Taking Stock

Today is the last day of the tax year in the UK, and time for me to take stock of things. I’m asking myself questions like:

How much came in? How much went out? How many invoices? Do I have all my receipts?

I need to answer these in order to fill out my tax return. But there are other questions I need to prompt myself with:

How many seminars did I deliver? To how many people? At how many universities?

I need to earn money, but I want to serve others. So it helps me to look into those details too and take stock. Nevermind the number of words I write here too! And there are still more questions I need to ask, because there are other important aspects of my life too:

How many hours did I work? When did I take breaks? When did I work overtime? When did I have proper holidays?

There are many, many more questions I could ask, which would take this little life and business and put it under the microscope. The answers would be useful for some people (including me) and interpreting those could help prompt future action (thinking about holiday times or working hours in the past can influence or change practices in the future, for example).

Taking stock is important. It’s essential before the viva.

You’ve asked a lot of questions to get you to where you are. Now, more questions are needed.

Some will come from your examiners, and you can prepare for them even if you can’t know what they will be necessarily. You can get practised through a mock viva or seminar, building your confidence for meeting them. You can ask yourself more questions to explore your research from new perspectives.

What have you done? How did you get here? What matters more?

You could use many questions to unpick and explore your research. Start with some big ones. Find a way to capture your thoughts rather than simply losing them to abstraction. And maybe share them with others to find opportunities to explore them more deeply.

Every Single Question

Every single question in the viva comes as a result of your research and your thesis. While you can’t predict every question, nor know a perfect response for every one, you do have everything you need to be able to respond.

Every single question in the viva is being asked for a reason. It might not be immediately clear to you what that reason is.

Every single question in the viva is going to be asked by one of your examiners, or by you. You can’t know what questions your examiners will have, but you might have ideas. Prepare for your examiners’ questions by rehearsing with a mock viva or in conversation with friends. Don’t create model answers, instead build experience of responding to questions. You can know what questions you would like to ask your examiners; think about this topic in advance, write a list of questions you’d like to ask.

Every single question in the viva is NOT every single question you could possibly be asked about your thesis and your research. Rather than focus on trying to anticipate every single question, focus on being knowledgeable, confident and prepared for the questions as they come.

3 Questions To Ask Your Supervisors Before Submission

Viva preparation starts after submission, but the right questions – asked in advance – can help you submit well and set up your success in your preparation and viva. Before submission, ask your supervisors the following and build on these in discussion:

  1. Who do they think would be good examiners and why? Many supervisors invite opinions from students; final decisions rest with supervisors. You could offer ideas, but understanding the criteria they are using (or the names they are choosing) can give you confidence for the process and useful information.
  2. In advance of submission, what constructive feedback can they offer of your thesis? Make the most of this. Use their thoughts to help how you communicate your research.
  3. What are some of the trickiest areas they see candidates struggling with in the viva? Generally, what questions or topics do they see problems with? Or what are topics that they see as perfectly natural to talk about, but which candidates might not prepare for?

These questions will not paint the whole picture for your thesis, your preparation or the viva. They will be a good start. You can trust that your supervisors want you to pass, and want to give you appropriate assistance.

Use these discussions to help your submission and state of mind as you head towards the viva.

Ask Me Anything

Seriously. If you need to know something about the viva and you think I might have an answer or opinion or advice, please ask me. You can send me an email, or just tweet at me, I don’t bite!

I keep office hours, so I might not reply within five minutes or one day, but if you have a question about the viva then you can write to me and I will write back to you as soon as I can to try and help.

And I’m not the only one: there are people all around you who can help.

  • Ask your supervisor for help (that’s kind of their job).
  • Ask your graduate school for help (ditto).
  • Ask your friends and colleagues (not a job, but sort of a responsibility).

PhDs and vivas can be struggles – in a way, they’re supposed to be – but you don’t have to struggle through everything alone.

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.