A Disclaimer Of Sorts

I can’t say people never get tough questions in the viva.

I can’t say candidates never face examiners who are overly harsh.

I can’t say YOU won’t have a bad viva.

Because people do. Even though most people have a perfectly fine experience in the viva – tiring, draining, tricky but overall fine if not enjoyable – some people don’t. So what can you do?

Keep doing good work now. You can’t know in advance what your viva will be like exactly. Good or bad, right now you can put yourself on the path to be the best you in the viva. Someone who knows their stuff, someone who knows how to be a good researcher in their field, someone primed for confidence and able to answer questions about their research.

Bad viva? Not in your control. Good candidate? That’s all up to you.

Worth 1000 Words

What do most books have that most theses don’t? Cover pictures! Novels and non-fiction use cover images to help tell their story, sell themselves to readers and convey some information. Theses tend to just have a title. Hmm…

Quick exercise for today: what would be on the cover of your thesis? What would it have to feature in order to communicate something of your work?

Long exercise for today: mocking up a cover might be a useful (and fun!) tangent to explore while finishing your thesis or preparing for your viva 🙂

The Fourth Option

I’ve heard there are three common responses to anxiety or fear: freeze, fight or flight. Now, my PhD is in pure maths, so I have no idea if that’s 100% right, but it got me thinking about stress over questions in the viva. If an examiner asks a tough question or makes an observation that isn’t in line with the way you think, you could:

  • Freeze: mind goes blank, no idea what to do, just hold still and hope that they move on.
  • Fight: go to war with them, take no prisoners, do everything to bring their arguments to their knees.
  • Flight: try to umm and ahh your way free, take evasive action and hope you get out.

Fortunately, there’s another option: Figure it out. Take a pause, think about what’s actually been said; ask some more questions if need be. Make sure you understand what your examiner has said. Ask them why. Get as much information as you can, and then try to resolve the situation.

No need to panic, battle or run. Just think.

One Percent

What could you do to make your preparation for the viva better by 1%?

There’s a really great story and idea behind the aggregation of marginal gains (see here) but simply: small changes can add up to huge improvements. You don’t have to make a single massive difference, lots of small differences could be just as powerful. If you wanted to make a 1% difference to your viva prep, what could you do? What tools would you need? What questions could you ask? How big a change would you have to make in order to see huge improvements?

Some 1% ideas from me:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter. This will take two minutes but will make chapters and pages easier to find.
  • Use a sheet of paper to cover pages as you read through during prep. You won’t skim or skip sections, and will read everything.
  • Ask friends to surprise you with questions about your research. You’ll grow to feel more comfortable with unexpected questions.
  • Practise pausing before you answer a question. You’ll feel more confident about that small silence.

1% improvements add up. They don’t have to have huge time or opportunity costs to implement. What else could you do?

Five Stars

What would a well-reviewed viva look like? Given that there’s two parties, what would they say about each other? I wonder…

Best examiners ever! Felt like they had really read my thesis and asked me lots of interesting questions. Was such a thrill to talk about my work with them. Gave me a lot to think about too, but all good. Would totally recommend to future candidates!

What kind of examiners would you give this review to? What are you looking for? Who might fit this description?

Stellar candidate, five stars! Took the time to think through our questions and answer our concerns. Clearly well-prepared: confident responses, excellent research. We wish them all the best for the future. Congratulations.

What would you need to do between now and the viva to get a review like that? What are you going to do?

More Than Gold Letters

After the dust of my examiners’ questions had settled and all the corrections were done I got to make some pretty nice hardbacks. My name and the title of my thesis was in gold on the cover! I was done! My thesis was great!

Except… I thought I would feel something. I was happy, sort of, I guess… And I knew that finishing my PhD was a milestone. I wasn’t expecting fireworks, or a band to strike up, but I thought I would feel something.

The end of my PhD was an anticlimax, I didn’t feel much of anything. At the time. As the months went on I realised that it was something big. It opened doors for me. It gave me a skill set that I use and develop nearly a decade later. It helped to give me a perspective on the world and shape my values. I co-authored a couple of papers and contributed to my field too.

My story might not mirror yours: it may be that you are totally over the moon after your viva. But you might not. Just a friendly word: it might take a while to sink in. Regardless, I think most PhDs, in time, come to realise that the PhD is so much more than a book with your name in gold letters on the cover, however cool that looks.

What If I Fail?

Why might I fail? What happens if I fail? What is the process for failing the viva like?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Some people do fail the viva. The vast majority don’t.

What makes you think you would?

If you’re thinking about failure, seriously thinking about failure… Why? What has tripped that thought for you? There’s a real difference between wanting to pass and thinking you might fail. If you’re concerned about your examiners, read some of their papers, ask around about them. If you’re worried about remembering “everything” then read your thesis carefully and make some notes. If you worry about answering questions under pressure then have a mock viva, or get friends to practise with you.

If you’re really troubled by the thought of failure, do something about it.

Hours and Years

Two to three hours is pretty standard for a viva. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Two to three hours is the right neighbourhood.

Three to four years is pretty standard for a PhD. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Three to four years puts us in a meaningful ballpark.

People worry about “long” vivas. Mine was four hours. I’ve heard of the occasional six-hour viva. It can seem like a long time to be on and discuss your research. But you get to those hours of discussion after years of work. You’re in a good place.

Significant

A PhD thesis needs to have a significant, original contribution in it. So a postgraduate researcher needs to make a significant, original contribution for it. Significant, original contributions (to research, to knowledge, to the world) don’t grow on trees. They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t happen by accident.

If you’re feeling nervous or even afraid at the end of the PhD, weigh it against what you’ve done to get this far. The dedication and work you’ve put in tip the scales in your favour.

Not Lucky

Winning the lottery is lucky: you buy a ticket, or lots of them, and maybe yours is the one that wins. There’s no skill, it happens or not.

Winning a race is fortunate: you develop skill, and even if there are other skilled people taking part your skill wins out. It isn’t luck, because you didn’t leave it to chance.

One of these descriptions is like the viva, and one is not, despite both being about situations involving a great many people.

If you’re lucky, you did something but it wasn’t in your control really. It could have been anyone else who succeeded, and what you did didn’t particularly matter. If you’re fortunate, then something good has happened, but what you did made a difference. Success in the viva is fortunate, I think, because it comes down to your developing talent through the PhD and what you are able to show on the day.

This is how I put the line between lucky and fortunate; you might define them differently, but I think you take my point. If you’ve read a lot of posts on this blog then you’ll know it’s a recurring theme for me: success in your PhD and viva is down to your talent and is not just good luck. This is important for the story you tell yourself afterwards. Not “I was lucky with the questions I got,” but “I was fortunate that I had done the work and could answer their questions well.”

You’re fortunate, you’re not lucky.