Unicorns

You may have heard of them, but they’re very rarely seen.

  • A viva that is less than an hour.
  • A viva that starts with the candidate being told they’ve passed.
  • A candidate who finishes just over two years after they started their PhD.
  • A viva where everything just slots into place, the candidate doesn’t have to check their thesis, is perfectly composed and responds to every question and query without hesitation.

These unicorn vivas happen, but they don’t happen a lot.

They sound like a dream, but the reality isn’t so bad: a good viva, a few hours and a few days of work to get things corrected afterwards. A confident candidate who can engage well with their examiners about a good thesis.

Leave the fairytales to one side. Prepare for a true story.

Expertise

Noun. Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.

You are the best in the world on the subject of your thesis.

You did the research. You wrote the thesis. Thousand and thousands of hours of work.

It will take people with expertise to read your thesis and get something from it.

No-one else will have the expertise that you do. That might not be enough to help you feel completely confident for your viva, but it’s a good starting point.

Just Like That

Whatever stage you’re at during your PhD, sooner or later you’ll be finished. For a lot of researchers I talk to this seems to come around much, much faster than they thought it would. Sooner than expected they get to their first draft, then submission, then the viva, then graduation.

Just like that, you’ll be done.

So before you get that far: what do you still want to do? What do you have to get done to feel happy with your PhD? And what could you do to make your path to completion enjoyable for you?

Pass It On

After your PhD, tell others what you learned. Not just the ideas in your thesis, but what you’ve learned about working well. What you can do now that you couldn’t before. What you learned at the viva even: what that experience was like for you and what you think it means.

Write it down so you don’t forget. Make a page in a journal to summarise how far you’ve come. Write a blog post. Give a talk before you leave your department. Do something to mark this change: you’re now a PhD!

Your story could help others write their own.

Looking For Mistakes

Your examiners have better, more important things to do than search your thesis for errors. It’s important – for the viva, and for any corrections – that they identify mistakes, but that’s not their focus. It’s much more useful to focus on your research and the contribution you’ve made than to just look for the “bad stuff”.

You have better, more important things to do in your preparation than search your thesis for mistakes. There probably are some – typos, little slips, references that aren’t up to date, passages that could be clearer – and it will help you in the viva and for your corrections to be aware of them. But if you make them your focus you will never stop finding things you could improve. It’s much better for you to put your attention on what makes your thesis good rather than what could make it better.

Don’t look for mistakes. Look for what matters.

Standing

I stopped telling people that I was stood for all of my four-hour viva.

I used to always tell candidates, but after a time I discovered that that aspect of my viva experience was so far removed from the norm that it would only serve to confuse people.

Or worry them!

I’ve never met anyone who has had a viva in the UK who was stood for all of the experience. When I started sharing my session with PhD candidates it grabbed attentions in a seminar room, but for all of the wrong reasons. Over time it dawned on me: this is true, this really happened, but it won’t help others to hear it. And other than being tired afterwards I don’t feel that it was a bad or good thing for me, it was just part of my viva experience.

It happened because I was giving a presentation and without really thinking about it I stayed at the blackboard while my examiners started asking questions. I responded and drew a diagram, and then a few hours later we took a break. And I was still there. And I stayed there. By that point it seemed right, and I didn’t know any different because I had never really asked my friends about their experiences.

Vivas have expectations, but vivas are all unique. Some stories will sound remarkably similar, and some will have curious aspects that are surprising. If you hear a story with a worrying element, don’t automatically think this is something you should expect. Dig into it. How did it happen? Why did it happen?

Think about the particulars if it still worries you: even if it happened for that other person, why should it happen to you?

Less Than

It’s not always easy to put exact numbers on the viva. Consider:

  • The number of mistakes in your thesis will be less than the number of good ideas you’ve had over the course of your PhD.
  • The number of minutes you spend in your viva will be less than the number of days you’ve spent on your research.
  • How long your examiners have spent preparing for your viva is less than how long you have spent in preparation.
  • The number of questions you’ll be asked in the viva is far less than the number you’ve already answered during your PhD.
  • A few hours in the viva is less than a few weeks preparing for it, which is a lot less than the years that go into your research.

Expectations help. Deciding where to focus helps.

Entrance, Exit, Escape Route

A few practical questions for your viva day:

  • Where is your viva taking place?
  • Do you know what to expect from the building and room?
  • When do you need to be there?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • Where are you going when it is done?

Little things for the most part; less important than the viva and what you’ll need to do there. It makes sense though to answer these questions in advance. Know the room you’ll be in and check it out. Decide in advance what time you’re going to arrive and when you need to set off. Decide how you are going to get there. Explore your options. If you need to, ask a friend for a lift or to keep you company.

Have your escape route in mind for after the viva as well. You don’t need to have an exit strategy to really escape. It can be useful – after a period of thinking, discussing, wondering and maybe worrying, when you could be tired – to have a plan already. Where will you go? How will you get there? Who will you see?

Consider the logistics of your viva day beforehand to save energy and focus for the viva itself.

A Haiku For Submission

Done? Sort of… Almost.

Hard work done, but still ahead,

One challenge remains.

 

Submission is a milestone, but not the end of the journey. You’ve done most of the work of your PhD, but there are difficult things to come. If you’ve got as far as writing and completing your thesis then you’re more than capable of preparing for and passing your viva.

(more viva-related haiku here!)

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.