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.

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.