Working Out Your Prep Priorities

There are lots of things a candidate could do to get ready for the viva. There’s a few things that they need to do. There’s only so much time in and amongst the realities of a busy life to get it all done.

You could feel bad about what you don’t do, but it’s far more useful to focus on what you can do. Focus on what you have done and need to do, rather than anything you’ve missed.

To start, focus on your priorities. You probably need to read your thesis; annotate it; do a little research into your examiners; write a summary or two; make opportunities to help you rehearse being in the viva.

Within that list though, you have your priorities – with a heavy emphasis on your! As you get closer to the viva, take a little time and reflect for yourself:

  • Where do you feel there are gaps in your preparation?
  • How could you address them?
  • What do you, realistically, have time to do?
  • Who can help you?
  • If you need more time, how could you make more time?

Jot everything down, make a few little lists and compare it to your schedule. Imagine that you can only do 80% of what you’ve written down. What doesn’t make the list? What comes first? What might you do if you have time?

And so, then, what are your real priorities?

There are core types of work that will help you get ready for your viva. There are many different ways candidates can engage with these activities. Every candidate has different needs, different pressures, and thus different priorities.

What are yours?

Opening Questions

How did you get interested in this area? How would you summarise your research? Could you tell us about your most important contributions?

There are other potential opening questions. None are trivial, all rely on a deep knowledge and talent that you alone have.

Opening questions often ask for summaries, considered opinions and so on. Your examiners don’t ask because they imagine you have ten short monologues prepared. They ask because they expect you will have been asked questions like these many times before. Responses should flow relatively naturally as you’ve thought about these ideas many times before.

They’re not asked because they’re easy. They’re definitelynot easy questions with easy answers. Instead, they’re asked because they give a natural way for the viva to start. Here’s a chance for you to start well. Here’s an opportunity for you to let your nerves and anxieties recede and let you knowledge and talent take the foreground.

You’re the only one who could give a great response to opening questions. Because of what you’ve done and what you know, you will give a great response to whatever question starts your viva.

Phrases That Don’t Help

You’ll hear them all the time around the viva.

  1. Don’t worry! – Stop it! All better now.
  2. Good luck – because the viva is all about luck, apparently…
  3. You’ll be fine! – see point 1!
  4. Just read your thesis – all you need to do before the viva, apparently…
  5. They always go well… – so don’t worry! And we’re back to point 1. Again.

I’m being very harsh. Anyone who says these to you is well-intentioned. They want their friend to succeed. They really do want you to be fine, they want your viva to go well and they want to reassure you that you’re talented.

The five phrases above are kind, but superficial. Far better to give a little more time, a little more detail. When it’s your turn, be a good friend with what you offer others:

  1. How are you feeling? How can I help?
  2. You’ve worked hard for this! Remember when…
  3. If you’re feeling nervous, why not…?
  4. Is there anything you need help with for your viva prep?
  5. Here’s what I’ve heard… Here’s why that sounds alright to me…

Check in with your friend. Don’t give shallow stock phrases but deep encouragements. They don’t need you to solve all their problems. They might need a few friendly nudges to help their confidence.

The Best of 2020

It’s way too early to pick your highlights, but you’re right on time to set your intentions for the year ahead. If this is the final year of your PhD, submission coming up and viva not far away, ask yourself:

  • What could I do to have the best experience writing up?
  • How can I make my thesis the best it could be?
  • What can I do to make my viva one of the best days of my PhD?

Set your goals, then explore the actions that could take you to them. You can’t reach perfect, but you can set a high standard for completing your PhD.

All the very best for 2020!

Easy, Simple, Hard, Difficult

Some thoughts…

You can’t expect any questions to be easy in the viva. Some could be simple for you to answer, however, but only because of what you know about your research, your discipline and your talent as a researcher.

Possible opening questions could be hard – Can you summarise…? How would you define…? – but they’re also picked deliberately as an opportunity for you to start well. Perhaps you would be talking about something that is simple for you to explain due to your experience.

There’s a common observation about vivas that “the last question will be hard.” I don’t know how true this is in general. Even in cases where a final question is more challenging, it’s probably better to frame this as difficult. Even given your knowledge and talent, questions could be difficult for you to respond to. You can’t expect questions to be easy, and you also can’t expect particular questions in general.

But you can improve confidence and talent through practice. Put yourself in situations where you need to think. Have a mock viva to rehearse for the real one. Meet your supervisor to discuss your research. Go for coffee with friends to see what they want to know about your thesis.

You can’t prepare by practising only particular questions – easy, simple, hard or difficult – but you can get better at responding to questions in general.

No Silly Questions

There are none about the viva. I’ve been asked:

  • “How many questions can I get wrong?”
  • “How can I guarantee I won’t get any corrections?”
  • “How can I make it as short as possible?”
  • “What if I get nervous and spill my coffee all over myself?”

I’ve really been asked that final question! None of these are silly questions. Questions about the viva tend to come from either not knowing about the process, regulations or expectations, or from being worried about the situation and how to pass. None of these questions are silly. It could be that a question is the wrong question to ask about a situation, maybe there is a better focus, but no questions are silly.

If you have a question but think, “Oh no, I’m being silly,” then you need to find the right person to ask. It could be your supervisor. It may be a friend who has already passed, or possibly your graduate school. It could be me! Whoever it is, get rid of your questions by trading them for answers.

More often than not you’ll then have to trade those answers for action you have to take, but that’s much better than either being in the dark or worrying.


Crossing The Swamp

I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators.

A quote from The Art of Possibility by Ben and Ros Zander; it popped up several months ago in a newsletter I subscribe to. I love a good quote, and this one is apt for the viva.

You just need to get to the other side. That’s your job. Your job is not to defend every idea to the death, your job is not to respond forcefully to every criticism, you don’t have to fight-fight-fight your way through.

Questions and comments could suddenly pop out of the water and you might need to make a full response for some. For many you could just say, “OK, thank you. Thanks for letting me know. That’s interesting. Could you tell me more?”

You don’t have to fight all of the alligators in your viva. You need to get to the other side – to being done.

7 Questions On The Journey

When your viva is a few days away, take thirty minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What was the first day of your PhD like?
  2. How about the end of your first month?
  3. What was it like at your transfer viva?
  4. How did you feel the first time you presented your research?
  5. And how about the most recent time?
  6. How did you feel at submission?
  7. How do you feel now you’re almost-prepared for the viva?

You have to improve over the course of doing a PhD. You change, but day-to-day you might not feel it. Take a little time before your viva to reflect on the beginning, middle and almost-end of your research journey. Just before the viva you might feel a little nervous, a little excited, but hopefully you can see that the last several years have been a process leading you to the talented, wonderful researcher you are now.

Nowhere To Hide

A candidate told me they were afraid because they had nowhere to hide in the viva.

Examiners would have spent lots of time reading their thesis and so the candidate worried they would be unable to evade questions on the day.

Literally in the viva room as well, there is nowhere to hide. On viva day it’s just you and your examiners: talking, discussing, figuring out what the thesis means and what that then means for the end of your PhD.

So yes, nowhere to hide…

…but also no need to hide.

Why hide in the viva? You have your work, your thesis, your ideas, your know-how, your talent. Why would you need to hide?

Defending Your Work

In the viva it means supporting your thesis.

It means restating what you did, or replying to a question about a related aspect. It could be listening to another point of view and reconciling it with your work. It could be clearing up a mistaken belief that your examiner holds. It could be making your work clearer because it wasn’t clear in your thesis. It could be all of these things and other things besides.

Defending your work does not mean being defensive. Defensive is not listening. Defensive is thinking that you are right, no matter what. Defensive won’t help.

You could be angry or upset with a comment or question, you can feel what you feel – but you’ll serve your thesis and your viva better by defending your work, rather than by being defensive.

Listen to the question or comment. Check it against what you think and feel. Think about your response. Check it for emotion – you don’t need to be a robot, but be careful you’re not just reacting to a negative feeling.

Defend, not defensive.