The Power of Post Its

I love Post It notes. They’re like joyful paper. They can break big ideas up into smaller thoughts. They can help group disparate thoughts into larger concepts. They label. They highlight. They’re so so useful for viva prep.

Put a Post It at the start of every chapter and make your thesis easier to navigate. Read through and highlight the most important sections of your thesis. Use larger square Post Its to add notes and breakdown jargon. If you find anything that could be clearer when you re-read your research, use a Post It to make it clearer.

There are lots of useful things that you could do to prepare for your viva. Before you begin, get a selection of Post It notes.

Your Greatest Hits

Examiners and graduates tell me that the viva typically starts with a question like, “Can you tell us about the most important parts of your research?” or “What is your work all about?” It’s a question worth practicing when the opportunity presents.

It is a big question though, so if you’re preparing for the viva, here are five questions that will help unpick it.

When were you most engaged during your PhD?
What do you want people to refer to in your thesis?
What would you most like to build on?
Which of your chapters or results is closest to perfection and why?
What parts of your research are least important? (followed up by “What’s left in your thesis after this?”)

You’re a talented researcher to have the viva in your future. You can think of more questions which will help you unpick this possible viva-opener.

Just Another Day At The Office

Which is better, treating the viva as a Special, One Of A Kind, Big, Important, This-Is-It Event Day – or going to university like it’s a regular day? Is it better go in thinking that it’s make or break, or acting as if the outcome is certain? Hard questions to answer.

Better questions to answer: What is the story that you tell yourself about the viva? Is it a helpful narrative? Would it be better to change the story?

Tick Tock

As a presenter, I silently curse institutions when I arrive to do a workshop and there is no clock on the wall. A clock is helpful to a presenter because they can keep track of where they are in their talk or session. If time slips or something changes they can modify as they go along. You can just glance whenever needed and move forwards.

If it’s viva day though, and you’re the one there to answer questions, a clock is not your friend. A clock just tells you how long you’ve been there, and whatever you see will not help your confidence. Ten minutes in, and you think, “I wonder what’s coming up?” Thirty minutes in: “Is it going well?” Ninety minutes: “How long is left?”

These are questions that you don’t need. They won’t help. At best they take your attention away from the focus for the day. At worst they knock your confidence by summoning doubts. A simple solution to a powerful problem: sit with your back to the clock or ask if it can be taken down. If you normally wear a watch, take it off. You’re fine without the time.

Talking Helps

Last year I chatted with a PhD graduate about their viva prep.

In her department they encouraged final year students to give a seminar about their PhD. As the viva approached they would deliver a talk summarising their research and then take questions. For the graduate I spoke to this was a hugely helpful practice: she got to spend time thinking about how to communicate her work, an opportunity to practice talking about what she had done, and lots of chances to answer unexpected questions from her audience. Three things that are perfect preparation for the viva.

A great idea. At the time I heard the story I thought, “I wish my department had suggested we do this.” A while later I realised, “If it had occurred to me, I could have just done it.”

And so could you. You don’t need permission, you just need a room. Find a space, invite some people, share your work, prepare for your viva.