Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

In Case Of Emergency

What if your external examiner cancels with a week to go?

What do you do if you get an email asking you for submission fees, and you’re sure that doesn’t apply to you?

What would you do if you broke your leg or just got sick a few days before your viva?

What do you do? Who do you call?

You can’t plan what you would do for every unexpected event – they’re unexpected, of course! But you can be a little prepared all the same. Spend two minutes as soon as possible, months before your viva if that’s where you are now: get a name, email address and phone number for someone at your university who could help in case anything unexpected, a real emergency, happens in the lead up to your viva.

Your supervisor might be the person to call, but equally it could be a member of staff in your Graduate School or Doctoral College. Figure out who the most likely person is, get their contact details written on a Post-it Note and put that away just in case.

You’ll never know when an emergency will strike, you can’t always know how it might be solved. But you can know who to contact first to help you.

Opening Questions

How did you get interested in this area? How would you summarise your research? Could you tell us about your most important contributions?

There are other potential opening questions. None are trivial, all rely on a deep knowledge and talent that you alone have.

Opening questions often ask for summaries, considered opinions and so on. Your examiners don’t ask because they imagine you have ten short monologues prepared. They ask because they expect you will have been asked questions like these many times before. Responses should flow relatively naturally as you’ve thought about these ideas many times before.

They’re not asked because they’re easy. They’re definitelynot easy questions with easy answers. Instead, they’re asked because they give a natural way for the viva to start. Here’s a chance for you to start well. Here’s an opportunity for you to let your nerves and anxieties recede and let you knowledge and talent take the foreground.

You’re the only one who could give a great response to opening questions. Because of what you’ve done and what you know, you will give a great response to whatever question starts your viva.

No Two The Same

No two vivas are completely different either.

One friend might have a two hour viva, another’s is three – but both got minor corrections.

One friend might have been asked to give an overview of their research to start, while another was asked how they got interested in a topic – and both were done in under 90 minutes.

One friend got minimal corrections, another got major – but both enjoyed the experience.

Any two vivas will have similarities and differences.

Many vivas have common similarities – approximate length, tone of examiners, areas of questioning maybe within disciplines – and ways in which they differ. Differences don’t mean bad things, just difference.

Listen to stories and realise that vivas generally are fine, and that there are some expectations underneath all of the variety of experiences.

Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva

There are lots of reasons. Any one of the following might be enough:

  • You did the work.
  • You’re talented.
  • Your examiners are there to examine, not interrogate.
  • Vivas have expectations.
  • Examiners have responsibilities.
  • You can prepare for the viva…
  • …and you will have prepared for your viva. (right?!)
  • The viva isn’t a total mystery.
  • Of the three people in the room, you have the expertise when it comes to your thesis.
  • You have a history of rising to meet challenges.

Taken in combination, they paint an impressive picture for the outcome of your viva.

There are many more reasons you will pass your viva, specific to you, your thesis and your research journey. The many reasons you’ll pass align with reasons you could be confident about your performance in the viva.

You’ve not got this far by accident; you’ve not got this far by only showing up.

Finally!!!

There’s lots of Finally!!! moments at the end of a PhD.

Finally!!! My thesis is finished!

Finally!!! My viva is almost here!

Finally!!! I’ve passed my viva!

Finally!!! My corrections are done!

Finally!!! I’ve graduated! I’m finally, finally, done!

At each moment where you think Finally!!! take time to think: what got you this far? How far have you come?

And what can you do to get you to the next Finally!!!?

On Wishlists

Wishlists for presents and wishlists for the viva are two very different things.

For presents you’re telling others, “If you can, if you want to, can you please get me this?”

For the viva you’re saying, not asking, “These are the things I really want when I meet my examiners.”

Really, the best person to help you get what you want from your viva wishlist is you. If there’s things you want or feel you need then you have to work to make them a reality. If there’s no way of making it certain then you have to act to get more comfortable with the uncertainty present in the situation.

You might also have to recognise when an item on your viva wishlist, like a present wishlist, is just not going to happen. Some wishlist items are a shot-in-the-dark, maybe-just-maybe…

…but they’re probably more of a distraction than anything. Work to remove these items from your viva wishlist. Focus on what you can achieve, not just what you wish for.

A Comparison For The Viva

My daughter really likes surprise toys. They come sealed, disguised in bags and boxes. Hidden surprise dolls, magical unicorns that change colour, packages within packages hiding what’s there. She loves them. Part of the excitement is not knowing what’s inside until you open the box.

But there’s only so many combinations. Leaflets show you all of the options, whether it’s sixteen Lego figures in a range or millions of combinations of dolls and accessories. Some are more common than others, but all have similar features or stylings.

The viva is like my daughter’s surprise toys. There’s lots of information about what vivas are like generally, but no-one can tell you what yours will be like. You only find out when you get to yours. However, like the best surprise toys, viva quality is generally good, expectations conform to reasonable standards and you can clearly see the process for engaging with them.

And thankfully there’s no unwrapping for the viva as there is with the surprise toys my daughter likes!

A New Viva Alphabet!

I try every day to share something useful about the viva, but there are a lot of topics to be covered!

Back in June 2017 I shared A Viva Alphabet as a way to start thinking about many of the different themes and ideas that surround the viva. Today, I share a new series of thoughts. Again, I can’t cover every issue connected with the viva, but it’s a wide range of topics:

  • A is for Allies: there are lots of people around you who can help. Who do you need to ask first?
  • B is for Book: that’s what you have made! What could you do to help get a good working model of it in your mind?
  • C is for Contribution: the outputs of your research make a difference. How do you define yours?
  • D is for Doctorate: what you have been working towards. What will yours allow you to do?
  • E is for External: one of your examiners. Why were they a good choice?
  • F is for Finished: almost! What does this mean for you?
  • G is for Grumbles: you probably have some about your PhD, or about the viva. What can you do about them, or how can you live with them?
  • H is for Hard Work: you must do a lot of this to get to submission. What has been hardest?
  • I is for Internal: your other examiner! What do you know about them?
  • J is for Jot: the margins of your thesis are a great space for annotations. What could you add during your prep to help you in the viva?
  • K is for Knowledge: like Hard Work, you must have a lot of this. What do you know now that you didn’t know at the start of your PhD?
  • L is for Location: your viva has to take place somewhere. Where is the room and what is it like?
  • M is for Mock: a very common viva preparation activity. What would you hope to get from yours?
  • N is for Notes: you can make them throughout the viva. What would help you to do this well?
  • O is for Outcomes: there are many possibilities. What are the details of the outcomes at your institution?
  • P is for Post-it Note: one of the most valuable resources for viva prep! What could you use them for?
  • Q is for Quick: your viva is unlikely to be this, but it might feel that way. Either way, how could you prepare for the open-ended length of your viva?
  • R is for Response: what you can offer to a question in the viva. What would help you give good responses?
  • S is for Supervisor: the person who probably knows your work second-best to you. What help could they offer in preparation for the viva?
  • T is for Talented: what you necessarily are by submission-time. What are your skills, attributes and capabilities as a good researcher?
  • U is for Unique: you, your thesis, your viva! What makes you different? What makes everything you’ve done special?
  • V is for Viva: what else could it be??! Talk to your friends about theirs, see what general expectations you can discern for yours.
  • W is for Wondering: it’s not wrong to doubt or worry, but it is right to be fairly confident about your examiners’ assessment of your thesis. What do you hope they see in your research?
  • X is the Unknown: it’s reasonable to say “I don’t know” in the viva; some questions might not have answers. What could help you to give the best response you could?
  • Y is for You: it’s all up to You, your Hard Work, your Knowledge and the fact that you are Talented. If you have doubts still, what could help you to see that you are good at what you do?
  • Z is for Zero: the probability of your failure. Given everything you’ve done to get this far, what – realistically – could lead to you not passing?

Which of these have you considered before? What has passed you by so far? Any ideas for substitutions?

And what might you do now, having considered this new viva alphabet?

Best of Viva Survivors 2019: Short Posts

Each year I finish my blogging by sharing some of my favourite posts over a few days. In today’s round-up I want to share some of my favourite short posts. Sometimes an idea doesn’t take much to explain!

  • Requirements – all you need for your PhD.
  • Everything! – what you can’t have done!
  • Questions & Answers – a couple of thoughts about where your viva comes from.
  • A Better List Than Typos – something to focus on rather than spelling mistakes.
  • Labels – reflecting on the words that you choose to use to describe yourself, your examiners and the viva.
  • Final – putting the importance of the viva in perspective.

Drop me a line if you have other favourite short posts from 2019! Tomorrow, in the final post for this year we come to one of the most important topics for the viva: confidence.