Surviving

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances. In some ways I feel like this is quite a mundane definition, almost boring: it doesn’t capture the flavour of what people tend to think about survival. Over time we have skewed survive to only mean situations where life is threatened and nearly all hope is lost.

Survive implies, I think, a challenge that is being worked through. It feels like the best verb to describe the kind of challenge being overcome in the PhD viva: it’s not a new challenge, it’s not impossible, it’s not supposed to be a struggle. It applies to the PhD as well, of course, though the challenge is bigger, for longer and can take many forms.

Manage to keep going in difficult circumstances sometimes doesn’t capture the nuance of the difficulty or the challenge. It doesn’t account for how someone might feel about their PhD or viva. It’s still the best verb I can think of for describing how someone can engage with the circumstances of their viva.

A Visit From St. Nate

‘Twas the night before my viva, and all through my place
Not a sound could be heard with my book in my face;
My thesis was filled with ideas and notes jotted
And I felt oh so bad for the typos I’d spotted!
I was anxious of all my examiners might ask,
And worried in case they should take me to task…
One last time I had settled to read by the fire,
But soon felt the need that to bed I retire.
When then from nearby I heard such a clatter,
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.
Away to my laptop I crossed with a dash
(and hoped that the battery had not caused a crash)
I lifted the lid and what then did appear
In a window: a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer…
And a kind friendly driver who seemed like a mate
-With my viva tomorrow this must be St. Nate!
Quicker than fibre his reindeer they came,
And popped out my screen as he called them by name:
“Hey Talent! Hey Effort! Determined and Steady!
Go Confident! Persistent! Survivor and Ready!
To that desk over there, the one by the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
My brain was disturbed as I watched them all fly,
And their landing place shocked me! I let out a cry-
The sleigh crashed down safely with an “Eek!” and a “Phew!”
And all eight deer were safe (and of course St. Nate too)
Then they pawed through my thesis, each with their hoof-
I thought they’d wreck my prep then I’d hit the roof!
As I drew in my breath to make some great sound
St. Nate caught my eye and stepped forth with a bound.
He was dressed in blue jeans and a faded check shirt
And carried a book titled Vivas Don’t Hurt!
His reading reindeer made appreciative whispers,
Like excited folks holding presents at Christmas;
He told me the deer were sure I was done,
And they hoped that my viva would be lots of fun.
“Your years of progress were not due to luck!
You did the work and got past being stuck.”
He continued, “Remember this, it’s true:
Your thesis contribution is all thanks to you.”
His smile was sincere and he reminded me more
Of the work I had done, and what now was in store:
A chat with two people for whom I’d prepared;
And while I was nervous, I was no longer scared.
My confidence lifted, he nodded his head.
(and I wondered if I was dreaming in bed…?)
He said nothing else but continued his work
While his reindeer team danced… And then started to twerk…
Then he whispered once more: “You’ve got this, alright?
Your examiners just want to talk, not fight.”
Then he jumped on his sleigh, to his deer gave a whistle
And I started to wake as they shot like a missile-
But I heard him exclaim, ere they left my mind’s sight:
“Happy Vivas for all, and to all a good night!”

 

Inspired by the wonderful poem by Clement Clarke Moore

Merry Christmas from Viva Survivors!

Mind Your Manners

It may seem like an odd thing to post about, but I’ve been asked about the topic many times before by PhD candidates!

“Is there anything I mustn’t say or do in the viva???”

I don’t think there’s a real danger of being impolite in the viva. You don’t need to look out for anything that wouldn’t occur to you ordinarily about watching what you say, or behaving improperly.

  • Try not to swear maybe? (unless curse words and their origins are the topic for your research!)
  • Don’t insult your examiners? (hopefully obvious!)
  • Don’t be arrogant?

There’s a little ray of worry in the last one. There is a difference between confidence in your work and arrogance at being right. There could be difficulty in balancing talking about the rightness of what you’ve done, as you see it, against questions about alternatives or being sure. That could be tricky. But it doesn’t mean that it should be avoided or obsessed over either.

Talk about alternatives before the viva, in preparation for perhaps needing to talk about it in the viva. Get more comfortable in the trickier parts of your methods and results, then you won’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

No Spoilers!

A few weeks ago I was patiently (at first, then impatiently) waiting for Avengers Endgame to be released at the cinema. Tickets booked, clock ticking down in my brain to when I could go and find out what happened. I expected that the heroes would win, but was desperate to know how…

…but not so desperate to read any reviews or leaks or spoilers. That would be heresy. I wanted to be as spoiler-free as possible. The trailer might have shown me some odd sequences, made me wonder, “Well, how did they get to there? And who are they talking to? And…” but that was just to whet my appetite.

There are no spoilers for the viva, of course. Unlike a movie it can’t be spoiled by someone telling you what happens in advance because it’s not happened. It’s not a spoiler to know you’re very, very likely to pass.

A spoiler would be knowing what questions were going to be asked, or what your examiners exactly thought in advance. And I think those would be spoilers: they would spoil the conversation, the viva would be less of a test of your talent and more a test of your memory. A viva spoiled like this would be a sad conclusion to a PhD journey.

Thankfully, there are no spoilers at all for the viva. The hero of the story will win. We might not know exactly how, but there are some pretty good reasons why…

Skeletons

Let’s make some assumptions about your PhD:

  • you didn’t plagiarise;
  • you didn’t falsify results;
  • you didn’t try to misrepresent anything in your work.

All fair? Then there can’t really be any skeletons in your research closet. Maybe there are realisations you feel you “should” have had sooner. Maybe there are questions or ideas that you groan at having considered. None of these are shameful secrets though. You might not feel like telling everyone about them, but they don’t disqualify you.

Fundamental question about your PhD: were you honest? Yes?

Good. Then everything else helped you learn. Your mistakes have helped you grow to be the talented researcher you most definitely are.

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.

Why Is It Called The Viva?

Viva voce, is often translated as living voice or word of mouth. In the viva you have to answer questions and engage with your examiners. You have to demonstrate that the expertise that created your thesis is lodged in your brain.

There are other terms – thesis defence, oral exam – but I don’t think we stick with viva for tradition’s sake. A special name makes it a special thing. It’s the viva and not something else because the name makes it more important.

Calling it the viva adds something to the special status of the final exam.

You’re special too to be there.

Bad Eggs

If you break eggs to make an omelette, you never really expect any of them will be rotten. There are processes in place that mean a box of six free range eggs on a supermarket shelf are as good as they can possibly be when you buy them. Treat them right and they’ll be fine when you need them.

A bad viva is like a bad egg: it’s a possibility, but it’s rare.

You shouldn’t expect your viva will be bad or you will fail. A good, successful viva isn’t a fluke, it’s the norm.

Expect to pass and work towards that outcome.

Wants & Needs For The Viva

Wants and needs are two different things, but they can be easy to confuse.

  • You might want to submit a perfect thesis, but that’s impossible. So think, what does your thesis need to have?
  • You might want the best possible examiners, but they might be busy. What do you need in a good examiner?
  • You might want to be 100% free of nerves for the viva, but how likely is that? What do you need to do to be as ready as you can be?

As your PhD comes to a close, it’s not wrong to think through all the things you want – for your thesis, for your viva prep, for the viva itself – but make sure you ask yourself, “What do I really need to do this?”