All The Answers

Knowing exactly what to say to answer every question in your viva isn’t a reasonable expectation. It’s not required for the viva. Your examiners don’t expect it from you. You would probably need to know all of the questions before they were asked (and you won’t).

You’re not expected to know all the answers, but you are expected to respond to every question.

A response could be an answer or an opinion. A response could be sharing an idea or offering a hypothesis. A response could be a gut feeling or a question for clarification.

A response could even be saying “I don’t know,” and then explaining why.

You can’t have all the answers but you have many options for offering a response.

Underlining

Underlining can make your thesis better for the viva.

  • You could underline key references.
  • You could make sure you can find your typos.
  • You could show key words or definitions.
  • You could underline a sentence that is amazing.
  • You could have one colour of ink and underline one type of thing in your thesis.
  • You could have several colours for different needs.
  • You could have full lines or dashed for different emphasis.

Annotating your thesis during viva prep adds value to what’s on the page, making it more useful for the viva. Reflect on how underlining could help you and your thesis.

Surprised

If I had a pound for every time someone told me they were surprised they enjoyed their viva I would probably have a very healthy savings account. When I share stories of success and enjoyment with candidates they are surprised. They’ve heard that vivas are OK or that most people pass, but don’t know that they can be good.

With candidates and graduates being surprised by this we have a problem!

So what can we do?

Candidates can find out more about what to expect to get a better sense of the reality of the viva. Graduates, surprised or not, can share their stories more widely. Vivas aren’t perfect, but they are more often enjoyed than awful.

Experienced

Your examiners have enough experience that they can read your thesis, understand it and know what they need to do in their role to give you and your work a fair examination.

It’s possible that your examiners might know more than you about your field. They might even be considered experts in topics related to your thesis.

If that’s the case, however you feel, remember that you have the experience of writing your thesis. You have the experience of doing the work. You have the experience of reading everything you needed to get this far. You have the experience of rising to all of the challenges you had so that you could get to submission.

Your examiners are experienced enough to do their part well. You are too.

Opportunities To Engage

Questions in the viva aren’t tricks, traps or trouble. They’re not dissecting problems or simply looking to expose weakness.

Your examiners’ questions are there to get you talking. They’re asked to get you exploring, explaining, talking – engaging with the exam, talking about your thesis, your research and your journey.

Viva questions are your opportunities to engage – how will you make the most of them?

 

Nerves Are Human

If you’re nervous about the viva then you will feel uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong.

Nerves are a very human response to important situations. Your examiners might be nervous about your viva because they want it go well too. Your supervisor could be nervous, friends and family could be nervous on your behalf. A crowd of people, near and far, all nervous for what will happen and wanting it go well.

I don’t have a tried and tested method for removing nerves – but you can lessen the discomfort you feel by building your confidence. Reflect on your PhD journey, see the progress you’ve made and the knowledge and skillset that you must have. It doesn’t make you not-nervous, but it can help make you more confident for the important event that is in your future.

If you’re nervous about the viva then you’re human. As a human you can do something about it.

Numbers Matter

Since July 2010 I’ve delivered sessions about the viva to over 6000 postgraduate researchers. I have the 300th Viva Survivor session in my diary for early 2022. Shortly after that I’ll mark the five year anniversary of this daily blog.

I regularly remind myself of these numbers. I don’t write them to boost how I seem to you: I write them to help me see myself more clearly.

Like everyone I have doubts. I have anxieties. They come and go and can sometimes bring me down.

The numbers don’t lie though. The numbers help to tell my story back to me. I have done this work for a long time, I’ve worked with a lot of people, I’ve stayed determined with the blog. The numbers help me to show me the results of what I’ve done. They steer me towards my confidence and away from doubts.

What are your numbers? What measures could help you?

The number of days you worked on your PhD so far? The number of times you’ve shared your work? The number of chapters in your thesis or interesting things you found? The number of challenging situations you overcame?

You might have a bad day or a bad week near the end of your PhD. It may be you doubt yourself as you get closer to the viva. In those times look for your numbers. Your feelings might say one thing, but the numbers will tell you a far more helpful story.

Heads or Tails

You can’t flip a coin to determine viva success.

The stories we tell about vivas pivot on knowing if someone passed or failed – but these things are not equally likely. Around one in one thousand PhD candidates don’t pass.

There are many, many reasons why candidates pass – the process, the structure of the PhD, the skillset and knowledge base and experience that a candidate must typically have.

Doubting your future success is a human response; knowing a little of what to expect in the viva can be the first step to putting doubts to one side, so you can focus on being ready to succeed.

Passing the viva is not due to simple luck.

Constrained

There’s no best, one-size-fits-all plan for viva prep. You have to explore what works for you, and if you’re busy that could feel quite stressful.

This blog contains lots of ideas for what might help someone get ready. How do you plan all that out? You explore by applying constraints to see what could work.

  • What if you started your prep four weeks before your viva?
  • What if you could only prepare for thirty minutes per day?
  • What if you used your Saturday mornings?
  • What if you thought it would take twenty hours?
  • What if you had a list of tasks or goals first?
  • What if you assumed a start or finish date for your prep work?

Exploring just a few constraints can help you arrive at sensible options for getting the work done.

Stop stressing about how it will all get done. Start exploring with useful constraints that will help you be finished.