Support Your Choices

When a candidate hears “defend your thesis” it’s easy for them to think of the viva as a battle, a struggle or a debate.

Perhaps a better way to describe the viva is that it’s a chance to support your choices. Your examiners have read your thesis. They’ve prepared for your viva. They have questions and opinions but the space is there for you to support what you’ve done.

You can clarify the unclear, add details or expand on your process. In sharing more of your research you have the opportunity to support your choices. So in your preparation be sure to check details that need checking, highlight details that are important and summarise anything that could make a difference.

The viva is one more opportunity to show what you did, what you know and what you can do.

Again & Again

I’ve been playing the video game Hades every day for about a month and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.

The son of the Greek god Hades fights to escape the Underworld. It’s fantastic, stylish, polished and deep. It is an absolute delight to play and experience – even though there’s a steep learning curve, lots of challenges and skillsets to juggle and bring together. Again and again you die and return to the start…

…and in a weird way it makes me think of my PhD journey!

 

Again and again I had to rise to the challenge. Sometimes I knew what I had to do. Sometimes I found what I was looking for. Sometimes I could just do what I needed to.

But again and again I faced setbacks. Things didn’t work. References couldn’t be found. Answers were not forthcoming.

Again and again I started again. I would have to go back to the beginning of a problem and try to look at it from a new perspective. I would need to find a new way forward.

Again and again I grew. I became more skilled, more knowledgeable, more sure that I could take on new challenges.

And again and again I was surprised, delighted and frustrated as I continued on my journey.

 

All of your agains – the repeated steps, the start-overs, the learning, the experience, the knowledge-building – all of the frustration and growth and joy – all of this is what you take with you to the viva.

No more agains. The final step, more or less, and the talent, work and time you’ve invested helps you through.

Done, finally… Until you take on your next challenge.

Check Your Checklist

In the days leading up to the viva your big picture checklist might look a little like this:

  • Research? Done!
  • Pages? Written!
  • Thesis? Submitted!
  • Prep? Completed!
  • Confidence? ………

Your confidence might be the last thing you have to check off. It’s hard to mark as “done” with a simple tick. Unlike the previous items you can’t simply see confidence.

Confidence can be found by reflecting on all of your experiences of research. It can be seen in the progress you’ve made. Confidence is nestled amongst all of your writing and your finished thesis – proof that you’ve grown in ability. Confidence is built up through preparation for the viva and realising that you’re ready.

It isn’t always simple to check confidence off your list, but you can do it.

All The Answers

Knowing exactly what to say to answer every question in your viva isn’t a reasonable expectation. It’s not required for the viva. Your examiners don’t expect it from you. You would probably need to know all of the questions before they were asked (and you won’t).

You’re not expected to know all the answers, but you are expected to respond to every question.

A response could be an answer or an opinion. A response could be sharing an idea or offering a hypothesis. A response could be a gut feeling or a question for clarification.

A response could even be saying “I don’t know,” and then explaining why.

You can’t have all the answers but you have many options for offering a response.

Experienced

Your examiners have enough experience that they can read your thesis, understand it and know what they need to do in their role to give you and your work a fair examination.

It’s possible that your examiners might know more than you about your field. They might even be considered experts in topics related to your thesis.

If that’s the case, however you feel, remember that you have the experience of writing your thesis. You have the experience of doing the work. You have the experience of reading everything you needed to get this far. You have the experience of rising to all of the challenges you had so that you could get to submission.

Your examiners are experienced enough to do their part well. You are too.

Nerves Are Human

If you’re nervous about the viva then you will feel uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong.

Nerves are a very human response to important situations. Your examiners might be nervous about your viva because they want it go well too. Your supervisor could be nervous, friends and family could be nervous on your behalf. A crowd of people, near and far, all nervous for what will happen and wanting it go well.

I don’t have a tried and tested method for removing nerves – but you can lessen the discomfort you feel by building your confidence. Reflect on your PhD journey, see the progress you’ve made and the knowledge and skillset that you must have. It doesn’t make you not-nervous, but it can help make you more confident for the important event that is in your future.

If you’re nervous about the viva then you’re human. As a human you can do something about it.

Numbers Matter

Since July 2010 I’ve delivered sessions about the viva to over 6000 postgraduate researchers. I have the 300th Viva Survivor session in my diary for early 2022. Shortly after that I’ll mark the five year anniversary of this daily blog.

I regularly remind myself of these numbers. I don’t write them to boost how I seem to you: I write them to help me see myself more clearly.

Like everyone I have doubts. I have anxieties. They come and go and can sometimes bring me down.

The numbers don’t lie though. The numbers help to tell my story back to me. I have done this work for a long time, I’ve worked with a lot of people, I’ve stayed determined with the blog. The numbers help me to show me the results of what I’ve done. They steer me towards my confidence and away from doubts.

What are your numbers? What measures could help you?

The number of days you worked on your PhD so far? The number of times you’ve shared your work? The number of chapters in your thesis or interesting things you found? The number of challenging situations you overcame?

You might have a bad day or a bad week near the end of your PhD. It may be you doubt yourself as you get closer to the viva. In those times look for your numbers. Your feelings might say one thing, but the numbers will tell you a far more helpful story.

Heads or Tails

You can’t flip a coin to determine viva success.

The stories we tell about vivas pivot on knowing if someone passed or failed – but these things are not equally likely. Around one in one thousand PhD candidates don’t pass.

There are many, many reasons why candidates pass – the process, the structure of the PhD, the skillset and knowledge base and experience that a candidate must typically have.

Doubting your future success is a human response; knowing a little of what to expect in the viva can be the first step to putting doubts to one side, so you can focus on being ready to succeed.

Passing the viva is not due to simple luck.

Notes To Yourself

A practice I return to again and again is to leave a note on my desk to help Future-Nathan get started when they sit down for work. It’s a kindness, a little thing to help me get going. I could be tired or stressed when I next arrive for work – but now I have a prompt to help me get going.

Typically the note might be a little to-do list, or something about the first action I need to take. Consider doing something similar when you finish a viva prep task. Could you leave a Post-it Note for Future-You? A short message to get you started next time. It doesn’t have to be something big, it just has to help.

Three short sentences perhaps: what you just did, what you need to do next and one line of encouragement.

Good viva prep needs people supporting a candidate. Be your own supporter!

 

It’s Not One Day

Hundreds and hundreds of days over the course of a PhD.

Thousands of hours of learning, discovering and knowledge-building.

So much personal development, growth and talent.

And, yes, you need to share all of this for a few hours of one day in order to pass your viva – but the test is not one day. It’s all the days you’ve invested; all the times you’ve stayed determined and kept going.

If you’re nervous, anxious or worried about your viva then consider how far you’ve come. Reflect on how you’ve made that progress and then find a way to keep going. Keep going until it’s done.

1 2 3 26