The Measure of Viva Success

We need to change how we measure the viva and a candidate’s success.

Lots of questions are asked about the viva:

  • What corrections did you get?
  • How long was it?
  • What kind of corrections did you get?
  • Did you go blank?
  • How long did it take you to do the corrections?
  • What mistakes did they find?
  • Where did you go wrong?

That last question is underlying all of the above, of course. The story about vivas says corrections are bad, major corrections especially; a long viva is bad, for some value of “long” that someone else gets to determine; going blank or saying “I don’t know” is bad, and so are any mistakes.

I’m not trying to claim the opposite. In reality all these things are just part of the process, not “bad”. Some vivas are longer than others, some lead to more corrections than others. Some people will make mistakes along the way; they don’t typically lead to great problems.

I don’t have a foolproof plan to change this part of the viva narrative. All I have are some questions that might be more helpful to ask:

  • Did you pass?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What did your examiners like?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What did you enjoy?
  • What surprised you?
  • Where do you think you excelled?

If you ask these questions of graduates around you, their responses can help you prepare for your own viva. If we ask them more generally then people will start to notice the words and ideas that are associated with the viva. If enough questions like these are asked then maybe they will trickle down through future PhD cohorts and help them and how they think about their viva.

Eventually, change will come to the viva and the culture around it.

Change always comes.

We can do something to steer that change if we want to.

You Get To Have A Viva

A few weeks back I was moaning because I had to wake up at 4am to catch a flight. Grumble, grumble, too early, grumble, grumble, why do I have to do this?

Then I remembered Seth Godin’s recent post about the difference between “have to” and “get to.” This made me pause my grumbling, and gave me a chance to change my perspective.

I was still tired when I woke up, but I wasn’t looking at it as, “I have to wake up early.” Instead, I chose to focus on what I would get to do. I would get to fly! I would get to go and meet new people! I would get to do three Viva Survivor sessions, something I love doing!

If you feel stressed because you have to have a viva, see what you can do to change your perspective. You get to have a viva. You don’t just have to have a viva – you get to have one because of everything you’ve done.

A change of words can be enough to bring a change to how we feel.

The End Is Nigh!

I’ve met people who are doom-and-gloom because they’re near the end of the PhD. Typically this is because their viva is coming up, though there can be a host of reasons – general concern about examiners, wondering about corrections, worries about the future, and so on. It is worth spending effort to work on these issues. Figure out what’s troubling you, start to think about what you could do to work it out.

It’s also worth finding out more about general viva experiences and expectations. A lot gets said about the viva, not all of it good, not all of it true. Generally? The viva’s an interesting discussion about your work.

If you can find enough true stories of the viva, then perhaps other concerns might melt away.

Viral Viva Stories

this one time, a person had a two-day viva

your examiners play good cop/bad cop with their questions

they’re just out to get you

you can’t really prepare

Urban legends about the viva have spread well. Little idea-viruses swarming through the postgraduate population. Most candidates, however positive they are, have heard stories of a friend-of-a-friend that sound awful. Even if the vast majority of vivas work out fine, the myths and legends persist, leaving doubts and worries in their wake.

Ask around, not for what people have heard but for what happened to them. Ask PhD graduates what they did to prepare, and what happened on the day. Build a picture of what vivas generally look like and you’ll see what you need to do for yours.

When you’re done, share your story. Release your own idea-virus into the wild.

Average and Typical

What is an average viva?

I get this question at least once a month. I struggle to answer.

I can’t talk about length, because while there is a skewing towards two hours across disciplines, the range is pretty big. It’s tricky to talk about the exact style of the exam; it is a semi-structured discussion but the nature of questions is going to vary a lot from discipline to discipline.

Examiners will be qualified and prepared, but they might not be experts – depending on your field there might not be an expert who can examine you. I suppose it is fair to say most people find out the result within thirty minutes of the end of the viva (after a short break). Most people are fairly happy with the corrections they’re asked to do.

But what is average?

Can we change the question? How about: what is typical for the viva?

Typically it comes at the end of a successful project. Typically the candidate has spent a significant period of time becoming experienced. Typically they’ve written a good thesis. Typically they’ve continued to build on all of this work in the period leading up to the viva by getting prepared.

There are lots of ways the variety of vivas struggle to come to some average. But typically? Typically, you’re up to the challenge.

Questions and Focus

I recently watched the Tony Robbins documentary I Am Not Your Guru on Netflix. I’d really recommend it; it’s uncomfortable at times, funny at others, but it’s an interesting look at an interesting person and it gets you thinking.

At one point he observes, “Questions control what you focus on.” It made me think of my workshops. I ask people for their viva-related questions at the start, which I’m always happy to answer and help with. Candidates ask me questions that they’re already asking themselves. Frequently asked questions include:

  • What if my mind goes blank?
  • What if my examiners are harsh?
  • What if I can only say “I don’t know”?
  • What if I fail?

These are important questions, and clearly some answers or thoughts could help people feel better and prepare better. I just wonder how the general mood of the viva and viva prep would be if candidates more regularly asked themselves:

  • What will help me be prepared?
  • Where can I find good help?
  • What have I done to put me in a good place?
  • How can I make the most of this opportunity?

Questions control what you focus on. Change your questions, change your focus.

Coming Attractions

I went to the cinema recently. The movie was excellent, but even before that I was getting excited because of the trailers for other movies coming soon. The new Star Wars movie, Murder On The Orient Express – I’m not even that interested in seeing the new Justice League movie, but I watched the trailer and thought, “Wow!”

Here’s an odd question for you: what trailers have you seen for the viva?

Have you seen any? If not then maybe you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. I meet a lot of people who are confused or uncertain about the viva. That’s how I was, I didn’t really know what it was about.

I meet plenty of people who have seen bad trailers for the viva: they hear it’s really long, that the characters are unfriendly and harsh, that it’s an exhausting but necessary experience you have to go through.

I thankfully also meet candidates who have caught a trailer for the viva which leaves them intrigued or excited. It’s the end in an epic story after all, and they’ve seen the other parts. They’re looking forward to this final part to see what happens.

Movie trailers are awesome because when they’re done well they make us excited and compelled to watch the film. They tell a tale that leaves us hungry for more and hyped for the time when we get to experience the full story. Of course, you don’t really see trailers for the viva, but there’s a lot of word of mouth. Your supervisors, your colleagues and friends, post-docs, there are lots of people who can tell you about what expect. There’s no reason to be ignorant about the viva format when there is so much help nearby.

What would be an awesome trailer for your viva?