Mind Your Manners

It may seem like an odd thing to post about, but I’ve been asked about the topic many times before by PhD candidates!

“Is there anything I mustn’t say or do in the viva???”

I don’t think there’s a real danger of being impolite in the viva. You don’t need to look out for anything that wouldn’t occur to you ordinarily about watching what you say, or behaving improperly.

  • Try not to swear maybe? (unless curse words and their origins are the topic for your research!)
  • Don’t insult your examiners? (hopefully obvious!)
  • Don’t be arrogant?

There’s a little ray of worry in the last one. There is a difference between confidence in your work and arrogance at being right. There could be difficulty in balancing talking about the rightness of what you’ve done, as you see it, against questions about alternatives or being sure. That could be tricky. But it doesn’t mean that it should be avoided or obsessed over either.

Talk about alternatives before the viva, in preparation for perhaps needing to talk about it in the viva. Get more comfortable in the trickier parts of your methods and results, then you won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

Surprise!

It might be a surprise to know exactly what your examiners think of your work, but it doesn’t have to be a surprise to know what other people more generally think of it. Share your work, get feedback and keep building on what you’ve done.

There may be a surprising question you’ve not considered before, but your general talent at answering questions shouldn’t be a surprise to you. Find opportunities to receive and respond to unexpected questions.

You might be surprised by a particular correction that you get, but you should know that most people are asked to complete some level of corrections. After the viva you’ll be given an opportunity to make your thesis even better.

There could be surprises in the viva, but there’s a lot that you can do to meet any challenges that come up.

Do the work, prepare well and the surprises won’t matter so much.

It’s Not An Interview

The viva seems like a job interview from some perspectives. In both cases you might decide to dress smart. Both vivas and job interviews ask questions to explore, at least in part, how great you are.

That’s about all though. The purposes and outcomes are very different. Despite that, there are similar things you could do in both situations to get ready.

  • Explore what your panel will want to talk about: for both situations you can know aspects of this in advance.
  • Reflect and make notes on the great parts of yourself and your work: think about evidence and how you could explain things clearly.
  • Find opportunities to practise answering questions: there may be common questions in interviews to which you could practise answers, but for the viva you can prepare well by finding situations to practise with unexpected questions.

The viva is not really like a job interview, but there’s value in thinking in some of the same ways when it comes to preparation.

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.

First Class Viva

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to fly first class, but I’ve been fortunate to travel first class by train a few times in the last year.

I’m a fan of first class. The seats are a little comfier, the carriage is a little nicer, and the free tea and biscuits are very nice. By comparison, most of the time when I travel in standard, the train is a little crowded, the tables a little smaller, the tea is expensive and I bring my own biscuits.

Of course, the train gets you to your destination, first class or standard. In reality the differences are all little. The seats aren’t that much bigger. The table isn’t made of gold. The conductor isn’t your butler. It’s just a few little things, but they add up to a big smile and a good experience.

I think the same is true for the viva. It won’t take 101 big things – or even 101 small things – to make your viva a great moment in your PhD journey. Think about what would make the difference for you, then think about what you could do to help your viva be great.

Make a little list, then see how you can make it a reality.

It won’t take a lot to make your viva a first class experience.

Bad Eggs

If you break eggs to make an omelette, you never really expect any of them will be rotten. There are processes in place that mean a box of six free range eggs on a supermarket shelf are as good as they can possibly be when you buy them. Treat them right and they’ll be fine when you need them.

A bad viva is like a bad egg: it’s a possibility, but it’s rare.

You shouldn’t expect your viva will be bad or you will fail. A good, successful viva isn’t a fluke, it’s the norm.

Expect to pass and work towards that outcome.

Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

The Culture Around Vivas

“People like us do things like this”

This phrase runs through my mind at least once per day. It’s Seth Godin‘s definition of culture, and I often bring it up when I tell people about the viva. It’s worth exploring to understand the process of the viva on the day, and to help you hone your expectations.

Vivas don’t just happen. There are regulations, but academics in your department have ideas about what a “good” viva might be. This is informed by practices of your department – the culture of your department. Maybe a “good” viva is two hours. Maybe it starts with certain questions. Maybe they like to explore certain topics. Maybe they proceed in a certain way. The definition of “good” will change over time, because the academics come to a shared idea of what a good viva is like.

People like your examiners do vivas like this.

And what does the phrase mean for you? You are talented, dedicated, you’ve done the work, you’re prepared…

People like you do things like passing the viva.

 

Postscript: I have a lot of things to be grateful to Seth Godin for since I first heard of him. Not least, he is the first person I heard of who shared a daily blog, with the goal of helping others and trying to be useful.

Two years ago today I started this little experiment by following his example. Over 700 posts later, I only wish I’d started sooner 🙂

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!

Leaves On The Line

I travel everywhere for work by train.

I make my plans, check maps, routes, timetables and book things as far in advance as possible…

…and at least 30% of the time there is some kind of hold-up with the train.

Leaves on the line mean the train has to slow down.

A missed connection adds an hour to my journey.

Signal failures mean the train can’t go at all.

And last year I was stuck in a blizzard! Things got so cold that the track ahead froze solid – then when we got free, the train’s brakes went “funny” so we had to wait while a breakdown train came to help us.

Reflecting on all of this, I’m reminded of the viva. You can do all of the work, the research, the preparation and the confidence building – but then you could forget a detail on the day. You could be nervous. You could get a correction you weren’t expecting.

Or you or one of your examiners could be ill and the viva could be postponed!

But, like my train journeys, you’ll make it through. You’ll prevail. On a delayed train, in the moment I can be cross, frustrated or wonder “What will I do?” – but I’ve always reached my destination. During the blizzard I had to take two different trains than I’d planned, spend a freezing hour stood at Berwick-upon-Tweed station, and a total of twelve slow hours of progress but I got home.

Whatever happens around your viva, whatever “leaves on the line” slow your progress or make you doubt, you will make it through.

You can’t anticipate everything, but you can be certain you’re on your way to success.