Falling Into Place

I think there’s a hope that everything just falls into place at the end of the PhD process.

A hope that everything just lines up perfectly like a big row of dominoes.

The idea you were missing hits the notion you needed to write, which completes the paragraph that was holding you up, so that the chapter which didn’t have a conclusion is finished, now your supervisor can give you feedback and your thesis gets submitted on time, and your examiners can judge everything to be right enough, and you enter the viva with a completely calm mind ready to respond – even to that one tricky question – and then you’ve passed and it’s done and you’ve finished.

The final domino falls over, you are a PhD.

 

But it won’t work like that.

Because you’ll miss a typo in the proofreading stage, meaning that that page is now a little muddled, and your supervisor will be rushed – because they will be at the moment – and while you’ll submit on time (probably), you’ll still feel a bit pressured because everyone’s feeling it, your examiners too, and they’ll be convinced by your thesis but still have questions you need to respond to, questions on the whys and hows and “What’s this?” – which you can reply to, because if you can’t, who can? – even that tricky question and you will pass, and it will be done and you will have finished.

The dominoes won’t be a neat straight line, but you’ll be a PhD.

It’ll be an explosion of fallen dominoes that somehow still make it to the end.

Things don’t just happen, everything won’t just fall into place. There’ll be friction and problems and despite all of that you’ll succeed. The imperfections won’t stop the clear outcome you’re on track for at this stage.

Want/Need

In the UK, wanting to be a PhD means needing to have a viva.

A lot could be done to help postgraduate researchers be prepared for the viva – even from the early stages of the PhD – if we helped people see that the viva is just another part of the process, like a literature review or an annual report or even a meeting with a supervisor. It’s just something that needs to happen.

And like lit reviews, reports and meetings, vivas are different for individuals too.

Unique, in fact.

There can be expectations and norms, but always differences. There’s lots and lots of general advice for PhDs based on useful structures that broadly apply – for writing, doing research, being a researcher – and then every PGR has to make sense of those for them, their research, their PhD.

You need all those things to be a PhD. You need your viva too. If you feel resistance towards it, for any reason, then you have to be responsible for working past it. What steps could you take to steer your perception towards the viva?

How can you see it not as some terrible thing, not perhaps even as the final milestone, but just one more necessary part of the process of becoming a PhD?

Is It A Big Deal?

The viva is a big deal because it’s what candidates need in order to pass their PhDs, which are pretty much the pinnacle of educational achievement!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because virtually every candidate passes…

The viva is a big deal because candidates have to work for at least three years usually in order to get to that stage, investing thousands of hours of work to get to submission!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t take that much to get ready for it…

The viva is a big deal because my friend said it was for them!

And my friend said it wasn’t for them, it was just another thing they had to do…

 

The viva is a big deal. And it isn’t.

The viva is important, and you have to pass, and that can set it up to be a great big deal – but the real big deal is YOU.

YOU put in the work to get to submission. YOU are the reason the viva is happening at all. YOU must have what it takes.

 

Three Simple Words

Are you prepared to say “I don’t know” in your viva?

There’s only so much information, knowledge and talent you can build up before your viva. You’ll have enough, but you might not have everything. Perfection isn’t required: but do you feel comfortable enough saying “I don’t know” so that you aren’t worried if you do need to say it?

To help build that comfort, and the confidence that goes with it:

  • Make opportunities where you can be asked real, relevant questions for your research, thesis and competence. You can’t predict in advance what questions you will be asked in the viva, or what questions will prompt a response of “I don’t know”. The more times you practise being in a similar situation to the viva, the more experience you will have and the better you will feel.
  • Review your work to convince yourself of how much you do know. You don’t know everything, but you know a lot. It would be impossible to write an exhaustive list of everything you don’t know, but you can reassure yourself that you have a good knowledge base.
  • Learn about viva expectations. Examiners could ask questions to which you can only respond “I don’t know” but they don’t do it out of malice or some attempt to belittle you or your work. They don’t ask unreasonable questions.

I don’t know what you might have to say “I don’t know” to. You can’t know that in advance either. But you can know that it is OK.

These three simple words don’t have to define you, your viva performance or how you feel going into the viva.

Story Focus

Your viva expectations are influenced by the stories you focus on.

  • If you focus only on one story, the latest story of viva success that you hear, for example, then your expectations could be quite narrow (even if they are positive).
  • If you focus only on one terrible story, a bad experience of a friend-of-a-friend, then you won’t hear something representative (and you’ll probably put a dent in your own confidence for the viva).
  • If you try to absorb all the stories you can you’ll probably find nothing to focus on! Instead you’ll have a general feeling that vivas are fine, but maybe less certainty about why.

To help yourself, ask a few people that you trust to share their experiences. Talk to your supervisor and other academics about the role and work of examiners. Find helpful common threads of viva stories to focus on.

And remember to focus on your story. How did you get this far? What did you do? What have you got that will help you to pass?

Snacks For The Video Viva

So your viva is going to be over video. That could feel rough at times, but there are some interesting possibilities too.

Why have a chocolate bar in your bag, like an in-person viva, when you could have a freshly baked biscuit on stand-by? Why have a half-cold cup of coffee for a few hours, when a friend or family member could be poised by the kettle if you have a break?

A viva over video can present some small logistical challenges, but it also provides opportunities to meet your needs. Snacks can be a little fancier, your space can be a little nicer. If your viva is over video, why don’t you do what you can to make things as close to your preference as possible? What could you do to make the space lovely for you?

What could you do to help you feel great about the occasion?

And So On

A question in the viva cannot prompt you to talk in minute detail about the sum of three or more years of work. Every response for every question that you are asked will take up a few hours at most.

A response could be short because that’s what it needs to be. It could leave details out because they aren’t as important as what you keep in. It could be incomplete because the complete details would take too long, or you don’t have them, or for some other reason.

A response may or may not be an answer to the question. It may or may not move the conversation in the direction you or your examiners want. It may be that you have to stop before you really want to, or just give an indication of what you mean, rather than the full picture.

Remember: you can always pause and think, and your examiners can always ask for more if they need it.

A Few Nevers

Never enough time in a PhD to do everything you could do, but usually enough time to do everything you need to do.

Never a way to prepare for every possible question in the viva, but certainly plenty of opportunities to be ready to respond to any question that comes up.

Never a chance for you to be the best, but only a need to be your own best.

 

Once we get away from “all” and “every” and “perfection” in the PhD and the viva, it’s not that hard to realise what “enough” looks like.

You are enough.

Find The Words

My daughter will be seven in just over a week. I don’t know where the time has gone.

I’m an obnoxiously proud parent. Don’t get me started, or I’ll tell you all about how well she reads, how she loves to dance, and how mature she can be.

But she won’t eat vegetables. Soft carrots, a little broccoli and smooth hidden-veg sauces are the limits. Peas, corn, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, sprouts… We can’t put them near her!

As mature as I think she is, she’s still only not-quite-7. She can’t explain why she won’t try some vegetables, it’s beyond words for her.

Meanwhile, your viva worries and concerns are explainable. They might be uncomfortable, you might bristle at the thought of whatever it is, but you can put it into words. It’s good to do so. Then you can start to work past where you are.

For example, why do you worry about your examiners’ questions? All questions or just some? What in particular?

Or what do you not feel ready for? It won’t be everything – what exactly? And what could you do?

Once you find the words to describe what you don’t like or you don’t want for your viva you can start to find solutions. Once you find the words you can start to work your way to a better situation.

Passing Prestige

There are different outcomes to vivas, but in the grand scheme of things there’s no real hierarchy with them. We know this because when everything is complete you’re not awarded anything extra for how you pass.

Corrections, minor or major, are for most the necessary work for a pass. But there’s no special seal on your certificate for no corrections, no demerits for having to do more. No official commendation: you pass, and that’s that.

Passing is special enough, right?