Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.

Snacks For The Video Viva

So your viva is going to be over video. That could feel rough at times, but there are some interesting possibilities too.

Why have a chocolate bar in your bag, like an in-person viva, when you could have a freshly baked biscuit on stand-by? Why have a half-cold cup of coffee for a few hours, when a friend or family member could be poised by the kettle if you have a break?

A viva over video can present some small logistical challenges, but it also provides opportunities to meet your needs. Snacks can be a little fancier, your space can be a little nicer. If your viva is over video, why don’t you do what you can to make things as close to your preference as possible? What could you do to make the space lovely for you?

What could you do to help you feel great about the occasion?

Video Viva Checklist

When you submit, you’ve done a lot already that helps you in the viva. After submission you have an opportunity to do a little more work to help you get ready. If your viva is over video, you can do a little extra to help you be ready for that particular situation. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that could help.

  • Practise with the technology. Ask friends to do rehearsal calls. Find the location of basic on-screen buttons and prompts. Don’t assume that it will simply run fine on the day.
  • Find a space and setup that works well for you. What do you want to have behind you? Do you need to elevate the camera that you’re using? For all my webinars I have to put my laptop on top of a boxfile so that I’m not looking down at the camera!
  • Check your connection. See if you have a stable connection over wifi. Explore whether or not you need to use an ethernet cable.
  • Be certain of the plan for your viva. Know which software, what time and so on. Know what the backup plan is or how to get in touch if something unexpected happens.
  • Decide how you might support your verbal responses. Will you use an onscreen shared whiteboard? Or use a small whiteboard at your desk and then display to the camera? Or perhaps even use a second camera to show sketches?

Like most in-person vivas, video vivas are typically fine. They’re not meant to be ordeals. Preparation can ensure yours won’t be.

What Now?

Your viva could go really well. The point at which work and prep and expectation and anticipation all meet; you try so hard, push so much, show your best work and best self and then-

It’s over.

It’s done.

And it might be a bit… Meh.

A little… Oh.

Just… Is that it?

What now?

Not everything can be controlled, pre-arranged and sorted in advance. You can’t pre-determine how you will feel. You can’t know for sure what your viva will feel like until it’s done.

However, you can let some people know when your viva is happening. Let them know when you’re done. Maybe let them know how you want to treat this, or even how you might want to. If you live with family or friends and your viva is over video, pre-arrange a celebration. Your viva will be a success, but for many reasons – not just the current state of the world – it might not feel like the achievement it is on the day.

Do a few small things in advance to help the period after your viva be as good as it can be. Ask for help if you need it, even if that is help celebrating and marking your success.

Remote Chances

Most vivas go well, but there’s always a chance that something could go wrong a little. With the move towards remote vivas, over Skype or Zoom, there’s that little extra room for doubt and worry that something might go wrong. Video vivas were less common, until now, and so there aren’t as many easy answers for what to do or how to solve something.

In the absence of general advice, whatever the worry or potential problem, there’s three questions that come to my mind:

  1. How can I reduce the likelihood or the impact? You might not be able to avoid something, but you could soften it somehow.
  2. What is Plan B? Say the tech fails, what could you have on standby? What’s your backup?
  3. Who could help? In the viva the answer might be no-one – and knowing that helps because you know you have to get it done. Before the viva there are lots of people who can help you – you have to think about who might be best to ask.

The chances of something going wrong are slim. A little bit of constructive thought, just in case, won’t hurt your preparation or confidence.

Check The Regulations

Three words that need to be on every candidate’s to-do list for the viva.

The Regulations page I put together – a list of every uni in the UK’s thesis examination regulations – might be a good starting point for some. Given the changes brought on in the last five or six weeks, it’s worth digging deeper with your institution. Check to see if there is anything substantially different. I don’t imagine there will be: the purpose of the viva hasn’t changed, it’s only the medium that’s altered.

There may be constraints that a remote viva forces or suggests, but you know why you’re there and what your examiners have to do. Check the regulations to see if there are any particular conditions that have to be met to satisfy your institution. Ask friends and colleagues about their experiences for a better idea of what to expect.

New Expectations?

It’ll take time to figure out what vivas look like now.

Old, settled norms of “vivas are about this long” or “vivas have this kind of structure” will be in flux a little. Examiners will have to tweak their approaches, candidates may need to consider things in their setup for the viva, and so on. That might not be a bad thing.

Remember though: the circumstances might change, but the reasons remain the same. Your examiners are there to examine, you are there to pass. You still need to prepare, and while you might need to practise differently – checking tech, being sure of any changes to regulations – the practical prep tasks you’ll complete to be ready will be largely the same.

If you need to, dig deeper into expectations by finding others who’ve had a remote viva. Focus on getting ready just as others have before; there may be new expectations for the viva now, but lots of old ones will remain.

A Trial Run

Mock vivas have always been a good idea. A space to rehearse for the viva, an opportunity to build confidence at responding to questions and gain certainty that you’re prepared for the real thing.

Now, more than ever, a mock – or something like one – is a very good idea.

If your viva is going to be over video link of some kind then have a trial run. It would be great to do that with your supervisor. Have a formal mock, get a feel for the technology and the flow of conversation when people are at a distance.

Then explore the software so that you have an idea of keyboard shortcuts if you need them, screensharing if it might help or whiteboards functions. Get a friend or two to have test calls with. Look into the camera. Check to see what you look like. Check to see what’s behind you. Check with someone on the other end that they can hear you well enough.

For your actual viva, everyone will be understanding if the signal drops out. Everyone will be understanding if you don’t have a perfect study or bookcase behind you.

Take a few occasions before your viva, if it will be a remote viva, to test the situation. Get a feel for what it will be like. A bit strange, but fine.

Something you can survive.

Remote Vivas

Virtual vivas, Skype vivas, Zoom vivas – I see lots of names being used for the same thing. The current situation in the world means some vivas will be delayed, and others will necessarily happen online. Remote vivas are needed, a sudden change in procedure, and so naturally that creates a space for worry and concern.

Thankfully, while previously rare, remote vivas aren’t new. There are people who can help you understand what might be ahead if your viva is in the near future.

Find academics and ask them about what doing a remote viva is like, what they might have to take into account. Ask PhD graduates who have had their viva over video, and see what that felt like. Set your expectations, and check if there is anything special you might need to prepare for. See if there was anything that surprised them – that perhaps now doesn’t have to surprise you!

A few weeks ago, when universities started closing their doors, I asked for help on Twitter. I knew a little about remote vivas, but it was more on the technical help side – check the software beforehand, check regulations, and so on. Thanks to the generous contributions of many Twitter users I was able to curate a thread of help starting here:

There are lots of valuable points here! If your viva is likely to be sometime in 2020, it’s probably worth taking a look.

By the end of the year, perhaps, universities will be opening their doors again. But it won’t hurt you to find out a little more. It’s always been useful for candidates to check expectations; it’s hard to prepare and feel confident if you don’t have a handle on what’s ahead.

Now particularly, when the backdrop of the world is a little more scary and uncertain, it’s important to bring your viva into focus. See what it might be like, as clearly as you can, and you can make your viva a little less scary and uncertain.

Interesting Times

I tend to write this blog many weeks in advance. As of today, Monday 16th March 2020, I have posts readied until April 5th, but today it felt right to pause and add an extra post.

The world is changing, quickly, and in some ways unpredictably.

Often, change seems gradual, perhaps so slow that we don’t even notice it happening. With some countries today in lockdown, social norms in flux, universities in the UK closing their doors for now, and all of this happening in the space of weeks, it’s difficult to see what happens next.

Last Friday I was in Bristol, delivering a Viva Survivor session, and in and amongst the questions about viva lengths, concerns about going blank or wondering what makes a good examiner, an important question came from the room:

What do I do if my viva is cancelled? I have a date, I’ve booked time off work to prepare, but it might be postponed or move online. What do I do? How can I get ready?

In that moment and since I have had a hundred and one thoughts about how to respond to this concern – a concern which must be going through a lot of PhD candidates’ minds right now. Here are a few:

  • If it’s cancelled, it will be re-arranged.
  • Your prep still counts. It adds to making you ready.
  • If you pause your prep, you can unpause later.
  • If your viva is online, you can make it work. Check details, check the systems involved.
  • If an examiner has to cancel, another will be found. Think about who else could meet the standard for a good examiner for you.

If you’re facing this situation won’t say “don’t worry”. That never helps. I’ll advise you to think – even if the timeline to your viva is now uncertain – think about what you can do today to make tomorrow better. Worry can’t be avoided, but worry won’t solve a situation. Your work will, your actions will. So what actions now will help you in the future for your viva? If you can’t yet act to reduce uncertainty, how can you act to increase your own confidence or talent?

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In the short term, it looks like I’m working from home for at least a few months. There will be challenges with that, but also, perhaps, the space for new ideas or opportunities. A Viva Survivor session I was to deliver in person next week is now going to be a webinar. I have never delivered a webinar before! So this will be a chance to learn, grow and develop. We’ll see where that leads. I’ll be using some of my time at home to make more resources and find more ways to help candidates get ready for their viva.

Potentially, the situation in the world means some of my work will be cancelled. As a self-employed person that’s a little unsettling, at times it feels a little scary. But I feel confident that things will work out eventually. If you can help me, do check out my Ko-fi page, consider becoming a follower or supporter there. Or if you’re looking for general, considered viva support, take a look at my ebooks. Little things will help, and if you can help me, I thank you.

But help others first. If someone around you has their viva coming up, and because of the situation in the world they’re extra-worried, extra-nervous, consider how you can support them. Consider what little actions could help them to feel just a little better, because it all adds up. And if no-one around you needs help with their viva, consider how else you can be a helper for those around you.

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.