Stack The Deck

I like lots of different kinds of games, and mention them occasionally on this blog. I’m very fond of deckbuilding games. There’s lots of kinds, but essentially they’re card games where your approach to play is trying to influence the cards you’ll probably have in your hand on your turn.

In Dominion and similar games you have to create your deck as you play. You play cards to give short term boosts that let you buy cards from communal piles. You increase the number of good cards you have in your deck, but the more cards you have overall the less likely you are to draw good ones. There’s a fine balance to try and find!

In games like Android: Netrunner you customise your deck in advance of sitting down to play. You try to give yourself as great a chance as possible of being able to beat the other player’s deck of cards. You have to plan and anticipate, then manage with what random draw gives you on the day.

Played really well, in all of these games, you’re trying to stack the deck – not cheating like a gambling hustler, but through clever strategy and tactics you’re trying to tip the odds in your favour. Some games are quick, some take patience, but with experience it’s possible to play very, very well.

And as with several blog posts I’ve written like this before on this blog, here’s where we come to the viva!

You can’t cheat your way to viva success, but you can stack the deck in your favour. You come to submission with thousands of hours of work behind you. Already you’re in a good position. Learn about your examiners, regulations and expectations and you’re even better. Prepare well and the “cards” in your deck are looking good.

Whatever move your examiners make, you’ll have something you can respond with. The journey of a PhD stacks the deck in your favour.

Spend just a little time getting ready for your viva and you’ll have truly impressive cards to draw on the day.

Dobble and the Viva

Dobble is a simple-but-tricky card game. In our house it’s firm favourite for quick fun. A deck of circular cards covered with colourful symbols, the trick is that every card matches every other card in terms of one symbol: it’s kind of like snap, but where every card matches only one detail on every other. You have to be the first to spot the symbol to “snap”.

I love Dobble, despite the moments when my six-year-old daughter beats me.

(every game)

I mention it because it strikes me that Dobble cards are a lot like vivas: they’re structured, you know the general shape of them, there’s a pattern and a method to how they’re organised, and the details can be very similar.

But they’re always different, with no exceptions.

By studying a handful of Dobble cards you can’t divine some special thing to tell you about the card you’re about to draw, but it can give you something to think about. You can learn to expect things. This goes for vivas too: asking about your friends’ experiences or looking at the regulations won’t give you exact details for yours, but they can helpfully influence your expectations.

The repeated symbols you hear about in viva stories can give you a sense of what to expect when it’s time to play your own game.

Achievement Unlocked

I’ve been keeping busy for the last few months, work and family life has had lots going on lately while we make changes and adjust. I’ve been enjoying games a lot: teaching my daughter lots of board games during the day, then switching over to my PlayStation 4 when she goes to bed for games she can’t play!

Most video games I play have some kind of trophies in them: parallel goals alongside the game’s main aims.

Instead of just finishing the Spider-Man game, seeing where the story goes, a trophy might be for taking certain pictures, or beating up bad guys, or collecting runaway pigeons (I hated that trophy). Oxenfree, a fantastic story game I’ve played three times and adore, has trophies for collecting things, but also for steering the game to different outcomes. Detroit: Become Human has similar trophies for the wildly different stories it can become, whereas the Untitled Goose Game has trophies for stealing a picnic, wearing a red bow tie and locking a child in a garage…

Whenever I earn a trophy in a game, a little ding! sounds and a medal-object briefly appears to say, “You achieved this!” Trophies on the PS4 range from Bronze (small accomplishments) and Silver (tricky challenges) to Gold (finishing the game or performing a near-impossible feat).

Trophies aren’t essential, of course, but they can be nice little motivators.

Which brings us back to the viva!

First, what achievements have you already unlocked? Over the course of your PhD, where can you see that you have achieved something?

  • It could be small – ding! You read a paper or solved a little problem!
  • It could be tough – ding! You finished re-drafting your methods chapter!
  • It could be a really big deal – ding! You submitted your thesis!

Take some time to map out what you have achieved – and realise that you’ve done a lot to get this far.

Perhaps consider what achievements lie before you on the path to your viva. Bronze trophies for gathering resources, Silvers for reading your thesis or having a mock viva, Gold for getting everything as ready as possible for the day.

Lots of games have Platinum trophies too: a trophy you get for earning every other trophy in the game. For most games this is particularly hard, ticking every box, exploring everywhere, doing everything.

For you and your viva, with so many trophies earned already, you can be confident that your PhD Platinum is within reach.