Don’t Panic!!!

Don’t panic during your prep or in the viva.

Don’t do it. De-list it as an option. It’s not on the table.

Find something that looks like a mistake in your thesis? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

Examiner asks an odd question? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

Examiner makes a critical comment? Don’t panic. What can you do instead?

If you weren’t allowed to panic, what would you do instead?

SCAMPERing Through Your Thesis

I like acronyms as useful tools, particularly for unpicking things or prompting thoughts. Last year I shared a post on how to use the tool SCAMPER to think about how to extend the research you’ve done for your PhD. Recently it struck me that SCAMPER could be useful as a reflection and review tool.

Today’s post is a series of questions inspired by SCAMPER to get you reflecting about your research. Use these with journalling or free-writing to spark some thoughts about your thesis.

  • Substitute: what did you change from something someone else had done?
  • Combine: what ideas did you bring together in your thesis?
  • Adapt: how have you altered the approach that you started with?
  • Magnify: what areas did you decide to focus on?
  • Put to other use: what pre-existing tools or ideas did you use?
  • Eliminate: how did you simplify things as your work developed?
  • Rearrange: as your thesis was nearing completion, what changes did you have to make?

Use these questions to think about your research and thesis. Reflecting on the three or more years of work you’ve completed is an essential part of the viva prep process.


…you’re talented.

…your thesis is done.

…you only have a little way to go.

…is not like your first year.

…you’re at the end of the journey.

…you’re able to think clearly.

…you have experience.

Whatever first year, second year, third year was like, now is not then. Now you’re on the final approach to being done. Now you’re the expert.

Now you can be ready for your viva.

Help Wanted

You might be looking to appoint a couple of people to the position of “Viva Prep Helper-Outer”.

What do you need from others to help with your viva prep? What are you looking for?

Think about it and make a decision. Find out who is available. Think about what they know and what they can do.

Make it clear that it’s a low-paid job, but you might be able to manage the odd coffee by way of compensation. Essentially the position is somewhere between a coach and a consultant. You want questions, ideas, advice, encouragement and someone to listen.

You might need to take on more than one person.

Don’t be too demanding on anyone’s time, and remember to settle up with anyone who is a really big help.

Say thank you when your viva is done, and be ready to help someone in the future.

The Flipside of Blame

Outside of the usual typos and copyediting, my biggest corrections were to rewrite two chapters. They followed a similar flow, two case studies using a process I’d developed. My examiners were happy with the result, but not with how it was set out. It took me several weeks to re-arrange the model I had in my head. Thankfully, the second chapter was much easier to write once the first had been done.

Last year, sharing this story with a PhD candidate they asked, “So who was to blame? Your supervisor? They should have caught it, right?”

Wrong. My supervisor was responsible for giving me feedback, and he did. He told me that those chapters explained the process that I had developed, which they did.

“Well, your examiners then, they were just being harsh.”

No, they were doing their jobs. They fulfilled their roles perfectly. They asked for corrections to help make my thesis the best it could be.

I was to blame for my corrections…

…and the flipside of blame is responsibility.

I was responsible for writing my thesis, and I was responsible for ensuring it was the best it could be for submission. No-one else. The chapters needed something. I could have spotted that. I could have seen that my descriptions, while accurate, were missing a lot of the terminology and rigour that was appropriate. It was hidden in the background, when I needed to bring it front and centre.

Blame and responsibility are shadows of the same thing. It depends where you position yourself to look at the situation. You’re responsible for your corrections…

…and you’re to blame for how good your research is overall.

What If Something Goes Wrong?

Let’s be clear: it’s unlikely that something will “go wrong” in your viva.

Unlikely doesn’t matter though if you’re really worried now.

Unlikely really doesn’t matter if it’s happening on the day.

So what do you do?

  • Stop.
  • Take a breath.
  • Take a sip of water.
  • Ask a question.
  • Ask for a break.
  • Ask for time to think.
  • Think about what you can do. If you have an independent chair, talk to them.
  • If you don’t, talk to your internal.

Whatever it is, there’s a process. Just stop first. Then see what’s next. A pause might be enough to make you feel like you’re making too much of the situation. It may not be as wrong as you think.

But again, let’s be clear: it’s unlikely that something will go wrong in your viva. It’s unlikely because your examiners are up to the job and following an established process.

It’s unlikely because you are ready by that point. Your research is done, your thesis is done and you are ready and up to the task of discussing your work.

One Little Notebook

My favourite notebook: a tiny Moleskine, 64 pages, each smaller than a typical postcard. Many years back I bought a dozen in a sale and I’ve been hooked ever since. I use them for special projects, which got me thinking…

If one little notebook was all you could use to make notes about your thesis and research in preparation for your viva, what would you make notes of? What would help you? What would you use the space for?

  • A summary of each chapter?
  • A plan for your prep?
  • Notes on key papers or researchers?
  • Notes on your examiners’ research interests?
  • Notes on core questions of your own thesis?
  • A summary of what you’re most proud of?
  • Key questions you need to be sure of answering?

And you’d probably still have pages free.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, you get to decide what you need most in order to feel prepared for your viva; whatever good ideas or advice other people have, you’re the one who has to do the work. Turn this one little notebook idea over and see if it might work for you.

Second thought: you probably need fewer resources to get ready for the viva than you think.

Jargon Caveat

I noticed recently that I used the word “caveat” two or three times during a workshop. It bothered me and on reflection I realised it was because I was assuming everyone in the room (typically a mix of people from all over the world) would know the meaning. They might get from context I was pointing out an exception to a point I had just made, but caveat is not a word used in everyday speech.

I’ve decided I’ll use it more sparingly from now on. “Exception” will do just fine.

Every academic discipline or field has jargon: the words which are part of the secret language of the area. Sometimes they’re a shorthand for clarity, but they only work if everyone understands the meaning. It’s not impossible to use jargon and misunderstand it yourself!

Be sure that you have a good grasp on the secret words of your field. Make sure your audience, examiners or otherwise, will understand you.

Make sure you know what the words mean.

Sometimes “I Don’t Know” Is The Only Answer

You might not want to say it.

You might be able to think and discuss to get somewhere.

Or you might engage with a question and say something but realise you can’t say everything.

Perhaps there is something you don’t know or can’t know. Maybe it is something no-one knows.

Sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.

Pause and think before you say it. Be certain. Say why you don’t know if you can.

Put On Your Sunday Clothes

Before every Viva Survivor workshop I rewrite my running order, arrange my props just so, prepare my flipcharts and listen to a few tracks from the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack. The music is really happy, and some of the lyrics in particular resonate with me:

Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out

Strut down the street and have your picture took

Dressed like a dream your spirit seems to turn about

That Sunday shine is a certain sign that you feel as fine as you look!

I’m pretty confident about what I do because of the amount of experience that I have. But I use everything I can before every workshop to prime myself: all of my preparations, what I listen to, what I do and think about, all of it helps me.

Before your viva, you have a right to feel confident too. Your thesis hasn’t just appeared: you did it, you did the work and wrote your thesis and you can only do those things by being very talented at what you do. Do whatever you can on the day to prime yourself to be your best.

What will help you be at your best? Do you need to put on your Sunday clothes? What will make the difference for you?