Necessary, Not Evil

Too often the viva is thought of as only a negative experience.

Questions, Examiners, The End, Stress, Worry, What If, Failure, The Unknown…

In advance of the viva, for many very understandable reasons, a candidate could expect it is going to be a bad experience. The viva is a necessary part of the PhD process in the UK, but also one that is a little unclear. It’s an exam so thinking about it can be a little worrying. It involves examiners and discussion – which can make thinking about engaging with the viva more than a little concerning.

The viva and the outcome really matter. The viva is important. Hypothetical questions about what might happen and worry about failure are reasonable.

You can’t simply change a negative opinion of the viva. You have to find out more. Ask friends about their experiences. Check the regulations and prepare yourself to meet the expectations you find there. You might still continue to think of the viva as hard or difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

Your viva is a necessary part of your PhD journey. It doesn’t have to be a bad part.

Stories Beat Statistics

We can look at all of the numbers for the viva – pass rates, lengths, percentages of candidates told they’ve passed at the start, correlation of questions and disciplines – and see lots of little details about the general expectations.

We can listen to the stories of candidates – what they did, what happened, how they felt and what that meant for them – and we’ll build a real sense of the viva experience.

The numbers help but certainty of what to expect and what to do is only going to be found by asking people about their experiences. Ask the right people the right questions and you’ll know what you need to do and what you can expect for your viva.

Statistics about the viva help, but stories about the viva help more.

Practical Support Beats Good Luck

Your supervisors, colleagues, friends and family can do more to help than simply wish you the best.

Your supervisors can offer focussed support, a mock viva and the benefit of their experience.

Colleagues can provide a sympathetic ear, share expectations and ask relevant questions.

Friends and family can help make a good space for you to get ready. If you tell them more of what you’re going through they can help make a difference to your prep and to your viva.

Practical support is much better than being wished good luck.

Make Space

Doing your viva prep might mean that you need more space or time than you currently have. You already have a busy life and now there’s one more thing to do. It’s only for a limited time but it could feel like a lot.

Thankfully, taken together, all of the tasks you might do to get ready for the viva don’t amount to much. Making space to do them means, depending on how busy you are, just finding a little room:

  • Breathe. Remember that many, many people have had their viva and have got ready for it. You can too.
  • Plan. Think ahead. Explore when you need to start and sketch out when you will do certain things.
  • Get help. There are many people around you who can give you support. Ask!
  • Do a little work, often. You don’t need to spend hours at a time. Small tasks build up how ready you are.

Thinking ahead and planning can create the space and environment you need to do the work as stress-free as possible. You’re busy, but only a little space is needed to get your prep done.

Look To Your Community

You have many people around you who could give support as you get ready for your viva.

Ask your supervisor for help. Ask early in case they’re busy. Be clear so that they can support you. Check their availability to show you respect their time.

Ask your colleagues about their vivas. Explore common elements of viva stories to get a sense of what to expect. Find out if anyone has time to listen to you talk about your work or ask you questions.

Tell friends and family what you’re going through. A lot of viva prep work is all down to you but others can provide practical support to help you work well.

In the viva, you’re the only person who can engage with your examiners. Before then there are lots of people in your community who can help you get ready.

Ask for the help you need.

Your Way

In the end, getting ready for the viva comes down to you figuring out your way to make it work.

There’s a lot of viva advice, both general and practical. This site alone contains over 24 hours of podcast interviews and 1500+ blog posts. You can’t do it all. As helpful as I like to be you can’t apply it all to your situation.

You have to do it your way.

Your friends, colleagues and supervisors will be able to help. They’ll have their experience. They might have key information which could help you get ready. But they’re not you: your life, your research and your situation might be so different that to do what they advise might be stressful or even impossible.

You have to do it your way.

So listen. Find sources that you can trust. Ask questions, then check the answers against your situation. Find a way to make it work for you. There’s lots of good advice out there. There are lots of things that will help you be ready and feel ready. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to viva prep.

You have to do it your way.

7 Questions To Ask Friends About Their Vivas

Friends who have recently had a viva in your department are good to ask about what to expect. Listening to their stories can give you certainty for your viva.

There’s great variety generally when it comes to viva experiences; local knowledge of your department’s practices can both shape your expectations and help you to prepare. By asking the right questions you can get the information that will be most useful to you.

  1. Was your viva in-person or online? (this helps frame other expectations)
  2. How long was your viva? (everyone wants to know this!)
  3. How did your viva begin? (it’s helpful to know the sorts of things that happen)
  4. Was anyone else apart from your examiners present? (some vivas have chairpersons; some candidates invite their supervisors)
  5. What was the flow of questions like? (were they big picture, focussed and so on)
  6. How did your viva end? (get a sense of what to expect)
  7. How did you feel throughout your viva? (knowing some of the thoughts and feelings that flow can help)

If you ask only one person then you might hear a helpful story that puts the viva in perspective. If you ask several people you might spot patterns in the structure of vivas in your department. Perhaps your department has a certain way of doing things. Knowing that information could really put you at ease.

Don’t simply ask a friend, “How was it?”

Go deeper. Ask more to help yourself more.

Reach Out

If your viva is coming up, ask your friends, your colleagues and your supervisor for help. Think about what you need, think about when might be the right time to ask, be specific – but ask. They would want to help.

If you know someone with a viva coming up, get in touch with them. Are they OK? Instead of asking them what they need, offer what you can do. Be clear about how free you are and what you feel able to do.

Every candidate has to pass the viva with their own talent and thesis – but every candidate can also get ready with a helpful band of allies to get them there. Reach out and ask for help, or reach out and offer 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.