Workout

An idea for Saturday: six minute viva prep workout! It’s playful, but there’s serious prep at work here too.

Got a voice recording app on your phone, tablet or computer? That’s all you need. Make sure you can keep an eye on a clock or timer.

There are four items on the following list for you to talk about. Focus on one at a time. Don’t worry if you say um or pause to think. Don’t worry if you say less or more than the indicated time. Just try.

Start recording.

  • Talk for one minute about why you got interested in your research area.
  • Talk for two minutes about the general thrust of your thesis.
  • Talk for two minutes about how you did your research.
  • Talk for one minute about the importance of your results.

All done? Set a reminder on your phone or calendar to come and listen back to the recording in two days.

When you listen back, what do you notice? What would you say more or? Less of? What did you forget?

Practice is key, but without reflection you don’t get all the benefits.

Thinking Through My Fingers

Isaac Asimov: “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

I found this in one of those quote lists that are everywhere. I like lists, but I love the gems buried in them, and this is a gem. Asimov’s insight is especially profound when it comes to the thesis. It takes a long time to write a thesis. When you sit down to write you don’t have to get it right first time. Sitting to write can help you clarify what you think. Getting something, anything, typed up can help you make the vague clear. It takes time, but when you’re finished and you submit, you’re telling your examiners that you think you’re on to a winner.

If you’ve submitted already, then this is the message you were sending. If you’ve not submitted yet, I think the opportunity here is asking yourself, “What would a winning thesis look like?” Aim yourself at the answer and do the work. Get thinking through your fingers.

Wrong

There’s always a chance you’ve missed something. Not a typo, not a passage that needs editing, but something wrong. Maybe something that is a problem.

It’s a very small chance though. Long odds.

There’s a greater chance that your examiners THINK there is something wrong, or that you’ve not acknowledged something they feel is really important. They might be right, but it’s not a good idea to just accept what they say, or for you to put your head down and insist that you are right.

Instead: ask them why. Why do they think you’ve made a mistake? What are their reasons? What’s their thinking? Because you know your thinking. Once you have both pictures, you can start to see what the reality might be. What sounds like a mountain-high hurdle could be a tiny speed bump. After thinking and talking it through, it may not even be a problem.

There’s a chance that you’re wrong, but given how far you’ve come, it’s much more likely that you’re right or know the way to right. Show your examiners.

Four Hours

My viva was four hours long. It was over in an eye-blink. I left my viva thinking, “What just happened?” I was tired because I had slept badly, and the viva was quite an involved discussion at times. Still, I was really surprised to find out four hours had gone by. I’ve heard similar stories from other PhD graduates: vivas that seemed to take no time at all despite clocks and watches clearly showing hours have passed.

Two/three/four hours at the end of years of research, learning and development – by comparison it really is an eye-blink. In the moment it could fly by, or there could be questions that drag on and on (I remember those too). But relative to all that you’ve done the viva is a tiny step in the PhD process: one of the final ones, but one at the end of a great deal of work by you. However long the viva is, you’re in a good place to meet the challenge.

The Bones Of Your Research

Remember Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Your work comes from somewhere. Whatever your contribution, it stands on the shoulders of other researchers. How many papers are in your bibliography? How many more have you read, which didn’t make it into your bibliography but which informed your development or your work’s development?

By the end it might be almost impossible to remember every paper that has helped or influenced you. But you can reflect on your thesis and think about the meaningful fraction that makes up the core of what you’ve done. If you have 200 papers, what’s the top 10? The top 20?

Your thesis is built on a great body of work. What makes up the skeleton?

Tuning In

For the first half of 2016 I would listen to a string quartet doing covers of David Bowie songs whenever I was setting up for workshops.I listened to the songs one day and had a great workshop. It started as a little ritual but blossomed into priming: priming myself for confidence, tuning myself into a certain mode of thinking. After the summer break and a little reflection I switched to Daft Punk. I’m generally in a very happy space when I’m presenting, or I want to be, and Daft Punk is music that makes me happy.

So, an idea: What music makes you happy? What music do you associate with being the best version of you? What music tells the story of your PhD? There are a lot of things you could do to contribute to being viva ready – read your thesis of course, practice answering questions, make notes – but something helpful could be as simple as listening to a soundtrack that helps you focus well.

What’s on your playlist?

Motivation

Where does your drive come from? What pushes you on to complete your goals? I’m not asking because your examiners necessarily will want to know, but because I think it’s good for you to bring it front and centre for yourself.

Is it for personal achievement? Is it for a career? Is it to make someone proud? Is it to be the best? There’s no right or wrong answers, just a source of energy.

The PhD is supposed to be difficult. Your motivation can help move you beyond the difficulties. Doing things can get so intense that we forget why we’re doing them in the first place. So take a step back and put that motivation at the front.

Why are you doing this? OK, now do it.

Blank

A common fear: what if your mind goes blank in the viva?

You could erm your way through a response: “Erm, well, I think, erm, hmm, that’s… Hmm, erm, if…”

You could waffle your way to freedom: “…in conclusion, as I said five minutes ago, in response to your particularly excellent query, that if we consider Foucault’s method – and there are several good reasons to do so, first of all…”

You could throw a smokebomb in the centre of the room and escape in the confusion: actually, no you can’t. Don’t do that.

Or you could: take a breath; ask your examiner to repeat the question; have a sip of water; breathe; think about your research; think about what you’ve done when confronted with a similar problem before; ask for a moment to think.

If your mind goes blank, then take your time. It’s OK. You can do this. It’s better than saying erm a lot or waffling to distract your examiners. And much better than throwing a smokebomb down.

I Don’t Know

“I don’t know” is not the end of the viva. It’s not a stain against your name. It doesn’t mean that you automatically lose.

It means you didn’t know something.

If you don’t have information, what do you have? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Probably a question for yourself: you don’t know a definite answer, but what possibilities are there?
  • Probably a question or two for your examiners: can you tell me more?
  • Definitely a brain, and experience: given the question, given everything you do know, what does that lead you to think?

I don’t know is not the end of the viva. It could be the end of a strand of conversation. Or it could be an opportunity to show how you can think, and engage, discuss and decide. You can give an opinion. YOU can reason things out. I’ll say it again: You’re not here by accident.