Vague Wishes & Specific Asks

I’ve been a huge fan of Tim Ferriss for the best part of a decade. His books and podcast have been a great inspiration to me (as they are to many people). Recently, I put aside the time to annotate his two most recent books Tools Of Titans and Tribe Of Mentors, both of which are about asking others for their advice. In Tribe Of Mentors he asked hundreds of peak performers in many fields the same eleven questions, and gave them the freedom to answer in whatever form they wanted. As a result, the book is fascinating: full of really interesting ideas, patterns of behaviour and thought among successful people.

Tim outlines why he embarked on the project in this LinkedIn post, which is a copy of the main introduction to Tribe Of Mentors. There’s a lot of really useful ideas here too – just generally, never mind for the viva! – but one line stood out to me in particular:

Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.

This resonated with me in thinking about viva preparation. Viva preparation does not have to be a solo project. I imagine most people will spend most of their time getting ready alone, but there are really valuable things you can get from others – your supervisor, your colleagues, your friends and family.

All you have to do is ask, but you will get more if you are specific and clear.

Don’t just ask for a mock viva: be clear about when you might need it, if there is someone you’d like for a second mock examiner and if there are topics you really want questions on for specific practice.

Don’t just ask friends for advice: tell them what you want to know, ask them specific questions about their vivas or ask them to read a chapter and then ask questions over coffee.

Don’t just ask for support from loved ones: tell them how they could best help you, then ask them to do it!

Don’t be vague, be specific. There is a lot of help and support available before the viva, but you need to ask clearly for what you need.

The Decision

Before the viva, your examiners will have an idea of the outcome. They’ve read your thesis; they have thought about it; they have experience. They will have an outcome in mind before the viva based on what they think of the thesis.

But it’s not set in stone. It’s an outcome they think is likely, but you still have to show up and show them what you know, what you think, what you can do.

In very rare cases examiners tell candidates the result at the start of the viva. In those cases they are so sure of the viva outcome that they want to put the candidate at ease to then have a great discussion. But those cases really are rare. Don’t expect it for your viva.

Expect that your examiners will have an idea: they do their job in the preparation and come prepared to do their job on the day. They come with a decision that they look to see confirmed by your actions and your words.

You can make a decision too. You can decide to be ready for your viva. You can decide how you will show up on the day.

So decide.

Labels

PhD student or postgraduate researcher?

Examiner or academic?

Expert or experienced?

Prepared or ready?

The labels we use make a difference. They’re a part of the story we tell ourselves about a situation.

Some labels help and others don’t.

What labels have you chosen for your examiners? What labels describe you? And are they the most helpful labels for your viva and the end of your PhD?

Practice Makes…

…not perfect.

Today I’m delivering my 218th Viva Survivor workshop. I still get a little nervous, but only a little. I’m more likely to be anxious about travel arrangements than talking or presenting.

I make a point of giving the latest session count in each Viva Survivor – not to boast, but to emphasise that practice leads to confidence. I was a terribly anxious speaker when I finished my PhD: in talks I was always looking for places to hide, looking for anything I could do to not feel so nervous. There are lots of things I have done since then to build my confidence.

A simple part of it is practice, action aimed at becoming better.

My point isn’t to tell candidates to go and get as much viva practice as possible before their viva – they will only have one mock viva, not 217 before they get to the real one. My point is that real, relevant practice that builds a candidate up has been done all through the PhD.

You grow, you learn, you develop. You can’t always see it because the research is in the foreground, but it’s there. Your PhD experiences matter, and those experiences can lead to confidence.

Not perfect, but practised.

When Examiners Disagree

Your examiners have to reach a decision, but it may be that they don’t agree on everything. It could be that one likes a particular idea or experiment or conclusion in your thesis and the other doesn’t. It may be that they can just work it out before they meet with you, but it could be the case that you have examiners who disagree with each other about something in the viva.

What do you do?

  • First: listen and let them lay out their positions. You may have strong feelings for a topic, but let them talk first and see whether this is something you actually need to respond to. They may just be expressing different opinions, it may not be disagreement.
  • Second: be sure of what you are responding to before you respond. If someone doesn’t like something, ask why. If they are vague, ask for details. Be clear and then respond as best you can. You don’t have to take sides, you just have to explain what you think.
  • Third: if discussion results in corrections, get as much clarity as possible to see what’s involved. If there is disagreement about corrections between examiners, ask again for clarity.

Remember: it is not your job to resolve disagreements between your examiners. They’re professionals: expect them to be professional.

Wait for them to clearly state their points, then do what you can to engage with them and find out what (if anything) you have to do as a result.

Success

What does viva success look like to you? What’s the outcome that will make you happy?

If you set it as getting no corrections, or finishing within a certain time limit there may be nothing you could do to be successful.

If you try to be perfect, responding to questions quickly or with perfect paragraphs of ideas and arguments, you will almost certainly fail.

If you define success as doing your best, being prepared, being switched on and ready to engage with your examiners then you’ll have a goal you can achieve.

You get to choose. What will success at the viva mean to you?

Easy Viva, Hard Viva

Is it better to have an easy viva or a hard viva?

I got this question at one of my final Viva Survivor sessions before my summer break. I have lots of thoughts…

First, the answer really depends on what we mean by “easy” and “hard”. It depends on the candidate and their preferences. If easy means zero challenge, does that mean the viva means nothing really? If hard means almost-overwhelming questions and discussions, does that mean it was fair? And regardless of whether you want or have an “easy” or “hard” viva, there are no guarantees one way or the other…

Around a year ago I wrote a little on this topic (Easy, Hard, Challenging). The final thought from that post seems relevant to the question today:

On the day you could find [the viva] easy or hard, but it will still be a challenge.

It’s still a challenge even if you are necessarily talented.

You don’t know what kind of viva you’ll get in advance. You can know what kind of candidate you are, and rise to meet whatever challenge you find in your viva.

Relaxed

Viva prep doesn’t have to be frantic, rushed or pressurised.

Being relaxed doesn’t mean being lazy, or doing a bad job. It means being ready, taking your time, knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it. Rushing your prep is a choice. You can choose to be relaxed.

Do it by thinking ahead. Sketch what you’ll do, what sequence, what you need to help you, and then wait for the moment to arrive when you need to do it.

Even if you’re busy, rushing, frantic in your day-to-day, you owe it to yourself to prepare well for the viva.

Do that by being relaxed.

Being Grateful

There’s so many things that can be awful in the PhD.

Tight deadlines, fuzzy goals, abstract references, weird politics, bad supervisors, hard topics, vague questions, and a lot more…

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, the general postgraduate researcher problems. Some people have it much harder.

A lot could be good though. It might not all be, but as you get to the end of the PhD, when the viva is just around the corner, I’d encourage you to think about all you are grateful for from your time as a PhD. What opportunities did you have that you might not otherwise? What did you learn? How did you grow? Who helped you and how?

Being grateful can help shift your focus. If you’re feeling down about your work or the journey, look for the brighter stuff to help steer you into a positive place for your viva preparation.