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.

Thick-skinned About Your Thesis?

You have to expect your examiners might have criticisms. You can also expect they will be fair in the way they communicate them to you.

You don’t need to be particularly thick-skinned to take any critical comments – but you need to expect your examiners might have comments and corrections for you.

Perfection isn’t realistic, but neither is a totally critical appraisal of your research.

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?

Experiencing Pushback

Your examiner can not like something in your thesis. Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they believe there was a better approach, or a different way to understand something. They’re allowed to have a different opinion; if they share it with you, you can respond.

Perhaps you’re certain you’re right; maybe you’re sure they’re wrong; possibly your pride is wounded. You could feel you have to say something. And you can.

That doesn’t mean you have to. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a big deal?
  • Are they asking for significant corrections?
  • Are they saying there’s a problem?
  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?

The last question is particularly important to answer. If you don’t know why they think something then you can’t be sure that you can adequately respond to them. You need to know what’s at the root of their comments before you can push against them.

Again, that’s if you feel you really need to. You probably need to acknowledge a critical comment; you don’t necessarily have to spend much time replying to it.

What did they say? How do you feel? Why? Why have they said that? How do you feel about that? What do you need to say? Why?

Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.

Not Every Day

It’s not every day you sit down to talk with two examiners about your thesis, the end point of years of study and research. Not every day you get to find out what they think. Not every day – there may be no other days in your life like your viva day!

It’s an important day, but still just one day. Without over-obsessing, over-analysing, over-investing, it makes sense to ask a few questions to be as reasonably ready as possible.

  • What can you do in preparation?
  • What can you find out about your examiners to help you?
  • What can you do to start the day well?
  • What can you do to start the viva well?
  • What can you do to be at your best in the viva?
  • What can you do to find and bring confidence with you to the viva?

And, as your viva is not every day, what will you do to celebrate your achievement?

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!)