Pre-Corrections

Nearly every person that I’ve spoken to about mock vivas had theirs about two weeks before the actual viva. For them it was a chance to explore their thesis, get questions about their work and see how they would feel responding in a viva-like situation. Most people want something like that from the mock.

A while back I spoke to someone who had their mock viva a month before they submitted their thesis. They wanted to see how well they were communicating, both through their thesis and through the answers they gave to questions. Their early mock viva gave them a chance for “pre-corrections”: based on questions and feedback they tried to improve their thesis as much as possible before submission. That didn’t mean that they weren’t expecting corrections later but they were using their mock to make their thesis the best it could be.

I’ve never interviewed anyone else who has had such an early mock viva. It might not be a terrible idea to do something like it though. Why not host a seminar or have a series of conversations to unpick how well you’re communicating your research? What could you do to improve?

Training Days

I have a hard time defining my job title. Sometimes I’m a freelance consultant, sometimes I’m a writer, sometimes I’m a skills trainer. I go back and forth on describing my Viva Survivor workshops as training. I share ideas and advice, explain what the viva is all about and help people to see that they have a lot of talents already. I want to help people feel as confident as possible for their viva. Some days I feel happy saying that the workshop is a skills training session, other days it doesn’t feel quite right.

Your institution probably provides a lot of training opportunities. They might book me to come in or provide their own sessions on viva prep, or they might not do something like that. Regardless of whether or not they provide viva training, look around for other sessions that could help you with finishing your PhD and preparing for the viva.

Look for workshops on presentation skills, confidence building, assertiveness – none of this is about the viva or viva prep, but all could help with it. Even if you’re three months from submission, if you feel it will help, see if there are any academic or thesis writing workshops. There will be valuable lessons you can learn from a half day session. The real value, of course, is when you make changes as a result.

See what’s on offer, see what you might learn and then think about the difference that could make.

Think Again

Like most PhD candidates, after my viva I had corrections. For two of my chapters in particular, my examiners were convinced I had proved what I stated, but they didn’t like how it was explained. It read too much like a story, they said, not like maths at all. They told me I had to correct it by re-ordering those chapters.

It seemed impossible. I had spent almost three years developing my explanation. As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to do it. Slowly though, I restated all of my terms. Bit by bit I built it back up. In the end, the chapters were shorter, more precise, easier to read and more effective at communicating the algorithms I had developed. My thesis was profoundly better as a result.

I’m grateful that my examiners gave me the opportunity to re-explore one of my big results. I’m grateful because it gave me a chance to start again: I knew the result was true and I worked out a more helpful way of communicating it.

On the run up to the viva, it could be useful to take a step back. Explore whether or not there are alternate ways of expressing your work. If your thesis is finished it can still be valuable to let your mind wander. How else can you explain your research?

Active

You have to read your thesis to prepare for the viva. Cover to cover, everything, don’t skim. It will help a lot.

If you re-read though, and re-read again, there’ll come a point where it becomes a passive activity. You do it for the sake of doing it. Your attention is on other things, and while you might feel good for taking a look at the book again, you’re not actually getting any benefit.

When that happens, switch gears: go back to being active. Annotate your thesis. Make a list of your most important references. Create some summaries to help you find the heart of your research. Have a conversation with a friend about your results. Ask your supervisor to run through your methodology and throw in some left-field questions.

Effective viva prep is active.

3 Questions You’ll Never Be Asked…

…but you might get a lot of help from considering them:

  • What do you not want to talk about in your viva?
  • Following on from that, why do you not want to talk about it?
  • What would you say if it did come up?

Your examiners won’t ask these questions, but answers to them will help you. Reflect on your thesis and research journey. What do you not want to focus on?

World’s Largest Prairie Dog

In 2009 I went on a road trip across the USA. One day my friend and I saw a sign announcing, “PRAIRIE DOG TOWN!! See the world’s largest prairie dog!!” It was over one hundred miles away, and we laughed at something that seemed so silly.

Our feelings changed quickly.

Every few miles there was a different sign talking about the world’s largest prairie dog. Signs said we wouldn’t want to miss it. They counted down the miles. There would be a five-legged cow as well! And other animals: snakes, wolves and more.

The world’s largest prairie dog!

“How big could it be?” we thought. Prairie dogs are quite small normally… Could the world’s largest prairie dog be the size of a pig? Surely no bigger… Could it? Sign after sign told us it would be something amazing, something incredible. On the road to Prairie Dog Town we listened to the story. We built on it and built on it ourselves until…

Your humble author, for comparison…

…it’s a statue. And not even a particularly good one! For over one hundred miles we had amped ourselves up, read the signs, invested hours of conversation and discussion.

It was a statue!!!

Sigh…

There’s a set of persistent, conflicting, stories about the PhD viva:

  • It’s a big mystery.
  • It’s all about choosing the “right” examiners.
  • It’s supposed to be tough.
  • No-one fails, so don’t treat it seriously.
  • People do fail…and you might be one of them!

Is it any wonder that by the time of the viva, candidates don’t know which way is up? All they know is that it’s going to be a probably-survivable-but-maybe-not-all-that-good-event.

Stories are useful, but so are facts. With the viva people get swept up in the story about the event and forget their own story. What did you do to get to the viva? How did you do your research? What’s the beginning, middle and end of the journey so far? Whether it has felt easy or hard, whether it’s been rough or smooth, you got this far. You did this.

There was only one set of signs that lead my friend and I to the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. We went because we listened. There are lots of stories that swirl around the viva. Find the facts then listen to your story.

Party Time

After my viva I felt like I was celebrating because that’s what I was supposed to do. My family was thrilled for me, but I just didn’t want to celebrate that evening. My viva wasn’t bad, but by the end I was tired, numb. I didn’t begin to feel like celebrating until days later.

How do you think you might feel after your viva?

Do you think you’ll be saying, “Phew! I’m glad that’s done!”?

Will you frame celebrations as “This is a treat for finishing!”?

Or will you be thinking, “Now what?” – which is pretty much what was going through my mind after the viva.

As with many things, if you can reflect a little on how you feel now, you might be able to steer your motivations. If you’re thinking, “I’ll be glad when this is over,” you’re not likely to have a positive spin on things. Maybe you’re not in charge of your emotional state completely, but you can steer things.

However you feel, remember to celebrate. Passing the viva is big.

Plus, Minus, Interesting

I like to use thinking tools, and “Plus, Minus, Interesting” is a good concept by Edward de Bono. To put it simply, it’s just a request to look at things from different perspectives: look for positives, negatives and interesting features, don’t just examine something with whatever gut feeling you have.

I can think of lots of ways to use it when preparing for the viva:

  • Explore the methodology you used to do your research. Why was it good to do it the way that you did? What did it not allow you to do? What’s interesting about it?
  • If you find a passage that is unclear, use “plus, minus, interesting” to reframe the vague text.
  • Create a summary for each chapter, a single page divided into three sections. Plus for important things, minus for difficult parts, interesting for things that others might find, erm, interesting.
  • Use “plus, minus, interesting” to provoke an analysis or discussion of the main outcomes of your thesis.

This is just one flexible tool. There are others! Use what you can to explore your research in new ways. It’s good prep to think differently about your thesis before the viva.

Red Alert!

I love Star Trek. I love the visions of the future, the philosophical explorations and wonder of seeking out new worlds.

I also love it when someone shouts, “Red Alert!” Two words that signify danger and excitement, but not panic: they’re an instruction to the crew to focus. There are procedures to follow. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but they’re hyper-competent. Bad things may be happening, but if they can pull together they’ll get through it.

“Red Alert!” could be a good mental picture to paint for tough questions in the viva. Maybe not danger exactly: a call to focus, but no cause for panic. There are procedures you can follow. You’re good at answering questions, and something tough just requires more attention. Most questions will not be too hard, but like the crew of the Enterprise you are hyper-competent – you’re an experienced researcher! It could be tricky, but if you follow your talents and think you’ll get through it.

Hypotheticals

What if your examiners ask you a question and you go blank?

What if you forget something?

What if your examiners don’t agree on the outcome of the viva?

What if you arrive late?

What if you don’t know the answer?

And so on. The consequences for some of these situations seem bad. Some of them are easily coped with in the moment (if you go blank, think more; if you don’t know something, discuss it with your examiners), and some aren’t. But none of these will necessarily happen in the viva. Some of them are not likely at all.

You can’t always control how you feel, but rather than obsess over what-if scenarios, try to give your attention to preparation that helps.

What if you invested your time and energy in being prepared for the viva? What would happen then?