The Details

You probably can’t commit your thesis to memory, getting every fine detail stored away somewhere.

But you could make lists of key places in your thesis where you can find useful information. You could make a couple of summary card prompts. You can highlight important sections with Post-it Notes. You could create a little index card with page numbers and helpful hints. You can do a lot to make your thesis clearer.

You don’t need to remember everything for the sake of the viva. Doing what you can to help your memory of the details will help your confidence.

8 Things You Need To Know About The Viva

I ask people at the start of Viva Survivor sessions what they need to know about the viva. I ask if they have gaps of knowledge, worries about what might happen or vague hypotheticals.

I’m happy to answer anything and everything that candidates want to talk about. Recently, a participant in a session turned the question around on me: what did I think people needed to know?

It’s a good question. Here’s my answer:

  1. The vast majority of candidates pass the viva. This doesn’t “just happen”…
  2. …candidates pass the viva because of what they’ve done, what they know and what they can do. Perfection is not the goal or expectation. Candidates must necessarily be really good at what they do to get to submission and the viva.
  3. Examiners will be prepared, and that’s a good thing. They’ve read your thesis, made notes and thought a lot about questions; that’s far better than the alternative!
  4. Examiners may have challenging questions, but they ask them with respect for you and your work. They’re not there to interrogate or tear work apart. Questions can be challenging, but that’s due to the nature and standard of the research involved.
  5. There are broad expectations for what the viva is like. These aren’t secret.
  6. Most candidates get some form of corrections. You probably will too. Examiners recommend them to help make the best possible thesis submission.
  7. The viva can be prepared for. You can’t anticipate and have model answers for every question, but by preparing well you can be ready and confident to answer any question that comes up.
  8. The viva might be the final test, but it’s not the only test. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your PhD: the viva is not the only milestone you’ve passed. You’ve consistently applied yourself and achieved. The viva is one more time you have to meet the standard.

And that’s what I think candidates need to know about the viva.

Waiting

There isn’t a perfect time to start preparing for the viva. You don’t really need to start until after you’ve submitted; apart from that you have to think sensibly about your priorities. How you can add this work to your other commitments?

If you think you can manage all the things you need to do in two weeks, that’s fine. Need a month to space things out? No problem.

But… If you’re not sure, if you’re just leaving things for a while… If you’re waiting for the right time… What are you waiting for?

What’s going to be different? What will make next week better than now?

There’s no danger you might be overprepared if you do something now rather than save it for later.

Far better not to wait, start well, than to leave it and rush.

Three Wishes For Your Viva

I wish for your viva to be long enough to be interesting, but short enough to be not too draining.

I wish for great questions and helpful corrections.

I wish you confidence: you’ve earned your place and you have the talent to meet any challenges in the viva.

The first two wishes are realistic expectations, given the whole process. The last one I can wish for you, I can hope for it, but you have to work at it too. Your confidence is not just a hope, and it’s not so magical that you need to only wish for it. If you’re doubting yourself, you have to take the first steps to realising a more confident you.

What will you do?

All Of The Above?

There’s a lot of everything.

  • There’s hundreds of references in your thesis. You don’t need to check all of them before the viva.
  • Your examiners have probably published a lot. You don’t need to read everything of theirs.
  • You have pages and pages of important ideas in your thesis. You don’t need to memorise them all.
  • There are lots of questions you might be asked in the viva. You can’t rehearse and prepare for them all.
  • There are many ways you can explore your thesis and annotate it before you meet your examiners. You can’t follow up every idea.

But you have to do something.

You have to take some time. You have to think about what’s missing. You have to explore for yourself what you need to do. You have to take the time, because no-one else can. You might need to be a little brave in some cases, because once you know you need to do something then you need to do it or you’ll only feel worried.

But you can do it. If you got this far through your PhD, you can do this.

Finally, there are over 750 posts on this blog. You don’t need to have read them all to be ready for your viva – but there’s a lot that will help!

Not The Point

Sir Ken Robinson’s work on education and creativity has changed the world. His TED talks have been seen by hundreds of millions of people, and his words, ideas and humour have impacted so many more. His first TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” was a revelation to me when I saw it for the first time, shortly after I finished my PhD. I’ve listened to it so many times since then that I think there are parts I could perform if I were of a mind to.

I was listening to it again the other day, when a passage jumped out at me. From the transcript:

If you were to visit education as an alien and say “What’s it for, public education?” I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there.

And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. Another form of life.

And of course he’s right, the point of education isn’t to make university professors. There are important elements in any system or idea. They might be crucial, but they’re not the point. In many situations we often mistake something important for the point.

Yes, the viva is important, but it’s not the point of the PhD process.

Ten New Top Fives

If you only have a few minutes spare, but want to do something to help your viva prep, you could start a list. I’ve shared a few ideas on this topic before. Here are ten more:

  1. Top Five Fascinating Things About Your Field!
  2. Top Five Developments In The Last Year!
  3. Top Five References In Your Thesis!
  4. Top Five Pages In Your Thesis!
  5. Top Five Confidence Boosts You Can Use!
  6. Top Five Questions You’d Like To Ask Your Examiners!
  7. Top Five Tricky Concepts You Need To Remember!
  8. Top Five Things You Might Do In The Week Before The Viva!
  9. Top Five Interesting Ideas For Continuing Your Research!
  10. Top Five Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva!

It’s really useful to have a starting point. You could spend an hour exploring any of these topics, but it will only take two minutes to begin.

Start now!

Three Favourite Summaries

I like thinking about and developing ideas to get people creating summaries of their thesis.

An essential part of the viva prep process is to think about your research, and it’s useful to take a step back and try to think differently. Rather than let that thinking be abstract and drift away, it makes sense to capture it, both to help clarify what you think and to build a resource.

While I’ve been tinkering away on lots of ideas for a long time, when I deliver a Viva Survivor session, there are three in particular I recommend to candidates:

  1. “What’s Important?” – a simple, powerful question, framed on a single sheet of paper for each chapter. “What’s important?” can prompt a lot of thoughts in a lot of different ways, and restricting the answer to one side of paper for a chapter forces you to be thoughtful and not just wander off.
  2. Edited Bibliography – a prompt to explore the most useful references that support your thesis. Your thesis bibliography might stretch to hundreds and hundreds of articles, but what’s at the core of that? What would help a reader more than anything? What helps your research more than anything? What are the twenty or thirty most useful references? That’s your edited bibliography.
  3. A VIVA Summary – using four prompts to analyse a chapter and really direct your thoughts about your thesis. What’s Valuable to others in this chapter? What is Interesting to you? What do you find Vague or unclear? What questions might you like to Ask your examiners? These four prompts help to explore not just the ideas in your thesis, but how you express them, how you made them real and a lot more.

These are my favourites, and they can help a lot. If you try them, let me know how well they work for you!

The Most Effective Viva Prep Strategy

Or MEVPS, for short.

There isn’t one, not one that works for everyone. Everyone is different, every candidate has a unique thesis, every candidate has a unique set of circumstances and a unique situation when they get to preparation time for the viva. So to say, “Here: the MEVPS is X, Y and Z and you’ll be fine!” would a terrible lie. I don’t have a MEVPS to offer.

But I do have a strategy for building a useful, unique approach for you:

  1. Reflect on the particular gaps you have in your knowledge or confidence for the viva.
  2. List some things you could do to fill those gaps, estimating generously how much time they might take.
  3. Reflect on how busy you are generally, then see how the tasks you need to do can fit in with your life.
  4. Make a simple plan, pick a start date and be kind to yourself with what you will do on that first day.
  5. Start, and follow through on the plan.

The details will be different for everyone, but everyone can figure out a route to being prepared by following the SFSPFCAPVPP.

(that’s Simple Five Step Process For Creating A Personal Viva Prep Plan!)

Six Songs For The Viva

Something different for a Bank Holiday Monday!

I’ve made a YouTube playlist, six songs that make me think about the viva, about getting ready, the end of the PhD and all of the feelings that swirl around. My reasons for these picks are below, but note that as this playlist is on YouTube, if you do click through there might be adverts between some songs and they have nothing to do with me!

The Final Countdown, Europe – I think this is the first thought that comes to people when their viva is near. The days and weeks leading up feel like a ticking clock to something momentous.

Happy, Pharrell Williams – this is my secret wish for everyone going to their viva. I’d like everyone to go to it feeling good about talking to their examiners.

My Way, Frank Sinatra – part of the viva is talking about what you did, how you did it, why you did it. While the viva isn’t quite the end of the PhD it has a feeling of “the final curtain”. Hopefully not too many regrets, hopefully not sombre or sad. Hopefully you can stand proudly and say you did it your way!

Make Your Own Kind Of Music, Mama Cass – this is a very particular thought for the viva. Some candidates worry that examiners will tell them that what they’ve done isn’t right or appropriate. Worry that there won’t be an answer or a way to explain yourself is real, and there isn’t a silver bullet answer. Perhaps the best thing you can do is work to be as confident as you can in explaining your research. You’ve gotta make your own kind of music/Sing your own special song…

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), R.E.M. – people forget the words in the title’s brackets! The viva might feel like the end of your world, you might be worried – but you can be fine, and you most likely will be fine!

Blackbird, The Beatles – “you were only waiting for this moment to arise…” When you get to the viva, you don’t need anything other than who you are, what you can do and what you have done. You were only waiting for the day to come when you could demonstrate who you’ve become.

I’d be very interested to know what songs make you think of the viva. Let me know if you have any bright ideas!