Shaking

During my PhD, I used to pray for a lectern whenever I gave a talk. I could hide a bit that way. It’s not that I didn’t want to share my research: I would simply feel too nervous. Feeling nervous felt bad. My knees would knock as I stood up, my cheeks would flush and my voice would quaver. I’m tall; when my knees shake, my whole body shakes. All I could think was, “I hope I’m not nervous, I hope no-one will see.”

I had grown to build up a strong association with important events and nerves: Something big coming up? Feel nervous Nathan!

I wasn’t nervous for my viva, although there was a lot of the same background feelings. I felt prepared for my viva, and perhaps knowing it was a small audience helped to limit my nerves and how I felt.

I’ve kind of reversed it now though: Feeling a bit nervous? It must be important then!

With that connection I can help myself to not feel overcome. It only came from experience and time: I stood up a lot more and paid attention to what happened and how I felt. If your viva is coming up and you feel nervous, there may not be time to change your perspective completely. But maybe you can plant a seed in your mind: “I feel nervous, so this is important.” What are you going to do?

 

The Recipe

I love making bread. Nothing fancy, just a simple mix of flours, yeast, salt and water. Often a little oil. I find it’s difficult to get wrong. I start, and then a few hours later I get to find out if it worked. Even when I’m low on time, it doesn’t take much to make a dough that will produce a nice batch of rolls.

Viva prep is a lot like bread-making. It’s a simple mix. It’s a combination of reading, writing, thinking. I think you need a bit of talking to help it along, in the way that yeast really helps with making bread. It doesn’t have to be a complex process. Even if you’re short of time, there’s lots that you can do to make a difference.

Unlike bread though, you always have all of the materials you need at hand: you did the research, you wrote your thesis, now you can help this material grow even more.

Not-To-Do

I often tell people to do X, Y or Z in order to prepare for the viva, or give some idea of what to do to feel ready. I also like an idea that I first encountered via Tim Ferriss, the “Not-To-Do List“. Tim’s list is aimed at reducing bad habits and improving performance, but the basic idea could be helpful in other areas. I can think of a few things not-to-do when it comes to preparing for and thinking about the viva:

  • Don’t let your examiners be strangers; it’s useful to know who they are and something about them.
  • Don’t listen to horror stories; bad viva experiences are not the norm.
  • Don’t focus on hypothetical questions from examiners; you can’t anticipate everything, so focus on what you can do.
  • Don’t leave prep to the last minute; it takes a couple of weeks to get ready.
  • Don’t obsess about what it could be like; focus on how well you can meet the challenge of your viva.

And don’t forget who the expert is on your research: you!

Snowflakes

Universities have regulations about thesis examination, conditions that they expect. But every viva will be different from every other. Every PhD thesis and every PhD researcher is different from every other. Your viva won’t be like mine: it’ll have the same goals perhaps, but it will be different.

That’s OK.

Every snowflake is different from every other, but we know how to prepare for a blizzard. Your viva is going to be unique, but you can still be ready for the day it comes. Plan a little, prepare a little and you’ll be fine. You’ve come a long way already.

Change The Story

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of love for the PhD process? Every stage seems to have some kind of negativity attached to how it’s described:

  • First Year Funk: realising that what you wanted to do is harder than you thought…
  • Second Year Blues: feeling down or bored with being stuck…
  • Final Year Fears: worrying about finishing on time or at all…

“Surviving the viva” is a theme that’s been around for a while. Negative associations with “defending your thesis” persist.

These things can’t be beaten with a throwaway line or a joke. We associate being a “viva survivor” with a story that the viva is a trial by fire, the equivalent of a planned natural disaster that can’t be avoided. But the dictionary also defines survive as “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” – not insurmountable, just difficult. Talking about all the aspects of research and being a researcher can be difficult. Answering tricky questions about your research can be difficult. But not impossible.

So reflecting on this today I have two requests:

  • If your viva is in the past: tell future PhDs what was difficult about your viva and prep, but be honest and talk about what you did to meet those difficulties. You survived!
  • If your viva is in the future: think about what challenges might come your way, but reflect on what difficult challenges you’ve already overcome. You can survive!

One positive story is not going to change the negative associations surrounding the PhD and the viva. But lots of them…

The Perfect Viva

What would a perfect viva look like?

No hard questions? Being told you had passed at the start? Friendly examiners? A one hour time limit?

Just like the perfect thesis, the perfect viva doesn’t exist. You have no way of knowing in advance what your examiners think or what they have planned for the viva. Most people will have a positive viva, but it’s not totally within their control. However, you can control how prepared you are for your viva. It’s totally up to you, what you do to get ready, what you read or write or think. So don’t focus on what perfect might look like: focus on what you can actually do.

Seven

It’s a little over seven years since I started to help candidates prepare for their vivas. I thought it might be something interesting when I was asked to do a Viva Survivor workshop. I was still relatively new and exploring how I could help researchers. Over time I discovered that the viva was an intensely fascinating topic for me. I found something I was passionate about.

While I do have other projects and workshops, my main focus is finding ways to help people prepare for the viva. In the last six months or so I’ve made it my priority. I want to do more and do it better. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, I still feel that I’m in an exploring mode of thought. I don’t have a five year plan, or even a one year plan. I almost have a three month plan: more writing, more resources, more interviews and more workshops.

It doesn’t mean “more of the same” – and that’s one of the big things to realise about viva prep. It’s not just the same as “doing your PhD,” but it is doing more. Doing more with your thesis. Doing more with your skills. Doing more with what you know. Not the same, but more.

Like I said, I’m thinking about what more I can do to help people be ready for their viva. I don’t know where this work will take me, but I think it will be somewhere interesting, and I hope it helps people.

How about you? What more can you do to be prepared?

A Thought on Explaining

I keep folders of articles and posts that I’ve found interesting in the past. Every few weeks I pick a few out at random. Either I find something useful I need to remind myself of, or I decide that I’m not interested any more and discard it. It always helps give me a mental pick-me-up. I came across the following in this article on writing and it made me think about the viva:

You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume.

In the viva, you are the expert in your research. Your examiners have a lot of experience to draw on but less knowledge than you do about your thesis. They’re seeing the end result. They didn’t see it develop like you did. When answering their questions it’s useful to think about what else they need to know. From later in that same article comes another relevant line:

So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.

What experience do you want your examiners to have? What can you do to design that?