Mismatched

Today marks five hundred daily posts for the blog(!), and so I wanted to pause and say something about what I see as the biggest, trickiest and most persistent problem surrounding the viva:

In general there is a great mismatch between the expectations and feelings of PhD candidates in advance of the viva, and the reality of the viva and the usual outcomes.

Most people worry in some way that they won’t pass, but most people pass the viva with no problems. I ask candidates in workshops how they feel about their viva. Over 80% say something like nervous, anxious, worried, unprepared, unsure and so on. Yet over 90% of candidates typically pass their viva with minor or no corrections.

Horror stories of incredibly long inquisitions, terrifying examiners with egos as big as buildings, complete railroad questions and total thesis rewrites permeate the space around vivas – and they don’t match the general reality of what happens in the viva and what happens as a result. Thousands have a viva in the UK every year. That’s a lot of people who invest time, energy and focus in being worried about a terrible thing that never happens.

What can be done?

We need to challenge the spread of misinformation, urban legends and negative experiences that surround the viva. We need to help candidates feel prepared for the reality of the viva, partly by making sure they have realistic expectations, partly by helping them see what could be useful to be practically ready.

Some ways forward, because this is a problem that everyone can chip away at:

  • Had a viva and it’s gone well? Find an avenue to share your experience. Write a blog post. Tell colleagues. Tweet about it.
  • Know someone who needs help? Help them! Don’t just say “you’ll be fine,” do something practical.
  • Share resources that help. There are lots of them out there. See what your university provides, see if it’s good, and pass it on.

Over time we can crack the Viva Mismatch Problem. It’s not intractable. We can get to a point where PhD candidates will expect that at the end of their research they are ready for the reality of the viva, not a nightmare, but a conversation – not torture, just talking.

As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep making things, keep sharing what I do in workshops and sessions. If you think what I do is useful, then do think about subscribing to get the daily posts in your email. Tell someone about it if you think it will help them.

…500 posts! That’s a lot.

Onwards and upwards…

After Your Viva…

…take ten minutes and talk to some future candidates in your department or network. Tell them about your viva experience. Set your focus on sharing what happened and what it felt like.

Share what sorts of questions you got. Share what surprised you. Share anything you can about the flow and format.

Your story is unique, but if more viva stories are shared perhaps the overall perception of the viva will shift a little. It will be less of an unknown. More people will have a sense of what it’s all about.

Share your viva story when you’re done.