What Are Your Plans?

My examiners didn’t ask me what I was going to do after my PhD, but I know candidates who were asked in theirs. Had I been asked, I probably would have been stumped by the question. No idea. The thoughts that lead me on to my current path came months later. It might have been useful to have some ideas that I could have shared in the viva, had it come up.

(the only ideas I had about future plans were related to how I might develop my thesis research, what directions or improvements could be made with more time, different resources, etc)

Being asked about plans can be scary, but remember: it doesn’t have to be final.

A plan doesn’t have to commit you. A plan is potential. A plan is a sequence that you could follow, not one that you are following or even one that you will. You don’t have to have the best plan. You don’t have to have all of the ideas worked out. You just need something.

So: what’s your something? If you don’t know, maybe a better question to think about and answer is “Post-viva, what do I want?”

Details

They matter. But the little things that evade memory or fast recall probably don’t matter as much as you think they do.

You’re primed to notice the little things you forget more than you notice all of the things that you easily remember.

If nerves about remembering everything before the viva appear, banish them by thinking about all of the things you do know, rather than the tiny fraction of details that don’t snap into focus.

ASAP!

A potent strain of viva-anxiety virus breeds in the mind and says:

Faster, faster, faster!

Question. Answer. Question. Answer! Quest-ANSWER!

What if you take too long? What if it doesn’t come quickly enough? You “should” know it, right? RIGHT?!

Your research didn’t come that quickly. Recovering a memory or a fact might be quick. Analysing and thinking might not be.

There’s time available in the viva, and you can use it well. You can do this because you have experience, knowledge and skills, developed over time. Not thrown together ASAP, but brought forth through patient, deliberate effort.

Don’t listen to the virus if it crowds your thoughts. Pay attention to your experience. Take a little time to think before you answer.

Ten Questions For Better Answers In The Viva

You hear your examiners ask a question. You have a first thought, the shape of an answer appears. Ask yourself another question then to help that shape develop. Try one of the following:

  1. Is this the best thing that you could say?
  2. What else do you know?
  3. What do you not know about this area?
  4. What’s your best evidence to support this idea?
  5. Have you definitely understood the question?
  6. What could you point to in your thesis to support this response?
  7. When have you answered a similar question before?
  8. What’s the first sentence of your response?
  9. What objections could someone raise to what you’re about to say?
  10. Is what you’re saying an opinion, a suggestion or a fact?

Speech and thought overlap in conversation. While you’re talking, you’re thinking. You don’t need to memorise these ten questions for the viva, but do find questions to help make your answers better.

Needles & Haystacks

We all know looking for a needle in a haystack is a fool’s errand.

I understand why PhD candidates are interested in being well prepared for questions in the viva. Too often though the desire is expressed as wanting to prepare perfect answers, or anticipate all the questions that might come up. But this is looking for a needle in a haystack. There are thousands of questions you could conceive of that are relevant, interesting and possible for your viva…

…and you won’t be asked most of them.

You can’t think of every possible question. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare answers to all of the questions you can think of. There’s not enough time.

You can’t prepare perfect answers, full stop!

What you can do: find opportunities to practise answering unexpected questions. Have a mock viva. Chat to friends over coffee. Give a seminar. Email colleagues and ask them for their questions.

Stop looking around in haystacks for every question. Start finding opportunities where the questions come to you.

A Non-Trivial Pursuit

Viva candidates pretty much have all the answers. That’s not because the viva is easy or the questions are predictable or because candidates can somehow prepare for every possibility. The viva’s not a quiz game.

Some questions in the viva might be trivial in the sense that they are easy for you to answer. The fact that something seems easy to you doesn’t diminish it in any way.

The viva generally is non-trivial. It’s not a game. Any ease you might feel with questions is down to your hard-earned talent.

New Questions

When you’re preparing for the viva, if you just ask the same questions as before to unpick your research you won’t uncover anything new.

If you find new questions then you could find a new perspective. Find different questions, odd questions, unfamiliar questions and then perhaps you could find something interesting.

Something to focus on. Something to check. Something to change. Something to revise. Something to share.

Look for new questions, new opportunities to reflect on and think through your work.

Something great.

Defending or Defensive?

In the viva you may have to defend your work. Ideally, you need to do so without becoming defensive.

Defending: “This is why I made this choice…”

Defensive: “I made the right choice!”

Defending: “…that’s a fair question. I think…”

Defensive: “…that’s not relevant because…”

Defending: “…well, I think I addressed this point in Chapter 3…”

Defensive: “…oh yeah? Well what would you know!”

Stay on the right side of defending in the viva. No thesis or PhD is perfect. You can defend, explain and explore your decisions and conclusions, of course, but don’t make it personal. Make your examiners’ comments about the work.

Take a step back and breathe if you feel that you’re being criticised. If your examiners don’t agree, ask them why. Listen and then bring it back to what you did and why. That’s what will help your answers.

Breezy

The wind blows. That’s what it does. Some days it’s fast, some days it’s a gentle breeze, and some nights it sounds like it is bringing the end of the world.¬†Depending on the situation I might wear a coat, bunker down, pick up the bins in our garden, or just go for a stroll and try to smile as my hat flies off.

Experiences shape perceptions and responses.

Back to the blog about viva help!

The viva is questions. Questions about your work. And you’ve been asked questions before. Maybe not this or that, but you’ve been asked questions. And you’ve answered them. You know how to deal with difficult questions about your research. You know how to explain your work. You know how to think around your research area.

You can worry about a unique or novel situation, but you can also still prepare for it. You did the work, you wrote your thesis, you can succeed in the viva.