Opening Moves

It’s unsurprising for me to recommend being prepared for the day of the viva. Often I talk about tips or tools for engaging with research, or ways to look differently at your research. Today I just want to suggest thinking about the day itself. Planning for the day can eliminate decisions you have to make, which can in turn conserve your attention for things that really matter (such as answering questions in the viva).

So what will you do to start the day? When will you get up and what will you eat? Get your clothes ready the night before. Are you doing any more reading, or will you be finding things to occupy your mind? Make a choice in advance. Pack your bag the night before. Decide how you’re going to get to the viva room. Save all of your thinking for the viva itself.

(inspired by a little reading on decision fatigue; have noticed anecdotally that I and colleagues work better when we have eliminated choices in advance)

Last Minute

If tomorrow was your viva and you’d not done much to prepare, what could you do? This sounds like a weird question, but it’s one I’ve faced on occasion from a candidate who seems very worried. So, some ideas for someone with a rapidly approaching viva:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter so that you can break your thesis down and make it easier to navigate.
  • Give a good friend a call and ask them to help you unpick your thesis through discussion.
  • Use the questions in these three posts to help you think about your research.
  • Recognise that you are supposed to be at the viva: you’ve not got this far by accident!

Don’t leave it to the last minute, but if you’re short on time remember you can do a lot with a little time.

Field Tests

It’s great if you have read your thesis, made notes, created summaries. You’ve probably got a beautiful mental model of your research. Can you use it though? How will you do in the viva?

Find opportunities to field test your knowledge and your skills. The mock viva is a great opportunity to do that, as are discussions over coffee and seminars for interested friends. Get confident answering questions by getting people to ask you questions.

Sounds simple; is simple.

Colour Your Thinking

I’m a fan of Edward de Bono, and I love his Six Thinking Hats concept. It’s a way to manage discussions or problem solving. You can check out the details if you like; in short, you can imagine people putting on coloured hats to drive different kinds of thinking or observations. This stops people taking over with a particular agenda and prevents a certain emphasis being put on discussion.

Six Thinking Hats is a useful solo review tool for your thesis too. As each colour of hat corresponds to a certain kind of thinking you can explore your research in a different and useful way. For example, you might make some notes about a chapter in the following sequence of thinking:

  • White Hat: what is this chapter about?
  • Blue Hat: what process or method drives it forward?
  • Red Hat: how do you feel about the material in it?
  • Yellow Hat: what is good about this chapter?
  • Black Hat: what could be better?
  • Green Hat: where are the opportunities to build on this work?

If different coloured hats sounds silly, just take these six questions in sequence as a way to unpick some thoughts about your thesis!

Ten Out Of Ten

How would you score yourself when it comes to your PhD? I would give the me-from-ten-years-ago maybe a seven. I got results, but I was careless at reading papers and I didn’t speak up often enough when I didn’t understand something.

I think I would have stretched to an eight if I could have thought more about the structure of my thesis, maybe if I’d read a few more examples to see how others had done it. A nine would have been if I had really unpicked and understood the theoretical background of Chapter 5. I don’t know what a ten would look like for me…

How about you? Your examiners aren’t going to give you a score or grade like this, but if you can honestly reflect then maybe you can give yourself a boost. If you’re, say, a seven now, what would help you to score an eight? If you rate yourself an eight for viva prep, how do you get closer to ten?

Think about how you can make a difference for yourself.

Ostrich

“I’m trying not to think about it.”

Try to put anxiety out of your mind and it just comes back. Distract yourself for a little while and it comes back with a vengeance.

If you’re worried, it’s because it’s important. If your viva makes you uncomfortably nervous it’s because you’re recognising it’s a big deal.

Stop putting energy into a losing strategy. Burying your head in the sand is not going to solve the problem. Instead, reflect on what’s stressing you and think about what you can do to limit the impact. What steps can you take? What questions can you ask? How can you increase your confidence levels when it comes to the viva?

Prompts

Sometimes a blank page can be beaten with prompts. If you want to get thoughts flowing, try the following:

  • The best paper I read during my PhD was…
  • The best advice my supervisor gave me was…
  • My greatest strength as a researcher is…
  • The best part of my thesis is…
  • The most valuable part of my work is…
  • Between now and the viva I need to…
  • To feel confident in the viva I need to…

If you come across any more prompts for thinking about your thesis, make a note of them. Use them yourself or pass them on to others. Keep thinking.

Kanji

I picked up a little Japanese on my past travels. Well, enough to ask for directions, say I don’t understand and enquire after an English menu.

I never picked up any familiarity with kanji or what different symbols mean. The jōyō kanji list is the 2136 most common characters that people need to know. As I understand it, if you can read and comprehend all of them, then you can fully engage with day-to-day life in Japan. You can browse a newspaper, understand signs and read government documents.

To get a picture of your thesis, what would someone need to know? I don’t mean what papers do they need to have read or specialist knowledge. What do they need to understand? What elements must they get a grasp of?

And while you don’t need to have perfect recall of your entire thesis, there must be some parts which you need to know. What are they? While you might want to try to remember things, it makes sense to make some notes. Maybe write a list to start, then see how it fills out.

Hopefully it won’t run to 2136 points.

Feedback & Corrections

I was six and had painted my dad. A circle with a crude face, rectangle body, chunky arms and oval legs. I showed it to the teacher, Mrs M., and all she said was, “Does your father have a green face?” Again, I was six: the response crushed me.

It was my first dose of feedback. I remember it thirty years later! Also, thankfully, I have thirty years more life experience. However it’s given, however it is meant, we can choose how we take feedback. Mrs M.’s comment was about the painting, not me. She may have thought I was a bad artist, but she didn’t think I was a bad human.

Doing a PhD, you must have done something to get to the viva. Your research is most likely great. Your examiners may not think all of your thesis is good though. They may have comments. They may have questions. They may say, “I’d have liked to see more of this…” or “You need to change that…” It can hurt to hear it. I was not immediately happy with some of my corrections.

Corrections are feedback. You can either make them about you or about the work. You can think, “Ugh, why do I have to do this?” or you can approach them thinking, “How can I make my thesis as good as it can be?”

It’s you or the work.

The Most Important Exams (Or Not)

It’s GCSE results day in the UK. My wife and I tutored someone this year. At sixteen she was told the GCSEs were the most important exams she would ever take. If she didn’t do well she could not do the courses she wanted to do next. She was told that she would have to retake exams until she passed. She would have fewer options, all of which would be awful.

Of course, all this did was stress her out.

I was told the same thing twenty years ago when I did my GCSEs. And two years later when I did my A Levels. During my undergrad degree I was told that I needed to get a First or else I would have few choices afterwards.

Every step of the way, “This exam is going to define your future!”

At the top of the exam pyramid: the viva. I ask people how they feel about their viva; a common response is stressed, for the same reasons as other exams. Of course, with hindsight, it is much easier to see past the trap of the “most important exams ever” stories. It’s difficult to see things with the right perspective in the moment. Take a step back. See if you can shift attention and energy or change the story. It’s far better to focus on what you can do rather than what might happen.

If your viva is past, what can you do to share a story to help someone? If your viva is coming up, how can you shift your focus back to doing good work?