Process of Elimination

Luck or random chance don’t dictate the outcome of the viva. It’s not down to the examiners’ whims. It’s not an exam about “some” book and research. That book and research didn’t just appear. You didn’t just wake up to discover it was viva day. Candidates don’t just “suddenly” fail.

Eliminate the impossible and we’re left with the truth.

You created your thesis through talent, work and time. You earned your place in your viva.

You pass because of who you are and what you’ve done.

Nine Noes For The Viva

No way your thesis is perfect.

No expectation it should be either.

No chance you’re not an expert in your research.

No way to predict exactly what will happen in the viva.

No excuse for not having expectations either (there are lots of people who have had them before!).

No examiner has lived through doing your research.

No possibility you got to submission without doing something good.

No way you can do the work without being talented.

No chance you’re not ready when the viva comes around.

Hours & Hours & Hours

There’s lots of hours spent on a PhD, but different ranges depending on the stage you’re at:

  • Five to six thousand to do a PhD.
  • Twenty to thirty in prep for the viva.
  • Two to three for a viva is quite common.

Each of these matters.

Your research and your talent develops over a long period; after that it doesn’t take much to get ready to defend your thesis.

And not too long at all to discuss the important things with your examiners.

Memory Box

My daughter’s just finished nursery and starts “Big School” in September. It seems only like yesterday that she was starting, but it was nearly two years. Time flies…

We’re helping her make a memory box of her time at nursery. Pictures and projects, toys and books, the keepsakes and mementoes that she wants to have, and it’s got me thinking about what I would put in my PhD memory box. It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I have fond memories but I know there are lots I will have forgotten now. I wish I had kept more of a diary or memory box, but I was too busy thinking “I’m done, what do I do next???”

For the end of the PhD I think it’s important to reinforce the idea that you haven’t just arrived at a destination as a passenger: you’ve worked to get there. What have you collected in your memory box along the way? What has helped? What helped you realise something new? What helped you get better? What do you just want to remember?

Time flies… Your story so far can help the story that’s coming, whether that’s your viva, your next job or whatever life has to throw at you. Find memories that help you and make them part of the story you remember.

Pull The Lever, Take A Chance

A clatter of coins spills! I pulled the lever and now I’m rich, rich, rich!

Except I wasn’t. I was maybe ten and they weren’t coins, they were tokens. I grew up in a seaside town and there was a time when summer holidays meant stretching out pocket money in the arcade. I would jump from machine to machine, trying to find way to have just a little longer playing silly games.

The one-armed bandit could be fun for a time. Put your coin or token in, pull the arm down and watch the reels spin. Most of the time it was nothing. Sometimes it was a few pennies or a token back. Even rarer, an invitation to nudge a reel, see it drop but get nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes…

JACKPOT!

…and enough tokens to keep spinning the reels for another ten minutes.

There was no skill, no talent, not even any real work. You had to take part, put something in, but your effort and money were the same as anyone’s.

Alas, some candidates think the viva is a one-armed bandit, a game of total chance. Turn up, pull the lever and who knows what will happen. What questions will spin up? What sequence of opinions will your examiners have? What random outcome will it settle on?

It’s not random. It’s not by chance. Your work is built on purpose. There can be luck, but that’s guided by direction, by talent, by effort.

Your thesis isn’t just thrown together: it’s a statement. Your answers don’t just appear: they’re built on work and talent. Your examiners aren’t just winging it: they’ve been selected for a reason.

You probably will hit the jackpot in the viva, ding-ding-ding, you’ve passed! But it’s not by chance. It couldn’t just happen to anyone.

You’ve not just been lucky. You’ve not got this far by accident.

The Knack

My dad passed away quite suddenly when I was 17. Today would have been his 70th birthday, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately.

When I was little my dad was often self-employed. He had been made redundant from his job when I and my sister were quite small. For most of our childhood he had a stall at markets around the North West and in Scotland. I remember bagging biscuits at our dining table from huge boxes. I remember bundling tea towels and dusters, taking five and folding them a certain way, throwing a rubber band around them to hold bundles together. Seriously, I remember those afternoons quite fondly.

In the summer holidays my dad would let me help with various games he ran at fairs and carnivals. My favourite game was one where you had to throw a small wooden ball into a metal bucket. The bucket was inside a wooden frame, painted to look like a clown’s mouth; you just stood at a distance and tried to throw the ball in. This was the 1980s, so it was only 20p for three balls, and the spectacular prize was a coconut!

I remember the call still, “Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!

It was not easy. For a start, the bucket was pitched at an angle that encouraged the ball to rebound. The balls were ping-pong sized and dense: if you threw too hard they would bounce right back out. If you threw too soft, you might not get the ball in the target at all. Overarm shots always span out.

Ball in the bucket to win, just a ball in the bucket to win!” he would call out and throw the ball and DING! there it would land. Most people paying their 20p had never tried it before, never thought of playing anything like this. It was just something fun to spend 20p on.

There was no great trick, there was no con involved: it was just really hard. My dad had the knack though. He’d mastered this really hard skill. He’d found a challenge he knew was tricky, but spent a lot of time practising. He could throw the ball just so and have it land in the bucket every time. He made it look effortless, but that’s because the effort had been put in over years.

I tried and tried, failing many times, but still remember the first time I got my own DING! I kept going, and while I wasn’t as precise as my dad, I started to reach a point where I could get the ball in the bucket consistently. Practice, experience, nothing more.

Back to the present: your PhD is hard, but there are aspects of it you make seem effortless to others. That’s not to say it’s not still hard to you, but you can do it. You’re practised, you’re experienced. At the viva you can answer a question and engage with a discussion nearly every time because you’ve done so much during your PhD.

After all this time you have the knack.

Hear

What’s the probability that you’ll hear one of the following statements said in the viva?

“This is the best thesis I’ve ever read!”

“You should be doing my job!”

“You are one of the foremost minds in the country – nay! The world!

None of these are impossible utterances in the viva, but they’re pretty unlikely.

What can you definitely hear in the viva? You.

Capable. Knowledgeable. Fully participating in the discussion.

Ready.