The Standard

You need to have made a significant, original contribution with your research. Defining the standard for that is hard, but we can rule some things out. The standard is not…

  • …producing two papers during your PhD.
  • …having at least six chapters in your thesis.
  • …70,000 words.
  • …a minimum of 200 references in your bibliography.
  • …working yourself into a shell of your former self.
  • …perfection.

The standard is good enough.

Are your research and your thesis good enough? Are you good enough?

Good enough might still be tricky to define. Together you and your supervisors can establish some helpful criteria that can show you’re meeting the standard. It has to be discussed because every thesis is different, but figuring out what good enough means for your work, and knowing you’ve met the standard is a huge confidence boost for the viva.

Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.

 

Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

Nervous & Confident

Nervous and confident aren’t polar opposites.

If you feel nervous about something – like, say, your viva – then you’re recognising it’s important. Nervous isn’t the same as being anxious or being worried, although it might not be comfortable. Nervous is a recognition of something in your future, not something inherently bad or to be feared. “This thing matters to me.”

Being confident about something – like, say, your viva – is believing with good reason that you have talent or knowledge to be able to deal with a future situation. “I can do this.”

Being confident about your success in the viva helps to put nervous feelings in perspective. Confidence helps to balance the discomfort of nervousness.

You could go around and around trying to figure out what triggers your nervousness, wondering what you could do to stop feeling nervous – or you could take steps to build your confidence for the viva. Reflect on your talent. Summarise your progress over years of work. Really think about all that you’ve done and know.

Feeling nervous before your viva isn’t bad, but being confident is very good!

Little Things, Big Differences

I’m still not going to reveal my secret bread recipe, but I’ll share some of the little things I’ve learned that help me bake a good loaf:

  • Blending different bread flours gives a better flavour than just having one type.
  • Ratios really matter! It took time, but I found that a strict connection between quantities of flour, yeast and oil really help. For every 100g of flour, use 2g of instant yeast and 5ml of olive oil
  • Knead less, prove more.
  • Longer proving in general seems to lead to better flavour. Dough that rests in the fridge overnight nearly always tastes better.

Whatever the recipe, for whatever the situation, tinker with the little things. Tinker, repeat and see what happens. The big ingredients or steps can take you so far, then the little things help you find big differences after that.

 

Back to your PhD and your viva.

What little things did you try in your PhD? How did they help? Where did you see great gains for trying small changes? And how could those small changes help you now in your viva?

What small things could you do now that might make a big difference for your viva?

The Middle

A lot of space is given to the origins of a research project in how we think about the viva and what you might need to talk about. How did you get started? What ideas influenced your first steps? What literature did you read?

Lots of space is also given to the outcomes of a PhD. What are your conclusions? What results helped you reach those conclusions? What’s the overall result of your thesis?

These two themes are important, but we mustn’t forget the middle of your PhD. The middle where you kept going. The middle where you most likely found your way past dead ends and small failures.

How did you get through the middle? What did you learn? How did you keep going – and how could you use that to keep going now?

Ready Means…

…you did the work.

Not just the prep but all the work before that too.

You did the research. You wrote your thesis. You earned and achieved your way to submission.

You took time between submission and the viva to read more, check more and do more to be sure you were talented.

Ready means you’re probably still nervous but confident anyway; polished but not perfect.

Ready means you’ll go to your viva and pass.

Any PhD candidate can be ready for their viva, and that means you can be too!

When it’s time, go get ready.

Good

You can’t be perfect: you can be good. You can know enough and do enough to be good enough for your PhD. You can show enough in your thesis and in your viva to convince your examiners that you’re good.

By submission you must be good. I think for many candidates there is a belief gap  – they don’t believe that they have become good enough. Some are not sure that they ever will be good enough.

You can’t simply wish to feel differently. Instead, reflect on what you’ve done to get this far. Analyse and list all of your achievements, big and small, that have lead you to submission and to viva preparation. Reflect on your talents and really see that you’ve done enough.

Know what you are good at – and know that you are good.

Advice Isn’t Enough

You can read books about the viva. You can ask your supervisors for their advice. You can talk to friends and colleagues about their experiences. Get lots of recommendations.

And then you have to do something.

Take all the ideas and take action. Take everything you know about your research and thesis, factor in everyone’s advice, hints and helpful suggestions and take action.

Action that helps you remember what you need.

Action that helps you reflect on what you’ve done.

Action that helps get you one step close to where you need to be for talking to your viva.

At some point more knowledge and advice isn’t enough. You have to do something to help you get ready.

A Contribution

You’ve not simply done something for the last couple of years: you’ve made a contribution, made something different, made something that changes what came before. Made something that matters. You don’t need a model answer or script to hand to describe what you’ve done for your examiners, but it will help you in the viva to have reflected on how your work makes a difference.

So, quite simply, what’s your thesis contribution?

Before your viva make notes, reflect on your contribution and tell others about it. Then you’ll be more confident discussing what you’ve done with your examiners when you have to defend your thesis.