The First-Year Viva

I write and publish this blog with the final PhD viva in mind, but there are other times when some of the ideas and advice might be applied. The first-year viva naturally springs to mind: a test that marks confirmation that a postgraduate researcher is on track. After a year of work they have made progress, are showing their potential and their department is confident that they will complete their PhD.

Thoughts on how to prepare for the first-year viva are very similar to the final viva. Ideas of who can support you, expressed throughout the many posts of this blog, are the same: your supervisors, your colleagues, your friends and family. The expectations for first-year vivas are very similar.

Everything is smaller though. Shorter than the final viva. Less work expected. Less prep needed. The stakes and the desired outcome are nowhere near as great as the final viva.

Of course, for all the same reasons that one might feel nervous for the final viva, you might feel nervous for your first-year viva. Worries about what to expect. Uncertainty about whether you’ve done enough. Anxiety about whether or not you are good enough.

All the same remedies are needed as for the final viva. You can’t simply change how you feel. You can work to get past the worry and stress. Do the prep. Ask for help. Reflect on your journey so far. Remember that you’re learning, developing, but capable. You are good enough.

Ask others from your department about their experiences in the first-year viva to learn more about what to expect. Then use that to work well and work past any doubts you have about the future of your PhD journey.

First & Final

My work – the sessions I run, the things I write and do – is focussed on the final year viva. The last big milestone of the PhD journey. But earlier in a postgraduate researcher’s story there might be another viva.

It’s sometimes called a first-year viva, a transfer review or some other set of words that means we’re checking in that you’re on track now that you’ve been doing this for a while.

I don’t know a lot about them.

A lot of what motivates the final viva is comparable to the first-year viva. My knowledge is limited though and I can’t offer the same certainties: I don’t know about expectations for lengths or questions. I can make educated guesses; the best people to talk to are the people you know already. Your supervisors and your friends who have been through the process. Local knowledge is going to beat anything that the person on the internet can say.

 

A participant at a webinar last year asked me, “What do I do about my final viva if I had a bad experience at my first-year viva?”

It was a brave and generous question. Brave because even in a webinar it can be hard to share something like that. Generous because they were probably not the only person to have a bad experience during their PhD, at their first-year viva or otherwise, and their question allowed a space to talk about that issue.

I didn’t know a lot about that person. I knew nothing about their first-year viva. I felt confident saying this though:

“You don’t have to be defined by that one experience. That happened. But that doesn’t have to be what you take forward. That doesn’t have to be the thing you keep in mind for your final viva. It was probably hard, but you can move past that. Despite that you kept going. Focus on that instead. Your first-year viva and your final viva are two completely different events, with different people involved. And now you are a different person to who you were then. Focus on everything you’ve achieved over the course of your PhD, and not one day that didn’t go to plan. Keep going.”

Well, I said something like that! I wish I had had this set of particular words arranged just so on that day a few months ago.

I offer them here instead, in case they can help anyone else.

If your first-year viva was tough, or if you had another difficult meeting or conversation during your PhD, remember: that was then and now you’re not the same person.

You’ve done more, know more and can do more. You’ve done enough to prove yourself. Keep going and succeed in the viva.

Upgraded

The viva at the end of the PhD is a unique set of circumstances in your doctoral journey – but there are other events like the viva.

Most candidates will have had to pass a transfer or upgrade viva at some point (for full time candidates this is often around the end of the first year). In some institutions and departments this might be like a mini-viva, testing everything that you’ve done to that point in a similar style to the end of the PhD viva. In some places, the transfer viva is more like a simple conversation.

(I remember two defining questions from mine: “What have you done?” and “Are you happy?”)

Your transfer viva might only have a superficial resemblance to the main viva, but you must have passed it to get to submission. That counts. You were upgraded.

And you must have answered difficult questions in meetings, after conference talks and while you were doing your research. You upgraded then too.

A lot of focus is given to your thesis and research, but it is worth remembering that a far greater output of your PhD journey is you.

A new you, a more talented, more knowledgeable, more capable you.

Upgraded.

Transfer And Final

I didn’t have a transfer viva at the end of my first year. This was nearly fifteen years ago; I had a forty minute meeting with my second supervisor. He read my ten-page summary of what I’d done in my first year, asked a few questions and then said, “Well, that all seems fine.”

From listening to other researchers’ transfer viva stories I’m aware this isn’t always as simple. A real sense of “will I pass?” can be the case for some people. If that was your story, or if you just wonder how the two events might compare, remember that the transfer viva and the PhD viva are two different events with two different purposes. They might have some similarities, but those are structural. The why behind them really is different.

The PhD viva is likely to be longer than your transfer; you’ve done more by the end of the PhD, so there is naturally more to cover. How you felt about the transfer, positive or negative, can influence how you feel about the PhD viva. If you feel like the transfer was a terrible thing then I can understand how the PhD viva would seem intimidating.

Focus on the fact that you must have passed your transfer viva to have got to the final viva. You must have. It might have been hard, but you did it. You did it because you had whatever you needed to pass.

And you’ll have that for the final viva too.