The Good Stuff

I ask people how they feel about the viva at the start of viva prep workshops. It’s rare for candidates to say excited. Sometimes people will frame excitement as “excited that my PhD is almost over” but that’s quite different from “excited that I get to talk to my examiners about my research.”

You can’t cherry pick the discussion in the viva, and it’s not wise to only focus on the good stuff in your prep, but you can take control of where some of your motivation is coming from for the viva. If you ask the right questions you can inspire yourself. Maybe if you have any anxiety about it all, you can change the way that you think about it.

So, to start, what are you excited to talk about with your examiners?

Dreamer, Realist, Critic

I’m a big fan of creative thinking tools. The Disney Method is one I like a lot. It forces you to break creative thinking into stages by adopting three personas:

  • Dreamer: think of as many ideas as possible; encourage brainstorming; remove constraints and see where thoughts take you.
  • Realist: think about what would work practically; explore within resources and deadlines; see what can be achieved.
  • Critic: think about what won’t work in your ideas; test them to destruction; find problems to solve.

At the end of this kind of process, ideas are stronger and more clearly defined. You can see whether or not they will actually be useful.

Maybe something like this could be a useful framing when it comes to look back over one’s research too:

  • Dreamer: what did you want to do when you started? What were your big goals? How high were you aiming?
  • Realist: what did you actually do during your PhD? How did you tame your objectives? In what ways did you have to adjust the scale of your ambitions?
  • Critic: where are the problems with what you’ve done? What could people object to? What would you do differently, and why?

You might not get these exact questions in the viva, but they might not be a million miles away either. Tools like this can be useful to unpick and explore. They can boost your confidence at going over your research in the viva.

Bonus questions: Which are you most like in your day-to-day, a Dreamer, a Realist or a Critic? How well does that work for you?

Six Whys

Why questions are the root of reflection. You have to take a step back and ponder. Here are six for viva preparation:

  1. Why were you attracted to your field of study?
  2. Why was your particular focus worth pursuing?
  3. Why were the methods you used the best fit for what you did?
  4. Why are you certain of the results you’ve found?
  5. Why is your interpretation of those results correct?
  6. Why is your research a significant contribution to your field?

Big questions. Take some time to think about these, maybe journal them or make some notes. They get at the core of your research.

Decisions

It’s the General Election in the UK today. Today is a day for a decision – but then so is every day.

Every day is a series of decisions, some big, some small, some that don’t matter and many that do. There are decisions that only you care about, and decisions that you wish you didn’t have to make. There are decisions that will change things forever and some that are just one of many options that seem fairly similar – you have to pick something and so you do.

The PhD is a series of decisions. The viva might explore some of them. Which methodology did you pick and why? Why study this topic in this way? Why do X instead of Y? Why did you come to that conclusion? Why, why, why, why…

The PhD is a series of decisions that you make, and the viva is where you try to account for them. Some of them aren’t right or wrong – they just are. They need an explanation or an argument to support them. Your examiners may disagree or have a point of view that needs accounting for. “Why?” is a good place to start there too. Once it has been asked then there’s no place to hide: both parties need to listen, think and come to a conclusion.

Unpicking decisions can be a useful prep tool for the viva, both to strengthen arguments and prepare for answers.

What Didn’t Work?

If something didn’t work, if something went wrong, if you didn’t get the result you were hoping for… Why? In 3+ years of research, not everything can go perfectly. What’s responsible? Who is responsible?

At every stage, but particularly at the end of the PhD, you have a choice in the story you tell yourself. You can say that it’s all your fault. You can say that things were beyond your control. Or you can change focus: treat everything as an opportunity to learn. This happened, why, what next? This happened, why, what do I do differently?

Play

Play never stops being important. Want to play let’s pretend? How would you explain your research to:
A five year old?
Your parents?
Your best friend?
Someone on the bus?
A well-educated person from the nineteenth century?
A well-educated person from the twenty-second century?
Your supervisor at the start of your PhD?
Your supervisor today?

Play is never just wasting time. Play helps to unpick the core of skills and ideas. Play at explaining your research. You might find something new and interesting.

Your Greatest Hits

Examiners and graduates tell me that the viva typically starts with a question like, “Can you tell us about the most important parts of your research?” or “What is your work all about?” It’s a question worth practicing when the opportunity presents.

It is a big question though, so if you’re preparing for the viva, here are five questions that will help unpick it.

When were you most engaged during your PhD?
What do you want people to refer to in your thesis?
What would you most like to build on?
Which of your chapters or results is closest to perfection and why?
What parts of your research are least important? (followed up by “What’s left in your thesis after this?”)

You’re a talented researcher to have the viva in your future. You can think of more questions which will help you unpick this possible viva-opener.