Time Flies

15th September 2017 marked nine years since I became self-employed. My PhD was all done and dusted, and after a few weeks thinking about the future and what to do, that was the day that I had my first meeting with a client.

In the blink of an eye, almost a decade has passed. My PhD was an important part of my life and continues to be an important part of my life, but I’m more proud of all of the other things I’ve done since then. All of the things I’ve written, the workshops I’ve delivered, the people I’ve helped – they’re worth more to me than my PhD is, but at the same time I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if it hadn’t done my PhD.

Be grateful for your PhD, but it will end at some point, and you’ll go on to other things. Before you know it, years and years will pass, you’ll accomplish more and better. Your PhD can’t be the apex of your life. I wasn’t stressed out too much by my viva, but it did seem like it was the most important thing in my life. I wasn’t thinking about the future. If I had, maybe I could have put things into perspective.

Per scientiam ad meliora

Hurry?

I realised the other day that I often advise people to take their time when it comes to the viva.

Plan how you’re going to prepare.

Invest time in reading your thesis carefully.

Don’t rush to an answer in the viva.

It got me wondering, are there any areas of viva prep or thesis examination where it would be good to rush?

Well, there are things that you can do quickly, but they’re not so much about rushing as they are about doing specific tasks. Dash out some bullet points about a chapter when you start a summary file; spend two minutes to put a Post It at the start of each chapter in your thesis; write down the first five researchers you can think of whose work you build on.

You can do these quickly and then develop them: write a summary, add Post Its to other important areas, expand your researcher list. You’re not rushing, you’re starting.

I can’t think of a good reason to rush in preparation or in the viva…

…but maybe after the viva you want to hurry to tell someone your good news?

Awkward

I talk about a lot of different things in Viva Survivor workshops, but there are certain tips or pieces of advice that often encounter a bit of resistance. See if they do the same for you that they do for others:

  • “Use Post It notes to add bookmarks or details to your thesis.”
  • “Pause and make a note after each question.”
  • “Feel free to ask your examiner if they can expand on a point.”
  • “It’s fine to ask for a break if you need one.”

Did any of those make you feel awkward, or make you feel that it would be awkward in the viva? Are you happy with the idea of pausing in silence to think? Do you feel comfortable with making notes? What do you think your examiners will say if you do or ask for any of these things?

Awkwardness is one of those things we develop over time. It’s related to stories that we come to believe. For example, if you feel awkward about the idea of pausing to make a note after a question, I would guess that you generally believe it’s rude to keep someone waiting if they’ve asked you a question.

Stories are powerful, but you can change them. If you feel awkward about any of the circumstances around the viva, or if anyone’s advice makes you think, “Sounds good but I couldn’t,” then see what you can do to change the story. Explore whether there’s a more helpful narrative you can take with you to talk about your research.

Why-How-What

If you’re looking for a way to share a summary of your research, as you might in the viva, think Why-How-What:

  • Why is your topic worth researching?
  • How have you gone about researching it?
  • What have you found?

Every time you give a summary of your work you get to try new ways to communicate what’s important. These questions are only the beginning, you might want to elaborate. You have to start somewhere though.

Quotes

I put slips of paper on the walls by my desk to inspire or motivate me; they’re like really low-tech motivational posters! I wish I had a gorgeous sunset with a quote, but they don’t make them with the quotes that motivate me. I have things to try to direct my projects and thinking. It helps prod and prompt me.

A recent addition is a quote attributed to Vince Lombardi, “The man on the top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” It resonates with a recurring theme on this blog: you can’t get to the end of the PhD by accident. If your viva is coming up, it’s because you did the work. You must have done.

Not all quotes or sayings work for everyone, but maybe you can find some words out there that will help. Maybe you already know a quote that helps you when you’re facing difficulties. Either way, if you find some words that help, share them!

The Good Stuff

I ask people how they feel about the viva at the start of viva prep workshops. It’s rare for candidates to say excited. Sometimes people will frame excitement as “excited that my PhD is almost over” but that’s quite different from “excited that I get to talk to my examiners about my research.”

You can’t cherry pick the discussion in the viva, and it’s not wise to only focus on the good stuff in your prep, but you can take control of where some of your motivation is coming from for the viva. If you ask the right questions you can inspire yourself. Maybe if you have any anxiety about it all, you can change the way that you think about it.

So, to start, what are you excited to talk about with your examiners?

Work Past Worry

I think most people feel nervous before the viva. That’s normal. But feeling nervous is different from feeling worried. Feeling nervous is a signal you know something is important. Feeling worried is like an investment in fear. What can you do?

  • Ask yourself why to figure out the root of the worry. Reading your thesis won’t help unless the worry is all about being sure you know your stuff. Even then, by asking why you could trigger an idea that will help more than just reading.
  • Make a plan for yourself. Sit down and at a minimum write down three things you can do to be better prepared. Now write down when you’re going to do them.
  • Think about situations where you’ve felt in control, when you’ve felt confidence. What were the circumstances? Can you recreate some of them now to damp down your worries?

Worry won’t help. Your response to it might.

Five More

In workshops I ask people to come up with lists of five highlights in their thesis, or five important papers that they’ve used in their bibliography. For many this isn’t too tricky a task, three or four come quite easy and the fifth is the work of a moment to fill in the blank.

How about another five? Not as easy perhaps.

The top five come to mind easy because we’re human and we make patterns; chances are you’ve already got a bullet point list of highlights or important references. You’ve settled on your talking points.

It’s not enough to just make a lot of lists to prepare for the viva. Stretching yourself by making lists can be valuable. For the examples above, you can expand on what makes your thesis great, or dig deeper into the papers that helped build your work. You have to think to do this. Don’t settle for what always comes to mind. See how far you can go and what new connections you can make.

False Expectations

It’s wrong to expect that your viva will be exactly like your friend’s. It’s wrong to think that because every thesis is different there are no similarities between vivas. It’s wrong to expect to fail. It’s wrong to think that the viva is a box-ticking exercise. It’s wrong to think of it as a trial by fire.

All of these represent persistent memes or half-truths about the viva. You’re not stupid for thinking any of them. They’re a product of PhD culture. They get stuck in your head and can be difficult to shift.

Hard though it might be, we need to re-align the viva story. Every viva is unique, but they happen within frameworks. They’ll be different from each other, but there are expectations for how they are done. It’s an exam, it’s a challenge, and it could be tough or uncomfortable because of what you’re there to do – discuss and unpick your work and you as a researcher.

It’s a challenge that you can be ready for. If you did the research and wrote the thesis then you can thrive in the viva.