The First Viva

The first viva must have been really awkward.

What questions would the examiners ask? How might the candidate know what to expect? How would the examiners know what to expect?!

Who decided what made a good thesis? Or if the candidate had done enough? Or if they did enough in the viva?!

Why were they even having a viva???

Of course, the viva as we know it today is an evolution of former practices. Structure given to culture, rules to rhythms. That’s not a bad thing: it may be tricky to pinpoint exactly when and where PhD vivas started, but we know where they are now.

For your viva you can know what to expect. There are regulations, expectations and experiences to frame your understanding. Your viva might feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m sure it will be much better than the experience of the candidate at the first viva!

What Do You Need?

Before submission you need your research to be finished and your thesis to be done.

Before the viva you need to prepare your thesis and yourself. You need to read, to think, to speak and get ready.

In the viva you need your thesis, something to write on, something to drink and anything that will help you feel good in those few hours.

After the viva you need a way to celebrate – and you will need to celebrate!

And you might need other things, far more personal than I could know or guess. What do you need? How can you make sure you have them?

Achievement Unlocked

I’ve been keeping busy for the last few months, work and family life has had lots going on lately while we make changes and adjust. I’ve been enjoying games a lot: teaching my daughter lots of board games during the day, then switching over to my PlayStation 4 when she goes to bed for games she can’t play!

Most video games I play have some kind of trophies in them: parallel goals alongside the game’s main aims.

Instead of just finishing the Spider-Man game, seeing where the story goes, a trophy might be for taking certain pictures, or beating up bad guys, or collecting runaway pigeons (I hated that trophy). Oxenfree, a fantastic story game I’ve played three times and adore, has trophies for collecting things, but also for steering the game to different outcomes. Detroit: Become Human has similar trophies for the wildly different stories it can become, whereas the Untitled Goose Game has trophies for stealing a picnic, wearing a red bow tie and locking a child in a garage…

Whenever I earn a trophy in a game, a little ding! sounds and a medal-object briefly appears to say, “You achieved this!” Trophies on the PS4 range from Bronze (small accomplishments) and Silver (tricky challenges) to Gold (finishing the game or performing a near-impossible feat).

Trophies aren’t essential, of course, but they can be nice little motivators.

Which brings us back to the viva!

First, what achievements have you already unlocked? Over the course of your PhD, where can you see that you have achieved something?

  • It could be small – ding! You read a paper or solved a little problem!
  • It could be tough – ding! You finished re-drafting your methods chapter!
  • It could be a really big deal – ding! You submitted your thesis!

Take some time to map out what you have achieved – and realise that you’ve done a lot to get this far.

Perhaps consider what achievements lie before you on the path to your viva. Bronze trophies for gathering resources, Silvers for reading your thesis or having a mock viva, Gold for getting everything as ready as possible for the day.

Lots of games have Platinum trophies too: a trophy you get for earning every other trophy in the game. For most games this is particularly hard, ticking every box, exploring everywhere, doing everything.

For you and your viva, with so many trophies earned already, you can be confident that your PhD Platinum is within reach.

Two Reasons I Couldn’t Sleep

I couldn’t sleep the night before my viva because:

  1. I had no idea what my examiners were there to do, or what my viva might be like;
  2. I had little self-confidence in my ability to discuss or defend my research.

These are common problems for PhD candidates, and can be really stressing, though thankfully I’ve not met many people who’ve had insomnia the night before their viva!

I didn’t know why I was lying awake at the time, I wouldn’t have known what to do had I realised why I couldn’t sleep, but both problems have solutions.

The first is solved simply by asking and exploring. Check regulations, talk with academics about their approaches as examiners, talk with graduates about their experiences. Building a set of expectations for the viva is useful to shape how you think about it. Generally, vivas are fine, but you need to know more about them to really believe it.

The second problem has solutions, but they are not so quick. Building self-confidence takes time, but the rewards for time spent dramatically outweigh the investment. Of course, in preparation for your viva spend time reading your thesis, making notes, reading papers, having a mock viva and so on. All of these are necessary and can help with confidence. But what else will you do to confirm to yourself that you are an excellent researcher? That you are capable and accomplished? That you have done the work and have the talent to be at your viva?

It takes longer to solve the confidence problem, but every step you take will help.

Three Years On

Viva Survivors started in 2012 as a podcast, but since April 18th 2017 it’s been a daily blog. Apart from the odd day off for Christmas I’ve published a post every day for three years!

Too much has happened, particularly recently, for me to offer something super-reflective about over one thousand posts, my changing work and practice, and so on, without that post being over nine thousand words long. Instead, let me share the posts that have punctuated the last three years, the beginning and the first two anniversaries:

  • No Accident: the starting point for all of my Viva Survivors musings and one of the core principles for my approach in helping candidates. Simply, it’s impossible to get to submission and the viva “by accident” – you can’t be that lucky. You really have to work to get to submission, and that work carries you through the viva.
  • One Year Later: a short post reflecting on what I’d built up over the course of the first year of the daily blog. I wanted to create resources as well, and while I’ve not been as prolific as I would like, I’m really glad The tiny book of viva prep has been helpful!
  • The Culture Around Vivas: thinking a little about expectations, where they come from, but flipping that to think about candidates too. The more I think about it, the more I think the culture of the viva, candidates and academia more generally is something that could be dug into as a means of help.

Things have changed abruptly in the last few months. The jigsaw of my life has been scattered, and in the absence of a picture to guide me I’m trying to fit the pieces together as well as I can. I’ve found the edges. I can see spaces where some pieces can no longer go. I’m working slowly to find a new picture that fits.

I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. Writing and publishing this blog helps me do that. I hope it helps you too.

I’m very thankful for all the readers, long term and new, who find this blog, subscribe to this blog, share this blog, support this blog and who find something useful here. I’m going to keep writing; I hope you keep reading!

Keep going!


First Chapter

The writer Cory Doctorow once described a great way to open a story: begin with a person, in a place, with a problem. These things hook the reader’s attention; they want to know more about the person, where they are and how they’re going to figure things out.

I like it, and I think it’s a neat format for reflection on your PhD origins too. Your examiners won’t want a complete timeline for the last few years, but they might be interested in how you got started.

Chances are, early on, you were a person, in a place, with a problem. So:

  • Who were you? What was your background? What did you know?
  • Where were you? How far along in your PhD were you? How did you encounter the difficulty?
  • What was the problem? Why was it a problem? Why was it something that needed solving?

And how did you resolve the problem?

Thinking about a story like this can be useful in preparation for the viva. You have a tale to tell in the viva if you need it and a reminder of how you set out towards the successes you’ve created along the way.

What You Can Do

You can write a good thesis.

You can make yourself prepared for your viva.

You can know what to expect from your examiners.

You can know what to expect from the viva.

You can learn about remote vivas, if that’s likely to be the scenario for your viva.

You can build your confidence to balance out your worries.

You can’t be perfect, but you can do your best.

You can be good enough for your viva.

Values & Valuable

Different people value different things.

Whether or not a job, a house, a partner, a research idea or anything else is suitable or good to you will depend on what you see as valuable. For your thesis then, there are two useful sets of questions to consider.

First, what do you value in your field? What is it that you think is “good” or “useful”? What topics or ideas do you think are better? Consequently, how do you see your thesis as being valuable? What contribution does it make? Why does that align with your idea of what you value?

Second, what might others value in your field? What might they then see as being valuable in your thesis? What ideas are people looking for? What contributions have you seen others value recently, at conferences or in papers?

Different sets of values might still find common valuable features in your research. Perhaps by considering what others find interesting, useful or significant, you could find a new perspective on your research.

A Comparison For The Viva

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!

A New Viva Alphabet!

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?