Two Moves Ahead

I’ve been learning how to play chess over the last few months. I’m a total beginner. I knew how the pieces moved, have always been interested in the game but from a great distance. A video I saw by chance on YouTube has hooked me, and now I’m trying to get good enough that I can help my daughter when she starts learning in school next year.

As I’ve been learning recently, you have to analyse constantly in chess. Be thinking several moves ahead: if I play like this, what are the possible likely responses, and what could my responses be to those moves. It’s a curious thing: I’ve played lots of kinds of games over the last few decades, and played plenty of games where you have to think ahead, but never has it struck me in the way that chess has now. In doing so, it’s giving me a new way of seeing games (when you’re playing to win!).

Another thing that stands out to me is that this way of looking ahead in playing chess is completely the opposite of how I think about the viva and preparation for it. Thinking two moves ahead for the viva doesn’t work. You can’t game the viva by writing your thesis in a certain way, to avoid questions or lead examiners in a preferred direction. It’s not possible to think ahead and anticipate all of the questions you might be asked, then think about possible responses – and think abut the remarks or questions that might come from those responses.

Thinking two moves ahead won’t help you win your viva: instead you have to continue with the same long-term strategy. Do good work. Learn things. Become talented. Keep going. Then whatever move your examiners make, you’ll be able to respond well.

Thoughts on Viva Prep

A loose collection of thoughts on getting ready for your viva…

If you’ve not submitted your thesis then you don’t need to start getting ready for your viva.

You need time to read your thesis, annotate it, check any relevant papers, make any useful summaries and rehearse.

A useful range for time needed to do viva prep well is 20 to 30 hours, depending on size of thesis, free time, confidence and so on.

Everyone is different:

  • How long do you think that will take for you?
  • How busy are you generally?
  • Then how long before your viva do you need to start preparing so you don’t rush and stress yourself?

Sketch a plan around submission time for how you might do the work. Probably only start the work once you know your viva date. Don’t overcomplicate things. Don’t tie yourself up in knots. If you have a problem, get help. If you need support, don’t be afraid to ask.

Viva prep is work that continues the development that has lead you this far, not something wholly new. You already know and can do the overwhelming majority of what you need to do for your viva when you submit.

Maybe viva prep is not so much getting ready as proving to yourself that you are ready.

Factors For Prep

I mentioned yesterday that it’s ten years since I started doing work on the viva, but it’s nearly twelve years since I became an independent researcher-developer. That’s a lot of paperwork and notes, and when you sort through it you find things that you don’t need, things you might need, things you’d forgotten about and things that just might be useful…

Like a note on an old creative thinking workshop plan, not for top tips or processes, but for things that help creativity. Things that are personal to everyone, but which if you get right can really make a difference in outcomes. These four factors that help are Location, Atmosphere, Behaviour and Resources – and all of them can help viva prep too!

  • Location: where will you do your prep?
  • Atmosphere: will your prep space be silent or have a soundtrack?
  • Behaviour: how are you approaching your work?
  • Resources: what do you need to support you?

By themselves they aren’t viva prep – you still have to read your thesis, make notes, practise and so on. But how you do something can have as big an impact as what you do. How can you tailor your situation and strategy to help you prepare well?

Ten 1-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

Viva Prep!!!

Maybe you’re busy and overwhelmed, or don’t know where to start. Perhaps you only have a few moments in which you could get something done. Or simply you’re looking to be ready.

Here are ten tasks that will all help your viva prep, and each of which can be completed in a minute or less. Some are the first steps of bigger tasks, but can be compartmentalised and done to lay the foundations for future work:

  1. Google and bookmark your internal examiner’s staff page.
  2. Google and bookmark your external examiner’s staff page.
  3. Send a message to a group of researcher-friends to see who would be willing to help with asking you questions for practice.
  4. Stick a Post-it Note at the start of each chapter of your thesis.
  5. Find the regulations for thesis examination for your institution (this page might make that task even quicker).
  6. Find contact details for someone in your graduate school or doctoral college who could answer questions about the viva process.
  7. Gather up a pile of Post-it Notes, pens and stationery to help with viva prep.
  8. Sketch a basic calendar of the days between now and your viva.
  9. Check out the Resources page of this site!
  10. Write I DID THIS clearly on the abstract page of your thesis.

Simple searches and minor tasks all need doing – and only need doing once.

Viva prep takes more than ten minutes, but could begin idea number 10 – with clearly remembering and reinforcing to yourself that YOU have written your thesis. YOU did the work.

YOU are going to pass your viva.

Busy Times

Even before coronavirus, PhD candidates would ask me about what they should do to prepare for their vivas because they were busy.

  • “I have a full time job as well, what should I do?”
  • “I get home late, what should I prioritise?”
  • “How much time do I really need to spend?”

I shared a post a few months ago about the kinds of work to prioritise (here), but time is a hard thing to give an easy answer to. It really depends on circumstances.

Twenty to thirty hours of work at most would be enough. It can be spread out over weeks with a little planning. If you have a full time job or you get home late or you’re just stretched at the moment, it may feel really hard to find an hour in a week – nevermind an hour a day or even thirty minutes of peace.

But that’s what you need: peace, calm, quiet. An hour to breathe and read and think. Thirty minutes to add a few Post-its or make some notes.

If you’re busy you still have to find time to get the prep work you need to do done. I can’t help with finding time, but while you do have prepare for your viva – even if you’re busy – you have a greater duty to be kind to yourself. If you are exhausted, take a break. If you just cannot make time for a task, then rest. Effective viva prep doesn’t happen under pressure.

The Pieces of the Viva Puzzle

There’s a lot of things wrapped up in the idea of a viva. It’s uncertain sometimes, what to do, how to be, what do you need, what do you have… Keeping track of all of the parts can feel hard.

Maybe it’s like a 1000-piece jigsaw without a picture to guide you. Hard, but not impossible. A challenge, but there are methods for solving the problem: find the corners, find the edges, group colours, start building it up, and so on.

With uncertainty you can’t always have step-by-step instructions, but you can have a method that moves you forward.

Remember: you’re already moving when your viva comes around. This isn’t the beginning, it’s the next step. So where are you? How did you get here? What could you do that would take you closer to ready? And what are you going to do next?

What are the final pieces for your viva puzzle?

The First Day Of Viva Prep

It’s not the day you submit, or the day after.

It’s not the first time you read your thesis after submission, or when you start to get ready for a mock viva.

It isn’t even when you really start to plan for submission, or first think about what your examiners might ask.

The first day of viva prep was a long time ago. The first day of your PhD, whenever you started the work that has lead to your thesis. You have been preparing for a long time before you get to the viva: developing your talent, building your knowledge, getting better.

A little extra prep after submission is needed to be ready. Don’t forget though, for your confidence, that you have been preparing for a long time.

Raid The Stationery Cupboard

There’s a lot you can do with only a few resources to prepare for your viva.

  • Pens and pencils can be used to add layers of information to your thesis. Underline typos consistently in one colour to make them easier to parse afterwards. Use pencil to add short notes in the margins.
  • Post-it Notes are great for marking out the starts of chapters and other important places. Longer notes that would be cramped in a margin can look great on a big Post-it; you can move them as needed afterwards too.
  • Use highlighters to selectively grab your attention. Chapter or section headings, important references or quotes – whatever you want to be able to see at a glance.
  • Get a small notebook to use as a viva preparation journal. Capture reflections, prompts, provocations, interesting questions.

There aren’t a lot of resources needed for viva preparation. Perhaps raid your department’s stationery cupboard before you take a trip to the local stationery shop!

Eat The Frog

Last week I blogged about the Three Easy Wins idea for productivity, and shared some thoughts of what a candidate could do to get several quick pieces of viva prep done. If you were looking for something in the opposite direction, there’s also the “eat the frog” school of thought: if you knew the worst thing you had to do today was eat a frog, and you had to do it today, would you do it first thing or wait until 4pm?

Rather than put it off, you’d probably eat the frog right away – the day can only get better from there!

The productivity philosophy behind this is that a person would be most productive if they just get on with the least desirable task first. They’re then free to get on with less terrible tasks. For viva preparation perhaps this frog-like-task could be arranging a mock viva, exploring the work of examiners or sitting down to read the thesis. It could be reflecting on key questions, or re-reading tricky papers. There are lots of things that might just feel “Ugh!” – but once they’re done you can move on.

If you eat your viva prep frog, then everything else is less of a challenge!

Thirty Minutes

Have you got thirty minutes to spare for your viva prep? In thirty minutes you can:

  • Read through a good chunk of a chapter;
  • Check a couple of references;
  • Make some notes about your examiners’ interests;
  • Create a list of interesting questions;
  • Add some annotation;
  • Reflect on what your research means.

There’s a lot more you could do. You can’t prepare for your viva in a hurry. Thirty minutes by itself won’t be enough…

…but thirty minutes regularly will do it.