Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

The Welcome Mat

I love visiting friends who have a mat by their front door, big letters: WELCOME.

We’re glad you’re here. You’re supposed to be. Come in, join us.

I’ve never heard of a viva that had a welcome mat. I wish they did.

If it’s viva day, then you are supposed to be there. You did something good to get your thesis finished and your examiners are expecting you.

You are welcome.

We Need To Talk About The Viva

We don’t talk about it enough.

One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.

We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!

We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.

We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?

We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.

In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.

Unicorns

You may have heard of them, but they’re very rarely seen.

  • A viva that is less than an hour.
  • A viva that starts with the candidate being told they’ve passed.
  • A candidate who finishes just over two years after they started their PhD.
  • A viva where everything just slots into place, the candidate doesn’t have to check their thesis, is perfectly composed and responds to every question and query without hesitation.

These unicorn vivas happen, but they don’t happen a lot.

They sound like a dream, but the reality isn’t so bad: a good viva, a few hours and a few days of work to get things corrected afterwards. A confident candidate who can engage well with their examiners about a good thesis.

Leave the fairytales to one side. Prepare for a true story.

Looking For Mistakes

Your examiners have better, more important things to do than search your thesis for errors. It’s important – for the viva, and for any corrections – that they identify mistakes, but that’s not their focus. It’s much more useful to focus on your research and the contribution you’ve made than to just look for the “bad stuff”.

You have better, more important things to do in your preparation than search your thesis for mistakes. There probably are some – typos, little slips, references that aren’t up to date, passages that could be clearer – and it will help you in the viva and for your corrections to be aware of them. But if you make them your focus you will never stop finding things you could improve. It’s much better for you to put your attention on what makes your thesis good rather than what could make it better.

Don’t look for mistakes. Look for what matters.

Standing

I stopped telling people that I was stood for all of my four-hour viva.

I used to always tell candidates, but after a time I discovered that that aspect of my viva experience was so far removed from the norm that it would only serve to confuse people.

Or worry them!

I’ve never met anyone who has had a viva in the UK who was stood for all of the experience. When I started sharing my session with PhD candidates it grabbed attentions in a seminar room, but for all of the wrong reasons. Over time it dawned on me: this is true, this really happened, but it won’t help others to hear it. And other than being tired afterwards I don’t feel that it was a bad or good thing for me, it was just part of my viva experience.

It happened because I was giving a presentation and without really thinking about it I stayed at the blackboard while my examiners started asking questions. I responded and drew a diagram, and then a few hours later we took a break. And I was still there. And I stayed there. By that point it seemed right, and I didn’t know any different because I had never really asked my friends about their experiences.

Vivas have expectations, but vivas are all unique. Some stories will sound remarkably similar, and some will have curious aspects that are surprising. If you hear a story with a worrying element, don’t automatically think this is something you should expect. Dig into it. How did it happen? Why did it happen?

Think about the particulars if it still worries you: even if it happened for that other person, why should it happen to you?

Less Than

It’s not always easy to put exact numbers on the viva. Consider:

  • The number of mistakes in your thesis will be less than the number of good ideas you’ve had over the course of your PhD.
  • The number of minutes you spend in your viva will be less than the number of days you’ve spent on your research.
  • How long your examiners have spent preparing for your viva is less than how long you have spent in preparation.
  • The number of questions you’ll be asked in the viva is far less than the number you’ve already answered during your PhD.
  • A few hours in the viva is less than a few weeks preparing for it, which is a lot less than the years that go into your research.

Expectations help. Deciding where to focus helps.

Entrance, Exit, Escape Route

A few practical questions for your viva day:

  • Where is your viva taking place?
  • Do you know what to expect from the building and room?
  • When do you need to be there?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • Where are you going when it is done?

Little things for the most part; less important than the viva and what you’ll need to do there. It makes sense though to answer these questions in advance. Know the room you’ll be in and check it out. Decide in advance what time you’re going to arrive and when you need to set off. Decide how you are going to get there. Explore your options. If you need to, ask a friend for a lift or to keep you company.

Have your escape route in mind for after the viva as well. You don’t need to have an exit strategy to really escape. It can be useful – after a period of thinking, discussing, wondering and maybe worrying, when you could be tired – to have a plan already. Where will you go? How will you get there? Who will you see?

Consider the logistics of your viva day beforehand to save energy and focus for the viva itself.

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.