Can You Hear Me?

I’ve said those four words probably hundreds of times since the start of the pandemic and my shift to working from home.

For any webinar that I deliver I have to produce joining instructions way in advance. Then I check my slides and notes the day before (and on the day) to see what needs updating. I draft follow-up emails beforehand, do a quick run-through of key points, check all of the tech is working well and make sure I have my water bottle filled. I check I have my notes, I check if my wife is going to be home while I’m delivering the session. Then I get things going and finally I ask,

“Can you hear me?”

There’s a lot of really practical steps to delivering one of my sessions.

And I also write out an overview each time even though my notes are onscreen for me to see. I write out a five-point list of things to remember and focus me that is the same for every session. I listen to a short playlist of music that gives me energy and helps me to feel confident. I have a picture on my desk that my daughter made for me, and a small paperweight that is comforting to hold at times while I talk to everyone through the camera.

There’s a lot of really personal steps to delivering one of my sessions.

The practical steps are necessary because I couldn’t do the work at all without them. The personal steps are necessary because I wouldn’t feel like me and I couldn’t do the work as well without them.

Over the course of a PhD, a postgraduate researcher has to do the work. They have to do the research and practical steps that lead them to completion. But to feel right they also have to pay attention to the personal work that can help them feel confident about their ability.

 

For your viva, you have to have done the practical steps for your research and the personal steps for you and your confidence, just like I do for delivering a webinar.

Does that make sense? Can you hear me?

Realistic

You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva before you have it.

But you can know about the many vivas of your friends and colleagues. Use stories of vivas in the past to help get ready for yours in the future.

From these stories you can see that vivas range in length. They’re fairly structured conversations. You can expect challenging questions. You can also know who your examiners are and what they do. You can’t know what questions they will ask, but you can get a sense of what they might want.

Altogether you can have a good idea of what your viva will be like. You can build up a realistic set of expectations rather than worry about the unknown aspects.

Unfair?

Is the viva unfair?

It might help if you knew what your examiners thought about your thesis before the viva.

You could benefit by knowing what questions would be asked, or how long it was going to take.

You might feel there are certain things you would want to control about the situation.

Or perhaps you really wish that during your research more stuff had happened the way it was supposed to.

Even taking all of that into account the viva is pretty fair.

You get several years to do the work and one opportunity to have a conversation with your examiners. The process isn’t hidden. There are regulations for your institution and expectations more generally: if you don’t know, you can find out. There are kinds of work that help someone get ready, and they’re not too onerous: if you don’t know, you can find out and then get ready. If you need more support for any reason then it will be there. The viva is a challenge. It could be difficult – in a way it’s supposed to be.

But it’s also fair.

First & Final

My work – the sessions I run, the things I write and do – is focussed on the final year viva. The last big milestone of the PhD journey. But earlier in a postgraduate researcher’s story there might be another viva.

It’s sometimes called a first-year viva, a transfer review or some other set of words that means we’re checking in that you’re on track now that you’ve been doing this for a while.

I don’t know a lot about them.

A lot of what motivates the final viva is comparable to the first-year viva. My knowledge is limited though and I can’t offer the same certainties: I don’t know about expectations for lengths or questions. I can make educated guesses; the best people to talk to are the people you know already. Your supervisors and your friends who have been through the process. Local knowledge is going to beat anything that the person on the internet can say.

 

A participant at a webinar last year asked me, “What do I do about my final viva if I had a bad experience at my first-year viva?”

It was a brave and generous question. Brave because even in a webinar it can be hard to share something like that. Generous because they were probably not the only person to have a bad experience during their PhD, at their first-year viva or otherwise, and their question allowed a space to talk about that issue.

I didn’t know a lot about that person. I knew nothing about their first-year viva. I felt confident saying this though:

“You don’t have to be defined by that one experience. That happened. But that doesn’t have to be what you take forward. That doesn’t have to be the thing you keep in mind for your final viva. It was probably hard, but you can move past that. Despite that you kept going. Focus on that instead. Your first-year viva and your final viva are two completely different events, with different people involved. And now you are a different person to who you were then. Focus on everything you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD, and not one day that didn’t go to plan. Keep going.”

Well, I said something like that! I wish I had had this set of particular words arranged just so on that day a few months ago.

I offer them here instead, in case they can help anyone else.

If your first-year viva was tough, or if you had another difficult meeting or conversation during your PhD, remember: that was then and now you’re not the same person.

You’ve done more, know more and can do more. You’ve done enough to prove yourself. Keep going and succeed in the viva.

Prepare For The Challenge

The viva is most likely the final challenge of your PhD. Corrections are work, but in most cases they’re simply editing or amending what you’ve already finished. The viva is the big thing you need to focus on and get ready for.

So prepare. Find out what’s involved. You have a lot of skill and knowledge when you submit: you need to know how to apply that to the challenge. You need to know what the viva is all about. You need to know how you can be your best in that situation.

You’ve risen to so many challenges over the course of your PhD. You can rise to and succeed at this final one.

Take a little time to get ready. That’s all you need.

Winning The Viva

When your viva is all done there’s no gold medal for no corrections. You don’t get a little asterisk on your certificate for minor corrections.

No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections. Different outcomes that mean the same thing: you’ve passed.

Different outcomes mean different amounts of work involved. It’s worth knowing what the different outcomes mean in terms of deadlines for completion or the scale of work involved. It’s worth getting a sense of what your supervisors think about how likely different outcomes are (and for what reasons).

No corrections, minor corrections, major corrections: you’ve passed.

A Bit Nervous

You might feel a bit nervous for your viva. You might even feel that for submission. It’s understandable. Your thesis, your viva and your PhD are all important, so of course you could be a bit nervous.

At the same time you could be a bit confident.

A bit certain of what to expect.

A bit sure of who your examiners are and what they might want.

And more than a bit talented, definitely good enough, to pass your viva.

Nervousness can make you a bit uncomfortable. Try to put that into perspective with everything else you can be, feel and know for your viva.

Two Pictures

I wanted to call this post…

The Picture In My Head Is Not The Picture In Your Head

…but even I have my limits!

This phrase came to me recently when my daughter was trying to explain something from school. She was getting frustrated, starting to tire of my questions until just before she got angry I thought to say, “Sweetie, the picture in my head is not the picture in your head. I don’t understand yet what you mean, so I have to ask questions to try and imagine what you’re seeing.”

And she stopped and considered; then we started again and after a few more minutes there was understanding.

Your thesis has tens of thousands of words, and the picture it puts in your examiners’ heads may not match the picture you have in yours. So they have to ask questions.

The picture of a viva in your mind might be muddled or unclear compared to the stories your friends tell you. Asking questions and listening to the responses helps.

Your description of your contribution to research, while clearly matching the picture in your head, may be lacking detail when a reader sees it in their mind.

The picture in my head is not the picture in your head. And the picture in your head is not the same as the picture in your examiners’ heads, your supervisor’s mind and so on.

Patient listening helps. Careful questions help. Practice before the viva helps your performance on the day.

You can’t simply will someone to see the picture you see.

You can learn how to guide someone to a closer understanding of your picture though.

Setting Expectations

Happy New Year from Viva Survivors!

 

I’m often asked “What are vivas like?” I can help with that, as can a candidate’s friends and colleagues. No-one can guarantee what a viva will be like beforehand but there are enough stories that we can piece together expectations.

Vivas tend to be a certain length; they tend to start with these sorts of questions; vivas are structured, and so on.

That’s one kind of expectation. Another kind are the expectations you have for yourself at the viva.

You will be prepared. You will pause when you hear a question. You will take your time to respond. You will use every opportunity to share your research.

 

There there are the big picture expectations you set for yourself. What kind of researcher do you want to be? How are you going to get your PhD finished? And what kind of person do you want to be?

There are pros and cons for setting New Year’s Resolutions, but I think it’s a good idea to start a new year by setting expectations for oneself. What do you want to demonstrate and do as you go through the next 365 days? How could you do that? What kind of a difference are you trying to make?

Here’s to a good year, with very best wishes from me and my family to you and yours 🙂

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Confidence

I finished my look back over favourite posts last year with the theme of “surviving” – a break with several years of tradition.

2020 was a hard year, 2021 has continued to be challenging, but it feels right to come back to confidence. Confidence makes a real difference for the viva and how a candidate engages with it. Here are some thoughts from this year:

  • Confident or Arrogant – the difference between the two. (it’s a big difference!)
  • The Basics – a lack of confidence for the viva sometimes comes, very simply, from not having a good picture of what the viva is like.
  • A Few Thoughts On Survive – while confidence is the theme for today, it feels appropriate to share a few thoughts on this too.
  • Clearing Out Viva Doubts – confidence blossoms when we remove doubts.
  • Be Brave – a little extra step you might need to take.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances”. If you’ve made it through the last few years and your viva is some time in 2022 then you can be confident that you can rise to the challenge.

If you have managed to keep going so far, you can continue. You’ve not come this far by being merely lucky.

Keep going.