Power Ups For The Viva

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of power ups for the viva!

  • Wearing the right outfit for you.
  • Having a mock viva.
  • Two cups of coffee.
  • Re-reading your methods chapter.
  • The right conversation with the right person.
  • Knowing the regulations.
  • Listening to music that helps you relax.
  • Doing something that helps you feel better.
  • Making notes about examiners.
  • Wearing your good day socks.

Some are common sense. Some make sense. Some seem like nonsense – but they only have to help you feel powered up for your viva, they don’t have to be for everyone.

Some you could do regularly to help. Others are one-offs. Some you have to wait for the viva to come around.

For some you can see the direct helpful link, and for others you can probably see that they’re helpful placebos, things that remind or encourage.

You might not be in total control of how you feel about your viva, but you’re not powerless either. What power ups will you choose to use?

Viva Of The Year

There’s no such prize, at least, as far as I’m aware! But it’s fun to think about the possible criteria a viva would have to satisfy to put it on a shortlist…

  • Would it have to have a substantial discussion – but not be too long?
  • Maybe it could only result in minimal corrections – but how would we quantify “minimal” since most vivas end with corrections being asked for?
  • Perhaps we’d have to consider everyone in the room and not just the candidate – what qualities would a Viva Of The Year nominee’s examiners have to satisfy?

And who would we get to judge this anyway?!

It’s fun to think about, but rather than focus on whether a viva or your viva is “the best”, it’s more useful to work on things you can do something about.

Learn about your examiners, and if you can, have a discussion with your supervisor about the selection and nomination process. Submit the best thesis you can, and spend a little time getting ready. Learn about viva expectations generally, and see what you can do to live up to your part of the process. Build your confidence, and go to your viva determined to engage fully with your examiners’ questions.

Your viva might not be viva of the year, but it could be a highlight of your year. What will you do to steer it towards that outcome?

Only Difficult

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

The viva is only difficult.

It’s a challenge, but not beyond you.

If it feels overwhelming, reflect a little on the challenges you’ve overcome during your PhD. How big were they? How challenging? How difficult? How many serious obstacles have you overcome to get to the viva?

The viva isn’t trivial, but it’s not impossible either. It’s only difficult.

And you can do difficult.

Interesting Times

I tend to write this blog many weeks in advance. As of today, Monday 16th March 2020, I have posts readied until April 5th, but today it felt right to pause and add an extra post.

The world is changing, quickly, and in some ways unpredictably.

Often, change seems gradual, perhaps so slow that we don’t even notice it happening. With some countries today in lockdown, social norms in flux, universities in the UK closing their doors for now, and all of this happening in the space of weeks, it’s difficult to see what happens next.

Last Friday I was in Bristol, delivering a Viva Survivor session, and in and amongst the questions about viva lengths, concerns about going blank or wondering what makes a good examiner, an important question came from the room:

What do I do if my viva is cancelled? I have a date, I’ve booked time off work to prepare, but it might be postponed or move online. What do I do? How can I get ready?

In that moment and since I have had a hundred and one thoughts about how to respond to this concern – a concern which must be going through a lot of PhD candidates’ minds right now. Here are a few:

  • If it’s cancelled, it will be re-arranged.
  • Your prep still counts. It adds to making you ready.
  • If you pause your prep, you can unpause later.
  • If your viva is online, you can make it work. Check details, check the systems involved.
  • If an examiner has to cancel, another will be found. Think about who else could meet the standard for a good examiner for you.

If you’re facing this situation won’t say “don’t worry”. That never helps. I’ll advise you to think – even if the timeline to your viva is now uncertain – think about what you can do today to make tomorrow better. Worry can’t be avoided, but worry won’t solve a situation. Your work will, your actions will. So what actions now will help you in the future for your viva? If you can’t yet act to reduce uncertainty, how can you act to increase your own confidence or talent?

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In the short term, it looks like I’m working from home for at least a few months. There will be challenges with that, but also, perhaps, the space for new ideas or opportunities. A Viva Survivor session I was to deliver in person next week is now going to be a webinar. I have never delivered a webinar before! So this will be a chance to learn, grow and develop. We’ll see where that leads. I’ll be using some of my time at home to make more resources and find more ways to help candidates get ready for their viva.

Potentially, the situation in the world means some of my work will be cancelled. As a self-employed person that’s a little unsettling, at times it feels a little scary. But I feel confident that things will work out eventually. If you can help me, do check out my Ko-fi page, consider becoming a follower or supporter there. Or if you’re looking for general, considered viva support, take a look at my ebooks. Little things will help, and if you can help me, I thank you.

But help others first. If someone around you has their viva coming up, and because of the situation in the world they’re extra-worried, extra-nervous, consider how you can support them. Consider what little actions could help them to feel just a little better, because it all adds up. And if no-one around you needs help with their viva, consider how else you can be a helper for those around you.

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

If Not Now, When?

This question has been rattling around in my head at Viva Survivor sessions lately. If someone says they’re not ready for their viva when they submit their thesis, gently challenge them with this question.

(gently!)

For some it will be a little nudge to think, “Oh, there’s still time. I’ve submitted, but I can take time over the coming weeks to get prepared. I’m not ready now… but I soon will be!”

For most candidates, I hope it would be a little nudge to think, “Oh… If I’ve got this far, there must be a reason… My work has to have something, or I wouldn’t have submitted…”

If you’re unsure whether or not you feel ready for your viva, gently challenge yourself with the question, and see how that nudges you.

Practically, when candidates submit their thesis they are capable of meeting the challenges they’ll find in their viva. There’s a big difference between being ready and feeling ready.

So, if you don’t feel ready now, when will you? More importantly, what could you do to help you find that state?

Riddles

While your examiners might feel inscrutable at times, they aren’t Sphinxes.

Questions aren’t obscure, topics aren’t hidden, and the purpose isn’t a game…

…or life-or-death!

Some examiner questions could be anticipated, but not all. While they might be tricky to answer, you can take your time. You’ll have your thesis with you too, a resource to give you lots of information at your fingertips.

And finally, if a question in the viva might feel like a riddle or a challenge, remember it might not have a single right answer. In some cases it will have only the best response you can give.

Maybe a response that only you can give.

The Not-So-Secret Reader

Twice in the last few months I have volunteered to be the Secret Reader for my daughter’s class: a mystery parent who shows up at 3pm on Friday to read a story to the class. Both times I found being Secret Reader a real treat, a lot of fun to sit down in front of 25 five- and six-year-olds and read some of my favourite books for children.

But I was surprised to find I was actually really nervous to be Secret Reader! I do my Viva Survivor session over fifty times per year, and the first time I was Secret Reader I had done Viva Survivor twice that week, but perhaps the novelty of the occasion and the very different audience made it a bit uncomfortable. I still get a little nervous before Viva Survivor, but nothing like how I felt about being Secret Reader. As with Viva Survivor, it’s important. I wanted it to go well, so my brain and body were a little anxious about it. There were so many things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know if they knew the book I was reading. I didn’t know what they were expecting. I didn’t know if they would like the story. I didn’t know if they would like me!

It felt like a bizarro-universe viva.

25 little examiners peering at me while I tried to give a good account of myself. Little eyes and ears looking and listening while I did funny voices, emphasised silly words and tried to impress upon them that this story was important. And once I got past my nerves, it was an absolute joy to do.

You are the Not-So-Secret Reader for your viva. Your examiners know who is coming, they know what you’re reading and they know that you wrote it! They may not know everything that you know, but they know (or believe) that you know it, and they want to ask you all about it. You can be nervous, and probably will be, because – like being Secret Reader – it matters.

It’s worth doing well.

Catastrophising

One day in January, around 5pm, I noticed our house was getting cold.

I checked, and realised the boiler wasn’t on. I tried a few things and realised it wouldn’t come on. I called our boiler service people, they talked me through a few checks and realised there was nothing I could do: someone would have to come and see it.

“OK, we aim to get someone out within 24 hours; we’ll be in touch as soon as possible,” said the helpful person on the phone. This was around 5:30pm.

I started imagining…

Well. 24 hours. So the house is going to be cold all night. No showers. OK, kettles to fill a shallow bath. Hot drinks. Where’s our electric heaters? Hot water bottles for bedtime. Blankets, get all the blankets out. OK. OK… Don’t panic. It might not be fixed tomorrow. So what do we do? Stay with mum? Stay with sister? Maybe. OK. What about work? Nevermind work, what about money? The central heating is broke, BROKE, the boiler won’t fire… How much is a new boiler? How long will it take?? How long will I be paying for it on the credit card???

Ring-ring. It’s now 6pm. “Hi, this is the boiler guy! I should be with you by 7!”

So he’ll be here soon. But it’s going to be expensive. Well. OK, seriously, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Disrupted evening, late night, but I’m not out tomorrow. We’ll be fine, we can do this. We always find a way to make it work… But I suppose I’d best pack things up in the office, as the boiler is in there, and when they have to replace the boiler I’ll need to work somewhere else for at least a few days I think-

Knock-knock. It’s now 6:45pm. “Let’s take a look… Oh, did this happen? … Right, and let’s try this… OK, there’s the problem! All done! No problem, bye!”

It’s 7:10pm. All sorted. No fuss, no headache, no drama and no more cold as the radiators start pumping out heat again.

Sometimes, something goes wrong and before you know it, you’re imagining the outcome is going to be awful. It can feel impossible to put the brakes on the runaway train of catastrophes that lurch ahead in your brain. If you don’t know what the problem is, all you have are questions. If you don’t know the exact answer, all you can do sometimes is imagine it’s the worst possible option.

In your viva, it’s entirely possible that your examiners won’t like something, or won’t agree with you, or aren’t sure about a choice you’ve made. It’s natural for there to be typos, or paragraphs that don’t communicate what you want, or ideas that can be challenged. And none of them are necessarily catastrophic: in some cases, you won’t know what’s motivating the questions or resistance or different opinion. And in the absence of that information, your brain instantly jumps to catastrophe.

So: ask questions to get answers.

If your examiners say they found mistakes, don’t worry straight away: ask them where and ask them why. If they don’t agree with something, ask them why, so you know what you need to respond to. If they aren’t sure about something, ask what they would need to be convinced. You may need to do nothing to resolve the situation.

As with my boiler “catastrophe” you might realise there is nothing you can do but wait, listen and try not to obsess.

Totals

How many days did you show up and do the work during your PhD?

How many papers did you read?

How many questions did you ask yourself or others?

How many times were you called on to respond to a question?

How many times did you present something?

How many times did you sit down at a keyboard to write your thesis?

How many people have told you something you did was good?

A few of these questions will have exact answers; others, might have ballpark responses you could guess. But all together, the totals tell you – and others – that you are ready for your viva when it comes. You have done the work, you have what it takes, you are ready.

And if you need to, you have time to increase those totals: keep showing up, keep sharing your work, keep asking questions, keep responding.

Keep going.

What Have You Forgotten?

I believe it’s worth reflecting on this a little before the viva.

What have you forgotten?

Perhaps you can’t know for sure. You’ve had to edit out papers, ideas and references that didn’t fit. You forgot them, to concentrate on what mattered.

Perhaps there are details that elude you sometimes; if so, what can you do make them more memorable or to summarise them?

Perhaps you view the question as an almost-irrelevance, a nonsense. How could you remember what you’ve forgotten?

I think it’s useful to remember that however much you have forgotten, accidentally or so you could focus, there must be so much more that you remember by the end of your PhD. You have a lot of knowledge, which doesn’t mean simply knowing more: you know more of what you need.

What have you forgotten? What do you remember? What do you know?