Shadows

A shadow can be bigger than the object that casts it. Depending on the light, the distance, the angle, it might not be clear what the object even is if you only look at the shadow. Edges can be blurred, and perfectly normal things can seem scary from a glance at a shadow.

When you look to find out more about the viva, are you looking at the viva itself, or a shadow? What you see might depend on another’s experience, on the rules of your institution, on how you’re feeling that day about your research, and on many other factors.

Make sure when you find out about the viva that you get as full a picture as possible. Look for more than shadows. Build up more than simple impressions. Then you’ll be able to prepare well.

A Good INTRO

I used to be petrified of public speaking. I would only give talks during my PhD when I absolutely had to. I was always concerned that I would forget something, make a mistake or be asked a question for which I had no answer. I was even nervous about being too nervous!

Then I started a business where I had to present all of the time. My fears went partly because of regularly being in situations where I had to present, but also because I went out of my way to explore ways to give talks. I liked to find out about how to structure talks, particularly the beginnings. I knew that if I could get that right I’d feel good about the rest of the presentation, whether it was ten minutes or two hours.

A few years ago, my good friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared an effective tool for starting talks with me. The tool is, fittingly, called INTRO and is an acronym to provide structure for the start of a presentation:

  • Interest: start by sharing something that will grab the audience’s attention, a fact, an image, a joke.
  • Need: say why what you’re going to talk about is important. Why does it need to be addressed?
  • Title: share the title of the talk.
  • Range: say something about how long you’ll speak for, what you might cover and how you want to handle questions.
  • Objective: close your introduction by sharing what you goal is with speaking. Is there something you want the audience to do as a result?

I really like how it helps start things off but also leads to a good overview. There’s a nice logic to it, and done well it can be a great start to a presentation. I think the five prompts also give a great format to create a summary of your research when it’s time to prepare for the viva.

  • Interest: how did you become interested in your field of research?
  • Need: what need does your thesis address?
  • Title: what is your thesis’ title, and why?
  • Range: what does your thesis cover?
  • Objective: what do you hope that someone would know, think or do after reading it?

Give INTRO a try when you next prepare a talk, see if it helps. Try it too when your viva is on the way to help break down what your work is all about.

Rehearsal

The mock viva is generally valuable because of the kind of practice it provides. Your supervisors might have some clear ideas about what a mock should be like. But if you think about it, the mock is a sort of test run for later success.

So think: what do you need to succeed?

  • Are you looking for certain types of questions or a particular focus for the discussion?
  • Do you want practice or pressure?
  • What kind of feedback would be most useful from the experience?

Think about what might help you. Everyone has different needs. It’s not wrong to think about how you can make the most of the opportunity.

Coming Attractions

I went to the cinema recently. The movie was excellent, but even before that I was getting excited because of the trailers for other movies coming soon. The new Star Wars movie, Murder On The Orient Express – I’m not even that interested in seeing the new Justice League movie, but I watched the trailer and thought, “Wow!”

Here’s an odd question for you: what trailers have you seen for the viva?

Have you seen any? If not then maybe you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. I meet a lot of people who are confused or uncertain about the viva. That’s how I was, I didn’t really know what it was about.

I meet plenty of people who have seen bad trailers for the viva: they hear it’s really long, that the characters are unfriendly and harsh, that it’s an exhausting but necessary experience you have to go through.

I thankfully also meet candidates who have caught a trailer for the viva which leaves them intrigued or excited. It’s the end in an epic story after all, and they’ve seen the other parts. They’re looking forward to this final part to see what happens.

Movie trailers are awesome because when they’re done well they make us excited and compelled to watch the film. They tell a tale that leaves us hungry for more and hyped for the time when we get to experience the full story. Of course, you don’t really see trailers for the viva, but there’s a lot of word of mouth. Your supervisors, your colleagues and friends, post-docs, there are lots of people who can tell you about what expect. There’s no reason to be ignorant about the viva format when there is so much help nearby.

What would be an awesome trailer for your viva?

Fear Doesn’t Matter

It’s alright to be anxious or afraid of the viva. Maybe you feel it, maybe you don’t; maybe a little, maybe a lot. It could be specific or vague, keep you awake with “what ifs” or sound asleep with uneasy dreams.

Do nothing and let it fester, or explore why you’re afraid and figure out what to do about it. Viva fear is a sign you recognise the viva is important. Once you figure out the root of your fear you can do something to help.

Fear doesn’t matter; your actions do.

Missed

A frequent worry in the mind of viva candidates is that their examiners will say something like:

I was really surprised that you didn’t mention Famous Paper X by Professor Important in your literature review…

What if your examiners say that you’re not cited something important? What then?

Well, that’s their opinion. Your examiners are in the viva to have opinions and ask questions. You’ve not thoughtlessly compiled and read the papers that you have to help support your research. You have reasons for citing the articles that you have, and you have reasons for not citing the articles that you haven’t.

If you’ve intentionally not included Famous Paper X then discuss why – and then explore the papers that you have referenced.

Remember, there will be a lot of papers relevant to your field, it isn’t possible to read them all. If you’ve not read Famous Paper X or not heard of it then ask questions. Why does your examiner think it is important? What do they think it would have added? Listen, and then discuss with them all of the papers or work in your thesis that is relevant to their point.

The viva is an exam disguised sometimes like a conversation. Some questions are testing, others are exploratory. Your examiners might have a different opinion, but they can’t claim that you’ve not done the work. Listen to questions, listen to comments, listen to opinions. Then respond.

Rare

Failure at the viva is rare. There are many, many reasons why this is the case. The three that come first to my mind are: you did the research, wrote the thesis and you know how to answer questions about your work and field.

Still, the brain looks at outliers and thinks, “Why not me?”

Remember: the viva is pressured, important, but also just the latest occasion you’ve had to talk about your research and field.

Probing & Specific

I’ve built up a small library of notes, slides and documents about the viva from a variety of sources. On a scrap of paper I found the thought that “viva questions can be probing and specific.”

This is really worth remembering and preparing for. Your examiners are not typically looking for soundbite answers, they want explanations. A probing and specific question is looking for details and a demonstration of understanding and competence.

But that’s alright!

  • You are competent: you did the work!
  • You know the details: they might not be perfectly organised but you can take time to think.
  • The viva is a discussion: you don’t have to jump to a conclusion.

Remember too: your research and thesis are built on probing and specific questions. You’ll be able to answer similar questions in the viva.

Different Audiences

Here’s a thirty minute viva prep exercise. It aims to help you think differently about your thesis by considering how you could communicate your work with other people. All you need is something to write on and write with.

Take 5 minutes to make general notes, first thoughts about your research and how you share it with others.

Take 5 minutes to plot out a conference talk about your best work. What must you include?

Take 5 minutes to sketch a thirty minute talk at a local high school. How would you begin?

Take 5 minutes to brainstorm for a Three Minute Thesis talk. What would you have to cut out of your normal explanations?

Take 5 minutes to think about your elevator pitch. What would you say if you were in a lift with the head of your university?

Finally, take 5 minutes to review. What ideas or themes consistently showed up? What surprised you? What can you do with these ideas now? How does this help you to frame your work for others?

Exploring different perspectives and looking at your work in a fresh way is valuable. Make time to take a step back in your viva preparations and consider what someone else might think of your thesis. And think: you have the outline for four or five different kinds of talks about your work now. Why not give one of them?

The Elephant Story

There’s an old fable about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. In the story all of them think they’ve found something different because they each touch a different part: a snake, a leaf, a tree, a spear tip and so on. All of them are wrong because they don’t appreciate the full picture.

There’s a lot of parts to the viva and a lot of perspectives that people take. Expectations, examiners, preparation, questions, confidence, your research, your thesis, emotions and more. It’s useful to zero in on one area from time to time, of course, but not to the exclusion of everything else. If you only focus on one aspect of the viva and the prep then you’ll miss something important.

Make sure you have the full picture.