Enjoy, Endure, Engage

I’d like to think that most people could enjoy their viva, but I know that some won’t.

I know most candidates won’t feel like they simply have to endure their viva, but sadly, some will.

More and more I think the best advice I can give to all candidates is to engage with their viva.

Engage with their preparations. Be active and take charge of how they feel and what they need to do.

Engage with their examiners and their questions. Don’t worry about going blank or forgetting. Instead, think about what they can do to best respond in the viva.

Engage with this great opportunity to discuss the valuable work they’ve done.

I hope you enjoy your viva, I hope it’s not a case of enduring it.

Remember that you get to control how you engage with your viva.

Not Every Day

It’s not every day you sit down to talk with two examiners about your thesis, the end point of years of study and research. Not every day you get to find out what they think. Not every day – there may be no other days in your life like your viva day!

It’s an important day, but still just one day. Without over-obsessing, over-analysing, over-investing, it makes sense to ask a few questions to be as reasonably ready as possible.

  • What can you do in preparation?
  • What can you find out about your examiners to help you?
  • What can you do to start the day well?
  • What can you do to start the viva well?
  • What can you do to be at your best in the viva?
  • What can you do to find and bring confidence with you to the viva?

And, as your viva is not every day, what will you do to celebrate your achievement?

Plan The Party

I’ve written before about how nervousness is strongly correlated with important things. You have a choice: you get to pick which you give attention to: do you try to make yourself feel less nervous or try to do the important thing better?

There’s also a strong correlation between important things and wanting to pay special attention to those things. Pay attention to the celebration. Decide how you are going to mark it.

Plan the party, if you’re going to have one; figure out the reward, if that’s more your thing. Tell your friends, “Help me fix this in my mind as a big deal!”

Because it is a big deal. Passing the viva, finishing the PhD, is a very big deal.

Thinking again, perhaps it’s not that there is a correlation between the important thing and wanting to celebrate it. Perhaps the celebration is a sign it is an important thing?

Snacks

Take snacks.

I’ve heard of relatively few instances where refreshments were provided at a candidate’s viva. Etiquette seems to suggest not eating in the viva; do at least take a bottle of water with you.

At the break or immediately after the viva you can feel drained from the effort, however pleasant your viva might be. Take food that might help. You might not want to eat in front of your examiners, but you might need to eat something in those intervals.

In short: don’t eat in the viva, but don’t go to the viva without taking food with you!

Why You Didn’t Do More

You didn’t read that paper because there are lots of papers, and you can’t read them all.

You didn’t run that experiment because you ran a hundred others and it didn’t seem like that one would make a difference.

You haven’t thought about that, but you’ve thought about lots of other things.

You haven’t thought about this, but you can think about it right now and offer an opinion.

You didn’t do the thing your examiners suggest because you have reasons.

You didn’t do the other thing they’re thinking about because your supervisor told you it wasn’t worth it, and you agreed.

You didn’t do more because there is only so much time, so much effort, so much focus, so much thought you can put into a PhD. It’s big, but you can’t do everything.

When you think about why you didn’t do more, just pause and get your reasons in order. You will have them. You’ve not acted without thought. Put your reasons across. Maybe your examiners will want to talk more about it, maybe not.

Finally, you couldn’t do everything, but you can reflect on everything you did do. Remember your reasons for everything you have achieved, and don’t get bogged down in all of the things you haven’t done.

Difficult Circumstances

“Viva Survivor” is catchy, but it can also sound a little negative to some ears. I checked the definition of survive a while back and was heartened to see a definition that matched my intent on using the phrase so widely: manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Most vivas are positive, engaging discussions that end well, but that doesn’t mean even the best viva doesn’t have difficult circumstances. Candidates are being examined on original work. For most candidates, this is the first time they have ever written a work of that length.

There are realistic expectations for the viva, but even so there is no predicting what will happen. It’s difficult to know what questions will be asked, what conclusions examiners might have, or even for a candidate to know how they might feel about the process as it happens.

The viva could be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it is an all-or-nothing challenge, or that a candidate should have doubts about whether or not they are up to the task.

If your viva is coming up, reflect: how many difficult circumstances have you faced and overcome during your PhD?

You can manage one more time.

Serious

How serious do you need to be about your viva?

It’s an exam. You might think of it as the exam, but it’s still a test. People prepare for tests. They don’t, if they’re serious about them, just shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, que sera, sera!” But if they go too far the other way, think of it as life and death, then they get in the way of their preparations and their potential enjoyment.

You can look forward to it, people do. You can get ideas from the conversation, make new connections. You can do more than pass.

Your viva could be enjoyable!

So how serious do you need to be? Enough to motivate you to ask some questions – to reflect, to prepare, to think for yourself what you need – but not so much you treat it like a sign of the coming apocalypse.

A little serious then, not Serious.

ASAP!

A potent strain of viva-anxiety virus breeds in the mind and says:

Faster, faster, faster!

Question. Answer. Question. Answer! Quest-ANSWER!

What if you take too long? What if it doesn’t come quickly enough? You “should” know it, right? RIGHT?!

Your research didn’t come that quickly. Recovering a memory or a fact might be quick. Analysing and thinking might not be.

There’s time available in the viva, and you can use it well. You can do this because you have experience, knowledge and skills, developed over time. Not thrown together ASAP, but brought forth through patient, deliberate effort.

Don’t listen to the virus if it crowds your thoughts. Pay attention to your experience. Take a little time to think before you answer.

After Your Viva…

…take ten minutes and talk to some future candidates in your department or network. Tell them about your viva experience. Set your focus on sharing what happened and what it felt like.

Share what sorts of questions you got. Share what surprised you. Share anything you can about the flow and format.

Your story is unique, but if more viva stories are shared perhaps the overall perception of the viva will shift a little. It will be less of an unknown. More people will have a sense of what it’s all about.

Share your viva story when you’re done.

Average and Typical

What is an average viva?

I get this question at least once a month. I struggle to answer.

I can’t talk about length, because while there is a skewing towards two hours across disciplines, the range is pretty big. It’s tricky to talk about the exact style of the exam; it is a semi-structured discussion but the nature of questions is going to vary a lot from discipline to discipline.

Examiners will be qualified and prepared, but they might not be experts – depending on your field there might not be an expert who can examine you. I suppose it is fair to say most people find out the result within thirty minutes of the end of the viva (after a short break). Most people are fairly happy with the corrections they’re asked to do.

But what is average?

Can we change the question? How about: what is typical for the viva?

Typically it comes at the end of a successful project. Typically the candidate has spent a significant period of time becoming experienced. Typically they’ve written a good thesis. Typically they’ve continued to build on all of this work in the period leading up to the viva by getting prepared.

There are lots of ways the variety of vivas struggle to come to some average. But typically? Typically, you’re up to the challenge.