Hear

What’s the probability that you’ll hear one of the following statements said in the viva?

“This is the best thesis I’ve ever read!”

“You should be doing my job!”

“You are one of the foremost minds in the country – nay! The world!

None of these are impossible utterances in the viva, but they’re pretty unlikely.

What can you definitely hear in the viva? You.

Capable. Knowledgeable. Fully participating in the discussion.

Ready.

Event Horizon

At a workshop in December, a PhD candidate told me he couldn’t see past the “event horizon of his viva.” This put into words, quite beautifully, something I’ve felt for a long time about the important events in my life. Some things seem so massive that they draw you in completely. There’s no escape from thinking about them.

Time and space breaks down at the viva. Perspective gets skewed. The viva feels so big it distorts everything. What can you do as it draws you in?

  • Look back: you’re getting close, but you’ve come a long way to get to these few hours (and must have done a lot to get there)
  • Look forward: make plans for afterwards. Focus on the post-viva reality. This isn’t the end.
  • Look around: there are people who can help you in all sorts of ways, even if that’s just to help you get a bit of perspective.

Steer your focus. The viva doesn’t have to be a black hole.

Not The End

One way to look at the viva is that it’s the end of the PhD. The finish line. The finale. You’ll probably have corrections to do, but in your mind, this is it, the end.

Except… It’s not. Not by a long stretch. Whether it’s been three, four or seven years, all that time has been when you were doing a PhD. The viva is the start of having a PhD.

Being a PhD.

Something to remember.

Bad Viva Advice

Do none of these things.

  1. Ask your examiners, “Did you get the cheque?”
  2. Start with a joke: “Did you hear about the stupid examiners who missed the obvious plagiarism on page 25?”
  3. Shake a Magic 8-Ball after each question.
  4. Humblebrag.
  5. Plead ignorance: “I don’t know how it got in there!” When asked what you mean say, “Nothing! Nothing!”
  6. Preface every response with, “Well I’m no expert, but…”
  7. Sigh a lot.
  8. Ask if you can sit in-between your examiners. Before they answer, pick up a chair and say, “Come on, scooch.”
  9. Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.

Candidates sometimes worry that they might do the wrong thing in the viva. Common sense rules. You’re going to have a great conversation with experienced academics about your long-term research project. Your instincts won’t lead you astray.

Thankfully there’s not a lot of bad viva advice out there. Listen for the good stuff, run it past your gut feeling. You’ll get it right.

The 99th Percentile

“Excuse me, can you reach that?” Usually, yes. I’m six feet and four inches tall and in the 99th percentile for height in the UK. I didn’t have to work on it much, it just happened.

PhDs don’t just happen. Nobody gets onto a PhD programme, or gets through one, by being lazy or unskilled. You have to know things and you have to do things. Yet you compare yourself to others and you grow to doubt yourself. The viva comes around and you wonder, “What will the examiners think? What will they ask? How will they rate me?”

There’s a background fear in some candidates that examiners are just better. And not in a small way. “Examiners are at the 99th percentile!”

They’re six feet four, looking down on you.

Right?

I’m not so sure. It matters what you measure. Does it matter, assuming that it’s true, that your examiners are at the 99th percentile? Are you being examined on your total knowledge of your field? And if you were, wouldn’t you comfortably be in the top 90% or higher?

And what percentile are you at when it comes to more than your field? Where are you when it comes to you niche? When it comes to your research? Your thesis?

Your examiners may know a lot, and they may have experiences and knowledge that you don’t – but they don’t have YOUR knowledge and YOUR experience, or YOUR considered perspective from years of study.

Boss Battle

A possible screenshot of the viva has people imagining it’s like facing end-of-level baddies in a computer game.

After all of the trials and tribulations of doing research, your examiners appear through the fog, two mysterious and challenging foes! Whatever you’ve done before, the rules don’t apply to them!! They’re bigger than the other baddies, tougher, hit harder and if you’re not careful you’re doomed!!!

Well. That’s one way to look at things.

If we accept it then we have to accept everything else from the picture: you’ve reached the end of the level. You’ve fought your way through, and you’ve got there, and it’s not by accident. While a boss battle can seem much tougher, they’re based around all of the same moves that you’ve done in the rest of the game. There’s a different focus maybe, and a different challenge, but it’s well within your capabilities.

There are no cheat codes in the viva – but you don’t need them if you’ve got there.

On Weakness

No research programme can’t be improved. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made or limits imposed. Sometimes experiments or investigations don’t work out the way you hope they will. That doesn’t mean your thesis is fundamentally flawed, or your research is weak.

Still, a lot of PhD candidates ask me, “How do I talk about weakness in my viva?”

If there’s really something that could be better then you can discuss it by being honest, being clear and by talking about what’s great in your research and thesis.

  • Be honest: don’t try to hide or bluff and hope that your examiners will move on.
  • Be clear: set out the facts and your reasons, what they mean and why.
  • Talk about what’s great: not to distract, but to honestly persuade.

If there’s something you consider weak about your thesis or research, you don’t have to bring it up as you start the viva. You do have a responsibility to have thought about it and be willing to engage with your examiners. That’s no different to anything else in your research though.

You can’t write a perfect thesis. But you can’t get to the end of the PhD by accident either.

Remember: just because you think something is weak, it doesn’t mean that it is. If your examiners frame something as being weak, and you disagree, it doesn’t mean that they are right.

“Weakness” is a shorthand that people use for limitations, lack of time, doubts, worries and uncertainty. By all means consider how things could be improved or be different, but perhaps consider using a more accurate word to describe what you’re thinking about.

A Conundrum

Every viva is a custom exam to examine one particular person and their thesis. But every viva takes place according to practices that are consistent across the UK, and according to regulations and expectations that are consistent with an institution.

Different and the same.

Taken together this creates a slightly head-scratching puzzle, but not an impossible one. To solve it for yourself, first check your university’s regulations to see what to expect broadly. Then talk to friends to get a sense of what their vivas were like.

Finally, realise that your own will be unique. The expectations create an environment for you to thrive in. The variety comes from you and your work, not from a lack of rigour.

Problem solved.

Relatively Important

Was my viva important? Yes, but…

  • Have I had worse days before or since? Yes.
  • Have I had better days? Yes.
  • More stressful? Yes.
  • Have I worked harder? Yes.
  • Have I thought more deeply? Yes.
  • Have I felt more pressured? Yes.

Was my viva important? Yes, but it’s not in the top ten most important days of my life.

It’s not even in the top ten most important days of my PhD.

Your viva is important, of course it is, and it may feel like the most important thing ever. But are you framing it as too big of a deal? Are you making it more important than everything you’ve done? Are you attaching more stress to it than you need to?

Reflect a little for yourself. How you feel about your viva can be a tricky problem to solve. A guy on the internet saying that you’ll have better, worse and more stressful days doesn’t magically solve how you might feel…

…but it’s a start. Where do you go from there?