Responsibility

Picture two friends: the first has just passed their viva, the second is trying to unpick what happened…

…I was really lucky with the questions-

-lucky? Why, were they easy?

Well… No, they were pretty challenging in places. I was lucky because I knew how to answer them well.

Lucky? The answers just came to you?

…noooo, they were things I’d considered before. Or I could figure them out. They were tricky, but I could deal with them. I guess it’s lucky my examiners decided to ask those particular questions.

There’s that word again! Lucky? Did they just use a big list of random questions? Was it super-lucky that those were the ones they picked off the list?

OK, I see what you’re saying! My thesis will have guided them a bit-

-“a bit”?!

…I don’t know! What do you want me to say?!

Your thesis didn’t just happen! None of it’s “luck”! You did this!

I know, I know. I get what you’re saying… I still feel lucky!

…did you get corrections?

Yes.

Do you accept responsibility for them?

Of course!

Then accept responsibility for the rest too!

It’s not luck that did your PhD or helped you through the viva.

Accept responsibility.

What’s In Your Toolbox?

When you reach the viva you have more than facts and theories. You have tools for thinking, seeing and doing. They’re shaped by experience, forged through work, refined by everything you’ve done.

Ahead of your viva, reflect on the tools you’ve made for yourself: what tools are you taking with you into the viva? How do you think of what you’ve developed? And can any of these tools be improved on through your viva preparation?

Relative

Compare your experience and knowledge to your examiners and you might feel pretty small. They’ve had longer to see more, learn more, do more and know more. A candidate could easily worry as a result.

But more is not the same as better. Yes, your examiners know more in general, but you know more specifically. They could have a better view of the big picture, but you have a clearer perspective of your research.

Remember: your examiners have read your thesis, but you made it.

Behind The Curtain

In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all thought they were missing something.

The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the Tin Man lacked a heart and the Lion had no courage. Dorothy takes them to see the Wizard, thinking that a great and powerful man like him will be able to give them the qualities they lack. Ultimately though, he shows them there is nothing he can give that they didn’t already have. All he gives them are symbols that recognise what was there.

Those qualities were there because they had the opportunity to show them through their adventures. They had to do something to demonstrate their intelligence, their love, their bravery, but after years of doubt they couldn’t see they had those qualities. They had to have the symbol and someone to point it out to them.

There are two Wizards in your viva. They can’t magically give you a PhD. Their questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, something that you’ve been doing for a long time.

The curtain is pulled back and the truth is there. There’s no magic, but that’s no problem. You already have everything you need.

Competence

When I tell candidates their examiners will be checking their competence in the viva, I feel them pull back. Perhaps we’ve heard the word “incompetent” too often. Now even if we talk about the opposite it comes to mind. I ponder the viva and how to help people all the time. So I keep thinking about this word, competence, and if there’s a better way to get the point across.

I turn to the thesaurus and find:

expertise, fitness, know-how, proficiency, savvy, skill, suitability, talent, the right stuff, what it takes

As a candidate you’re not being asked to be superhuman. You need to be good. You need to have done something good.

That has to necessarily be the case by the time you submit. There’s just no other explanation.

To get this far you have what it takes.

Check Your Records

In your records you see your story, even in outline.

Got a lab book? Read it. Kept a diary? Give it the once-over. You probably have an electronic record of meetings with your supervisor, right? Look over those notes.

What do you see? Ideas? Plans? Objectives? Successes? Failures? Goals unmet? Wins, big and small?

The broad strokes of a talented researcher doing something good. Look at how far you’ve come.

It’s your story. Use it to be your best self in the viva.

Easy, Hard, Challenging

Don’t worry about whether or not your viva will be easy or hard. Who knows what you’ll feel like on the day, in the moment?

Prepare for a challenge. Two people have read your thesis and are ready to ask you all about it. This isn’t trivial, an elevator conversation or dinner party chit-chat. It’s there to explore what you’ve done, what you could have done and what all that means.

On the day you could find this easy or hard, but it will still be a challenge.

It’s still a challenge even if you are necessarily talented.

Good Answers

Good answers don’t just appear on the day.

Good answers to your examiners’ questions happen because you’ve done the work.

Good answers happen because you know things.

Good answers happen because you’re talented.

I think great answers in the viva come when you give yourself a few extra seconds to think…

…what else do I know?

…is that the best thing to start with?

…what did I say in my thesis?

…what did I do like this in my research?

A few seconds can make good into great, but don’t stress.

Good is enough.

Unlucky For Some?

If the viva came down to luck, I’d be worried if mine was on Friday 13th! But it’s not about luck.

  • You’re not lucky if your thesis passes with minor corrections.
  • You’re not lucky if your examiners say nice things.
  • You’re not lucky if you feel good about your viva.

Your PhD comes down to effort, actions and talent: the things you do over a long period of time put you in a good position for the viva.

You can be fortunate, but that’s different. Fortunate is something good happening as a result of effort. You can be fortunate throughout your PhD as a result of the questions you ask, the risks you take and the good work you do. You’ll likely be fortunate in the viva, because of all the work that you’ve done, and the talent you bring with you.

It’s not likely that you’ll be unlucky (or lucky).