Constrained

There’s no best, one-size-fits-all plan for viva prep. You have to explore what works for you, and if you’re busy that could feel quite stressful.

This blog contains lots of ideas for what might help someone get ready. How do you plan all that out? You explore by applying constraints to see what could work.

  • What if you started your prep four weeks before your viva?
  • What if you could only prepare for thirty minutes per day?
  • What if you used your Saturday mornings?
  • What if you thought it would take twenty hours?
  • What if you had a list of tasks or goals first?
  • What if you assumed a start or finish date for your prep work?

Exploring just a few constraints can help you arrive at sensible options for getting the work done.

Stop stressing about how it will all get done. Start exploring with useful constraints that will help you be finished.

Sensible Prep

Getting ready for the viva involves big pieces of work and little tasks.

It could feel like there’s lots to do, maybe even too much, especially if you have other responsibilities. Start the process by getting everything out from your brain and onto a space you can track.

Write a list. Jot things down on a whiteboard. Start a new document and type anything that comes to mind.

Once you think you’ve got everything out, try to put some order in place. What comes first? What goes last? How could you fit this jigsaw of jobs together?

It’s possible to get ready for the viva by simply doing something productive for an hour per day for enough days.

It’s sensible to get ready for the viva by thinking a little, planning a little and then getting to work.

Part-time Prep

Generally speaking, a candidate doesn’t need to take time off in order to get ready. If you have any typical responsibilities – a job, family, friends, caring responsibilities or your own needs – then viva prep can fit around everything you need to do.

If you feel pressured because you work full-time and have a life as well, then the only thing you need to do to get ready is plan and possibly start early. You don’t need to cram lots of things in your diary. A little organisation will help.

  • How could you find thirty minutes to an hour most days for viva prep?
  • If you can’t commit to most days, when could you make the time?
  • Would starting a month before the viva give you time to spread out the work you need to do?
  • Would that create a space with as little stress as possible to do what you need?

Prep is part-time. By submission there’s only a small amount of work needed to be done. If you have a full-time life there is still plenty of space for prep. A little planning and organisation helps make it less stressful.

The Prep List

A list and two questions could be a simple way to manage your viva prep.

What do I need to do? How can I be sure I’ve done enough?

For the first question: look at what others tell you might help, compare it to where you feel there are gaps in your knowledge or confidence, and then make a list of what needs to be done as a result.

Assuming you’ve done enough simple work for your list, responding to the second question is straight-forward: when something gets done, cross it out. Move on to another task and as you see fewer and fewer things on the list you know you are closer and closer to being ready.

Lots of questions that explore viva prep can help Рwhen to start, how much to do, when to do it and so on. These questions are valuable, but first explore what you need to do. What kinds of work will help you get ready?

Make a list, then work towards crossing it out.

At The Last Minute

Don’t save your viva prep for the day before your viva.

Save that day for reminding yourself of your successes.

Save that day for reinforcing that you’ve come as far as you have by becoming more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable.

Save that day for remembering that you couldn’t have produced your thesis by being lucky – you must be good.

Save that day for relaxing.

Last minute viva prep can be stressful. Save those last minutes for looking back and simply reflecting. Remember that you’re good.

7 Nudges For Viva Prep

While there are lots of good tasks that can help with viva preparation, maybe it would be better to gently nudge candidates. A few gentle nudges could be far more helpful to offer than a super-structured programme of work and deadlines.

So:

  1. Sketch a plan for your prep.
  2. Ask for help.
  3. Your thesis can help in the viva – how could you prepare with it?
  4. Tell people about your work, and invite questions.
  5. Listen to stories about viva experiences.
  6. Reflect on the work you’ve done already.
  7. Explore what you could do to build your confidence.

A few gentle nudges can move someone to figure out what they need to do to feel ready for the viva.

Solving The Prep Problem

I’ve loved maths since I was a child and first realised the wonder that 4 times 6 was the same as 6 times 4.¬†My love sent me on a journey that lead to a PhD in pure maths. A lot of specific technical knowledge and talent has been vacated over the last thirteen years to make room for other things in my brain, but I’d like to think that the maths mindset has never left me.

There’s a shorthand that a lot of people use when they think about maths – “it’s all about getting the right answer” – as if that’s always simply one thing. Different problems lead to different solutions though; in some cases the “right answer” is really a whole collection of things, a solution space.

It’s the same sort of thing with the problem of “how to do a PhD well” or “how to prepare for a viva”. Neither has a right way. There are lots of possible solutions that might work for someone.

The solution space for viva prep is huge:

  • You could spend an hour every day between submission and the viva, doing something purposeful to help you get ready.
  • You could do nothing, no further work after submission.
  • You could read your thesis the day before and leave it at that.
  • You could read your thesis every day and try to impress it all into your brain.
  • You could read lists of questions and try to figure out what to say.
  • You could cover your thesis in notes and helpful marks.
  • And you could do combinations of all of these – and even more.

Time is a variable, confidence is another – though it’s much harder to measure – as well as access to resources, personal needs and circumstances. All these variables, and more besides, have to go into the equation for how to prepare, when to start, what to do and everything else involved in viva prep.

 

But… One thing I know about the maths mindset, or how I tend to think about things, is that it is easy to overcomplicate things. To try and factor in everything, or solve the biggest, grandest problem – when actually, there are much simpler ways to look at things, or even to consider just parts of the problem. For starters:

  • To get ready for the viva, to begin with, you need to have read your thesis. So do that.
  • It could be helpful to find out more about the viva. So make a note of when you’ll read the regulations.
  • You need to decide if you want to ask for a mock viva. So have a think, and ask or not.

I try to think about the Big Problem Of Viva Prep For Everyone. You only need to think about the little problem of getting yourself ready. It’s much simpler, and you can probably identify all the variables with ease.

Take a look, and then solve for you.

Do One More Little Thing

There are big things that need to be done to get ready for the viva, but lots of small things too.

Small things build up. Small gains in preparation. Small tasks that set up larger activity.

If you’ve done everything on the “one little thing list” I shared last year, here are a few more little things that could help you get ready, when you’re tired or pressured or time is tight:

  • Write two sentences about one great paper you used.
  • Stick one Post-it in your thesis to mark something amazing.
  • Find one song that helps build you up and add it to a playlist.
  • Scribble down one question you think you could answer really well.
  • Take five minutes to just rest.

A thesis and a PhD are typically made up of big things. Lots of small things help stick them together. Small wins, small gains, small improvements.

Prep for the viva isn’t so different.

Viva Prep & Wiggle Room

It’s helpful to be kind to yourself and generous with timing for your viva prep. Getting ready doesn’t have to take long, but it won’t be the only thing you have going on.

When it’s time to plan your prep, spread the work out as much as you can. Something else may come along and disrupt your plans. Leaving yourself wiggle room gives you room to breathe, room to reshape your plans, space to not stress.

That wiggle room can always be used to rest if things do go according to plan!

Bottlenecks

When you plan your viva prep, look for things that could slow your progress.

  • Creating summaries might not be rewarding unless you’ve read your thesis first.
  • Anticipating examiner questions won’t be possible until after you’ve learned about their research.
  • Building a set of expectations can only come after you’ve asked others about their viva experiences.

As you plan your prep consider what will help later work. You can choose where you direct your thoughts and efforts. Choose carefully so that you don’t have to over-invest your time. Plan clearly so that you don’t have to do more than is necessary.