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.

Notes To Yourself

A practice I return to again and again is to leave a note on my desk to help Future-Nathan get started when they sit down for work. It’s a kindness, a little thing to help me get going. I could be tired or stressed when I next arrive for work – but now I have a prompt to help me get going.

Typically the note might be a little to-do list, or something about the first action I need to take. Consider doing something similar when you finish a viva prep task. Could you leave a Post-it Note for Future-You? A short message to get you started next time. It doesn’t have to be something big, it just has to help.

Three short sentences perhaps: what you just did, what you need to do next and one line of encouragement.

Good viva prep needs people supporting a candidate. Be your own supporter!

 

Mocks Are Maybes

We don’t own a toaster.

The rest of our family think we’re really weird. They can’t wrap their heads around why we choose not to have a toaster and prefer to use our grill. We still toast things! We just don’t use a toaster.

 

You might not want a mock.

Madness!!! – is what some well-meaning people might say. You need a mock to rehearse for the viva! Or how will you get a feel for being in the viva?? Well-intentioned comments but you might not want or need a mock.

A mock could feel stressful to you. It could be that you think your supervisor wouldn’t be the best choice to help you. Or you might want a mock but not be able to have one because of your schedule.

And all of that is fine.

Instead, you could have discussions with friends over coffee, deliver a seminar or find some other way to get more comfortable with being in the kind of situation you’ll find in the viva. A mock could help, but all of these other options could be just as helpful for you.

 

In our house we need a way to toast bread – but we don’t need a toaster.

You need a way to rehearse and practice for the viva – but you don’t need a mock viva.

Thesis Highlights

Two or three little colourful pens can make a big difference to your viva. Highlighters can help make important details stand out in your thesis so you don’t have to search for them. A little effort during your viva prep can help create a thesis where you can find things more easily.

  • Key definitions? Now standing out!
  • Important references? Simple to spot!
  • Essential results? Always obvious!

Your thesis contains a lot of information. Make what matters most easy to find, simple to spot and extra helpful for your viva.

It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

No Plans

It’s a public holiday in the UK. Unless your viva is 9am tomorrow you’re probably safe to relax for a day.

Rest. Take today for you.

Don’t read your thesis, scribble in margins, chat with your supervisor or look at one more paper.

Don’t make a big list of annotations to add to your thesis or commit your ten most valuable references to memory.

Don’t make a plan for the weeks leading up to your viva and what you might do over that period.

Rest is as important as all the reading, writing and rehearsing for the viva. You might need to do some or all of the things above in preparation but you don’t need to do it today.

The UnWords

Questions about viva expectations often lead towards the UnWords.

  • “What if examiners are unfair?”
  • “What if I’m unprepared?”
  • “What if I’m uncertain about a question?”
  • “What if what they want to know is unknown?”
  • “Will my examiners be unkind?”

It’s human to expect the worst. It’s normal given the rumours, myths and half-truths told about the viva for a PhD candidate to expect the worst. It doesn’t match the reality though.

Examiners have regulations and training in mind to make sure they’re fair. You can take time to be ready. Examiners are looking for engagement rather than answers. They’ve no interest in being unkind.

It’s natural to ask questions about the PhD viva. Thankfully the answers you’ll find will generally lead you away from expecting the worst.

Benefits and Space

In principle you can invite your supervisor to your viva. It’s up to you, there are plenty of benefits.

  • You could show them what you know and what you can do.
  • They could make notes on your behalf and give them to you afterwards. A good record of the discussion in the viva could be valuable.
  • You could feel supported: you could feel better that there is someone in your corner.

These are all possible benefits from your supervisor being at your viva – but you still might not want them there. It might feel too uncomfortable. The idea of it might make you nervous.

It’s not a bad idea to have them present but it might not be a good idea for you.

Say yes if you need some of the benefits. Say no if you need that space for yourself.

People Like You

People like us do things like this.

Seth Godin‘s definition of culture is useful to reflect on when unpicking expectations for the viva. How long are they? How do they start? What happens?

Regulations tell you some of the details, but the rest comes from looking at what examiners do because of how they are trained, their experience and also the practices of their department or discipline.

People like us do things like this.

What do you do? What do people like you do? What does the culture say about the kinds of things that a postgraduate researcher does?

  • Postgraduate researchers do things like becoming more skilled and knowledgeable.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like showing determination.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like getting ready for the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like passing the viva.
  • Postgraduate researchers do things like making a difference.

So what will you do? And what could you help your community – your us – do as you and they get ready for their viva?