Ten Helpful People

There are lots of people around you who could help you get ready for your viva. While you might do most of the work by yourself, there’s a lot you could find from others:

  • Two supervisors, maybe more: they’ve seen your work develop, so ask for feedback and advice about your thesis. If you’ve not worked much with a second supervisor they could still share experience or be part of a mock viva.
  • One member of staff: get contact details for someone in your graduate school or doctoral college. If any questions about regulations come up you’ll know who to get in touch with.
  • Three recent graduates from your department: send them an email and ask specific questions about their vivas. Get some realistic expectations by comparing stories.
  • A current researcher from your department: take them for coffee and ask them to listen while you share your research. If they know about your work, ask them for questions; if they don’t know much about what you do then ask what they understand when you talk.
  • A friend or family member: someone who could give you a ride to the university on viva day!
  • Two examiners: internal and external, you can’t contact them before the viva but you can explore their research and interests. Reflect on what connections they might see in your research and theirs.

Ten people, to begin with. You will know more who could make a real difference.

Including you.

Nodes

Viva coming up? Think about who you know and what they can do for you:

  • How can your supervisor help you prepare?
  • Who among your close colleagues has some way of helping?
  • Who do you know that could be a good choice for an examiner?
  • Do you know a student of your external, or someone who has worked with them?

You’re trying to find ways the nodes in your network can usefully add to your preparation. Drill into what your network looks like to see the practical things people can do. If it feels like you’re asking for a favour, well, that’s one side of networking: thinking about how you can get help from the people you know.

The other side, perhaps even more exciting, you get to think about how you can help other people when it’s their viva coming up. If you’ve not had yours yet you can still be a friend and help someone prep for theirs. Offer to chat with them, share your knowledge about some aspect of the field they’re less familiar with, even offer to read a chapter and ask questions.

If you’ve had your viva then share your experience around your network. Your viva story can help others realise that the viva is not some terrible doom awaiting them. Tell others what you did to prepare and what happened on the day. Ask them to do the same.

See how the help spreads through the nodes of your network.

Not Favours

It could be that you need a little help from others to get ready for the viva. Help with thinking and talking; questions about process and experience; maybe even proofreading or practical on-the-day logistics.

You have to defend your work solo, but there really are lots of ways others can help you prepare. Get clear in your mind about what you need, ask and explain why (if you need to), and be prepared to compromise.

It could also be the case that you see a friend who needs help. A candidate who needs someone to talk to; a colleague who needs someone to listen; a friend who has a problem that they can’t see past.

It’s OK to ask for help when you need it; it’s good to offer help when you can.

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.

Five Minutes

To prepare for your viva you need time. A significant number of candidates may have a job or be applying for one when the viva comes around. Time is always a precious resource, but can feel quite pressured for some. While it’s still important to organise and have a decent amount of space to think, there are some valuable ways you can use small blocks of time in preparation for your viva.

  • Tidy your workspace.
  • Make a list of bigger tasks you need to do.
  • Write a 100-word summary of a chapter.
  • Make a list of papers you need to review.
  • Message someone to tell them how you’re doing.
  • Listen to a song that helps you to feel happy.
  • Write down what you’re going to do next and why that’s going to help.

Viva prep takes time, usually in blocks of more than five minutes, but little things add up. With five minutes you can make something to help yourself, setup future progress or prime yourself for the next big task.

What could you do?

Start With One

There’s a time and a place for detailed plans, complex strategies and exhaustive lists. But figuring out everything you need to plan or do or check is hard. And when you get a list together it can be overwhelming. Instead, start with one thing.

  • Start with one person who can tell you about their viva.
  • Start with one chapter of your thesis.
  • Start with one question to help you unpick your results.
  • Start with one paper that has been really helpful.
  • Start with one idea of how to explain your thesis.

There may be more to do. Once you start you have momentum. Keep going.

Supports

You do the research and write the thesis, but it doesn’t come from nowhere.

You have to be good to do it, and you have to grow as you go along. You have to do the work, but you’re surrounded by help. And you create a significant, original contribution but your research doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

There are essential supports that surround your PhD and help make it what it is. Review your postgraduate journey when submission and the viva are coming:

  1. How have you developed and how are you talented now?
  2. Who do you owe thanks to for helping you?
  3. What research and researchers have most inspired you?

Unpick your supports. Acknowledge them. Say thank you.

Use Your Network

It’s just you answering questions in the viva. Before then there are lots of people who can help you prepare. Think about your network. Think about the resources you can draw on. For example:

  • Do you know someone who can tell you about your examiners’ research? It could be a boost before you read some papers.
  • Do you know someone who can tell you about their viva? It could help to settle your mind about expectations.
  • Do you know someone who can listen to you talk about your thesis? It could be a way to get some useful feedback.

Who do you know, and how can they help you?

False Expectations

It’s wrong to expect that your viva will be exactly like your friend’s. It’s wrong to think that because every thesis is different there are no similarities between vivas. It’s wrong to expect to fail. It’s wrong to think that the viva is a box-ticking exercise. It’s wrong to think of it as a trial by fire.

All of these represent persistent memes or half-truths about the viva. You’re not stupid for thinking any of them. They’re a product of PhD culture. They get stuck in your head and can be difficult to shift.

Hard though it might be, we need to re-align the viva story. Every viva is unique, but they happen within frameworks. They’ll be different from each other, but there are expectations for how they are done. It’s an exam, it’s a challenge, and it could be tough or uncomfortable because of what you’re there to do – discuss and unpick your work and you as a researcher.

It’s a challenge that you can be ready for. If you did the research and wrote the thesis then you can thrive in the viva.

Change The Story

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of love for the PhD process? Every stage seems to have some kind of negativity attached to how it’s described:

  • First Year Funk: realising that what you wanted to do is harder than you thought…
  • Second Year Blues: feeling down or bored with being stuck…
  • Final Year Fears: worrying about finishing on time or at all…

“Surviving the viva” is a theme that’s been around for a while. Negative associations with “defending your thesis” persist.

These things can’t be beaten with a throwaway line or a joke. We associate being a “viva survivor” with a story that the viva is a trial by fire, the equivalent of a planned natural disaster that can’t be avoided. But the dictionary also defines survive as “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” – not insurmountable, just difficult. Talking about all the aspects of research and being a researcher can be difficult. Answering tricky questions about your research can be difficult. But not impossible.

So reflecting on this today I have two requests:

  • If your viva is in the past: tell future PhDs what was difficult about your viva and prep, but be honest and talk about what you did to meet those difficulties. You survived!
  • If your viva is in the future: think about what challenges might come your way, but reflect on what difficult challenges you’ve already overcome. You can survive!

One positive story is not going to change the negative associations surrounding the PhD and the viva. But lots of them…