Enjoy, Endure, Engage

I’d like to think that most people could enjoy their viva, but I know that some won’t.

I know most candidates won’t feel like they simply have to endure their viva, but sadly, some will.

More and more I think the best advice I can give to all candidates is to engage with their viva.

Engage with their preparations. Be active and take charge of how they feel and what they need to do.

Engage with their examiners and their questions. Don’t worry about going blank or forgetting. Instead, think about what they can do to best respond in the viva.

Engage with this great opportunity to discuss the valuable work they’ve done.

I hope you enjoy your viva, I hope it’s not a case of enduring it.

Remember that you get to control how you engage with your viva.

The Centre Of Attention

In the viva, it’s you. Your work is what’s being discussed, but you did it. You’re the topic of conversation.

How do you feel about that?

At a recent Viva Survivor session, a participant told me that he was sure about his work, confident in his ability, but he felt really uncomfortable being the centre of attention. That feeling can be hard to shift. There’s no magic solution; a well-intentioned “don’t worry” won’t solve the problem.

Maybe a change of language could help: instead of “I have to be the centre of attention” maybe “I get to be the centre of attention”. Your viva isn’t just happening, it’s happening for a reason, because you’ve done something good.

Maybe practice could help: find opportunities to put yourself in the spotlight. A mock viva. Give a talk. Invite a group of friends to come for coffee and ask you all about your work. Get more comfortable.

Trying to live with discomfort won’t help. Trying to just not worry is no good. You have to do something.

Think and change your perspective. Act and change your perspective. Pick one or do both.

General, Knowledge

The viva isn’t just a big quiz.

Questions could be big. Questions can be about more than what’s in your thesis, but your examiners have more useful things to do than test you on your the general knowledge of your field.

Yes, you need to know about more than what’s in your thesis. No, you don’t have to know everything (remember, you can’t know everything).

(remember, your examiners don’t know everything either)

You know a lot. You needed to, in order to complete your thesis. Most of your examiners’ questions aren’t testing your memory. They want to see how you think. How do you think about your work? How do you think about your field? Knowing things about both is useful, but they know you can’t know everything. What you know will be enough.

The viva is lots of big questions, but not a big quiz.

Worrying About Imperfections

Fear and worry about the viva is common. I think some of the biggest worries come from very simple things. A concern that some aspect won’t be quite right in the viva. Concern about an imperfection creates a worry that the viva will become a terrible place, somewhere to be afraid.

It’s not silly to worry, it’s not easy to dismiss fears, but they can be overcome.

Reflect, maybe write down: what’s the worst that could happen? Be reasonable about the situation, real or imagined, and be thoughtful about the outcome. What would it mean? What would it really mean for the viva? What’s the worst that could happen…

  • …if you don’t know something?
  • …if your external wasn’t your personal favourite?
  • …if you forget an idea?
  • …if you find a really clunky paragraph during your prep?
  • …if you forget a reference?
  • …if your examiner is not sure of something they read?

In many cases, if you really unpick concerns, you’ll see “the worst” is not so bad. Worries could be uncomfortable, but not disqualifying.

Imperfections are not always within your control. You can’t be the perfect candidate, have a perfect thesis or have a perfect viva. You’re not expected to be. You can always think, you can always act, you can always try.

What’s the worst that could happen? What can you do about it?

(probably a lot)

Correcting Corrections

Corrections don’t mean your thesis is incorrect.

They are the typos and mistakes that crept past the editing process. A correction could be a suggestion that you direct the future reader to another reference, or direction to improve clarity for that future reader. They’re the ideas from experienced academics steering your work to a good place.

Corrections aren’t the system’s response to imperfection. They’re not given as a punishment. They’re not asked for on a whim.

A list of corrections is the answer to the question, “What changes would help your thesis be the best it could be?”

Not Every Day

It’s not every day you sit down to talk with two examiners about your thesis, the end point of years of study and research. Not every day you get to find out what they think. Not every day – there may be no other days in your life like your viva day!

It’s an important day, but still just one day. Without over-obsessing, over-analysing, over-investing, it makes sense to ask a few questions to be as reasonably ready as possible.

  • What can you do in preparation?
  • What can you find out about your examiners to help you?
  • What can you do to start the day well?
  • What can you do to start the viva well?
  • What can you do to be at your best in the viva?
  • What can you do to find and bring confidence with you to the viva?

And, as your viva is not every day, what will you do to celebrate your achievement?

Standards

There isn’t a standard viva format.

There are reasonable expectations, but no guarantees.

Probable durations, but very long and very short outliers.

A range of possible first questions, but no certainty for the exact start of your viva.

There’s no standard format, but there are standards: standards for your examiners, standards for the process, standards for what a good thesis might be like.

Be confident that you meet the standard for a good, talented researcher.

Read, Do

I’ve been sorting through ten years of notes and ideas I’ve collected from countless workshops, seminars and articles. I smiled a few days ago when a quote from an old friend jumped off the page at me:

No amount of book-reading by kittens on “How To Be A Cat” will help them.

My friend Adrian would often say things in workshops that would make me smile and learn at the same time. Kittens can’t learn by reading, they must do things. They have to play their way to being cats.

By contrast, reading a thesis will help PhD candidates get ready for their vivas, but I think the principle of my friend holds. Reading your thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking is essential, but writing will make those thoughts clearer. Anticipating questions can be useful, but answering them is much, much better.

You can read your thesis, you need to read your thesis – but what else could you do?

No Different?

One of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, is when Yoda is trying to teach Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke is learning to be a Jedi, but is not finished. He can lift rocks and small objects with his mind, but dismisses the possibility of lifting his X-Wing when it is stuck in a swamp. He argues, “Lifting rocks is one thing, this is totally different!”

Master Yoda responds in his signature style:

“No! No different! Only different in your mind….”

And he’s right. Luke isn’t using muscle to lift rocks, he’s using the Force. Why should a tiny rock be any different than a spaceship?

In the viva you have to respond to your examiners’ questions, as well as you can. How is that different from any other time someone would ask a question about your work? At a conference, in a meeting, passing someone in the corridor, you can be asked questions – unexpected or familiar – all of the time. And the best thing you would do, in response, is try to answer as well as you can.

It’s no different in the viva.

The time, the space, the people who are asking, the questions – they might be different. But what you need to do is exactly the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is important. That makes the situation different.

The outcome is important. That makes the situation different.

You could be more nervous than a friend asking you an unexpected question. That makes the situation different.

You could be nervous because of who your examiners are. That makes the situation different.

But the method is always the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is only different in your mind….