Being SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are an important part of your viva. Spend some of your viva preparation time exploring who they are and what they do. Check their recent publications to get a sense of their research but you don’t need to know everything. Setting a SMART objective to have a clear goal for your efforts is helpful so you don’t stress about needing to do more and more.

  • Specific: What are you trying to learn? What sources will you consider?
  • Measurable: How much work are you going to do? How will you know when you’re done?
  • Advantages: What will you gain by doing this? How are you hoping to feel?
  • Realistic: How many papers are you aiming to read? What makes you think that is enough?
  • Time-bound: What is your deadline? How far in advance of your viva would it be useful to have this task completed?

Just a little planning can make a tricky task manageable. Decide in advance how much prep is enough.

A SMART Review

From time to time I’ve shared an acronym I like on this blog. I’ve talked about SMART before: a useful tool to help with planning, it stands for Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound – the five qualities of an effective goal. It struck me a few weeks ago that these words could also be a nice prompt for reflecting on your research at the end of the PhD:

  • Specific: how would you define what you’ve done in your research?
  • Measurable: how can you be certain of what you’ve achieved?
  • Advantages: how does your work make a contribution?
  • Realistic: how does your work compare to what you were originally planning?
  • Time-bound: how did your research change over the course of your PhD?

Five simple points to reflect on your research before the viva. Making notes on each of these points could make a nice summary of your work for viva prep.

Digging Deeper With VIVA

Earlier this year I shared my directed thinking tool, VIVA, which is really useful for analysing chapters of your thesis in preparation for the viva. My general suggestion for VIVA is to take a sheet of paper and divide it into four sections. Then in each section make notes about the chapter you want to reflect on but directed by a specific keyword:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the work?
  • Vague: what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask: what questions would you ask your examiners if you had the opportunity?

This kind of directed or prompted thinking can build a really interesting reflection and summary. It’s enough to simply reflect and make notes, see where your thinking takes you. You can go much deeper if you want to though. First, simply asking “Why?” after each of your responses helps:

Why would they find that valuable? Why are you interested in that way? Why is it not clear? Why do you want to ask those questions?

Or for Valuable you could dig into different audiences: is there more than one kind of value that someone could look for? Has the Interesting component of your research changed over time? How can you make something Vague more clear? If there was only time to Ask one question of your examiners, how would you prioritise?

Questions lead to answers sometimes. In my experience they nearly always lead to more questions. That’s not a bad thing if you’re trying to think deeply about something. If you use VIVA, think about how you can use follow-up questions to reflect on your research.

A STAR For Confidence

A great way to build your confidence before the viva is to find stories from your PhD to inspire you. I’ve mentioned finding STAR stories in the past to point to specific skills or parts of your work, but the same four-point structure can help to build stories of talent generally.

Try using this process to find stories that help you. Answer the following four questions in success:

  • Situation: Find a situation or project that was challenging. How did it stretch you?
  • Task: Detail what exactly you had to accomplish. What were the specifics?
  • Actions: Lay out the sequence of steps you followed. How did you try to solve the problem?
  • Results: Clearly state the outcome. What happened in the end?

How you think about your PhD and your talent is a story. If you need to, find a new story, or several! Find stories that boost your confidence and lay out how you got your research done.

SCAMPERing Through Your Thesis

I like acronyms as useful tools, particularly for unpicking things or prompting thoughts. Last year I shared a post on how to use the tool SCAMPER to think about how to extend the research you’ve done for your PhD. Recently it struck me that SCAMPER could be useful as a reflection and review tool.

Today’s post is a series of questions inspired by SCAMPER to get you reflecting about your research. Use these with journalling or free-writing to spark some thoughts about your thesis.

  • Substitute: what did you change from something someone else had done?
  • Combine: what ideas did you bring together in your thesis?
  • Adapt: how have you altered the approach that you started with?
  • Magnify: what areas did you decide to focus on?
  • Put to other use: what pre-existing tools or ideas did you use?
  • Eliminate: how did you simplify things as your work developed?
  • Rearrange: as your thesis was nearing completion, what changes did you have to make?

Use these questions to think about your research and thesis. Reflecting on the three or more years of work you’ve completed is an essential part of the viva prep process.

VIVA and the Viva

I’ve shared a few acronyms in posts over the last year but today’s tool is different because I invented it!

VIVA is very useful to help with exploring your thesis before the viva; it’s a directed thinking tool in the same way that SWOT is used to analyse a situation. VIVA can be used simply. Take a sheet of paper for a chapter in your thesis and divide it into four. Then use a different word in each section to direct your attention as you make notes about the chapter:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the work?
  • Vague: what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask: what questions would you like to ask your examiners if you had the opportunity?

This can help to draw out key points for your thesis. If you do this kind of analysis for each chapter then you build a really interesting summary. From considering what’s Valuable you unpick the contribution that you’ve made in your thesis, and by thinking about what is Interesting you rediscover your motivations. If you look for what’s Vague then you find what you need to strengthen ahead of discussion in the viva, and if you consider what questions to Ask you think ahead about the way the conversation might unfold.

I came up with VIVA about four years ago and it’s become one of the most useful ideas I’ve shared in my workshops. I’m surprised in looking back over this first year of the blog that I’ve not shared it here before! I hope you find it helpful ahead of your viva, and find some interesting ideas when you analyse your thesis.

In short: use VIVA to help with the viva!

Being a STAR

Long time readers will know I like acronyms. STAR is another good one. It’s typically used by people applying for jobs. STAR lets you frame and tell a story that demonstrates your skills:

  • Situation: where does this story take place, what’s the context?
  • Task: what were you asked to do?
  • Actions: what approach did you take to tackle the task?
  • Results: what happened, how successful were you?

This sequence can create a story to convince someone you’re good at something. Whether you apply for a job, pitch some work or are networking, STAR can help you show you’re the right person.

Your viva is coming up. It’s not a job interview, but STAR can still help you to frame the story you tell about your research:

  • Situation: why was the area something you wanted to research?
  • Task: what were you trying to contribute to your field?
  • Actions: how did you do your research?
  • Results: what did you find and what does it mean?

STAR is a valuable tool: good for telling stories to others, for framing your research and for reminding you just how good you are.

GROWing a Plan

I was reminded earlier this month of the coaching tool GROW, and how useful it can be to start conversations that help people change.

  • Goal: what is it you want?
  • Reality: where are you now?
  • Options: what could you do?
  • Will: what will you do?

When I heard this again a little thought started to form about the kinds of questions that relate to these words. I was at a three-day workshop on leadership, and as my friend described GROW to the participants it struck me that this could also be a neat framework to help someone prepare for their viva.

  • Goal: what does prepared look like for you? What are you working towards?
  • Reality: how much time will you have available? Who could help you?
  • Options: given your resources, what could you do to be ready? And what do you not have time for?
  • Will: how are you going to make time for what you need to do? When will you get the work done?

A short, four-step sequence for figuring out options or a plan for viva prep. There’s no sense in making a plan that won’t work for you.

It doesn’t need to take long to get to work.

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Acronyms & Tools

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. Today the focus is on acronyms and thinking tools that I think could be really useful for viva prep or thinking about your research. I love these sorts of concepts that try to help with clear thinking or providing structure. Take a look and see what you think.

Acronyms are like beautiful little bundles of help. Thinking tools can give frameworks to help direct your thinking. To my mind, both perfect places to look for viva help!

Found another post that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!

The Simple Life

Long-term readers will know that I’m a fan of acronyms as valuable tools for encapsulating useful ideas. You can see some examples here, here and here of how I think they can be applied to help with the viva.

KISS is an odd one! Not a means to remember a cool tool or a structure to build around. Rather it’s a reminder that can help with viva prep and the viva, and of course to much of life:

Keep It Simple, Stupid

There’s a place for the complex and complicated in research, of course, but don’t jump to the most complex expression: simplify first. Don’t worry about the optimal way to mark up a thesis: start with a few small things to help yourself. Don’t focus on “what if” questions you may never have to face: find opportunities that will help you practise talk and answer questions.

You’re not stupid. Start simple.