Just Think

A Common Viva Problem: thinking you have to know and give a definitive answer to every question an examiner asks in the viva.

There may be many cases where this is impossible! While there are lots of questions a candidate can answer swiftly and completely, they do not have to do so for every request. If you’ve not considered Theory X or Idea Y before, how can you give a complete answer immediately? You can’t. So what can you do?

Just think.

Be reasonable with yourself. Your examiners don’t know everything. They know you don’t know everything. They’re asking questions for many reasons. To generate discussion. To explore. To clarify. Because they’re interested.

If you need time to think, take it. If you need to talk through an opinion, do so. Your examiners do not expect you to know everything. They do expect you to think in the viva.

Eight Thoughts About Viva Stress

It’s normal to be a bit nervous about the viva. If you’re persistently feeling stressed as you approach the viva, you need to do something. Here are several ideas to help:

  1. Take a break. Step back from prep and do something you know helps you to relax.
  2. Reflect on how long you’ve been doing your PhD. You’ve not got this far by being lucky.
  3. Reflect on how short the viva is compared to how long you’ve been doing your PhD.
  4. When you can, gently read your thesis and focus on all of the good stuff to begin with.
  5. Visualise yourself crossing the stage at graduation. It’s not far away.
  6. Talk about it with someone you trust, someone who will listen before they offer advice.
  7. Write down exactly what is stressing for you about the viva. What can you do?
  8. Make a list of five things that help you to feel confident. Which of them can you do regularly between now and the viva?

Some people see stress as an endpoint. I try, not always successfully, to use it as a motivator: “I feel stressed. What do I need to do about that?”

Do you feel stressed about the viva? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Commentary

Behind the scenes extras on DVDs are interesting, but not for everyone. I’m a fan of commentary tracks. I like listening to a movie director explore influences, or explain why they made the choices they did. It’s fascinating, but I guess that most people will just want to watch the film.

When it comes to your thesis and your viva, you’re not “most people”. Annotating your thesis creates a valuable commentary that is doubly useful. First you ask yourself questions, engage with your thesis and make choices about how to add to the work. After that, you have an incredible resource you can refer to in your preparation and in the viva.

So read your thesis with pen in hand. What does that piece of jargon actually mean? Can you summarise this complex argument you make? How will you draw attention to typos? Which are the key references to highlight?

How will you make your thesis even more valuable?

Step By Step

Any big project can be intimidating and viva prep is a big project. To do it well, like any project, you first have to look at the big picture, the main goal – but then dig into each step. What will you do first? What will you do last? How much is involved and how will you break that down between when you start and the viva? Focus on getting one task after another done. Do enough, step by step, and you’ll be on track.

The viva can also seem intimidating if you focus on passing the viva!!! instead of remembering to take it one question at a time. You don’t have to answer every question at the same time; you don’t have to answer every possible question that could come up (because not all of them will). Find opportunities before then to practise, use them well, and then take each question as it comes on the day.

Step by step you get to the pass.

A Comparison

Compare two days…

Black Friday: “Today is the only chance to get what you want! Maybe you will, maybe you won’t! We’ll tell you what’s available and you’ll know it when you see it! And then you’d better be quick or you’ll lose this opportunity forever!”

The Viva: “Today is another chance to show what you know. You’re here to pass because you know your stuff. You won’t know every question in advance, but you’ll know what to do when you’re asked. And you can take your time to make the most of this opportunity.”

…two very, very different days…

Thankful

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, but the act of being thankful is something that’s really had an impact on me in the last year. Taking time to step back and think, “What am I thankful for?” has helped a lot through difficult periods. It puts things in perspective and it helps to focus on the positive.

If the end of your PhD is approaching, what are you thankful for? When have you been fortunate? What ideas or theories have spurred you on? Who has helped you?

Remind yourself. Take time to take stock and be thankful.

Unanswered

As you get to the end of your PhD you might have some questions without answers. That doesn’t mean you’ve missed something. Three, four or seven years is a long time, but it’s still a finite period. You might not have been able to cover everything you wanted to.

Examiners can still be interested, and it’s likely that you are too. Make a list for your own benefit. Keep it clear. What’s your question and what got in the way of answering it?

Puzzles & Problems

During my PhD I became obsessed with certain kinds of puzzles. Killer sudoku is a variant on regular sudoku with different conditions on the grid. I would spend hours and hours playing them. I infected my friends with the killer sudoku bug. For a time we would compete to solve them, nothing but our honour and bragging rights at stake.

We discovered kakuro puzzles. We lost weeks of lunch breaks when a Scrabble clone was launched on Facebook. We turned our brains to becoming office champion. While I wouldn’t say I was champ, I still feel proud at earning 390 points in a two-player game once!

Puzzles are awesome. They teach the skills and processes to help solve problems. A PhD is a mix of puzzles and problems. In some cases you do things to practise a method or explore an already understood idea. Then later you apply what you know to something that’s a problem: something that’s believed to be true or which people think there is something interesting but which isn’t known for certain.

All of my play with killer sudoku and kakuro helped me. My mind raced faster looking for connections in my research. I used notation from puzzles to solve research problems. Bizarrely, playing a lot of Scrabble made it easier for me to focus on problems.

Puzzles and problems go hand in hand. When the viva comes around, you can take all you’ve learned in with you. All of the skill you amass from playing and exploring and researching. It doesn’t go away. It’s right there, a rich resource to draw on.

Think about all of the puzzles and problems you’ve encountered. With everything you do during a PhD, is it really that likely your examiners can find something that will be out of your reach?

Three Acts

In short:

  • Beginning: ideas and talent…
  • Middle: work and wondering…
  • End: knowledge and skill…

However you feel in the middle of the PhD, you’re in the right place for fortune to find you. You started and people agreed that this was a good path for you. When you finish you’ve necessarily built up a body of research and skill to match.

If you’re reading this at the start of the PhD, you’re supposed to be here. If you’re in the middle, hang in there. If you’re near the end, congratulations. Keep going. You can’t get to where you are just by being lucky. You can’t finish a PhD by accident.