Consulting Your Supervisors

Your supervisors will be able to help with lots of things related to the viva. It’s good to consider them in the role of a consultant.

Consultants take a step back, they’re there to advise: you have to do the work. It’s best to ask highly-targeted questions and make specific requests – both to get the best response from them and respect their time.

  • Before submission they can offer feedback on your research, guidance on your thesis and talk through expectations for the viva.
  • During preparation time they can steer your perspective, share insights into your examiners and perhaps practically help your preparations with a mock viva.
  • After it’s all done they can support you as you deliver on your corrections, and hopefully even find a way to help you celebrate!

There’s lots of possibilities: before you ask for help, consider what you might really need from them. Then focus on asking for that.

Hitting A Wall

In your final burst to get to submission, or in your prep for the viva, it’s likely you’ll get tired.

Or you’ll get stuck.

Or you’ll not know what to do.

Or you will know what to do, but you just won’t want to.

Hitting a wall is hard, because it’s often painful. It can come with shame as well. Compared to some PhD stories I’ve heard, I know that I had quite a charmed PhD; nothing too bad happened. I was able to plot and plan my last six months and work to it and that helped. But I still hit the wall a few times on the run-up to my submission. I felt like I should be better, that I shouldn’t be making mistakes.

A lovely and well-intentioned friend in my office told me, Whatever it is Nathan, just get over it.

They were lovely and well-intentioned, but just get over it is, I think, very rarely the answer.

The answer always has to be quite specific, because the question isn’t simply “What do I do?” but “What do I do with this very particular situation of work and feelings and physical circumstances that has lead me to this wall?”

It could be that you’re tired from reading, or can’t make a connection, or you’re fed up with your PhD, or you’re concerned about something you’ve found – and these are the simple descriptions. The answer is going to be specific; you’ll have to find it probably.

The answer could start with:

  • Asking for practical help;
  • Taking a break;
  • Thinking about other situations you’ve overcome;
  • Remembering that you are awesome;
  • Walking away for a while to get perspective.

These are general solutions; they don’t fit every wall. You won’t just get over it, but there are lots of first steps you could take.

Thank Your Supporters

You can’t get to the end of a PhD without supporters.

They could have lots of different connections to you – your supervisor, your colleagues, family and friends – and they may help in lots of different ways.

You need help along the way, from people who can give you critical but constructive feedback, and people who help you to believe in yourself.

Say thank you when you go the distance. Reflect on what your supporters have done to help and write a word or two in your acknowledgements. Let them know how they’ve helped when you’re getting ready for your viva, and ask again if there’s one more thing they can do to help you get it right. Let them know how you’ve done afterwards and thank them one more time!

 

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary and I have been fortunate to have my wife support me for the last decade. I know what work I’ve done to come this far, and know I couldn’t have done it without her love, her encouragement, her patience, her listening, her feedback, her humour and so much more. This site wouldn’t exist without her support.

Thank you Kay 🙂

Help Is Everywhere

I didn’t have a Viva Survivor course or webinar to help me get ready for my viva. I didn’t know of any books on the topic, or think to look for them. I didn’t search for lists of questions, or blog posts on experiences or how to get ready. The academic community on Twitter hadn’t quite grown into the super-helpful space that it is now.

And there was no podcast with interviews of PhD graduates or blog with 1200+ posts to help candidates!

My point is not, Oh woe is me, I had it so much harder than you do today!

My point is not, I didn’t need anybody and you don’t!!

The point is, There is a wealth of help out there if you need it. Some of it is right here on this site. Some of it might be found in a friend of yours, and you just need to ask. Some of it could be a simple search away.

If you need help getting ready for your viva, it’s out there.

Go get it.

If You Need Help With Your Viva…

…ask for it.

This year, everyone needs help. Everyone is hurting somehow. Everyone is pressured, tired, concerned, and it could be tempting to think that it’s best not to bother people. What’s your viva compared to someone else’s troubles, worries, workload? Keep it to yourself, you might think.

Ask – of course, pick your moment, be aware of other’s circumstances, be prepared to perhaps compromise – but ask.

Ask your supervisor for a Zoom chat, but be concise and targeted with your questions. Ask your colleagues for help preparing, and be prepared to offer the same in return. Ask your friends and family to give you space – whatever your living situation, ask them to support a little place and time of calm so that you can get ready.

Support others however you can at this time, and look for the support that you need. In a strange and radically different world from a year ago, you matter, your viva still matters. Ask for the help you need to get it done.

Strange Circumstances

At the start of the year, having a viva conducted over video would have seemed strange. It certainly wasn’t typical. Now, it’s pretty much the only way they’re happening.

It’s normal to have just two examiners and you present – except when it’s not! Some universities have independent chairs in the room as part of their regulations, some departments regularly invite supervisors as observers as part of their practice. It’s normal to expect examiners to have PhDs as well, but sometimes they don’t.

Your viva, by itself, as an event, might seem strange to you. Unusual. Not the… normal way of doing things. It will certainly be different. Some of the strangeness may be coming from the formality, from the process, from the examiners, from the expectations. Some of it may be coming from you.

If the regulations say X, Y and Z but your situation doesn’t fit, you most likely will not be the first person to have encountered this difference. Vivas over video are normal now, but they were happening before the pandemic. They’re far more likely, at least for a time, but leaving aside the pressure of sudden changes, there were plenty of people around who could share experience of doing vivas over video.

Whatever your circumstances, strange or otherwise, if you need help to unpick what you could do or how you could act, there are people who can help. Check regulations, ask your graduate school, ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends. Ask me!

I think it’s normal for the viva to feel strange.

Rumour Control

Rumours I have heard about the viva in the last ten years:

  • “It’s all decided in advance!”
  • “It’s a fix really: everyone passes so what’s the point?!”
  • “You can’t do anything to prepare because it’s always different!”
  • “It’s just a hazing ritual, examiners tearing years of work apart…”
  • “…actually, they’re usually alright…”

I’ve only seen evidence for the last rumour. The rest are either false or missing key contextual information.

The antidote for rumours is finding out more information: real, hard evidence from people with experience. Don’t be satisfied with surface fluff and secondhand stories.

Ask friends and colleagues who have been through the viva. You don’t need a dozen minute-by-minute accounts to get a real sense of what they’re like. Ask specific questions to get details to help shape your expectations.

Ask academics about their roles as examiners. What do they do? How do they approach it? How do they feel about the process? I’d be surprised if some weren’t as nervous as candidates are.

Get a grip on rumours by finding out more. Then, when your viva is past (and you’ve passed!) be a help to future PhD candidates by sharing the details of your viva experience.

Over time let’s get the viva rumours under control.

Recommendations

It’s useful to get recommendations from others on lots of things connected with the viva.

  • Suggestions on what makes for good and bad examiners.
  • Ideas on what a good thesis looks like.
  • Tips for viva preparation.
  • Tools to help you get ready.
  • Advice on whether or not to have a mock viva.
  • Help with feeling confident before the big day.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for any of these though. Ask for help, listen to recommendations, then sift with the ideas you get from others to see how you might apply them to your circumstances.

And after your viva be prepared to offer your own recommendations. Couch them as best you can in terms of ideas only. Leave space for people to make their own decisions, rather than give them room to doubt themselves.

Ask Me Anything

Seriously. If you need to know something about the viva and you think I might have an answer or opinion or advice, please ask me. You can send me an email, or just tweet at me, I don’t bite!

I keep office hours, so I might not reply within five minutes or one day, but if you have a question about the viva then you can write to me and I will write back to you as soon as I can to try and help.

And I’m not the only one: there are people all around you who can help.

  • Ask your supervisor for help (that’s kind of their job).
  • Ask your graduate school for help (ditto).
  • Ask your friends and colleagues (not a job, but sort of a responsibility).

PhDs and vivas can be struggles – in a way, they’re supposed to be – but you don’t have to struggle through everything alone.

The Trade-Off

There are lots of people who can help with your viva preparations, but the two most useful groups are your supervisors and your colleagues. They can provide similar kinds of help with unpicking the research you’ve done, but they have different restrictions.

  • Your supervisors can give you depth of thought and feedback, but they are probably very busy.
  • Your colleagues may have great availability, but won’t have deep knowledge of your thesis.

So you have the trade-off, availability versus depth: you have to decide what will help you most.

If you need real detail, then you probably have to get help from your supervisors. So you might need to plan in advance how and when you’ll get help. If you really just need someone to listen, and your supervisor is time-pressured, then perhaps you can lean more on your colleagues in an ad-hoc way.

There are lots of things you can ask for from supervisors and colleagues. And you can use both groups to support your preparations, you don’t need to cut anyone out! As you submit your thesis, think: What’s left? What do you need? Who do you need?