Either/Or

I hear a lot of people describe vivas in binary terms.

  • The viva is long or short.
  • Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Expect examiners to be fair or critical.
  • Questions are either easy or hard.
  • Preparation is straight-forward or lots of work.
  • You’re either nervous or confident when the day arrives.
  • Overall, the viva is either good or bad!

And of course the truth is that, generally, these either/or positions don’t capture what the viva is really like. Different people will feel different things, and rarely will the viva be one thing or the other.

My viva was four hours long and it felt like it flew by. My examiners were really fair with their questions and they had some very critical comments about the structure of my thesis.

Being nervous means that the viva is important to you, but you can be confident too if you reflect on your achievements and realise the success that you’ve made for yourself.

Great Expectations

Last year I waited for the latest Spider-Man movie for a long time.

I wondered if I would even get to see it at the cinema because of the pandemic. Then I wondered if all of the rumours were true or not – no spoilers in this blog post, don’t worry! Then I built it up in my mind, expecting that it would be good.

The first trailer was amazing! The second trailer was spectacular!! And then after all of that build-up the movie was great!!!

And also over in the space of a few hours. My great expectations were matched and in some cases smashed, but it wasn’t long before reality intruded, work and normal life beckoned…

 

It’s not wrong to have great expectations about your viva. It’s not wrong to think of it as a big deal. It is, of course, hugely important.

And it will also be over in the space of a few hours. Remember that whatever you expect it will happen and be done on just one day.

Your viva is important – and then you have to go and do something else with the talent, skill and knowledge you’ve developed over the course of your PhD.

The Viva Challenge

The viva is a challenge because you don’t know what will happen.

It’s a challenge because you don’t know what your examiners think.

It’s a challenge despite the vast majority of candidates passing.

It’s a challenge because the outcome matters.

It’s a challenge even though you have the right skillset and knowledge base to succeed.

It’s a challenge even knowing that it all springs from your work and research.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is simply accept the challenge. Remember that you have done well and done enough in the past. Believe that you can succeed again.

Nervous Correlates

If you feel nervous before your viva there is typically a simple explanation: you’re recognising that the viva is important.

You need to pass, you’ve invested a lot of work to this point, and even though the vast majority of candidates pass, there’s still that little quiet voice saying, “Come on, you’ve got to do this!”

You will. It’s important, so you feel nervous. You can choose what you put your attention on. Let your actions focus on doing the viva well, rather than on beating away your nerves.

Nervous & Important

People tend to get a bit nervous about important events in their lives.

Sometimes they’re nervous because of the circumstances around it, sometimes because of the outcome, and sometimes for no real reason they can pin down. People are nervous on their wedding day because of the huge occasion. People are nervous when they take a driving test because they want to pass (or want to not fail) and then be free to drive. People are nervous sometimes before concerts or movies because they’re desperate to know if the thing they’re going to matches their expectations.

Being nervous doesn’t mean the event is a bad thing. It’s important, it means something. Humans are told to deal with the nervousness, find a way to make it go away perhaps, find a way to feel better. That’s one strategy, but I’ve become convinced that a better approach is to focus on the important event or task: focus on that and find a way to do it as well you possibly can. Not only will you be working towards the success of the event – in the process you’ll probably do something to help your lower your nervousness too.

What tactics might this suggest for the viva? How could you focus on the event and not your nerves?

  • Read your thesis to have a good mental picture of your work.
  • Check expectations for the day; think about how you could meet them.
  • Find opportunities to talk about your research.
  • Be honest about how you’re feeling; do what you can to feel confident.

Don’t try to distract yourself or not be nervous: have your focus be this important moment, finishing your PhD. Focus on that rather than the worry that comes from pushing away what ifs and maybes and hypotheticals.

Important

The viva is important. Passing is important. Lots of things in life are important.

Getting your dream job.

Passing your driving test.

Publishing a book.

Being on TV.

Finding true love.

Living a long and happy life.

Going around the world.

Seeing falling stars on a summer’s evening in the middle of the French countryside.

Watching a dust devil swirl and twirl.

Seeing night turn to day in the middle of an intense electrical storm.

(seeing the previous three things on one holiday!)

Finding a problem.

Finding a solution.

Being reliable.

Being a parent.

Sharing things.

The viva is not the most important thing you will ever do. Wouldn’t it be a bit sad if it was? That would mean everything that came before, especially the research you did, would be a bit blah in comparison. And the same for everything that comes afterwards!

Let go of your viva being the most important thing ever. Then you can find and focus on what really is important about the viva, and get past it to whatever important things come next.

No Different?

One of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, is when Yoda is trying to teach Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke is learning to be a Jedi, but is not finished. He can lift rocks and small objects with his mind, but dismisses the possibility of lifting his X-Wing when it is stuck in a swamp. He argues, “Lifting rocks is one thing, this is totally different!”

Master Yoda responds in his signature style:

“No! No different! Only different in your mind….”

And he’s right. Luke isn’t using muscle to lift rocks, he’s using the Force. Why should a tiny rock be any different than a spaceship?

In the viva you have to respond to your examiners’ questions, as well as you can. How is that different from any other time someone would ask a question about your work? At a conference, in a meeting, passing someone in the corridor, you can be asked questions – unexpected or familiar – all of the time. And the best thing you would do, in response, is try to answer as well as you can.

It’s no different in the viva.

The time, the space, the people who are asking, the questions – they might be different. But what you need to do is exactly the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is important. That makes the situation different.

The outcome is important. That makes the situation different.

You could be more nervous than a friend asking you an unexpected question. That makes the situation different.

You could be nervous because of who your examiners are. That makes the situation different.

But the method is always the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is only different in your mind….

Why Is It Called The Viva?

Viva voce, is often translated as living voice or word of mouth. In the viva you have to answer questions and engage with your examiners. You have to demonstrate that the expertise that created your thesis is lodged in your brain.

There are other terms – thesis defence, oral exam – but I don’t think we stick with viva for tradition’s sake. A special name makes it a special thing. It’s the viva and not something else because the name makes it more important.

Calling it the viva adds something to the special status of the final exam.

You’re special too to be there.