Unclear or Wrong

You can’t – and shouldn’t – assume there are problems in your thesis. It’s worth checking through it carefully after submission. Read your thesis well to make sure that it holds up, that nothing has slipped through.

Find something unclear? What would make it clearer? Add a note of what you might say differently.

Find something wrong? Why is it wrong? What could you do to address it?

You can’t be perfect; you can be prepared.

Practice Makes…

…not perfect.

Today I’m delivering my 218th Viva Survivor workshop. I still get a little nervous, but only a little. I’m more likely to be anxious about travel arrangements than talking or presenting.

I make a point of giving the latest session count in each Viva Survivor – not to boast, but to emphasise that practice leads to confidence. I was a terribly anxious speaker when I finished my PhD: in talks I was always looking for places to hide, looking for anything I could do to not feel so nervous. There are lots of things I have done since then to build my confidence.

A simple part of it is practice, action aimed at becoming better.

My point isn’t to tell candidates to go and get as much viva practice as possible before their viva – they will only have one mock viva, not 217 before they get to the real one. My point is that real, relevant practice that builds a candidate up has been done all through the PhD.

You grow, you learn, you develop. You can’t always see it because the research is in the foreground, but it’s there. Your PhD experiences matter, and those experiences can lead to confidence.

Not perfect, but practised.

Success

What does viva success look like to you? What’s the outcome that will make you happy?

If you set it as getting no corrections, or finishing within a certain time limit there may be nothing you could do to be successful.

If you try to be perfect, responding to questions quickly or with perfect paragraphs of ideas and arguments, you will almost certainly fail.

If you define success as doing your best, being prepared, being switched on and ready to engage with your examiners then you’ll have a goal you can achieve.

You get to choose. What will success at the viva mean to you?

Don’t Know, Do Know

Candidates often worry about “what they don’t know” but frame it as a nebulous fear that waits out of the corner of their eye… What they don’t know is something that examiners do know, and examiners are looking to use that against them perhaps. What they don’t know is unpredictable, unclear and uncertain. That makes it something to be afraid of.

It can seem unclear, but I think we can examine this more clearly by contrasting what you don’t know with what you do know.

What You Don’t Know

  • Everything.
  • What your examiners think about your thesis.
  • What questions they want to ask.
  • What the outcome of your viva will be.

What You Do Know

  • Enough – you’ve read enough papers, done enough work, built up enough knowledge.
  • What you think of your work, what your supervisor thinks of it, what others have told you about it.
  • How to answer questions: you’ve built this talent up throughout your PhD.
  • What the most likely viva outcome is, and why that happens.

Seth Godin has truly timeless advice on this sort of thing: you get to choose which list you focus on.

In this case, the second one is much, much more useful.

Worrying About Imperfections

Fear and worry about the viva is common. I think some of the biggest worries come from very simple things. A concern that some aspect won’t be quite right in the viva. Concern about an imperfection creates a worry that the viva will become a terrible place, somewhere to be afraid.

It’s not silly to worry, it’s not easy to dismiss fears, but they can be overcome.

Reflect, maybe write down: what’s the worst that could happen? Be reasonable about the situation, real or imagined, and be thoughtful about the outcome. What would it mean? What would it really mean for the viva? What’s the worst that could happen…

  • …if you don’t know something?
  • …if your external wasn’t your personal favourite?
  • …if you forget an idea?
  • …if you find a really clunky paragraph during your prep?
  • …if you forget a reference?
  • …if your examiner is not sure of something they read?

In many cases, if you really unpick concerns, you’ll see “the worst” is not so bad. Worries could be uncomfortable, but not disqualifying.

Imperfections are not always within your control. You can’t be the perfect candidate, have a perfect thesis or have a perfect viva. You’re not expected to be. You can always think, you can always act, you can always try.

What’s the worst that could happen? What can you do about it?

(probably a lot)

Perfectly Impossible

I got a note from an anonymous seminar participant:

I have written the perfect thesis. Should I worry about the viva?

If the first statement was true, I could see no reason why they should. If their thesis was perfect, really, why would they need to worry? If I had a perfect thesis, there wouldn’t be much point!

Small problem: there is no perfect thesis. Imperfection is inevitable. The perfect thesis is an impossibility.

But an imperfect thesis doesn’t automatically mean that someone should worry. They might anyway, because they have doubts, or questions, or 101 concerns. And there could be a problem in any imperfect thesis that leads to tough questions or tricky corrections: both are part of the process, neither “should” be worried about.

An imperfect thesis doesn’t mean you failed. It means that you didn’t achieve the impossible.

You have a thesis. You have you. You have everything you need to beat back your worries and succeed in the viva.

Perfect Examiners

Like the perfect thesis and the perfect viva, perfect examiners don’t exist.

You can make a list of things that might be ideal (an expert, an experienced academic) or preferable (someone who is nice, someone who could be a good reference), but they’ll never be perfect.

Steer their selection in conversation with your supervisor. Find out what you need to know about their work. Get ready to talk with some experienced academics about your PhD work.

They’ll be good, maybe great, but don’t put them on too high a pedestal.