A Short Viva

I’m asked about short vivas in almost every Viva Survivor session:

  • What can I do to have a short viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour?

They’re not from a place of not wanting to be in the viva. It’s just simple worry. Nerves and anxiety running wild. I don’t blame people for these questions, but they are the wrong questions to ask about the viva experience. There really isn’t much one could do to dictate the length of the viva, or steer examiners away from questions.

But what could you do?

You could prepare. You could practise. You could decide to engage with your examiners and do your best.

Maybe we could simply change our questions:

  • What can I do to have a short viva? What can I do to have a good viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions? How can I best engage with my examiners’ questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour? How can I prepare to be at my best however long the viva is?

So what will you do?


Magic 8-Ball

There are plenty of people you can ask for advice and help about the viva – but there’s plenty of other ways you get help too.

Even a Magic 8-Ball could help! Here’s a partial transcript from a recent conversation that a PhD candidate had with theirs…

Magic 8-Ball, do you know a lot about the PhD viva? Without a doubt.

You have a doctorate?! Yes.

And you can answer pretty much any question I have about the viva too? Most likely.

OK, do you know what the outcome of my viva will be? Better not tell you now.

That’s fair I guess… But my examiners will have an idea, right? Yes – definitely.

Will they tell me if I’ve passed at the start of my viva? My sources say no.

I’ve heard they prepare quite thoroughly in general, is that right? You may rely on it.

Do you think my viva will be easy? Cannot predict now.

OK, but could I fail? Very doubtful.

I’ve heard that most people pass. Outlook good.

I’m just worried I’ll go blank. What could I do? Concentrate and ask again.

The questions won’t be too tough, right? My reply is no.

Will I get corrections though? It is certain.

I’ve heard that some people get no corrections though- Don’t count on it.

Hmmm. Is it possible for me to get ready for the viva even if I’m busy? As I see it, yes.

My examiners want to explore what I’ve done and what I can do, is that the short of it? It is decidedly so.

And if I’ve got this far through my PhD, I can do the viva too? Signs point to yes.

Probably Not

It’s the answer for many questions around the viva…

  • Will you remember everything?
  • Will you forget something important?
  • Will you go blank?
  • Will your examiners like everything?
  • Will they hate everything?
  • Will you demonstrate perfection?
  • Will you be cool, calm and collected?
  • Will your nerves get the best of you?
  • Would any of these things really make a difference on how things might go?

You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to recall everything; you don’t need to fret over forgetting or going blank; you shouldn’t expect your examiners to rip your work to shreds and you can’t realistically expect that they won’t have questions or comments.

You can be ready. You can have realistic expectations. You can go prepared to meet any challenges.

Will you face another challenge like this in your life? Probably not.

But will this be the biggest thing you ever do? Probably not.

The PhD Is Supposed To Be Hard

You don’t get a PhD by just showing up. There are no shortcuts, no study hacks, no “five simple tricks” to help you dodge the work you have to do.

A PhD is a result of time, work and talent. Maybe a little luck will help, but it’s not the deciding factor. A PhD is hard. The viva is part of the PhD, so you can’t expect it to be easy.

But don’t expect it to be too hard either. It’s not trivial, but it comes after all of the other hard PhD days you’ve lived through.

Confidence Is A Lot Like Research

They take time.

Confidence and research require evidence.

They can be inspiring and could lead you to new ideas.

Confidence and research are processes. Whatever you do today, might not be what helps tomorrow.

As a postgraduate researcher, your confidence is like your research: your responsibility. You have to take charge of it. To make it real you have to act and keep acting.

Make plans for your research, make plans for your confidence. Act to further your research, act to further your confidence.

7 Tips For A Viva Presentation

Presentations are not often requested by examiners to start the viva, but they can be a useful way to get things started. If your examiners ask for one they’re giving you a way to control the start of the viva, and hoping you can use it to start well.

Of course, you could still be nervous, as people often are when called to give a presentation. Here are some thoughts on what you could do to help your presentation:

  1. Think Why-How-What to give structure: Why did you do your research? How did you do it? What were the results? This can do a lot to frame a good presentation.
  2. Check to see if other candidates have given presentations. How long were they? What did they decide to include? Use this to help shape the depth and content you share.
  3. Ask your supervisors for their perspective. What are the key results or ideas you have to tell your examiners about?
  4. Decide on the format. Powerpoint or whiteboard? Prompts or script?
  5. Recycle! Do you have diagrams, slides or other material you have used before, that could be repurposed for this presentation? You don’t have to start from scratch.
  6. Practice! If your examiners are expecting a twenty minute overview, don’t show up with fifty slides you’ve not rehearsed.
  7. Remember this is all about giving you a good way to start the viva.

You might not be asked to give a presentation to start the discussion. Still, giving a presentation could be a valuable task in advance of your viva. Many of the things you would do to prepare a presentation will also serve you well as part of your viva preparation. Giving a presentation could also be a great confidence boost before the viva.

Seat Belts & Viva Prep

I got in a taxi a few weeks ago and the driver didn’t wear his seat belt.

Nothing bad happened, we didn’t have far to go, it wasn’t raining and the roads were quite clear…

But WOW! was I nervous!!!

Most cars don’t get into accidents. Most drivers pay attention properly and do what they need to. Wearing a seat belt, as helpful and vital to safety as it is, shouldn’t be needed. You do it because the consequences could be awful if you don’t.

Over a full-time PhD you could do 6000 hours of work. You build up talent, knowledge, instinct – all of which is helpful in the several hours you’ll be in the viva. But you still need to invest time before then, a small period of viva preparation, to be ready. The relatively small amount of work can make the difference in your viva.

It can help you do your best work on the day rather than face a stressful situation you’re unprepared for. Take the time to cover all the little things you need.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Your examiners will want to talk about the strengths of your work in the viva. They’re there to talk to you about your contribution. Spend time in your prep thinking about what makes your work strong. How is it new? How does it make a difference? What makes it good? Why does it matter?

Your examiners might want to explore weaknesses. They might want to unpick clumsy sentences that don’t express what you had hoped. They may want to ask about limitations. The potential for improving on your research could be a rewarding topic of conversation. What could you do differently? Are you sure you’re right? Why?

Spend a little time thinking about your weaknesses. Spend much more time reflecting on your strengths. The background assumption for the viva is there is something valuable in what you’ve done – be ready to talk about your strengths!

Ignorance Is Bliss*

*but not for the viva.

Sometimes it’s better to not know something (a news story, a headline, a particular meme that is going around) but for the viva, ignorance is definitely not bliss. You need to know things.

You need to know your work. You need to know who your examiners are and what they do. You need to know what about regulations and expectations.

You really need to know that you can’t know everything (and also don’t need to know everything).

You can do all of that. It’s not a huge task to not be ignorant for your viva. And it’s far better than missing something you need to pay attention to.

Crossing The Swamp

I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators.

A quote from The Art of Possibility by Ben and Ros Zander; it popped up several months ago in a newsletter I subscribe to. I love a good quote, and this one is apt for the viva.

You just need to get to the other side. That’s your job. Your job is not to defend every idea to the death, your job is not to respond forcefully to every criticism, you don’t have to fight-fight-fight your way through.

Questions and comments could suddenly pop out of the water and you might need to make a full response for some. For many you could just say, “OK, thank you. Thanks for letting me know. That’s interesting. Could you tell me more?”

You don’t have to fight all of the alligators in your viva. You need to get to the other side – to being done.