Five Sentences

I love the provocation of a call for shorter email and replies.

It’s sometimes tricky to explain ourselves clearly in a short space, but often rewarding when we do.

Think about what you could do in five sentences for your viva prep.

You could summarise your thesis in five sentences, or a chapter, a tricky part, or the core of your bibliography, your examiners’ work and so on.

Not everything needs to take a lot of words.

Five Lists To Help Choose Examiners

You don’t get to formally pick your examiners, but you can usually steer the selection in conversation with your supervisors. They’re the ones who have to sign off on the choice. As you’ll likely be consulted, it’s a good idea to have some names to share. Perhaps start with the following process:

  1. Make a list of all of the people you’ve met at conferences who might be credible examiners.
  2. Make a list of all of the staff from your department who could be good choices.
  3. Make a list of any researchers you have cited who might be interested.
  4. Make a list of any academics you think are nice or agreeable.
  5. Make a list of any researchers who could be a good addition to your network.

Five lists. If any names are duplicated, put them at the top of a new, master list of possible examiners.

Now when you talk with your supervisors you have some good names to explore in the discussion.

11 Questions To Ask About Viva Experiences

Your colleagues and peers are a great source of help for your viva. They can listen to you talk about your research, ask useful questions and even help you to take your mind off things! The PhD graduates among them can also help you figure out what to expect for your viva.

Get in touch with some recent graduates from your department and ask them about their experiences, so that you can help to shape your expectations. Ask them:

  1. How long was their viva?
  2. How long did it feel like?
  3. How did their viva start?
  4. What was the structure or flow of their viva?
  5. Were there any questions that surprised them?
  6. How did they feel at the start?
  7. Did that feeling change?
  8. What were their expectations for the viva like?
  9. How did their viva meet those expectations?
  10. How do they feel about it overall?
  11. What advice do they have for you?

Each answer is a piece of the puzzle. The picture won’t be completely clear. You can have realistic expectations for your viva, but it will be different from any other viva you hear about.

Ask and listen, then reflect and see how this helps you for your own viva.

Under An Hour?

Some vivas are less than an hour in length. The shortest I’ve ever heard of was 42 minutes. This lead one participant at a Viva Survivor session to ask, “What can we do to make our vivas under an hour?”

The short answer: nothing.

The slightly longer answer: there are lots of factors in play that determine the eventual length of a viva. They range from the size of the thesis to the questions the examiners need to ask, and the way a candidate answers to the kinds of corrections that need to be considered. These all interact. It’s difficult to say what one could do for the best in order to reduce the length of the viva and still pass.

(of course, you could refuse to answer questions and your viva will be over very quickly…)

The better answer I should have given, by asking another question: why would you want your viva to be finished within an hour?


Or, “Whiteboards: Totally For The Win”!

You’ll know the location of your viva in advance. Go check the room out. A whiteboard can be super handy in some vivas.

If you have one you could…

  • …explain an equation!
  • …make a list!
  • …draw a diagram!
  • …share a sketch of an idea!
  • …even show what a molecule looks like!

And a lot more. Find out if there’s one in your viva room. No whiteboard? Take a pad of paper.

You’ll use a lot of words in the viva, but you have options for how you support those words.

Butter For Burns

“Don’t worry my lad, this will sort it out.”

My grandma was adamant that butter on a burn helped ease the pain. She’d always done it, had always known it was the thing to do. The afternoon passed and all I knew was my hand still hurt.

Come forward a few decades, and a Google search in 2018 will tell you that putting butter on a burn is not an advisable form of treatment. The notion persists as a kind of folk wisdom. People share it, true or not.

Handed down and passed on over time, like so many thoughts about the viva I’ve heard:

  • “They’re all random, you can’t do anything to get ready!”
  • “They’re out to get you, so you have to be prepared to defend!”
  • “Your viva will be an hour or less if you’ve got a publication!”

There are lots of people who will offer advice about the viva. Don’t just accept it, turn it over in your mind, does it make sense? Check another source. The following is some good viva advice…

  • A typical length for the viva is two to three hours, so don’t worry about rushing to an answer.
  • The most common outcome is minor corrections, nearly everyone gets some.
  • It’s essential you read your thesis in preparation for the viva.
  • It’s important to find opportunities to practise answering unexpected questions.

…but don’t just take my word for it!

Butter is not a good treatment for a burn. Fortunately, it’s easy to check that out. Advice about the viva is easy to check too.

Make sure you’re getting good advice.

Check Your Records

In your records you see your story, even in outline.

Got a lab book? Read it. Kept a diary? Give it the once-over. You probably have an electronic record of meetings with your supervisor, right? Look over those notes.

What do you see? Ideas? Plans? Objectives? Successes? Failures? Goals unmet? Wins, big and small?

The broad strokes of a talented researcher doing something good. Look at how far you’ve come.

It’s your story. Use it to be your best self in the viva.

Eat The Frog

Last week I blogged about the Three Easy Wins idea for productivity, and shared some thoughts of what a candidate could do to get several quick pieces of viva prep done. If you were looking for something in the opposite direction, there’s also the “eat the frog” school of thought: if you knew the worst thing you had to do today was eat a frog, and you had to do it today, would you do it first thing or wait until 4pm?

Rather than put it off, you’d probably eat the frog right away – the day can only get better from there!

The productivity philosophy behind this is that a person would be most productive if they just get on with the least desirable task first. They’re then free to get on with less terrible tasks. For viva preparation perhaps this frog-like-task could be arranging a mock viva, exploring the work of examiners or sitting down to read the thesis. It could be reflecting on key questions, or re-reading tricky papers. There are lots of things that might just feel “Ugh!” – but once they’re done you can move on.

If you eat your viva prep frog, then everything else is less of a challenge!

A Summary Of Summaries

Summarising your thesis or some aspect of it is useful. A summary helps you in two ways. First, through the act of creation: thinking about your work and then making something from those thoughts is a valuable reflection. Second, as a result, you have a resource you can use during your preparations for the viva.

A few considerations for how you might tailor this approach:

  • Use questions to direct your summary.
  • Decide in advance how much you are going to write, i.e., how many words? How many pages?
  • Follow your preferences for level of detail: what will be most useful to you?
  • Follow your preferences for what it will look like: bullet points, sentences or pictures?
  • Reflect on what gaps you might be trying to fill.

I’m keen on summaries as a helpful viva preparation tool. Take a look at similarly themed posts via this link. Explore what will be useful for you as you prepare for your viva.