The Number One Tip

What’s your number one tip for the viva?

I was asked this recently by a PhD candidate…

Take time to think is a good one for the viva; make sure you pause and think before answering.

Read your thesis carefully after submission is another that has a lot of value.

Try not to worry too much is a good tip, but can be tricky to put into practice!

These are good ideas, but my number one tip is this:

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Think back over the last few years. How did you get to this point? What have you done? What were the key events? How did you do it? How are you talented? What have you achieved?

Because it wasn’t all down to luck. There may be times you feel very grateful that something good has happened, but nothing just happens. You’ve worked hard to get to submission and the viva.

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.

My Dinosaur Socks, My Purple Sweater

These are my two biggest confidence boosters, at least in the winter and early spring. Summer is on the way, and so my purple sweater will soon be folded and stored away. My dinosaur socks can still provide an extra layer of help to me; I have music and routines that help steer me – both when I deliver workshops and when I’m working at home – but as my sweater goes away I’ll be looking around for other helpful primers and reminders.

Confidence for the viva doesn’t solely depend on tricks, but it’s helpful to look for and find things that help you. It’s not just hoping things go well, but it’s not magic either. Explore: what will make the difference for you? What will help lead you to being your best self in the viva?

First and Last

That’s what your viva is likely to be. Possibly your first and last time even being in a situation like the viva!

Focus on the first: you can’t expect to be perfect. No-one is perfect the first time they do something. You can prepare, you can be confident, but know that you don’t have to be some unattainable ideal.

Focus on the last: you’re almost done. You’re nearly there. The hardest work is behind you. You can do this. You’ve done everything else that’s got you this far.

Keep going!

What You Have

It’s not wrong to think about what you want or need for your viva. Better to focus first on what you already have to help you succeed.

You have a thesis.

You have experience.

You have regulations.

You have expectations.

You have examiners.

You have a supervisor.

You have colleagues.

You have friends.

You have talent – you must have this if your viva is coming up!

You have a lot to help you. Maybe you have doubts too, but you don’t want or need those. What are you going to use to work on beating them?

I Like Hope…

…but don’t just hope that your viva will go well.

Don’t just hope that you’ll feel fine on the day.

Don’t just hope that you’ll get the right questions.

Don’t just hope that your examiners are a good fit.

Don’t just hope that you’ve done everything you can.

Don’t just hope that you’ll be confident as you start your viva.

It’s not about crossing your fingers and hoping it’s all fine. Do what you can so that you do feel fine, so that you feel good about answering questions, so you know about your examiners, so that you feel prepared and confident!

Don’t hope. Do something.

Pedestals

It’s not uncommon to look at your examiners and feel overwhelmed.

They’ve read more. They’ve done more. They probably know more.

You’ve had a few years to learn how to do research and to write your thesis; they’ve had so much more time to get good.

Maybe you look at your examiners and strain your neck to see them on the pedestal you’ve made for them. How does that feel?

(probably not great)

It’s not unnatural to compare yourself to someone else, but it might be unhelpful. You can be aware of your examiners’ achievements, but it’s your choice to compare yourself to them. You don’t have to do that. You can choose to learn about their work and use that knowledge to help you prepare.

If you do make the comparison though, make sure it is fair. Yes, they probably know more about your field, have published more papers and will have questions you may have never considered before…

…but you wrote your thesis. They’ve only read it. Even if you’re in similar fields, they didn’t do YOUR work.

Compare total work in your field and they’ll always win: a more useful comparison is one that relates to how much more you necessarily know about your work than they do.

Seriously, how high is YOUR pedestal?

Enough Is Enough

What if I hadn’t done enough? What if I needed more results? What if my examiners didn’t see what I saw in my work?

After years of work and months of writing up, as my page count crept towards 200, I started to think that maybe I needed more. A good friend showed me his thesis and it was like a tombstone. I worried until he showed me that the second half of his thesis was appendices of data. Then I worried when he told me that a colleague down the hall had passed her viva with a thesis that was less than sixty pages.

Oh no. What if my writing style is just really waffly and overlong? What if, like my italicised questions, they just go on and on and on and on…

My doubts faded. Of course, it dawned on me, that every thesis is different, naturally. It’s hard to quantify “significant” in the face of the variety of research that people do. There may be broad expectations in your discipline, in terms of style and structure and so on, and it’s worth learning as much as you can about those.

How do you know though? How do you know – or maybe a better word is believe – when you’ve done enough work? When you have enough results? How do you believe?

You have to look at it all. You have to get a sense both from others and yourself that the work you have done matters. You have to reflect on the fact that your thesis may be big or small, have five chapters or nine, and it is just different from everyone elses…

…and like everyone else who has come before, the reason you are here and you are going to pass your viva is because you can’t just be lucky. You can’t just show up and get the right answers or right ideas blindly. You have to be good. You have to do good work. And you have to have done that for a long time.

You have to have enough to be submitting.

You have to have enough to be preparing for the viva.

And that’s what can give you enough confidence that your work matters, you are good, and you will pass.

Enough is enough.

Two Paths Away From Failure

Two ways to get away from failing.

You could just not try.

Failing seems like such an awful thing, best stop now and not go for it. Remove the possibility of failure. Forget all about this doctorate business. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t meant for you. Because if you try and you fail… Well, that would feel terrible, right?

Or…

You could look at the viva as one more success you need to get.

Count all of the times you’ve succeeded throughout your PhD. Make a list of all of the achievements you’ve racked up. The number of times you made a difference. All of the things you’ve written in your thesis that have added something to the world. You’ve already done something amazing. The viva is just one more thing you need to do. If you’ve got this far, what could stop you succeeding in the viva?

Publications, Posters and Presentations

“Do publications mean my examiners are more likely to pass me?”

Yes, but not for the reasons that I think are behind the question.

Candidates asking this are really wondering, “Will my examiners add those papers into the balance of material that help decide whether or how I pass the viva?” The answer is no, the viva is thesis examination; you and the thesis are being examined, not publications, posters and presentations. It’s on the merit of the thesis that the viva is decided.

But…

…the publications, posters and presentations all help. They help sharpen your thinking every time you do one. They help bring your ideas and arguments together. If you reflect on the experience you have from them, you’ll see that you’re a really good candidate when you come to meet your examiners.

Your examiners don’t pass you on the basis of prior publications; you pass because of all of your PhD experiences.