Still Interesting Times

A year ago, just before the first UK lockdown, I wrote “Interesting Times” – an extra post for March 16th, recognising that difficult change was coming hard and fast.

A year later, it feels like that change has never stopped.

It’s strange to read that I thought I would be working from home and doing webinars for “a few months”. That became a year. That will most likely be the rest of this year too. And that’s fine.

In the UK we have dates in the diary for the coming months when restrictions might lift and things could change. They’re all provisional though, and things could change again – conditions in the autumn or winter might make things harder for many people once more.

A year ago I wrote this:

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In and amongst everything this last year, that’s stayed the same. It’s no silver lining that the interesting times of the last year have opened interesting doors for me to connect with PhD candidates, but within all the chaos I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to help. I’m grateful for more time with my family. I’m grateful to friends and colleagues I don’t get to see in-person any more who do amazing work to support researchers and inspire me to do more.

I finished Interesting Times by writing:

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

Let me reframe: get in touch if you need help. Help your friends, family and colleagues. Survive, keep going.

Pause, reflect, reset – change tactics if you need to – but keep going.

Friends & Family

There may be a disconnect between you and your friends and family when it comes to the viva. Colleagues, peers, your supervisors – they’ll all have an idea of the stakes involved in a PhD and what the viva means. Some of your friends and family, friendly, supportive and lovely, will have no idea.

They see you working, but don’t know how you do it.

They see you busy, but don’t know what you’re doing.

They see you stressed, but don’t know why.

You might have trouble sharing how and what you do, but you can certainly help them with why. Practically, they may be able to do very little to help you prepare – they probably can’t ask you questions, or help you explore expectations, and they won’t be able to look through your thesis to help you annotate it – but they could do a lot to support you and help you feel ready. They can help you create an environment in which you’ll thrive through your preparations and in the viva itself (assuming you have a video viva).

Let your friends and family know why you’re doing what you do, and they’ll find ways to help you.

Who Do You Know?

You are the only person who can pass your viva. That does not mean that you have to get ready alone.

Who do you know who can help you prepare?

Who do you know who can help you to feel relaxed?

Who do you know who can ask you relevant questions about your research?

Who do you know who can share their experiences about the viva?

Who do you know who can help you be certain of what to expect?

Who do you know who can support you?

You don’t have to get ready alone.

Other Perspectives Help

I spent a long time indoors over the last six months or so. When I ventured back out again I decided I was going to explore my home town. Walk up and down roads I didn’t know. See every path of the lovely park I would normally walk through briskly. Me and my daughter would wander around making up stories about fairies and it was a lovely way to get back into the world.

One day a few weeks ago we were walking along when she called out, “Hello Little Pixie!” and then kept on walking.

“Who are you talking to?” I asked, and she pointed back to a tree stump next to the path, a tree stump I’d passed without a second glance.

There are little fairy houses all around the park. I must have walked past this tree stump a dozen times in the previous month and never noticed a little friend waving to us. I needed my daughter’s perspective to see it.

As you prepare for your viva, consider when you might need someone else’s perspective – not when you might benefit, but when you might need another point of view.

Consider:

  • What questions could someone else ask to help you prepare?
  • What experiences could a PhD graduate share with you to help set your expectations?
  • What feedback from a friend could help you to communicate your research better?
  • What perspective could someone bring to help you see your work a little differently?

That last one could be really helpful. Your examiners might have nothing but praise for your work, but they will still see it differently to you. Find help from other perspectives to help you feel confident for your viva.

If You Need Help With Your Viva…

…ask for it.

This year, everyone needs help. Everyone is hurting somehow. Everyone is pressured, tired, concerned, and it could be tempting to think that it’s best not to bother people. What’s your viva compared to someone else’s troubles, worries, workload? Keep it to yourself, you might think.

Ask – of course, pick your moment, be aware of other’s circumstances, be prepared to perhaps compromise – but ask.

Ask your supervisor for a Zoom chat, but be concise and targeted with your questions. Ask your colleagues for help preparing, and be prepared to offer the same in return. Ask your friends and family to give you space – whatever your living situation, ask them to support a little place and time of calm so that you can get ready.

Support others however you can at this time, and look for the support that you need. In a strange and radically different world from a year ago, you matter, your viva still matters. Ask for the help you need to get it done.

What If You Have No Community?

At workshops I often advise people to talk to their colleagues when preparing for the viva:

  • Ask about their viva experiences to get a sense of what vivas are like;
  • Offer to take someone for coffee and use the time to chat about your research;
  • Find out about other research in your field.

Simply: you have to pass the viva by yourself, but you can get a lot of help from others.

At a recent workshop, someone chatted to me afterwards, “That sounds great, but I’m a part-time researcher. I’m not based on campus. I only come in to see my supervisor. I don’t really know anyone in my department. What can I do?”

I had to think for a few minutes. Over the years I’ve tried to clear out my own biases of what a PhD is. I was full-time, funded, had a shared office in a busy department, compulsory development programme – and I learned soon after my PhD that wasn’t always the case.

Still, I felt safe to assume that everyone has colleagues they can talk to. But what if you don’t?

I don’t have definite ideas, but here are some initial suggestions:

  • Email recent graduates, introduce yourself and ask about their viva experiences.
  • Decide to give a seminar about your work, a PhD in sixty minutes with time for questions. Invite people to come.
  • Ask academics in your department about their process when they take on the role of examiner.

I hope these thoughts help. I doubt that the person who chatted to me is unique. I’ll be thinking about this topic more in the coming months. Please get in touch if you have any suggestions too!

Two Thesis Book Clubs

Two ideas that popped into my mind at a Viva Survivor workshop last week:

  1. If you and some colleagues are currently writing: go exploring in your department’s thesis collection. See what people have submitted in the last few years. Meet once a month to discuss what you’ve found. Perhaps you could all read a thesis per month or take it in turns. You might find something interesting but your goal should be to look at style, formatting, layout and argument construction. As a group, create a list of helpful thoughts for your own work. How can you best layout your thesis? How can you setup a good structure? and so on. Use this to make writing up better.
  2. If you’ve submitted and are preparing for the viva: invite some colleagues into a very special book club. Only one book involved: yours. If you have time, get them to read and think about a chapter per week, then invite them to ask you questions. If there isn’t time for a regular meeting, you could arrange a one-off event. Your friends get a copy of your thesis in advance to read, you give a short overview of your research at the start and then take questions.

As option two is geared solely around your thesis you might have to pay for some refreshments – but that’s a small investment compared to the benefits of valuable questions from your colleagues!

Phone A Friend

I used to love the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The “phone a friend” idea fascinated me. Who were these people? How were they confident Jim would know about Oscar winners? What would they do if Janet couldn’t help them figure out 18th century philosophers? That’s a lot of pressure!

You can’t phone a friend in the viva. It’s all up to you. You can’t ask the audience either or bring the options for answers down to a 50:50 choice…

…because the viva’s not a game show of course! It’s not all about factual recall or tiny closed questions that you can know or not. The viva is discussion, opinions, ideas and arguments.

And there’s just no place for your friends to help you in the viva.

It’s completely different before then. Phone your friends. Make plans with them. There’ll be lots of ways they can support you.

And if you have a friend with a viva coming up, see if they need some help. See what you can offer.