Probably Not

It’s the answer for many questions around the viva…

  • Will you remember everything?
  • Will you forget something important?
  • Will you go blank?
  • Will your examiners like everything?
  • Will they hate everything?
  • Will you demonstrate perfection?
  • Will you be cool, calm and collected?
  • Will your nerves get the best of you?
  • Would any of these things really make a difference on how things might go?

You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to recall everything; you don’t need to fret over forgetting or going blank; you shouldn’t expect your examiners to rip your work to shreds and you can’t realistically expect that they won’t have questions or comments.

You can be ready. You can have realistic expectations. You can go prepared to meet any challenges.

Will you face another challenge like this in your life? Probably not.

But will this be the biggest thing you ever do? Probably not.

Fun Viva Prep

Just because the viva is serious, it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your preparations.

  • Buy some nice stationery to write notes on.
  • Use bright colours to highlight your thesis.
  • Have coffee with friends while you discuss your work.
  • Find interesting questions to answer about your thesis.
  • Consider unusual ways to summarise your research.
  • Host a prep party – a seminar with added cake!

Make your preparations fun and you probably make them easier to spend time on.

10 Questions To Reflect On Originality

Your thesis has to contain a significant, original contribution to knowledge.

When I work with researchers I tend to focus on “significant” a lot, but originality is a useful concept to dig into before the viva. I get the sense that a lot of candidates instinctively know they’ve done something original. Perhaps defining what makes it original can be trickier.

Reflecting on your research before the viva is a good thing. It can give new ideas, help you see other perspectives, come up with different ways of thinking about your research. Here are ten questions to help unpick what makes your work original:

  1. In what ways is your work different from previous research?
  2. How do you differ in your methods from other researchers?
  3. What is now known as a result of your work, that wasn’t known before?
  4. How could your work change opinions in your field?
  5. What can people do now as a result of your work?
  6. What new techniques or ideas can people see in your thesis?
  7. What ideas have you tested for the first time in your research?
  8. What new theories does your thesis propose?
  9. How does your work combine prior knowledge of your field?
  10. What does your thesis add to knowledge?

Write something or record yourself thinking about a question. See where it leads you. Review later to see how you now think about the original nature of your research. How could it help you share that originality with your examiners in the viva?

7 Questions For Interdisciplinary Researchers

Interdisciplinary researchers produce fascinating theses. I enjoy listening to the amazing ways disciplines collide. I’m no longer surprised though when interdisciplinary researchers tell me they have concerns about their viva. An examiner might be highly capable in one field of the researcher’s thesis, but not another. What then?

I’m not sure there is a great problem here. In my experience, examiners do their homework. They learn what they need to in order to understand a thesis. They’ll work to grasp aspects not related to their field. Still, that might not be enough to satisfy the concerns of an interdisciplinary researcher. I hope the following seven questions might help some more:

  1. How does your work differ from your examiner’s particular experience?
  2. What ways can you find to relate your work to your examiner’s field?
  3. How is your work similar to your examiner’s recent publications?
  4. What are the trickiest aspects of your work to explain to a non-expert?
  5. How can you make these easier to communicate?
  6. Where do you anticipate problems in explaining your work?
  7. What can you do about those problems?

Let me be clear: examiners should make efforts to unpick and understand a thesis not in their field if they have agreed to act as examiner. But for confidence, for peace of mind and for general preparation, these questions could be useful to reflect and act on for interdisciplinary researchers preparing for the viva.

(they’re probably quite useful for all candidates preparing for the viva!)

Questions for Graduates

To find out more about vivas ask people who’ve had them. Talk to graduates from your department. If you ask, “How was your viva?” you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Fine!” This will be true, but it will be short: the person you’re asking probably thinks you want reassurance; they think you want to know others have succeeded and felt fine in the viva.

You do, but if all you get is “Fine!” then you’ll feel unsure later. To get more from your friends, ask them specific questions. Ask them questions that will give you details. Start with:

  • How did your viva begin?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the tone like?
  • How would you describe the structure?
  • How long was your viva? Did it feel like that?
  • What questions do you remember?
  • What was challenging?
  • How did your viva end?

Ask about how they prepared and what helped them. Ask about what corrections they got and how they completed them. Get as much help as you can from the people around you; there’s a lot of help available.

Be prepared to help others when your viva is past too.

What You Have

It’s not wrong to think about what you want or need for your viva. Better to focus first on what you already have to help you succeed.

You have a thesis.

You have experience.

You have regulations.

You have expectations.

You have examiners.

You have a supervisor.

You have colleagues.

You have friends.

You have talent – you must have this if your viva is coming up!

You have a lot to help you. Maybe you have doubts too, but you don’t want or need those. What are you going to use to work on beating them?

10 Opportunities For Sharing

Both before and after you submit your thesis, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the viva is find opportunities to share your work.

Telling others about what you’ve done helps you think about how you explain your work. It can give you space to practise structuring your research. It can lead to questions, which then help you to think again and fill in the blanks for your audience, whether it’s one person or one hundred.

There are lots of ways you could talk or write about your research. Here are ten opportunities for sharing just off the top of my head! You can probably think of more that would be relevant for you:

  1. Give a talk, big or small, in your department or at a conference.
  2. Share your work via outreach.
  3. Go for coffee with a friend.
  4. Have a meeting with your supervisor.
  5. Write a paper and submit it for publication or preprint comments.
  6. Write a blog post summarising your progress.
  7. Send an email to a contact at another institution.
  8. Tweet something short, sweet and simple! #awesome
  9. Be a guest on a podcast about research (@PlanetPhD is a new one I found recently!)
  10. Find some friendly first-years who want to hear from someone with experience.

None of these are free: they always cost something, particularly in terms of time. Coffee with a friend might be an hour, a blog post could be a few, but a paper or a talk could be days or weeks of work.

Think of it is an investment rather than a cost. Every time you share your work, the return on the investment will be greater than what you’ve “spent”. Every opportunity you find or make will give you a chance to improve.

A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Reasons You Could Enjoy Your Viva

You could enjoy your viva. A lot of people do, and many do even if they’re nervous.

You could enjoy your viva because…

  • …it’s your work and you know it better than anyone.
  • …you wrote your thesis and you know what it took to make it.
  • …you’re meeting two experienced academics, not two people who know nothing.
  • …the viva is the last big thing you have to get done for your PhD.
  • …you get to demonstrate how talented you are.
  • …your PhD is almost finished and soon you can start something new.

It’s not wrong to have your reasons for being nervous, but also look for reasons why you could enjoy your viva.

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?