In Your Bibliography!
  3. Top Five Questions You Might Like To Ask Your Examiners In The Viva!
  4. Top Five Pages You Want To Find Easily In Your Thesis!
  5. Top Five Things You Really Need To Remember!
  6. Top Five Questions You Don’t Want To Be Asked By Your Examiners!
  7. Top Five People You Can Turn To For Help!
  8. Top Five Steps You Need To Do To Feel Prepared!
  9. Top Five Proudest Moments Of Your PhD!
  10. Top Five Things You Can Do To Be Confident On The Day!

Lists are fun. Structure helps. What makes your list(s)?

Submission Day

I was so happy I was buzzing!

I’d printed my three copies of my thesis. Bound them on the tricky hot-glue binder in my department. My paperwork was all in order. I was finally going to submit!

There was no queue at the university’s main admin hub. I walked right up to the desk and said, with a big smile, slightly nervous but really happy: “Hi, I’m here to submit my thesis!”

I remember what happened next so clearly.

The person behind the desk glanced at me and my stack of theses, and then called over her shoulder, “Bill, you’ve got another one.”

Bill came from the back office, checked the number of copies, looked at my form, signed it, said, “OK, thanks,” and was gone.

And that was it.

There was no congratulations. There were no pyrotechnics, no brass band, no huddle of people who wanted to know what it was like and what had just happened.

It was a milestone day for me, and just a day like any other for Bill.

It’s just my story, but I’ve heard others like it. The end of the PhD, from submission day to viva, can be anticlimactic. That doesn’t lessen your achievement. If you start to feel like it’s not really anything special, then reflect on what it was you set out to do. Reflect on what you’ve done along the way. Reflect on the journey rather than the destination.

Your PhD means something.

Three Whats

I work on experiential learning workshops several times a year. “Three Whats” is one of the techniques we use to get participants reflecting. Typically we’d use them in sequence to encourage reflection after an activity or task:

  • What just happened?
  • So what does that mean?
  • Now what are you going to do?

The timescales are different, but these are also worth answering at the end of the PhD. Everyone will have different answers. Maybe once you have them you can see some other paths ahead of you.

Maybe you’ll look at the road behind you differently too.