My daughter really likes surprise toys. They come sealed, disguised in bags and boxes. Hidden surprise dolls, magical unicorns that change colour, packages within packages hiding what’s there. She loves them. Part of the excitement is not knowing what’s inside until you open the box.
But there’s only so many combinations. Leaflets show you all of the options, whether it’s sixteen Lego figures in a range or millions of combinations of dolls and accessories. Some are more common than others, but all have similar features or stylings.
The viva is like my daughter’s surprise toys. There’s lots of information about what vivas are like generally, but no-one can tell you what yours will be like. You only find out when you get to yours. However, like the best surprise toys, viva quality is generally good, expectations conform to reasonable standards and you can clearly see the process for engaging with them.
And thankfully there’s no unwrapping for the viva as there is with the surprise toys my daughter likes!
I try every day to share something useful about the viva, but there are a lot of topics to be covered!
Back in June 2017 I shared A Viva Alphabet as a way to start thinking about many of the different themes and ideas that surround the viva. Today, I share a new series of thoughts. Again, I can’t cover every issue connected with the viva, but it’s a wide range of topics:
A is for Allies: there are lots of people around you who can help. Who do you need to ask first?
B is for Book: that’s what you have made! What could you do to help get a good working model of it in your mind?
C is for Contribution: the outputs of your research make a difference. How do you define yours?
D is for Doctorate: what you have been working towards. What will yours allow you to do?
E is for External: one of your examiners. Why were they a good choice?
F is for Finished: almost! What does this mean for you?
G is for Grumbles: you probably have some about your PhD, or about the viva. What can you do about them, or how can you live with them?
H is for Hard Work: you must do a lot of this to get to submission. What has been hardest?
I is for Internal: your other examiner! What do you know about them?
J is for Jot: the margins of your thesis are a great space for annotations. What could you add during your prep to help you in the viva?
K is for Knowledge: like Hard Work, you must have a lot of this. What do you know now that you didn’t know at the start of your PhD?
L is for Location: your viva has to take place somewhere. Where is the room and what is it like?
M is for Mock: a very common viva preparation activity. What would you hope to get from yours?
N is for Notes: you can make them throughout the viva. What would help you to do this well?
O is for Outcomes: there are many possibilities. What are the details of the outcomes at your institution?
P is for Post-it Note: one of the most valuable resources for viva prep! What could you use them for?
Q is for Quick: your viva is unlikely to be this, but it might feel that way. Either way, how could you prepare for the open-ended length of your viva?
R is for Response: what you can offer to a question in the viva. What would help you give good responses?
S is for Supervisor: the person who probably knows your work second-best to you. What help could they offer in preparation for the viva?
T is for Talented: what you necessarily are by submission-time. What are your skills, attributes and capabilities as a good researcher?
U is for Unique: you, your thesis, your viva! What makes you different? What makes everything you’ve done special?
V is for Viva: what else could it be??! Talk to your friends about theirs, see what general expectations you can discern for yours.
W is for Wondering: it’s not wrong to doubt or worry, but it is right to be fairly confident about your examiners’ assessment of your thesis. What do you hope they see in your research?
X is the Unknown: it’s reasonable to say “I don’t know” in the viva; some questions might not have answers. What could help you to give the best response you could?
Y is for You: it’s all up to You, your Hard Work, your Knowledge and the fact that you are Talented. If you have doubts still, what could help you to see that you are good at what you do?
Z is for Zero: the probability of your failure. Given everything you’ve done to get this far, what – realistically – could lead to you not passing?
Which of these have you considered before? What has passed you by so far? Any ideas for substitutions?
And what might you do now, having considered this new viva alphabet?
Each year I finish my blogging by sharing some of my favourite posts over a few days. I try to keep my daily posts as brief as possible, but sometimes it takes more than a hundred words to get to where I’m going. Today, I’m sharing some of my favourite long posts from the last year, covering a range of topics!
These are a few of my favourite longer posts. Read any more that you like? Let me know, and check out tomorrow’s post where I go in the opposite direction and share some of my favourite short posts from this year!
When you make the long trek up the hill of your research, and reach the summit of completion, you’re more or less ready for your viva.
To stretch the analogy a little further:
Explore the route that you took. Was it the best route? How did you fare on your climb?
Reflect on the help you had. Who were your guides? How did they help you?
Look out from the summit. What can you see now? What’s on the horizon?
Perhaps the viva is a little like the walk back down the hill. You know the way, the terrain is more familiar, it won’t take as long as the climb up… Your footing could still be a little treacherous in places, but you have more experience than when you climbed up.
You can see more from the top of a hill than the bottom. And you can only get there through your effort and time.
I like the tool GROW – Goal, Reality, Options, Will – as a tool for coaching and development. It is a nice framework for exploring future plans, but helpful for reflection too. The four prompts could really resonate with looking back at the end of the PhD:
Goal: what was your objective? How did you arrive at that goal?
Reality: where were you starting from? What did you need to do to move forward?
Options: what did you consider doing? How did you decide on the approach that you took?
Will: how did you get through the more difficult moments of your PhD? What kept you going?
At the end of the PhD, as we’re reflecting and not planning, we can add to GROW… How about GROWN, N being Now?
Where are you now? Now that your PhD is almost behind you, what else could you do?
During my PhD I became aware of the Katamari Damacy series of video games. They’re odd games, really colourful, really lively music – I used to write for hours while listening to the soundtracks! – and lots of fun.
The basics are always the same in a Katamari Damacy game: you are the Prince, a tiny creature tasked with making stars by your father, the King of All Cosmos. Your only means to do this is to roll up things using a katamari, a sticky ball that gets bigger and bigger and can roll up larger things as it gets larger. Levels end when you have created a crazy kind-of-ball that your father then turns into a star!
But the King is eccentric and all-powerful. What he says goes, and if he doesn’t like your katamari then it won’t get to be a star. And he’ll blast you with his cosmic eye-beams as punishment for failure.
The Katamari Damacy games are WEIRD. To some people they make no sense. To some, you can explain what you’re doing and why and still they look at you as if you have gone insane. How is this fun? How does this work? Why would you do this? What’s the point of all this???
The very best game we could use as a metaphor for the PhD is Katamari Damacy.
Lots of people won’t get your PhD. Those who do will really get it. The skills for success at both can be learned, though there are bound to be failures along the way. The skills for success might seem odd compared with useful skills in other areas, but they are necessary to master. They take time. As you go along the ideas that go into your thesis get bigger and bigger. A small notion leads to big ideas, that lead in turn to bigger concepts and results. And when you get to the end your thesis is weighed up by some all-powerful cosmic god-creatures who decide if it passes!
…OK, so my little thesis falls down towards the end! Still, for me and my PhD, Katamari Damacy seems like a great fit. I rolled along for years adding layers of ideas to my thesis-ball, growing in scale and importance. I didn’t always know exactly where I was going or how I was going to get there, but I had purpose motivating me.
If you’re getting closer to submission, and the time when your Cosmic Examiners weigh up your contribution, think about how you got there. What were the steps you made along the way? What were the little ideas that you had and how did they get big? How did you roll your thesis bigger and bigger?
Most important of all, what makes your thesis a star? And what makes you a star?
Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.
Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
Top Five Useful References For You!
Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
Top Five Definitions To Remember!
Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
Top Five Details To Check!
Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
Top Five Preparation Tasks!
Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.