Boundaries For Prep

If home is nearly everything now, how do you make the space – physically, mentally and cognitively – to do the work you need to prepare for your viva?

You may need to close doors to signal to others you’re busy. You may need to tell them. You may need to ask for very specific things: leave me alone for an hour, can you do X so I can do Y, and so on.

Boundaries help. It’s OK to ask.

If you’re working from home alone, it’s probably helpful to put boundaries in place for you too. “I’ll spend thirty minutes per day” or “I’ll only do prep in the dining room” or “I’ll make a to-do list and mark things off”.

What do you need to put in place to help you prepare? What boundaries will help keep you working well as you get ready?

Who Do You Need?

Today’s post is even more personal than yesterday’s question. It depends on who is around you, in your circle, and what they can practically offer or do for you, as well as what you really need.

The cast of characters in your preparation play could include supervisors, mentors, colleagues, friends, university staff, family members – and from a distance your examiners too.

You might need someone to ask you questions.

You might need someone to check in with you.

You might need someone to get facts from (or, in the case of examiners, facts about!).

You might need someone to tell you what you need to know.

You might need someone to tell you it’s going to be OK.

You might need someone to tell you all about their viva.

Who do you need? It could be more useful to think about what you need others for first. Once you know that, you’ll know who to ask.

5 Meetings To Have Before Your Viva

Getting together with others can make a big difference to your viva.

  1. Have a meeting with your supervisor to discuss possible examiners before submission.
  2. Ask a friend for coffee to talk about your research.
  3. Sit down with friends and family to help them understand what you’ll be going through.
  4. Pop in and see your researcher-developers to see what courses or resources might help.
  5. Arrange a mock viva with your supervisor to have a useful rehearsal for the real thing.

Perhaps meeting is too strong a word for some of these ideas, too formal maybe. Still, you don’t have to get to the viva by yourself: ask others for help and they will give it.

You have to do the viva alone, but plenty of other people can help you get there. Explore what you need and ask for what you need most.

It Was Fine

So many people told me this about the viva before my own, or have told me since about theirs. For most people it’s the simplest way to say something about their viva. But there’s no detail, and in the absence of information, doubts and worries can creep in and play for future candidates who simply hear, “It was fine”…

  • “Fine… So only OK? What happened I wonder?”
  • “Well they passed, but still…”
  • “What do they really mean?”

If you want to find out about vivas, ask for details. You don’t need a minute-by-minute breakdown. You need more than “fine” to make a useful set of expectations and banish worries.

If you’re asked about your viva, give details. Tell candidates how long it was, what surprised you, what questions stood out, what the process was like.

Show them it was fine, don’t simply tell them it was.

Find Encouragement

There’s a place for honest feedback and difficult questions in viva preparation. Criticism can help too, but all of this has to be in proportion with encouragement. Look for people who can help you see that it is all going to be fine.

  • What friends could let you know about their good viva experiences?
  • What questions could you ask your supervisor to get them to talk about you contribution and your talent?
  • How could friends and family members outside of the university support you?

Look back over the last few years. Reflect on your story. What events and achievements can you find that encourage you for your viva?

Making A Fuss

It’s not making a fuss if you ask your supervisor for help before the viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you think something is wrong with your viva or the outcome and believe you need to appeal something.

It’s not making a fuss to make a complaint about your viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you feel nervous or worried and need to share that with someone to try and get some help.

I often say the viva is not the most important thing ever in a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean you need to just trivialise it. It’s right to not just dismiss any concerns or worries. Make the most of your viva. Make it the best it can be. And if you need to ask questions, ask for help, make a complaint, appeal or whatever to do that then that’s what you need to do.

It’s not making a fuss to do what you need to do for your viva.

Burning Questions

Most PhD candidates have real burning questions about the viva.

There’s something they want to know about the process.

They don’t know something about their examiners.

They’re unsure whether something in their thesis is relevant or a problem.

And they hold on to these questions for too long and get burn. They begin to fret. They begin to worry. They get hurt by them!

Have a question? Find someone to ask. Ask your supervisor. Ask your friends. Ask your graduate school! Ask me!

Don’t let your questions burn you. Ask for answers.

Ask The Experts

Look around you. There are lots of experts, able to share ideas, advice, experience. All you have to do is ask.

Ask specific questions about viva experiences to learn what they’re like.

Ask your supervisor and other academics how they approach being examiners.

Ask your graduate school about regulations and expectations.

Ask friends and colleagues for helpful questions to practise.

And ask yourself who the real expert on your thesis must be.

Who knows more about your research than anyone else?

Good Luck Isn’t Good Enough

A lot of people around you will say “good luck” before your viva.

They can do a lot more if you ask.

Your supervisor might say good luck, and mean it, but what they really mean is they hope you can demonstrate what they know you can do on the day. Good luck might feel good, but if you’re not sure about your talents, or if you want more help (perhaps with a mock viva or more feedback) then ask.

Your researcher friends might say good luck, and mean it, but what they really mean is they hope your viva will be alright. They hope the process and the questions will be fair to you. Good luck is nice, but they can do more if they can tell you about what they know or what their experiences were like. Ask them. Find out more and feel better.

Your friends or family might say good luck, and mean it, but what they might mean is “I don’t understand what you do. I don’t know what you do. A viva? Is it a test? Well, good luck then!” And good luck is well meant, but you might need help from them. You might need time or space to think. Thank them for the well wishes, and tell them what your viva is, what it means, what you need to do to prepare and what they can do to support you.

Good luck is nice, but good luck isn’t good enough.

Luck doesn’t pass the viva, work does – and support helps.

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.