Whispers

Postgraduate researchers find out a lot of things during the PhD through whispers.

  • “Psst! How do I do this?!”
  • “Who do I talk to about that?”
  • “What even is a viva?!”

Of course, some conversations have to be held quietly: perhaps the topic is sensitive or difficult. More often, there’s a lot that could be talked about openly in academia, but we don’t because of culture, power structures and “the way things have always been done”.

Thankfully, despite all of this, there are people who do share good, helpful advice. You’ll find quite a few curated on the Whisper Collective site¬†– a great initiative that’s been running for a year now. Over a dozen blogs, including Viva Survivors, standing around saying, “Can I help?”

Whatever stage of the PhD you’re at, you’ll find helpful, practical advice by checking out the Whisper Collective. And when you find something helpful don’t whisper: pass it on! ūüôā

A Problem Shared

You’re the only person who can pass your viva, but there are many, many people who can support you before you get that far.

It may be that you just need a little encouragement, but if you have a problem then consider how others could do something practical to help:

  • Your supervisors can help you understand the role of examiners. They can help you unpick how you express your research. They can help you by hosting a mock viva. They can’t solve your problems for you, but if you share them they will do their best.
  • Friends and colleagues can help by understanding what you’re going through. They can share viva expectations or perhaps simply listen while you explain your research and ask questions. If you have a problem they can signpost you towards something that will make a difference.
  • Your family and loved ones may not understand your research! But if you have a problem then they will listen. If you can share the root cause they might have a suggestion that could help. More than anything, if you have a problem, they will want to be there to help.

With the viva, as with many things in life generally, there are problems and there are Problems. There are little things and Big Things. You are not alone. You don’t have to solve every pre-viva problem or Problem by yourself.

You are good, you are skilled, you are capable and knowledgeable – and you are not alone.

On Banishing Impostors

Impostor syndrome is a commonly discussed topic in academia. It’s not unusual for a postgraduate researcher to feel they’re somehow not good enough as they get closer to their viva.

I don’t know that anyone has a 100% solution to getting rid of these sorts of feelings, but I have some ideas of what you could do if they feel particularly difficult around your viva.

  • Check in with friends. Talk to trusted friends and colleagues who have already passed their viva. Ask about how they felt. While it’s not comfortable to feel like an impostor, knowing you’re not alone can be the start of helping yourself.
  • Be honest with your record. Look at your progress, the real progress you’ve made. Look at what now exists that did not before. Reflect on how and why that has come to be: you did this work.
  • Imagine what an impostor would really do. How would they act or behave? What would they know? Now compare that to yourself. Do you act or behave like a fake?

I think most thoughtful PhD candidates and academics would admit that they are not perfect. They’re always learning and always will be. Sometimes knowing you don’t know everything or can’t do everything can make you compare yourself falsely to others. Sometimes being around other talented people means that you feel smaller by comparison.

Start by being honest with yourself. Not only about how you feel – because then you can act to change that feeling – but also with the reality of the situation. You don’t feel good, but you couldn’t have got as far as you have if you hadn’t done the work and found success.

Interesting Times Forever

It’s two years since my world changed, just before the first pandemic lockdown in the UK. Two years ago today I shared Interesting Times, thoughts on where I was and where I might be going in the weeks that would follow.¬†A year ago, things had changed and were continuing to change, in ways that a year earlier I couldn’t have predicted. I wrote and shared Still Interesting Times.

And now it is 2022.

In the last year I’ve continued to work from home. I’ve been jabbed three times. I’ve seen my work and life continue to be impacted. I’ve avoided COVID but cared for my wife and daughter while they were poorly with it a few months ago. I’ve been fortunate to keep serving PhD candidates via their universities and sometimes through webinars I’ve set up myself. I’ve been fortunate to keep writing, keep helping and keep responding whenever anyone gets in touch.

 

What stands out to me when I think about the last two years?

Everyone needs help. Helping others helps us to grow too. So when you can: help. When I think about the viva it reminds me that there are lots of people who need help and lots of people who could help.

  • Candidates should reflect on their needs. What do you need to feel confident? What do you need to know to have a good picture of the viva?
  • Candidates should know they are not alone. Who can you turn to for support? Ask early and be honest. Work to get what you need from supervisors, colleagues, friends and family.
  • PhD graduates can help friends who are finishing. Can you tell your friends how much time you have for them and what you can offer to help? Can you tell your story to help set good expectations?
  • Supervisors should help set expectations with candidates about what is expected in the viva now. Supervisors can guide candidates past doubts and help them to focus on what really matters.
  • Graduate schools, doctoral colleges and doctoral training programmes can support PGRs by offering resources of all kinds that help to emphasise personal development. Share things and do things that help candidates feel stronger as a result.

I’m here too! This blog is updated every day, but you can email me or tweet me if you have questions. There’s almost five years of posts on the blog. There are over sixty viva stories in the podcast archive.

 

We live in “interesting” times. We always did, of course, but they’ve become even more interesting. More challenging. More surprising. Sometimes, more upsetting.

If you’re reading this though then, like me, you’re still here. Still learning. Still growing. Still making mistakes and persevering.¬†So far, you have managed to keep going in difficult circumstances – and difficult might be an understatement in the last two years.

Get help if you need it, offer it to others if you can, but keep going.

You’re Not The First

You’re not the first person to have a viva.

You’re not the first person to feel nervous, anxious, worried or afraid.¬†You’re not the first person to worry that you could or should have done more.¬†You’re not the first PhD candidate to feel you needed more things to go right.¬†You’re not the first candidate to have vague worries or specific concerns about the viva.

You’re also not the first candidate to pass with all of these being true.

You’re not the first person to feel this way but that doesn’t make it any less real or hard.¬†Thankfully it means there are others who will know what it is like to be in your position and be able to help you.

You won’t be the last person to have a viva either – which means that you’ll be able to help others as they get ready to meet their examiners.

Get help now as you need it. Give help later when you can.

Realistic

You can’t know exactly what will happen at your viva before you have it.

But you can know about the many vivas of your friends and colleagues. Use stories of vivas in the past to help get ready for yours in the future.

From these stories you can see that vivas range in length. They’re fairly structured conversations. You can expect challenging questions.¬†You can also know who your examiners are and what they do. You can’t know what questions they will ask, but you can get a sense of what they might want.

Altogether you can have a good idea of what your viva will be like. You can build up a realistic set of expectations rather than worry about the unknown aspects.

Outcomes, Strategies & Tactics

There are desirable outcomes for viva prep but lots of paths that could lead to those outcomes. Strategy is an overall type of activity that helps a candidate; tactics are the many approaches that could help someone. Effectiveness depends on time available, the preferences of the candidate and many other factors.

For example, a desirable outcome for the viva is that a candidate has a clear enough picture of their research in their mind: not photographic recall, just a good feel for the flow of the work they’ve presented.

A simple strategy for this would be for a candidate to take time to read their thesis and refresh their memory. Possible tactics – again, influenced by different factors – could be to find an afternoon to read the thesis in one sitting. Or to read one chapter per evening. Or for a certain time each day. Or to focus on particular aspects in order.

When someone tells you a precise way to prepare it might not be right for you. They’re usually describing tactics that may help with good intentions. Behind the tactics will be a strategy that almost certainly will help, leading to an outcome that you need. If some tactics don’t sound quite right for you, then listen for the strategy.

If you know the strategy you need, consider what tactics will help you best. How will you organise yourself? What particular help do you need?

Be Brave

I would hope you don’t need to be brave for your viva. I would hope that whatever worries or concerns you have, they don’t overwhelm so much that you need to find courage. Given everything you’ve done before, your viva should not be such a great challenge.

But if you do find yourself more anxious than confident, if you do feel fear and you need to be brave, remember:

  • You are not alone. There are many people who can and will support you. Ask for help. Ask early, ask often.
  • The viva is not a mystery. You don’t have to fear the unknown. Check the regulations, learn about expectations and listen to viva stories.
  • You have already come a long way. You’re not beginning an epic journey, you’re near the end. You don’t have far to go.

You don’t need to find a lot of courage or do a lot of work to be ready. Be brave if you need to be. Ask for help if you need it. Keep going.

Clearing Out Viva Doubts

Viva doubts thrive in wondering whether or not you really have made a contribution. Viva doubts prosper in worrying that you’re not quite good enough. Viva doubts linger around stories and what-ifs, concern that things aren’t going to go well or that others’ experiences won’t match your own.

Viva doubts are cleared away by knowledge. Asking questions leads to information that helps remove them from your mind. You can ask your supervisor about your research to gain certainty that you’ve made a contribution. You can ask yourself questions to reflect on your journey and see that you’ve become even better than you were. You can ask friends about their experiences to really see a set of good expectations for your viva.

Ask the right people the right questions and there’s no home for doubts about your viva.

The S-word

I try to be as careful as possible using the s-word.

…should…

You should get ready for your viva this way…

You should be prepared for your examiners to ask…

You should start your viva prep…

Lots of well-meant advice is hard to hear, hard to act on or hard to follow because the person speaking throws the s-word in the mix. It can raise tensions or muddy expectations. It can increase pressure on someone struggling if they hear that they should do something, in a specific way or at a specific time, that conflicts with what they feel able to do.

Don’t ask for people to tell you what you should do to get ready for your viva.

Don’t tell people what they should do for their viva.

Share ideas. Say why something helped you. Tell them what could work. Say why something could be valuable.

Leave the s-word out of it.