Comfort or Stretch

Comfort, Stretch and Panic are a helpful trio to consider when challenging yourself. The first two words are helpful to consider as springboards for reflection in your viva prep.

For Comfort, think about what skills or knowledge you’ve developed on your PhD journey. What do you know now? What is a comfortable challenge for you? What can you do that you couldn’t do before? How might you apply some of that thinking or skill in the viva?

For Stretch, think about how you have grown. When did you need to apply yourself more? What was it like in those times? Did you boost your confidence or determination? What parts of your research stretched you?

Comfort and Stretch can help you get ready for your viva. You can reflect on these areas by yourself – but if anything leads you to Panic – or to stress or to worry – then ask for help. Ask your supervisor, talk to friends and explore what the viva is really like.

Comfort and Stretch can help you get ready, but there’s really no need to Panic about your viva.

Enough Stuff

The simplest definition of what you need to pass the viva: enough stuff.

Enough of a thesis. Enough results or findings to write up. Enough data. Enough work.

Enough papers read. Enough knowledge in your brain. Enough talent built up through your work.

Enough confidence to stand up to any nerves. Enough self-belief to know you have enough.

There will always be more you could do, more you could learn, more you could write, more you could do to prepare. But you don’t need more. You just need enough.

If you have any doubts then ask others for help. Ask your supervisor what you need. Learn about viva expectations. Take time to get ready.

When the time comes you will realise that you have enough of everything you need to succeed.

You probably had it for a long time.

The Wizards

I wasn’t a fan of The Wizard of Oz when I was a child.

At the time it had too many songs for my taste and not enough lightsabers or spaceships, but as I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. Now I can see the work that must have been done at the time to make the film come together – the vision, the talent, and all at a time when movies were still working out how anything worked at all.

When Dorothy and her friends initially visit the Wizard they are in awe. He is a great floating head, the ground shakes when he speaks, fire roars up whenever he is angry. He is terrifying until it is revealed, by accident, that he is just a man. A clever individual, stood behind a curtain, controlling various machines to produce the effect of someone grand and powerful.

It’s worth remembering that for your viva, there are two Wizards present – at least, they may seem that way in your imaginings.

Either one of your examiners might seem mighty or intimidating. You could read their publications and wonder at how someone could do what they have done. Or you could feel small next to their experience and careers.

Pull back the curtain.

Your examiners are just people. Clever, talented people, but still human. Whatever their achievements they’re humans who know that something like the viva might be uncomfortable for some. They’ll be fair. They’ll treat you and your work with respect.

Of course, there’s a third Wizard in your viva – but you don’t need a curtain to hide behind. You don’t need tricks to magnify yourself.

Your talent is enough. Your knowledge is enough. You have done enough.

Mistaken Identity

I’ve observed some PhD candidates think their examiners’ expectations will be set way too high.

Candidates can worry…

  • …whatever someone has produced for their thesis, the examiners will want more.
  • …if you’ve published a paper, they’ll wonder why you don’t have three.
  • …if your future plans don’t include academia they’ll put a question mark around the whole viva.

None of this is true. Examiners are trained. They’re professional. They know what they’re there to do in the viva. They’re not there to be harsh or to set impossible standards (that they couldn’t hit themselves!).

The mistaken identity in the viva process, if it’s there for you, is the identity you believe you need to be in order to pass.

The wonder-brain, the super-achiever, the one-in-a-million.

That’s not who you need to be. That’s the mistake.

Your identity, who you are, is enough.

5 Posts I’ll Never Write (Probably)

I keep idea books to help manage my creative process for the blog. I’ve worked through five volumes of these small books over the last couple of years, and every time I fill one I transfer unused ideas across.

There are ideas that I’ve had now for a long time and I don’t know what to do with them:

  1. A post written in the style of Dr. Seuss – a bit of a stretch from the haiku I sometimes wrote
  2. Seven Deadly Viva Sins – I like the title but don’t know what to do with it!
  3. Creating a crossword puzzle with viva-related answers…
  4. A post without our common fifth symbol of communication – a blog post all about the viva that does not contain the letter “e”
  5. 101 Short Thoughts About The Viva – a long list of tips, advice and reflections to consider…

Some of these ideas really amuse me – I just don’t know what to do with them. Others are ideas that I keep returning to but know they still need more work. I have hope but am slowly coming to the conclusion that I might never write the great viva-related crossword puzzle!

Despite not using these ideas, good and bad, I’ve written a lot for this blog. And despite not using all of your ideas, you will have done a lot for your research and thesis. You can’t do everything. Your examiners don’t expect you to do everything.

Coming to the end of your PhD, to submission, the viva or completion – at some point it helps to sit back and consider what you have not done. And as you do so remember that you have accomplished a lot. Accept that you might not ever achieve some of your research goals, that some projects’ potential might go unrealised.

You will still have done enough. You will still have proved yourself.

You Can’t Know Everything

There might be lots that you don’t know. If you tax yourself by thinking about all of the papers that you didn’t read, all the practical research you didn’t do (or couldn’t do) and all of the things you know that others know but you don’t then you could easily talk yourself into feeling bad about your thesis or your viva.

What you know, matters. You don’t know everything. You know enough. The things you know, the things you can do, have got you where you are. Not everything, but enough to get you to the viva and through the viva.

Not knowing something isn’t comfortable, but what you know can be enough to help you find confidence for your viva.

Let Go

All the things you didn’t do. All the things you couldn’t do. All the ideas you didn’t follow. All the questions you couldn’t answer. All the opportunities you had to turn down.

You have to let them go when you prepare for the viva.

Whatever they mean, and whatever you might do with them in the future. They might be of interest in some way, or add context to something you could need to talk about. Exploring them might be a small part of your preparations but they can’t be your focus for getting ready.

Focus on what you did. Focus on the ideas you explored. Focus on the questions you answered, the results and conclusions you found. Focus on the opportunities that lead you somewhere.

Focus on who you are, not who you might have been.

The Final Push

Your final few days of viva preparations might involve a lot of work. If your time has been pressured because of other responsibilities you might feel like you have no other choice.

Your final few days of getting ready could involve talking with your supervisor or friends about your work, getting that final practice for engaging with your examiners in the viva.

Those final days should hopefully not involve reading and re-reading your thesis or notes to cram information into your brain: the viva isn’t a test of memory, you don’t need to have instant recall when you respond to your examiners.

Maybe, hopefully, the final push for your viva will be low-pressure, low-stress. I hope that after years of hard work and weeks of gentle prep you could have a few days of rest, relaxation and refreshing yourself before you meet your examiners. A few days before you pass, reminding yourself that you’ve almost done it, that you must be good at what you do to have got this far.

I think that’s the real final push: pushing yourself to believe that you are good enough.

You Can’t Do Everything

You couldn’t do everything during your PhD and you can’t now when it’s time to get ready for your viva.

Before you start your viva prep take half an hour to make a list:

  • Take ten minutes to write down everything you could possibly do to get ready. It will be too much.
  • Take five minutes to quickly rank ideas: how important are they? Which feels more necessary?
  • Take fifteen minutes to tidy up the list: writing bookmarks is not useful; writing add bookmarks to starts of chapters is better. Adding a detail about how this will help you is even better: add bookmarks to starts of chapters to help navigate thesis.

Use this list to help you as you make a plan for your prep; focus on what helps you the most.

You can’t do everything, but everything you do will help you.

Everything you do to get ready for your viva will be enough.

More Things I Don’t Know

Two years ago I shared this little post about things I didn’t know about the viva. Two years on and I have thoughts about some of these!

  • What percentage of candidates fail their viva? Around 0.1% is my estimate, based on lots of conversations with doctoral college staff.
  • How well does a viva over Skype work compared to an in-person viva? What’s Skype…? Online vivas seem to work well, all things considered, and like anything just require a little adjusting to.

I’m still wondering about thesis-by-publication differences, and the vivas of full-time and part-time researchers.

I also realise that I don’t know for sure how common a presentation is at the start of the viva (they seem to be quite rare). It’s unclear whether or not the switch to Zoom vivas is going to be remain common in the long term. I don’t know if there is a universal viva prep help idea that can make a difference for every candidate (though I keep working on it!).

I’ve accepted that there will always be things I don’t know about the viva. Some I can find out, some I can explore and make sense of, and some things might always remain unknown. I can keep exploring a little but I also have to focus on what I do know, what I can share and how I can help.

Consider your research. There are things you don’t know. You can explore that a little, to be sure of what you don’t know and why – but keep your focus squarely on what you do know, how you can be certain, and how you can best share it with others.

There’s always more. But by now you must know enough.