5 Meetings To Have Before Your Viva

Getting together with others can make a big difference to your viva.

  1. Have a meeting with your supervisor to discuss possible examiners before submission.
  2. Ask a friend for coffee to talk about your research.
  3. Sit down with friends and family to help them understand what you’ll be going through.
  4. Pop in and see your researcher-developers to see what courses or resources might help.
  5. Arrange a mock viva with your supervisor to have a useful rehearsal for the real thing.

Perhaps meeting is too strong a word for some of these ideas, too formal maybe. Still, you don’t have to get to the viva by yourself: ask others for help and they will give it.

You have to do the viva alone, but plenty of other people can help you get there. Explore what you need and ask for what you need most.

The Default Viva

Not the worst, not the best.

Not amazing, not terrible.

No great corrections needed, friendly comments but no effusive praise.

Lots of amazingly good or heart-stoppingly bad things could happen at your viva, but they probably won’t.

It will most likely be a good day rather than bad, but it probably won’t change your life by itself. It may not live up to the hype that you and others have built it up to.

The viva is an exam. It’s a conversation. It’s a test. It’s a pass. And it comes after years and years of effort, thought and feeling. If it doesn’t live up to your great expectations it’s probably because very little could, compared to what you’ve already done.

You may not get the amazing, award-winning, fantabulous viva.

You get the default viva. The basic model.

And that will be alright.

Atypical

There are regulations for vivas, and expectations for vivas, but all vivas are different. Some are more different than others.

My viva took four hours. That makes it different from most, by comparison a long viva.

I gave a presentation to start my viva. That made it different, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I was stood for all of my viva, which is really different! I started my presentation, and my examiners neatly segued into questions. I just stayed where I was by the chalkboard. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or wrong (although close I started to feel pretty tired towards the end). This was just how my viva was.

All vivas are different is another way of recognising that every viva is unique. Every viva is a custom, one-off examination process, that follows expectations and guidelines and academic culture, but is still unique.

Unique or different, this doesn’t mean bad. Just… different!

Some vivas are more different than others, but the purpose is always the same.

Make sure you know what the purpose of the viva is: what your examiners are there to do and what you are there to do. Know this before you get there and you’ll feel far more comfortable even if your viva is atypical.

Viva Of The Year

There’s no such prize, at least, as far as I’m aware! But it’s fun to think about the possible criteria a viva would have to satisfy to put it on a shortlist…

  • Would it have to have a substantial discussion – but not be too long?
  • Maybe it could only result in minimal corrections – but how would we quantify “minimal” since most vivas end with corrections being asked for?
  • Perhaps we’d have to consider everyone in the room and not just the candidate – what qualities would a Viva Of The Year nominee’s examiners have to satisfy?

And who would we get to judge this anyway?!

It’s fun to think about, but rather than focus on whether a viva or your viva is “the best”, it’s more useful to work on things you can do something about.

Learn about your examiners, and if you can, have a discussion with your supervisor about the selection and nomination process. Submit the best thesis you can, and spend a little time getting ready. Learn about viva expectations generally, and see what you can do to live up to your part of the process. Build your confidence, and go to your viva determined to engage fully with your examiners’ questions.

Your viva might not be viva of the year, but it could be a highlight of your year. What will you do to steer it towards that outcome?

Only Difficult

Survive means manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

The viva is only difficult.

It’s a challenge, but not beyond you.

If it feels overwhelming, reflect a little on the challenges you’ve overcome during your PhD. How big were they? How challenging? How difficult? How many serious obstacles have you overcome to get to the viva?

The viva isn’t trivial, but it’s not impossible either. It’s only difficult.

And you can do difficult.

Interesting Times

I tend to write this blog many weeks in advance. As of today, Monday 16th March 2020, I have posts readied until April 5th, but today it felt right to pause and add an extra post.

The world is changing, quickly, and in some ways unpredictably.

Often, change seems gradual, perhaps so slow that we don’t even notice it happening. With some countries today in lockdown, social norms in flux, universities in the UK closing their doors for now, and all of this happening in the space of weeks, it’s difficult to see what happens next.

Last Friday I was in Bristol, delivering a Viva Survivor session, and in and amongst the questions about viva lengths, concerns about going blank or wondering what makes a good examiner, an important question came from the room:

What do I do if my viva is cancelled? I have a date, I’ve booked time off work to prepare, but it might be postponed or move online. What do I do? How can I get ready?

In that moment and since I have had a hundred and one thoughts about how to respond to this concern – a concern which must be going through a lot of PhD candidates’ minds right now. Here are a few:

  • If it’s cancelled, it will be re-arranged.
  • Your prep still counts. It adds to making you ready.
  • If you pause your prep, you can unpause later.
  • If your viva is online, you can make it work. Check details, check the systems involved.
  • If an examiner has to cancel, another will be found. Think about who else could meet the standard for a good examiner for you.

If you’re facing this situation won’t say “don’t worry”. That never helps. I’ll advise you to think – even if the timeline to your viva is now uncertain – think about what you can do today to make tomorrow better. Worry can’t be avoided, but worry won’t solve a situation. Your work will, your actions will. So what actions now will help you in the future for your viva? If you can’t yet act to reduce uncertainty, how can you act to increase your own confidence or talent?

I’m going to continue to publish and share a post every day about the viva. I don’t know how vivas will change, temporarily or otherwise, but I know what examiners are looking for, I know what candidates can do to meet the challenges of a viva, and I can help people to see the kinds of work or ideas that can help them be ready.

If you are struggling, ask someone for help. Ask me: email me, tweet at me, and if I can I will help. I may not have an answer that solves things for you, but I’ve helped a lot of people. If you need to, just ask.

In the short term, it looks like I’m working from home for at least a few months. There will be challenges with that, but also, perhaps, the space for new ideas or opportunities. A Viva Survivor session I was to deliver in person next week is now going to be a webinar. I have never delivered a webinar before! So this will be a chance to learn, grow and develop. We’ll see where that leads. I’ll be using some of my time at home to make more resources and find more ways to help candidates get ready for their viva.

Potentially, the situation in the world means some of my work will be cancelled. As a self-employed person that’s a little unsettling, at times it feels a little scary. But I feel confident that things will work out eventually. If you can help me, do check out my Ko-fi page, consider becoming a follower or supporter there. Or if you’re looking for general, considered viva support, take a look at my ebooks. Little things will help, and if you can help me, I thank you.

But help others first. If someone around you has their viva coming up, and because of the situation in the world they’re extra-worried, extra-nervous, consider how you can support them. Consider what little actions could help them to feel just a little better, because it all adds up. And if no-one around you needs help with their viva, consider how else you can be a helper for those around you.

Ask for help if you need it. Offer help where you can.

Survive means “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.”

Keep going.

Riddles

While your examiners might feel inscrutable at times, they aren’t Sphinxes.

Questions aren’t obscure, topics aren’t hidden, and the purpose isn’t a game…

…or life-or-death!

Some examiner questions could be anticipated, but not all. While they might be tricky to answer, you can take your time. You’ll have your thesis with you too, a resource to give you lots of information at your fingertips.

And finally, if a question in the viva might feel like a riddle or a challenge, remember it might not have a single right answer. In some cases it will have only the best response you can give.

Maybe a response that only you can give.

The Not-So-Secret Reader

Twice in the last few months I have volunteered to be the Secret Reader for my daughter’s class: a mystery parent who shows up at 3pm on Friday to read a story to the class. Both times I found being Secret Reader a real treat, a lot of fun to sit down in front of 25 five- and six-year-olds and read some of my favourite books for children.

But I was surprised to find I was actually really nervous to be Secret Reader! I do my Viva Survivor session over fifty times per year, and the first time I was Secret Reader I had done Viva Survivor twice that week, but perhaps the novelty of the occasion and the very different audience made it a bit uncomfortable. I still get a little nervous before Viva Survivor, but nothing like how I felt about being Secret Reader. As with Viva Survivor, it’s important. I wanted it to go well, so my brain and body were a little anxious about it. There were so many things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know if they knew the book I was reading. I didn’t know what they were expecting. I didn’t know if they would like the story. I didn’t know if they would like me!

It felt like a bizarro-universe viva.

25 little examiners peering at me while I tried to give a good account of myself. Little eyes and ears looking and listening while I did funny voices, emphasised silly words and tried to impress upon them that this story was important. And once I got past my nerves, it was an absolute joy to do.

You are the Not-So-Secret Reader for your viva. Your examiners know who is coming, they know what you’re reading and they know that you wrote it! They may not know everything that you know, but they know (or believe) that you know it, and they want to ask you all about it. You can be nervous, and probably will be, because – like being Secret Reader – it matters.

It’s worth doing well.

Catastrophising

One day in January, around 5pm, I noticed our house was getting cold.

I checked, and realised the boiler wasn’t on. I tried a few things and realised it wouldn’t come on. I called our boiler service people, they talked me through a few checks and realised there was nothing I could do: someone would have to come and see it.

“OK, we aim to get someone out within 24 hours; we’ll be in touch as soon as possible,” said the helpful person on the phone. This was around 5:30pm.

I started imagining…

Well. 24 hours. So the house is going to be cold all night. No showers. OK, kettles to fill a shallow bath. Hot drinks. Where’s our electric heaters? Hot water bottles for bedtime. Blankets, get all the blankets out. OK. OK… Don’t panic. It might not be fixed tomorrow. So what do we do? Stay with mum? Stay with sister? Maybe. OK. What about work? Nevermind work, what about money? The central heating is broke, BROKE, the boiler won’t fire… How much is a new boiler? How long will it take?? How long will I be paying for it on the credit card???

Ring-ring. It’s now 6pm. “Hi, this is the boiler guy! I should be with you by 7!”

So he’ll be here soon. But it’s going to be expensive. Well. OK, seriously, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Disrupted evening, late night, but I’m not out tomorrow. We’ll be fine, we can do this. We always find a way to make it work… But I suppose I’d best pack things up in the office, as the boiler is in there, and when they have to replace the boiler I’ll need to work somewhere else for at least a few days I think-

Knock-knock. It’s now 6:45pm. “Let’s take a look… Oh, did this happen? … Right, and let’s try this… OK, there’s the problem! All done! No problem, bye!”

It’s 7:10pm. All sorted. No fuss, no headache, no drama and no more cold as the radiators start pumping out heat again.

Sometimes, something goes wrong and before you know it, you’re imagining the outcome is going to be awful. It can feel impossible to put the brakes on the runaway train of catastrophes that lurch ahead in your brain. If you don’t know what the problem is, all you have are questions. If you don’t know the exact answer, all you can do sometimes is imagine it’s the worst possible option.

In your viva, it’s entirely possible that your examiners won’t like something, or won’t agree with you, or aren’t sure about a choice you’ve made. It’s natural for there to be typos, or paragraphs that don’t communicate what you want, or ideas that can be challenged. And none of them are necessarily catastrophic: in some cases, you won’t know what’s motivating the questions or resistance or different opinion. And in the absence of that information, your brain instantly jumps to catastrophe.

So: ask questions to get answers.

If your examiners say they found mistakes, don’t worry straight away: ask them where and ask them why. If they don’t agree with something, ask them why, so you know what you need to respond to. If they aren’t sure about something, ask what they would need to be convinced. You may need to do nothing to resolve the situation.

As with my boiler “catastrophe” you might realise there is nothing you can do but wait, listen and try not to obsess.

False Hopes

Don’t hope for a short viva. Don’t hope for no corrections. Don’t hope that your examiners “go easy on you”.

Don’t hope they tell you the outcome at the start. Don’t hope they have no comments. Don’t hope you won’t be worried or nervous.

Hope is a powerful thing, but you can do so much more than hope when it comes to your viva.

For some of the points above, you have no control at all: so why focus on them when there are things you can do something about? Better to put your efforts where they might do something. You can do a lot more than hope you won’t be nervous: you can act to work on what makes you nervous, and act to boost your confidence and offset anxieties.

Don’t hope for things you can’t control. Do more than hope for things that you can. Put your focus on more than hope.