Snowflakes

Universities have regulations about thesis examination, conditions that they expect. But every viva will be different from every other. Every PhD thesis and every PhD researcher is different from every other. Your viva won’t be like mine: it’ll have the same goals perhaps, but it will be different.

That’s OK.

Every snowflake is different from every other, but we know how to prepare for a blizzard. Your viva is going to be unique, but you can still be ready for the day it comes. Plan a little, prepare a little and you’ll be fine. You’ve come a long way already.

Change The Story

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of love for the PhD process? Every stage seems to have some kind of negativity attached to how it’s described:

  • First Year Funk: realising that what you wanted to do is harder than you thought…
  • Second Year Blues: feeling down or bored with being stuck…
  • Final Year Fears: worrying about finishing on time or at all…

“Surviving the viva” is a theme that’s been around for a while. Negative associations with “defending your thesis” persist.

These things can’t be beaten with a throwaway line or a joke. We associate being a “viva survivor” with a story that the viva is a trial by fire, the equivalent of a planned natural disaster that can’t be avoided. But the dictionary also defines survive as “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” – not insurmountable, just difficult. Talking about all the aspects of research and being a researcher can be difficult. Answering tricky questions about your research can be difficult. But not impossible.

So reflecting on this today I have two requests:

  • If your viva is in the past: tell future PhDs what was difficult about your viva and prep, but be honest and talk about what you did to meet those difficulties. You survived!
  • If your viva is in the future: think about what challenges might come your way, but reflect on what difficult challenges you’ve already overcome. You can survive!

One positive story is not going to change the negative associations surrounding the PhD and the viva. But lots of them…

The Perfect Viva

What would a perfect viva look like?

No hard questions? Being told you had passed at the start? Friendly examiners? A one hour time limit?

Just like the perfect thesis, the perfect viva doesn’t exist. You have no way of knowing in advance what your examiners think or what they have planned for the viva. Most people will have a positive viva, but it’s not totally within their control. However, you can control how prepared you are for your viva. It’s totally up to you, what you do to get ready, what you read or write or think. So don’t focus on what perfect might look like: focus on what you can actually do.

Seven

It’s a little over seven years since I started to help candidates prepare for their vivas. I thought it might be something interesting when I was asked to do a Viva Survivor workshop. I was still relatively new and exploring how I could help researchers. Over time I discovered that the viva was an intensely fascinating topic for me. I found something I was passionate about.

While I do have other projects and workshops, my main focus is finding ways to help people prepare for the viva. In the last six months or so I’ve made it my priority. I want to do more and do it better. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, I still feel that I’m in an exploring mode of thought. I don’t have a five year plan, or even a one year plan. I almost have a three month plan: more writing, more resources, more interviews and more workshops.

It doesn’t mean “more of the same” – and that’s one of the big things to realise about viva prep. It’s not just the same as “doing your PhD,” but it is doing more. Doing more with your thesis. Doing more with your skills. Doing more with what you know. Not the same, but more.

Like I said, I’m thinking about what more I can do to help people be ready for their viva. I don’t know where this work will take me, but I think it will be somewhere interesting, and I hope it helps people.

How about you? What more can you do to be prepared?

A Thought on Explaining

I keep folders of articles and posts that I’ve found interesting in the past. Every few weeks I pick a few out at random. Either I find something useful I need to remind myself of, or I decide that I’m not interested any more and discard it. It always helps give me a mental pick-me-up. I came across the following in this article on writing and it made me think about the viva:

You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume.

In the viva, you are the expert in your research. Your examiners have a lot of experience to draw on but less knowledge than you do about your thesis. They’re seeing the end result. They didn’t see it develop like you did. When answering their questions it’s useful to think about what else they need to know. From later in that same article comes another relevant line:

So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.

What experience do you want your examiners to have? What can you do to design that?

True North

A good compass points true north. You can find what direction you need regardless of where you are and what’s around. If you have a clear aim or objective the same can be true in the work that you do. Problem is, we have distractions everywhere. I have a couple of projects at any time that I’m actively working on, but there are always more ideas coming in. It can be hard to put them to one side, they can be all exciting and new, shiny and interesting or just something that seems difficult but useful.

A few years ago my friend Dee-Ann Johnson ran a workshop on establishing a vision, something to help guide you, like a compass. One of the session outputs was to get people to boil their vision down to three words. This was massively helpful to me. My three words are “Family, Writing, Play” – these are the words that help steer my projects and my work. I have them pinned on the wall in front of me. I want my work to be balanced so that I can spend as much time as possible with my family; I want my work to involve and allow for writing; I want my work and life to be filled with play. Sometimes these words help me pick my projects, other times they help me think about hard choices. Occasionally they remind me why I’m doing some of the tasks I don’t particularly enjoy (often because doing them allows me to spend time on family, writing and play).

My thought for the day: find three words to help yourself. Find three words that could help you through tough times. Find three words to be your viva vision.

Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?