The What

What did you do?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you as simple a question as this to explore your PhD research but the thought will be there.

What did you do?

When your examiners ask about your research, remember that they will have already carefully read your thesis. They know what you did: they’re looking for you to be clear, concise and to dig into what you think is important to summarise.

What did you do?

It’s necessary to ask how and why in order to explain what you did. Methods and motivations are as interesting to explore as outcomes.

What did you do?

It’s probably necessary to practise different ways of describing your research to see what works best for you. You don’t need a polished monologue for your viva, but the practise will help you to find the words when you need them.

What did you do?

Valuable, Interesting, Vague, Ask

Around 2013 I invented a series of prompts to help a candidate reflect on their thesis.

Through not-so-subtle phrasing I got these keywords to spell out VIVA. The tool is used to explore the contents of a thesis chapter. All of these reflections combined then create a useful summary of the thesis.

The four prompts (and associated questions) are:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about your work?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what questions would you like to ask in the viva given the opportunity?

I shared VIVA for years in seminars. Switching to webinars I couldn’t find the right way to share this tool in a session. I’ve felt sad about this for a year now. There are other tools, but this one really speaks to me. I’ve done some reflecting on why this is the case:

  • Valuable: as a set of prompts I think it intuitively allows a candidate to find the key ideas that are going to be useful to them, both in the prep and in the viva.
  • Interesting: for me, it was always fun to present and not mention the acronym at the start, only drawing attention to it at the end. Acronyms are fun!
  • Vague: or “unclear” – I had to add this word because vague was a little too vague at times, not as known a word as I thought.
  • Ask: I like that the tool invites and prompts questions. It is a little open-ended and allows a candidate to dig deeper and engage with the thesis and research – just like a candidate would have to do in the viva.

I would encourage every candidate to spend a little time in advance of their viva using VIVA to reflect on and analyse their thesis.

Every chapter of your thesis has something valuable in it. Everything you’ve done springs from something you found interesting. Find what’s vague so you can make it clearer in your thoughts for the viva. Consider what you might ask your examiners – and thus how you’ll play your part in the viva.

And find more thoughts on VIVA at this link!

Preparing A 3-Minute Summary

Three minutes is not long to share something of your work, whether on stage for a competition or as part of your viva. Depending on how quickly you talk and the emphasis you give to things, you have between 300 and 400 words at most. Exploring what you would say with that much time and that many words could be a nice way to play with your viva prep.

Start your planning by reflecting with a set of Why-How-What questions:

  • Why does your work matter?
  • How did you do your research?
  • What is the result of your research?

You can focus this more by thinking about your audience: what would they need to hear to help them understand what you’ve done or to help them see the most important aspects?

If it was your examiners, for example, in your viva, you would know that they had read your thesis. You would know that they had studied it and prepared to meet with you. You don’t need to overthink your summary, you simply have to share with them again what you think matters, why it matters – what really stands out from what you’ve done?

Three minutes isn’t long, but it can be enough to highlight something valuable, to emphasise what matters or to introduce a longer period of discussion. Take your time, use it well.

The Overview

It’s reasonable to expect your examiners to ask you to summarise what you’ve done. It’s a fairly common opening question. Given that a thesis could run to many tens of thousands of words it’s probable your examiners would want you to be concise in exploring or explaining what you did.

Being asked to give an overview, either of your thesis, your research or your results, shouldn’t be too taxing for you. Over the course of your PhD you will have spoken about your work many times and given “the short version”. You will have written about your research in lots of ways. There’s lots of practice and material in your mind to draw on when you get to the viva.

A little more rehearsal won’t hurt you though!

In the weeks leading up to your viva consider what you would typically say if asked to summarise your work. Perhaps write it out or record yourself and reflect: Does this really capture it all? If there was one thing to add, what would it be? Find a good opportunity to run it past your supervisor or a trusted friend and get their opinion.

If asked to give an overview or summary in the viva, there’s no way you can tell your examiners everything that might be possibly relevant. A little rehearsal before the viva can help you be sure that you’re giving them enough.

Keysheet

Because cheatsheet sounds a bit wrong, how about you make a keysheet for your PhD? One page capturing all the things you need to know.

Success in the viva is more than rote memorisation of details, but there are some that are worth seeking out and listing. A little search before the viva, either through your thesis or through your memory, can give you a helpful boost. You can be confident the important facts are filed away where they need to be. Facts like:

  • a short list of the most important references in your bibliography;
  • a one-paragraph summary of what your thesis is about;
  • a few details about each of your examiners’ interests;
  • several key questions you’ve explored in your work;
  • a list of the contribution(s) that your research makes to your field;
  • the talents you have developed over the course of your PhD.

Don’t forget the last one, whatever else you add to this single page. It’s important to remind yourself of how you’ve been able to achieve everything.

It’s not a cheatsheet, because you didn’t cheat. A keysheet captures the essential components of your thesis and research.

Like you.

SWOT For Viva Day

I like SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – as a simple tool that provides a lot of direction for thinking. I’ve written about it before but today I want to explore how it could help you think about you as a candidate for your viva day.

  • Strengths: What are you strengths as a candidate? What do you know well? How can you use that to your advantage?
  • Weaknesses: Where do you feel weak? Why? What steps could you take to support yourself, if you need to?
  • Opportunities: Where are there opportunities for you in the viva? What questions could you ask your examiners? How could you make the most of the situation?
  • Threats: What could have a negative impact on your viva day? What’s beyond your control? What steps could you take to minimise the impact?

The threats are already minimal in the viva; perhaps think about how you will get there, and decide in advance what you will take. There are lots of opportunities to get useful insights from your examiners. They have experience that you can use, ideas that could help you if your plans are to stay in academia, for example. You might have weaknesses, but they can’t be terrible because you would never have got this far if they were. Think about what you might do to help you feel confident despite them.

Remember that you and your work have real strengths. Your work is good. You are good.

7 One-Pagers For Prep

Take a single sheet of paper, your thesis and half an hour to an hour and you can make something really useful for your viva prep. A summary of something, answers to a few key questions or thoughts on what makes your thesis special. Here are seven one-page ideas for viva preparation:

  1. Write “What’s important?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet. You could do this for your whole thesis or go chapter-by-chapter if you want to have room for more details.
  2. Write a page about your examiners and their interests. What do you know about them? What have they published recently and how might that connect with your work?
  3. Use the VIVA tool to analyse a key chapter or your whole thesis. Explore different aspects of your work to bring useful ideas to the forefront.
  4. Summarise the tricky parts of your research. Create a cheatsheet that details how you can explain difficulties.
  5. Write “What’s my contribution?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet.
  6. Create an edited bibliography. This might be a little tricky on a single sheet of paper, but could be done!
  7. Write out responses to a mini-viva! Select a set of questions from here and divide your page up as directed.

One page of A4 and an hour isn’t going to be all you’ll need to get ready for the viva. You can use it as a helpful exercise one day though. Structure helps get the work done!

Four Mini-Vivas To Kickstart Your Viva Prep

A year ago I first shared 7776 Mini-Vivas, a resource to create useful summaries, reflections and conversations as part of viva prep. I love seeing people share the resource, and I continue to tinker with it to find other ways to share it.

Today, I’m simply presenting four mini-vivas for you to use. You could write the questions out on a sheet of paper and give yourself thirty minutes to an hour to write down some notes. You could give them to a friend to structure a conversation. You could record yourself talking about them and listen back afterwards to reflect.

All four could help you to reflect on what you’ve done for your PhD and what it means – two areas of conversation that are sure to come up in your viva.


Mini-Viva 1

  • What is your main research question?
  • How do you know your methods are valid?
  • How is your work related to your examiners’ research?
  • What questions have you been asked about your work previously?
  • What’s the impact of your work?

Mini-Viva 2

  • What are the three brightest parts of your research?
  • What influenced your methodology?
  • How did existing literature in the field influence you?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?

Mini-Viva 3

  • How would you define your thesis contribution?
  • Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  • What were some of the challenges you overcame during your PhD?
  • How would you summarise your main results?
  • What publications do you hope to produce?

Mini-Viva 4

  • Why did you want to pursue your research?
  • How would you describe your methodology?
  • How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  • How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  • What are you taking away from your PhD?

Remember to leave some time to come back to your reflections, whether written or recorded, to review what you think and see if more ideas come. You could also ask yourself “Why?” after most of these questions to prompt deeper reflection.

There’s another 7772 possible mini-vivas from the resource – you probably don’t need to use all of them as part of your viva prep!

7 Summary Starters

Writing a summary of your research, or some part of it, is useful for viva prep because it gets you making abstract ideas more concrete. It can be tricky to get started when faced with a blank page or a new text document. Sometimes the simplest way to start writing a summary is to answer a question:

  1. What got you started with your research topic?
  2. What was the paper or book that really hooked your interest?
  3. How would you describe your thesis contribution?
  4. What’s important about your thesis/research?
  5. What papers have been most helpful for your research?
  6. What has surprised you about your research?
  7. How has your research changed during your PhD?

If you use these questions, don’t just think about them, write down some thoughts. You don’t have to write perfect paragraphs, but capturing your ideas will help your thinking in the long term.

Ten Quick Top Fives

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.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. 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.

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