A Long Way From Impossible

There’s lots about life that is difficult at the moment. Some aspects might even be practically impossible, compared to life in 2019, or even a few months ago. Thankfully, the viva isn’t one of those impossible things. There are difficult aspects to vivas, but none are impossible.

  • Knowing what to expect is not impossible. You can ask, you can explore, you can find out.
  • Knowing what to do to prepare is not impossible. It takes time – but not a lot – it could be tricky to manage if you’re social distancing and have limited space, but it can be done.
  • Knowing what to do on the day is not impossible. Ask others how they approached it, find out what’s involved with an online viva, decide how you want to approach the situation.
  • Building confidence for the viva is not impossible. Reflect on what you’ve done previously, see what you can do to remind yourself of all your talent. You must be talented to have got this far.

Some things in life will be beyond your control now. Some things will be impossible for you to do anything practical to change the situation, and that can feel really, really hard in so many ways.

Your viva is not one of those things.

Your viva, in all aspects, is a long way from impossible.

Keep going.

Mock Viva Dos and Don’ts

Do have a mock viva because they’re generally seen as a useful part of viva preparations, but…

  • …don’t have a mock viva if you want to go through a script.
  • …don’t have a mock viva if you’re not prepared.
  • …don’t have a mock viva and expect that your actual viva will mirror what happens in the mock.
  • …don’t have a mock viva at short notice.
  • …don’t have a mock viva without thinking about what you want to get from it.

Do have a mock viva! Rehearse the general situation of your viva – what to expect, how to respond – and most importantly, what it feels like to be in that situation.

Certainties

There are lots of unknowns for the viva. Lots of maybes and probables and expectations-that-should-be-true. This leaves plenty of space for doubts. What if…? Maybe if this happens…? It’s not hard to see why PhD candidates get nervous and worried in anticipation of their vivas.

Thankfully, though, there are also many certainties for your viva:

  • You did the work.
  • You must be talented.
  • You know your research.
  • You wrote your thesis.
  • You know who your examiners are.
  • You can prepare.

And while expectations are only the most likely circumstances, you can get certainty from the overwhelming number of viva stories that describe them as being fine. Not perfect, but a challenge you can rise to – by this stage, that’s certain.

Bloopers & Highlights

How often do you compare yourself to others?

I did this all the time during my PhD.

One office mate was determined to complete his PhD quickly. My friend at the next desk was a superstar, she had real talent. One of my best friends seemed so calm all the time. Compared to my friends, I was terrible.

What was I doing? How could I do a PhD if these people set the standard?

Of course, I only saw one side of their stories, and a distorted view of my own. Comparing “talent” and “progress” is a losing game during a PhD – if there’s even a game to be played! But so many people do it.

Is it any wonder candidates get to their viva and doubt themselves?

I spotted a really helpful YouTube video by one of the former podcast guests, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, and it resonated with me. The video is aimed at teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues, but a lot of the same ideas apply to postgraduate researchers too. Instead of comparing your bloopers – your mistakes – to your friends’ achievements, maybe try talking with them. Instead of dwelling on your slip-ups, focus on your own highlights. Think about how you can make them even higher!

Explore your highlights before your bloopers when it comes to your viva preparation.

Day By Day

Over the course of a full-time PhD in the UK, a candidate will probably show up on seven to eight hundred days. I can well imagine this number goes up for a part-time PhD. A candidate shows up when they come to get something done: work on their research practically, learn something, share something or write something.

They show up when they come to do something that matters.

On most days it might not feel like much. Stuck in the middle of second year, you could feel as if you’re stuck in a loop. Wake up, do work, sleep, wake up, do work, sleep, and so on. But it all helps. It adds up. Over hundreds of days, bit by bit, you build talent. Reflect on them and you can build confidence too.

You won’t have hundreds of days between submission and the viva, but this day by day perspective still helps through preparation time. Do a little every day, and build up how ready you feel. Build up your confidence day by day.

Pay attention to when you show up and confidence will follow.

Different Approaches

When it comes to viva prep there are lots of ways you could try to prepare.

You could read your thesis once and leave it at that.

You could read and re-read your thesis to try to remember everything.

You could obsess and try to make everything perfect.

You could do nothing and shrug your shoulders, saying “What happens, happens!”

You could worry, and hope that nothing too bad happens.

Or…

…you could learn what to expect, reasonably; you could know your thesis is not perfect, and that’s OK; you could do a little prep, making sure you have a good general awareness of your thesis and research and time to rehearse in some way; you could work on building your confidence, so that you go to your viva as sure as you can be that you will succeed.

The last approach is my favourite of course. It’s less simple than the others, but easier to do.

How are you working your way to being prepared?

Viva Reminders

You’re not expected to simply remember everything in your viva. Photographic recall is not a requirement, and there are lots of useful reminders you can use:

  • Use Post-it Notes to mark the start of chapters or important sections.
  • Write a list of important references.
  • Create a cheatsheet of questions you want to ask you examiners.
  • Read your thesis and write short summaries to break down your structure.
  • Make something to help you remember the important things you’ve achieved.
  • Make a jar of awesome to help you remember how good you are!

Of course, there’s a lot more you might need to remember, and a lot more ways you could help yourself remember.

So what do you need? And what will you do?

(A Final Reminder: need in this case could be because it will simply help you to feel better – that’s OK!)

When It Matters

Before your viva, for weeks or maybe months leading up, it might feel like the only thing that matters.

During your viva, perhaps it really is the only thing. You might forget everything else. You might genuinely be surprised or confused at how quickly time has passed while there.

And afterwards, there might be a brief spell where you think it was the peak. Maybe. But I have a hunch that the achievement will come to dominate more than the event.

I’ve been keeping thoughts of my viva as a little companion for a long time, but that’s because of work. In the twelve years since my viva I’ve done far bigger things. I’ve had much more important life events. I couldn’t be here today without going through my viva, but my viva doesn’t matter that much now.

Not as much as what I did during the course of my PhD, and not as much as what’s come after.

Perspective takes time, but trust me, if you’re finding any part of the time leading up to or around your viva tough, in future you will find some comfort.

Feelings

It’s important to reflect on how you feel about your viva. It’s not enough, I think, to just feel nervous or worried or happy or unsure. Ask yourself WHY you feel that way: dig a little deeper to see what you could do.

  • Feel nervous? Why? What does that tell you?
  • Feel worried? Why? What could you do to feel less worried?
  • Feel happy? Why? What could you do to build on that feeling?
  • Feel unsure? Why? What could bring you greater certainty?

Remember that while it’s your viva you’re not the only person present.

Try to imagine how your examiners might be feeling. Nervous, maybe, because they want to do a good job. Pressured, perhaps, because of how busy they are and what’s happening in their lives. Impressed by what they’ve seen in your thesis? Certainly. And maybe a little excited at the anticipation of a good discussion.

So: how do you feel?

Priorities Change

Even when a pandemic isn’t happening all around us, priorities change.

You focus on something and then… You have less time, less resources, less space, less energy, and you have to shift your focus. Or perhaps you suddenly have more of one thing: more responsibility, more to do, more to think about, and you have to change your priority.

If your viva is in the near future, it’s understandable to be concerned. Whatever approach you were going to take before might be in doubt. Timelines and outcomes may even seem uncertain.

The core tasks of preparation remain the same though, even if your immediate priorities might shift: you need to know about expectations, you need to read your thesis, you need to reflect on and reframe your work, you need to have some kind of meaningful rehearsal for responding to questions.

While these need to be done, they might seem a distant second (or third, or…) to everything else. That’s fine: be kind to yourself. Put your focus where you need to. When you can, take little steps to advance your preparation. It doesn’t have to be your focus.

A lot of small steps will get you where you need to be.