Where Are You?

I like asking this question at the start of a webinar. It’s fun to see whether people are in their university’s city or nearby, perhaps in another country or – in some cases – half the world away. It’s a gentle starter question before I ask about research or feelings, expectations and fears.

When you are trying to help a friend, you could start with the same question even if you have a different intent:

  • Where are you? As in, where on your PhD journey?
  • Where are you? As in, how far along are your preparations?
  • Where are you? As in, where’s your head at?

If you want to help, be gentle with your questions. Your friends might need help but not know how to ask or know what they need exactly. “Where are you?” starts a conversation and gives room for someone to respond.

If you think your friend might need help, ask where they are and then go join them.

Halfway To Ready

Viva prep is needed to help a candidate be ready for the viva. We could say that if you start your prep three weeks before your viva, then after ten days or so you’re halfway to being ready.

But when you think about it, you might do more work in the week immediately preceding your viva. So then being half-ready skews more to the days just before your viva, when you’re working more intently.

Or maybe it’s most useful to consider: viva prep is spread over several weeks at most, whereas the real work of the PhD takes several years.

Viva prep is a focussed period with one goal, making sure that you are ready for the viva – but by the time you start that prep, you are definitely more than halfway to your goal.

Video Viva Expectations

Last March I asked for examiners and PhD graduates to share their experiences of being part of a video viva. Lots of generous people shared their stories, observations and advice. A consistent detail – from the examiner perspective – was that video vivas tended to be shorter than in-person vivas. They were a little more formal, but due to the medium they were more focussed and completed more quickly.

As 2020 continued and became 2021, I heard more recent graduates describe their pandemic viva experiences. Long vivas over Zoom and Meet, three-and-a-half hours, four hours or more! The assumed explanation was that as no-one needed to travel to participate in the viva, examiners could give more time to the discussion in the viva. There was nothing negative seen in any of this – other than the amount of time spent in a video-meeting!

Are these long video vivas outliers? Possibly. Not every candidate shares their story, and of the handful I’ve heard there would be hundreds more I have no details of. It’s reasonable to expect that there would be differences in the viva over a video chat. Length of time is one aspect I could definitely see changing compared to the previously “typical” viva.

Some expectations remain true though. Examiners will be prepared. The candidate will be too. The viva is being done for the same reasons. The candidate has done the same work as if it was in-person. The outcome is likely to be the same, even if the process has changed.

In-person or over video, expect that you will have done everything you need to be ready to pass your viva.

Time Passing In The Viva

Candidates give a lot of focus to time in the viva. How long could it be? How short might it be? What do they feel like?

My four hours felt very short. The short break afterwards felt very long. Many graduates have told me similar stories over the years; however long their viva was, it felt like it flew by.

It’s useful to be aware of stories and expectations, but how long a viva is doesn’t really matter for the most part. You won’t know how long it will feel like until you’re there.

Rather than focus on how long it will be or will feel like, it’s better to focus on what you will do in the viva.

How will you respond to questions? What will you take with you? How do you want to engage with your examiners?

At The Last Minute

Don’t save your viva prep for the day before your viva.

Save that day for reminding yourself of your successes.

Save that day for reinforcing that you’ve come as far as you have by becoming more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable.

Save that day for remembering that you couldn’t have produced your thesis by being lucky – you must be good.

Save that day for relaxing.

Last minute viva prep can be stressful. Save those last minutes for looking back and simply reflecting. Remember that you’re good.

The Hours

Viva prep can take between twenty and thirty hours of work when you consider all of the tasks that could be involved. In the time leading up to your viva, thirty minutes to an hour per day of viva prep could be enough to help you get ready.

It all depends on when you start and how much you need to do.

Start your prep with three weeks to go and spend thirty minutes or an hour each day doing something to help yourself and you’ll have no problem in making things right for the viva. You can take days off or find time to invest an extra hour maybe and the necessary work will seem to be done in no time.

By choice or inactivity you might start your prep with a few days to go. In this case you might have to spend six or seven hours per day on viva prep. It’s not ideal, but it might just be what you have to do.

I think it’s far better to plan for the situation, just a little. Prep for your prep. Take some time to figure out how to make getting ready as unhurried and as stress-free as possible.

You have to put in the hours to be ready for the viva – but you can decide how and when you invest those hours.

Disrupted

There have always been candidates whose plans have been disrupted during their PhD journey. A project finds itself without the resources it needs. A plan loses support. Something just doesn’t work out the way it was expected. Every PhD candidate has faced little bumps and hiccups. In the thesis and at the viva, if they need to, the candidate can explain this usually very simply: why something was disrupted, how it had an impact, what the outcome was or what changes needed to be made.

But in the last year, every PhD candidate has faced disruption. It’s not a matter of if, but how much? Perhaps even how often? And so as submission or the viva approaches for Pandemic-PhDs, it’s not unexpected or unreasonable for candidates to be concerned about discussion around disruption. Perhaps in video vivas for the next few years it’s not a case of if examiners will ask about pandemic disruption, but when that line of questioning will start.

The response is still the same, more or less, even though it might be describing a much bigger disruption than candidates in years past. You can explore how you might make this response by reflecting in advance of the viva:

  • Why was your research disrupted?
  • How did it have an impact?
  • What was the outcome, or what changes did you make?

As with typical starter questions like “Can you summarise your research?” or “How did you get interested?” being asked about disruption due to the pandemic is a simple question to ask. It’s a natural, human question to ask. Your examiners aren’t testing you, they’re not trying to find ways that you should have done more. It’s a chance to reflect – and possibly an opportunity to show how your determination has helped you to get through.

“How was your research disrupted?” is a simple question, but for some it could also be a really difficult question to respond to. It’s sometimes too easy to sit at a distance and think about “disruption” in the abstract. For some candidates the last year may have been devastation rather than disruption. Reflect, prepare as best you can, be ready to share what you can in the viva.

Remember that whatever has happened in the last year you have managed to keep going. That counts for a lot.

Key Examiner Expectations

Expect your examiners to be professional.

In the same way that a candidate can be expected to get ready for the viva, expect that your examiners will do what they need to be ready to examine you.

If they’re a relatively new academic then they will receive training to be an examiner. They’ll rely on their colleagues to help them explore the role. If they’re a little disconnected from your area or topic of research, they will do their homework in advance of the viva.

An examiner might not know everything about your field before they read your thesis, but they will learn enough to be a good examiner for you. If they’re busy they will make the time. If they’re uncertain, they will dig deeper.

If they’ve said yes to being your examiner then you can expect they will be working to do the job well.