Bad Viva Advice

Do none of these things.

  1. Ask your examiners, “Did you get the cheque?”
  2. Start with a joke: “Did you hear about the stupid examiners who missed the obvious plagiarism on page 25?”
  3. Shake a Magic 8-Ball after each question.
  4. Humblebrag.
  5. Plead ignorance: “I don’t know how it got in there!” When asked what you mean say, “Nothing! Nothing!”
  6. Preface every response with, “Well I’m no expert, but…”
  7. Sigh a lot.
  8. Ask if you can sit in-between your examiners. Before they answer, pick up a chair and say, “Come on, scooch.”
  9. Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.

Candidates sometimes worry that they might do the wrong thing in the viva. Common sense rules. You’re going to have a great conversation with experienced academics about your long-term research project. Your instincts won’t lead you astray.

Thankfully there’s not a lot of bad viva advice out there. Listen for the good stuff, run it past your gut feeling. You’ll get it right.

Variables

There are lots of things people think will have an impact on their viva or their prep. Here’s a partial list of factors people think could make a difference, for good or bad:

Your examiners. Your institution. The number or types of awards or results. Whether you were part-time or full-time. Home or international. Number of supervisors. Time spent on your PhD. Do you have a Masters? How long between submission and the viva? Will you have an independent chair? Have you cited your examiners? Number of references in your bibliography. Number of chapters in your thesis. Number of published papers during your PhD. Number of hours spent on prep. Will you have had a mock viva? Have you read a book about the viva? Did you go to a workshop about the viva?

I’m a mathematician and there’s part of me which would love to take all of these variables and make an equation. But there’s far too many. Lots of them could make a difference.

So why not focus instead on the constants? The things that are always there.

You did the work. You made the choices. You steered yourself. Your examiners are capable researchers, who know what they’re doing in the viva. You are a capable researcher by the time you submit, and have the time to prepare yourself for the viva.

Focus on the constants that hold true for everyone.

Three Useful Lists

Make three lists for the viva:

  1. Things You Want Your Examiners To Ask You About
  2. Things You Want Feedback On
  3. Things You Do Not Want To Discuss

And then, of course, for every item you’ve listed, the first follow-up question is “Why?”

  1. Why do you want your examiners to ask questions about X, Y or Z? (are you proud, happy to share more, just plain enthusiastic?)
  2. Why do you want feedback on this? (you’re intrigued, you want to see how it’s come across, you want to develop it more?)
  3. Why do you want to avoid this? (you think it’s bad, you find it difficult to talk about, you’re sure there’s a problem?)

Reading and refreshing your memory helps. Reviewing your work helps more.

In The Moment…

…it’s possible that you forget something.

…it’s possible you don’t understand something.

…it’s possible that you realise something.

…it’s possible that you think about something.

…it’s possible that you doubt yourself.

…it’s possible that you convince your examiner.

…it’s possible that you know something no-one else does.

…it’s possible that you’re the expert.

…it’s possible that you’ve made a mistake.

…it’s possible that you’ve got the answer to that unexpected question.

There’s a non-zero probability of all of the above. They can depend on a lot of things, but there’s a chance they all could happen, good or bad. Focus on some and you can find help, focus on others and you’ll only find distraction. You get to choose what you focus on, and what you do as a result.

Remember: it’s impossible to get to the viva without doing the work. You’re the reason you’ve got this far.

Fill In The Blanks

Who could you send this to? (after completing it of course)

Hi ______________________

My viva is coming up soon and I need your help please!

I feel _______________ about my viva because _______________________________________ . I was wondering if you could help me by ______________________________ ?

I know that you’re busy, but I also know that you’ll be a great help because _______________________________________________ . If you’ve got a lot on and can’t help, I’ll understand. If you can help, then let me know what will work for you.

If you’re free soon maybe we could chat about it over coffee at ____________________________ !

Thanks for reading, speak soon,

__________________________

Maybe your supervisor? Maybe a colleague? Your office-mate? Best friend? Think carefully about why someone could be a big help to you, and tell them.

Or maybe it’s useful just to write down and get out of your head that second short paragraph: how you feel about your viva, why you feel that way, and what steps could help.

Breezy

The wind blows. That’s what it does. Some days it’s fast, some days it’s a gentle breeze, and some nights it sounds like it is bringing the end of the world.¬†Depending on the situation I might wear a coat, bunker down, pick up the bins in our garden, or just go for a stroll and try to smile as my hat flies off.

Experiences shape perceptions and responses.

Back to the blog about viva help!

The viva is questions. Questions about your work. And you’ve been asked questions before. Maybe not this or that, but you’ve been asked questions. And you’ve answered them. You know how to deal with difficult questions about your research. You know how to explain your work. You know how to think around your research area.

You can worry about a unique or novel situation, but you can also still prepare for it. You did the work, you wrote your thesis, you can succeed in the viva.

Helpful

Every now and then I look at the stats for the blog to see which of my posts have helped or resonated. Here are the ten most read posts from 2017:

  1. First Thoughts
  2. 9 Questions For The End Of The PhD
  3. Hierarchy of Worries
  4. Six Whys
  5. Who’s In The Room?
  6. Your Greatest Hits
  7. Cheatsheet
  8. Who’s Who
  9. Six More Whys
  10. The Perfect Thesis

There’s a mix of practical advice about preparation, reflections to get a candidate thinking and also discussion about examiners and worry. I’ve written on these themes a lot more on the blog, so you don’t have to look far beyond these posts to find something useful.

It’s also interesting because it gives me a perspective on what people find helpful and worth sharing. I’m really grateful whenever I see that someone has posted a link to one of my posts. The fact that these are the most read will help me to think about how I can do more to help people feel ready.

There’s lots of help on this blog, but there’s also lots of viva help elsewhere. Figure out what you need to feel ready and go looking.

Three Whens

It’s easy to forget the great stuff in the hustle and bustle of getting to submission and the viva. Draw on your past to remind yourself, if you need to, just how good you must be.

  1. When did you give your best presentation during your PhD?
  2. When did you have your biggest breakthrough or realisation?
  3. When did you have your best conversation with someone about your research?

The highlights of your journey are assets you can use in your prep. Don’t forget.

The 99th Percentile

“Excuse me, can you reach that?” Usually, yes. I’m six feet and four inches tall and in the 99th percentile for height in the UK. I didn’t have to work on it much, it just happened.

PhDs don’t just happen. Nobody gets onto a PhD programme, or gets through one, by being lazy or unskilled. You have to know things and you have to do things. Yet you compare yourself to others and you grow to doubt yourself. The viva comes around and you wonder, “What will the examiners think? What will they ask? How will they rate me?”

There’s a background fear in some candidates that examiners are just better. And not in a small way. “Examiners are at the 99th percentile!”

They’re six feet four, looking down on you.

Right?

I’m not so sure. It matters what you measure. Does it matter, assuming that it’s true, that your examiners are at the 99th percentile? Are you being examined on your total knowledge of your field? And if you were, wouldn’t you comfortably be in the top 90% or higher?

And what percentile are you at when it comes to more than your field? Where are you when it comes to you niche? When it comes to your research? Your thesis?

Your examiners may know a lot, and they may have experiences and knowledge that you don’t – but they don’t have YOUR knowledge and YOUR experience, or YOUR considered perspective from years of study.