Tagged

One of my two summer projects for Viva Survivors was to keep going through all of the posts so far and tag them into themes. If you look in the sidebar now you should see a tag cloud under the heading Tags & Themes. I’m going to be adding tags to posts once per month to keep things roughly up to date, but for now:

Now you can find all of these and more with ease. Take a look at the tags in the sidebar to see what else is there.

(more on the second of my summer projects by the end of September, still need to put the hours in on that to finish it off!)

Tell Everyone

Call the bank. Skype your parents. Text your supervisor. Send a carrier pigeon to your school teachers. Update your local GP.

Tweet at the entire world!

It’s a really big deal when you pass your viva. Share and celebrate, and when you have time tell people what you did and what happened.

Your story can help steer someone else’s.

Ten Questions For Better Answers In The Viva

You hear your examiners ask a question. You have a first thought, the shape of an answer appears. Ask yourself another question then to help that shape develop. Try one of the following:

  1. Is this the best thing that you could say?
  2. What else do you know?
  3. What do you not know about this area?
  4. What’s your best evidence to support this idea?
  5. Have you definitely understood the question?
  6. What could you point to in your thesis to support this response?
  7. When have you answered a similar question before?
  8. What’s the first sentence of your response?
  9. What objections could someone raise to what you’re about to say?
  10. Is what you’re saying an opinion, a suggestion or a fact?

Speech and thought overlap in conversation. While you’re talking, you’re thinking. You don’t need to memorise these ten questions for the viva, but do find questions to help make your answers better.

Three Wishes

If you could have three wishes for your viva, what would they be?

I can imagine some possibilities…

  • …I wish that it wasn’t too long…
  • …I wish that my examiners would treat me fairly…
  • …I wish I could answer all of their questions…
  • …I wish I felt confident…
  • …I wish it was over!

Wishes don’t just manifest. Some parts of the viva you could have hope for, some things you can expect, and some things you can work towards making a reality. Rather than making wishes, find out realistic expectations for your viva – by asking people about theirs or talking to your university’s graduate school – and work on building up your confidence if you need to.

(unless you find a magic lamp, in which case wish away!)

Six Short Summaries

Six viva preparation ideas. Get a piece of paper and pick one of the following to write about. You don’t need to do all of these. Each one offers a different perspective on your PhD.

  1. Answer the question, “What’s important about my research?”
  2. Write about your conclusions and where they come from.
  3. Detail the helpful steers your supervisor gave you during your PhD.
  4. Write about what you found difficult during your research.
  5. Answer the question, “Who would find my work interesting?”
  6. Write down the first ten words that come to mind about your PhD. Expand on each.

A little thinking, and a little time spent on putting those thoughts into words on a page.

Mismatched

Today marks five hundred daily posts for the blog(!), and so I wanted to pause and say something about what I see as the biggest, trickiest and most persistent problem surrounding the viva:

In general there is a great mismatch between the expectations and feelings of PhD candidates in advance of the viva, and the reality of the viva and the usual outcomes.

Most people worry in some way that they won’t pass, but most people pass the viva with no problems. I ask candidates in workshops how they feel about their viva. Over 80% say something like nervous, anxious, worried, unprepared, unsure and so on. Yet over 90% of candidates typically pass their viva with minor or no corrections.

Horror stories of incredibly long inquisitions, terrifying examiners with egos as big as buildings, complete railroad questions and total thesis rewrites permeate the space around vivas – and they don’t match the general reality of what happens in the viva and what happens as a result. Thousands have a viva in the UK every year. That’s a lot of people who invest time, energy and focus in being worried about a terrible thing that never happens.

What can be done?

We need to challenge the spread of misinformation, urban legends and negative experiences that surround the viva. We need to help candidates feel prepared for the reality of the viva, partly by making sure they have realistic expectations, partly by helping them see what could be useful to be practically ready.

Some ways forward, because this is a problem that everyone can chip away at:

  • Had a viva and it’s gone well? Find an avenue to share your experience. Write a blog post. Tell colleagues. Tweet about it.
  • Know someone who needs help? Help them! Don’t just say “you’ll be fine,” do something practical.
  • Share resources that help. There are lots of them out there. See what your university provides, see if it’s good, and pass it on.

Over time we can crack the Viva Mismatch Problem. It’s not intractable. We can get to a point where PhD candidates will expect that at the end of their research they are ready for the reality of the viva, not a nightmare, but a conversation – not torture, just talking.

As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep making things, keep sharing what I do in workshops and sessions. If you think what I do is useful, then do think about subscribing to get the daily posts in your email. Tell someone about it if you think it will help them.

…500 posts! That’s a lot.

Onwards and upwards…

What’s Your Why?

Almost finished your PhD but getting discouraged? Take a minute or two to reflect on one of these questions:

  • Why did you get originally get interested?
  • Why was this something worth doing?
  • Why had no-one else done this before?
  • Why have you kept going?

Whatever your why, it matters. If the end of your PhD starts to drag, if it becomes a grind to get it done, then return to your why.

And keep going. The end is in sight.

Omens

A red sky in the morning, a black cat, what your horoscope says, spilling salt or breaking a mirror…

…all could mean something bad will happen. If you believe. If you attach particular significance. Otherwise, they’re just events.

Similarly, examiners who are expert in your field, typos, unresolved problems in your research, unanswered questions from your data, and so on…

If you want them to be ominous, if you want them to be problems, then they will be. If they’re just facts or things, then maybe you can do something about them. You can look into something more, think about it more, do something and probably keep things that seem negative in some kind of perspective.

“Omens” are just events. It’s our interpretation that means something.

If your interpretation of your viva situation seems ominous, your next step is to think, “What can I do to change my perspective?”

Time Passes

It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I’ve written several posts in the last few months referencing this. It’s like a little star whose gravity I can’t escape. I enjoyed my PhD, and have very few regrets or complaints about my time as a PGR, but I think one of the great differences to then and now is just how much support is available for researchers.

There are more visible sources in everything from skills development, professional help and support for the mental health challenges that some researchers can face. By no means have any of these areas been “solved” for PGRs, but the last decade has seen an explosion in approaches, resources, workshops, books, seminars, webinars and more importantly the culture around support for PGRs.

In the sphere of viva help, there are lots of resources, workshops and help out there (just like this site!) – but one of the key culture changes is the number of PhD graduates who write about their viva experiences now. This is completely different from my experience a decade ago. I knew no-one who shared what happened above and beyond a quick “I passed and it was fine!” person-to-person.

A long time ago I started the Elsewhere page on this site as a collection of useful resources beyond this site. There are a lot of stories on that page, but it’s while since I’ve updated the list. I don’t always have much time to go actively looking for more viva stories (but I’ll put an afternoon in the diary for the autumn to do an update). If you’ve written something, or know someone who has, then do drop me an email or a tweet with a link and I’ll add it to the page.

Stories matter. They help. The more we see stories of viva success, the more we can promote the idea that success is the norm, that fear and worry are based on the outliers. Stories change culture.