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.

More More More

I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day life of my pure maths PhD now. I remember little sparks, breakthroughs, and the feeling of being “in the zone” while trying to figure something out.

I also remember, as my PhD went on, the growing feeling that there was always more I could do.

There were more ways to apply the ideas I had developed.

There were more papers to read to find more methods for exploring my field.

There were more questions to ask, and more answers to be found – more to explore.

Even though of course there was a limit to how much I could accomplish throughout my PhD, there would always be more things I could do. And in preparation for my viva, while I invested a lot of time, I could have done even more. I could have spent thirty minutes more each day, an extra day of reading papers or an afternoon checking over the details of a chapter.

I think this generalises further: even with time pressures, life pressures and so on, candidates have to recognise that there will be more things they could explore or do than they have done; however much time they spend getting ready there will be more that they could do which would help them.

And we all have to take a deep breath at some point and say “No. This is enough.” You have to find a way to do that for your research and your thesis. For your viva prep, making a list in advance of what needs to be done could be helpful. Break down what will be enough for getting ready, then work towards it.

There is always going to be more, and there also has to be enough.

How Much Is Enough?

It’s a good question to ask about a thesis or a PhD, but a hard one to answer. There are lots of possible factors.

  • How much does your supervisor think you need to do?
  • How much time can you spend?
  • How many chapters or words are people telling you that need to write?
  • How many experiments/interviews/papers/tests/models/observations/questions are you being told that you need to complete?

At the start of a PhD you might struggle to respond to the question of how much is enough. All of these factors, and lots more, could make it tricky to consider.

Nearer the end you can give a response and reasons: “This much, and here’s why.”

And the sooner you decide how much is enough, the sooner you’ll be able to work towards that goal.

What’s On Your Mind?

Probably a lot.

101 questions, about life, the state of the world, what you’ll be doing in six months, what you’ll be doing next year…

What’s for dinner, what will happen in that show I like, should I call so-and-so, what am I forgetting…

And then you think about your viva.

Now 1001 questions.

What will happen? What will they ask? What do I do? What can I say? What do I say if they ask about that question or topic or thing I don’t like? What should I do? What could I do? Will they like it? When will I know?

And at the root of it all: Am I ready? Am I good enough?

Don’t drown in questions. Get them out. Write them down. Tell someone. Ask someone to help. Ask someone for information or advice.

But at the root of it all: Are you ready? You can be. Are you good enough? You will be.

Slow & Steady

Don’t rush preparing for your viva.

You’re busy, of course. You’re stressed, at least a little, most probably.

You only have so much time and you want to make sure you’re ready.

Start sooner rather than later. Do what you can. A little each day will help.

A little reading. A little writing. A little thinking. A little talking. A little practice each day.

It all adds up.

For viva prep, slow and steady helps you be ready.

One More

Before submission, you could always…

  • …read one more paper.
  • …do one more test.
  • …ask one more question.
  • …check one more thing
  • …have one more meeting.

It won’t take much to prepare for the viva, but however much you do, you could always…

  • …read your thesis one more time.
  • …check one more paper by your external.
  • …have one more conversation with a friend.
  • …write one more summary.
  • …worry one more time about what you might be asked.

There’s always more you could do, at every stage of the PhD. You don’t necessarily need to do that though. Instead, think about where you are, and think about what enough means for that stage.

The viva is one more day you get to show up and show what you can do before you’re finished.

Make the most of it.

What You Can Do

You can write a good thesis.

You can make yourself prepared for your viva.

You can know what to expect from your examiners.

You can know what to expect from the viva.

You can learn about remote vivas, if that’s likely to be the scenario for your viva.

You can build your confidence to balance out your worries.

You can’t be perfect, but you can do your best.

You can be good enough for your viva.