No Guarantee

I knew what troubled me before the viva. I couldn’t explain the background of a particular chapter in my thesis. I understood the results perfectly. I didn’t understand the set-up. I tried to avoid thinking about it.

Methodology, results, conclusions, longevity of research – there are lots of areas that set people on edge, lots of directions tricky questions can come from. I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. The only thing I can think of is practice: find opportunities to practise answering tricky questions. It’s not a plan with a guarantee. It doesn’t mean that you’ll answer questions perfectly. You will answer them better and I think you’ll have less anxiety.

What kinds of questions do you feel you might struggle with in the viva? What can you do to answer them well?

As I said, I knew what troubled me before the viva and I tried to avoid thinking about it. That’s not a winning strategy.

Whys

My daughter will be four in the autumn. For some time now, “Why?” has been the most-uttered expression in and out of our house. Why is the sky blue, why did you say that, why are we having pasta for dinner, why can’t I go in the garden if it’s raining, why why why… It can make you a little crazy some time, but it’s how kids make sense of things.

For similar reasons, “why?” is also one of the most useful questions you can ask yourself before and during the viva. Come across something you don’t understand? Why? Is a sentence a bit vague in your thesis? Why? Question from your examiner not making sense? Why?

Even if your examiner disagrees with you, the best thing you can do to start discussing the topic with them is ask: why?

Interview

It’s not uncommon for researchers to be preparing for their viva at the same time that they’re applying for jobs and going for interviews. And vivas and job interviews are often compared to one another. I think there’s a superficial comparison to be made (people tend to dress up, the candidate is asked a lot of questions by a panel) but the focus is quite different. In a job interview, someone is being asked questions to discover if they’re a good fit for an organisation; in the viva they’re being asked to demonstrate what they’re claiming to have done during their PhD.

However, I think there could be an overlap between the kinds of areas of preparation that could help both vivas and interviews. If your viva is coming up and you’re applying for jobs then think about your skills to begin with: what have you developed in the last few years? What’s your best evidence? What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the start of your PhD? Think about times that you’ve shown initiative. Think about times when you’ve solved problems. Reflect on what you can do that others find hard, because that’s valuable.

Vivas and job interviews might not be the same, but they get to the core of what you do well. Reflect on how you can share that.

Random Questions

At the start of my workshops I ask people for their questions about the viva. Anything and everything, procedure, practical stuff, advice, fears, really anything. My philosophy is “once people have an answer, they can move on, they don’t have to worry about that question any more. Even if they need to do something they know what they need to do.” I collect the questions on Post It notes. I’ve been doing this for seven years and have been recording them all for over three years.

Last month I got an odd question:

“Is anything in a session like this really applicable? Does it [the viva] simply depend on personalities? (randomness)”

If I’m honest, I felt a little… Irked. I was kind of thinking, “Huh. Someone decided to come… But then questioned the premise of what we’re doing? And right before we’d got started they decided to ask this?” It felt a little cutting, but that might not have been their intention. Maybe it was just their personality…

Back to the question. I don’t think the viva simply depends on personalities. An examiner could disagree with you, and that might not be an easy question or comment to take. An examiner could be really tired, or really grumpy, and so could you. The tone of the examination could be influenced by personalities, but none of that is predictable or within your control.

However, you can control what you do to prepare for the viva. What you read or re-read, what you learn about your examiners, the notes you make, the steps you take to remind yourself of everything you’ve done and can do. That’s all up to the researcher. If a session on viva prep shares some ideas about those sorts of things it will be pretty applicable, I think.

Last month I felt irked. Today I feel good. Questions help, even questions that seem left field or perhaps snarky. Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe they asked it wrong. When you get a question in the viva, try not to make assumptions about where it’s coming from. You can always ask why or for more details.

There could be a touch of “randomness” in the viva, but you can bring a lot of order in with you.

Short

In a workshop a few weeks ago someone asked, “How can you keep the viva short?”

I took a long pause before answering. My answer: “Not much.”

You can answer questions well – providing the information or analysis requested, explaining things and so on – but that doesn’t mean that you will shorten the viva. I’ve heard stories from people who had short afternoon vivas and knew their external had a pre-booked train to catch. It’s all anecdotal though.

I missed a more important question in that session. I could have asked the person, “Why do you want to keep the viva short?” I wonder now what was at the root of their question. Vivas take as long as they take. They vary in length for a host of reasons.

There’s no need to rush: you can take the time you need to answer questions well. Many people tell me they feel their vivas took no time at all, My four hour viva went by in an eyeblink. It’s all anecdotal though!

My advice? Focus on being prepared, don’t worry about how long it will take. You can’t influence the length of the viva, but you can steer how well you will perform.

Go!

We have a “go bag” packed in our house. In case of emergency it has water, a torch, change of clothes and so on all packed and ready.

What if you woke up late on viva day? What if you needed to get to your viva quickly?? What would be in your viva go bag???

Three things: your thesis, annotated to your heart’s content; pen and paper, so that you can make notes; water, because talking about research is thirsty work.

Those are the essentials; you can pack more if you need. What’s in your viva day kit?

The Fourth Option

I’ve heard there are three common responses to anxiety or fear: freeze, fight or flight. Now, my PhD is in pure maths, so I have no idea if that’s 100% right, but it got me thinking about stress over questions in the viva. If an examiner asks a tough question or makes an observation that isn’t in line with the way you think, you could:

  • Freeze: mind goes blank, no idea what to do, just hold still and hope that they move on.
  • Fight: go to war with them, take no prisoners, do everything to bring their arguments to their knees.
  • Flight: try to umm and ahh your way free, take evasive action and hope you get out.

Fortunately, there’s another option: Figure it out. Take a pause, think about what’s actually been said; ask some more questions if need be. Make sure you understand what your examiner has said. Ask them why. Get as much information as you can, and then try to resolve the situation.

No need to panic, battle or run. Just think.

Enough

I felt like I had done enough viva preparation when I went to bed on the evening of June 1st 2008. I’d read my thesis. I’d made notes. I’d dug out all of the papers I thought were useful. I had packed my bag – including two textbooks just in case – and rehearsed my slides for my presentation. I was ready. I had everything I needed. I’d had plenty of time to get to that point.

I’d even packed a bottle of water and two chocolate bars in my bag. Prepared.

The next morning, viva day, I got to the university and went straight to my supervisor’s office. Knock-knock, “Hugh, can I just check, when we talk about genus 2 handlebodies, they’re…”

If you keep thinking, if you keep going, you’ll always find more. More things to do. More questions to ask. More things to check up on with your supervisor.

Enough for me was being able to find things in my thesis, being sure of my proofs, being clear in my mind about the results I’d got – and having everything I thought I needed in my bag the night before.

What does enough look like for you? Think about it, make some decisions. Make a plan. Now you know what you have to do to get to “enough”.

Hours and Years

Two to three hours is pretty standard for a viva. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Two to three hours is the right neighbourhood.

Three to four years is pretty standard for a PhD. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Three to four years puts us in a meaningful ballpark.

People worry about “long” vivas. Mine was four hours. I’ve heard of the occasional six-hour viva. It can seem like a long time to be on and discuss your research. But you get to those hours of discussion after years of work. You’re in a good place.

Four Hours

My viva was four hours long. It was over in an eye-blink. I left my viva thinking, “What just happened?” I was tired because I had slept badly, and the viva was quite an involved discussion at times. Still, I was really surprised to find out four hours had gone by. I’ve heard similar stories from other PhD graduates: vivas that seemed to take no time at all despite clocks and watches clearly showing hours have passed.

Two/three/four hours at the end of years of research, learning and development – by comparison it really is an eye-blink. In the moment it could fly by, or there could be questions that drag on and on (I remember those too). But relative to all that you’ve done the viva is a tiny step in the PhD process: one of the final ones, but one at the end of a great deal of work by you. However long the viva is, you’re in a good place to meet the challenge.