The Changing Whys

Why did you start your PhD?

Why did you keep going?

Why did you make progress?

Why were you ready to submit when you did?

Why are you going to be ready for your viva?

You had your reasons that got you started in your research. While those might change as you keep going, you still have your whys as you head to the finish.

Circumstances for your viva might change, pressures might rise up that you were not expecting. Keep a hold of your whys – why you’re doing your PhD, the fundamentals – and you’ll get through.

(remember the definition of survive)

Survive & Thrive

Let’s start with dictionary definitions:

  • Survive: manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.
  • Thrive: grow, develop and be successful.

I get into conversations on a semi-regular basis about whether or not survive is the right verb for the viva. Thrive sounds good. Thrive sounds better than survive in many ways. Perhaps it would be better to rebrand, both myself and my advice…?

I don’t think so: for one thing, “viva survivor” rhymes and there’s nothing quite like a good rhyme for latching into someone’s memory!

Secondly, more importantly, I don’t think survive and thrive are mutually exclusive. Why not do both in the viva? Who says you can’t manage to keep going in difficult circumstances to grow, develop and be successful?

The viva is an exam and a conversation. You play the dual role of expert and student. You can be prepared for it and yet unaware of what exactly is going to happen. The viva is lots of things, all at once.

There’s room for you to survive and thrive.

Is Survival Enough?

Every candidate needs to survive their viva, and given what is needed at the viva, every candidate can survive their viva.

You can want and have more though.

  • You can survive and enjoy your viva. It could even be fun!
  • You can survive your viva and learn from it. Pick up interesting ideas from your examiners or discovering something for yourself.
  • You can survive and thrive in the viva. Grow through it, be re-energised.

You can do more than survive, but survival could be enough. It may be all you get. As with so much about the viva, and life in general, it comes down to how you approach it. If you want to enjoy your viva, what could you do to tilt things in that direction? If you want to learn, what questions might you need to ask? If you want to thrive, how might you need to prepare?

Surviving is the default; is it enough for you?

Only Difficult

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

The viva is only difficult.

It’s a challenge, but not beyond you.

If it feels overwhelming, reflect a little on the challenges you’ve overcome during your PhD. How big were they? How challenging? How difficult? How many serious obstacles have you overcome to get to the viva?

The viva isn’t trivial, but it’s not impossible either. It’s only difficult.

And you can do difficult.

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.

Breaking Down Survive

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. Despite negative associations it is the perfect verb to describe the mode of action for a viva candidate. Every part of the definition matters.

  • …manage… Not struggle. No almost. Manage.
  • …to keep going… Already in motion. Already moving in a good direction.
  • …in difficult circumstances… Not impossible. Not unknown. Not unknowable. Difficult.

If you’re feeling unsure or uncertain, more like survive-no-matter-what than survive-as-defined, then explore:

  • …manage… What could you do now to plan for the viva?
  • …to keep going… What have you done well to get you this far?
  • …in difficult circumstances… Who could you ask for more information about these circumstances?

And when you know what you need to: keep going!

Manage To Keep Going In Difficult Circumstances

You can survive the viva, but you don’t just survive the viva.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” suggests someone has been doing this for a while.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” tells you someone has experience.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is encouraging, not overwhelming.

“Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” is honest, but not the full story.

Surviving doesn’t just happen in the viva: you survive because of the knowledge, skill and experience you take to the viva.

Survival Time

Have you heard of the “rules of three” for surviving in extreme conditions?

  • You can survive three minutes without oxygen.
  • You can survive three hours without shelter/warmth.
  • You can survive three days without water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

People survive in extreme conditions, but only just.

I’ve heard PhD candidates wonder how they might survive in a potential three hour viva. That’s not extreme conditions, even relative to the viva! Most candidates could expect to be finished within three hours. It’s difficult to imagine what an extreme viva might be. There are challenges inherent in the process, but they’re not all or nothing, do or die.

PhD candidates survive the challenges of the viva – they manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – because of the challenges they’ve already faced in the three or more years of doing research.

The years help with the hours.