Popular Culture

When I was a teenager, me and a few friends liked superheroes. We bought random American comic books from this one newsagent in our home town that stocked them. This was the mid-1990s. No real internet, no way to connect or find out more. There were three or four of us in our school who loved superheroes, and hundreds who didn’t. The thing we liked wasn’t popular.

Jump forward twenty years and superheroes are everywhere. The biggest movies are about superheroes, saving the day in two to three hours of screen time – they’re not universally liked but they’re much, much more popular than when me and my few friends were reading about them.

Popular culture changes over time. Nevermind the popular: culture changes. It’s steered by people, by time, by events, and hopefully – but sadly not always – for the good.

 

Over the last decade I’ve seen that the culture around the viva is changing. More and more candidates feel less and less worried. Still nervous, but not overly concerned.

The viva is less unknown, it’s more common for people to have an idea of what to expect, more common for candidates to take steps to really get ready.

The culture around the viva in the UK is slowly changing for the good. If you’re not seeing it for yourself then take a few steps to finding out more. Ask a few friends about their vivas. Check the regulations. See what expectations are valid and what you can do to be ready.

Like superheroes, vivas aren’t universally liked – but you can be ready to save the day when it comes to your two to three hours of screen time.

Saving For A Rainy Day

That’s one way you could look at your PhD and the viva: throughout all of the reading, research and writing you’re storing up exactly what you need for when you sit down with your examiners. Whatever they bring your way, whatever “rain” comes from them, you’ve saved up enough to get through.

On the one hand, there’s some truth to this. Over the course of your PhD you will have saved up enough to be able to pass through the challenge of your viva.

On the other hand…

Whoever said that a rainy day had to be hard, or that a challenge couldn’t be enjoyable?

Why can’t it be true that you spend three or more years building yourself to be who you need to be for the viva – and then arrive to find it a good experience in it’s own right?

It Might Be Weird

After years of work it could feel odd to be talking about your research in your viva.

Perhaps if you’ve had a break between submission and the viva, things might feel a bit rusty when you think or talk about your work.

Or if your viva has to be over video it could feel awkward if there are delays, nervous moments waiting silently to get a response.

It might be weird to have unexpected questions, or be weird in advance trying to figure out what questions you might be asked by your examiners.

There’s plenty of space for weird around the viva, but remember: weird doesn’t mean bad. Even if your viva is a little unexpected, a little strange or a bit weird, it will still most likely be absolutely fine.

Made To Measure

Your viva is a unique exam, tailored just for you and your thesis. No-one else will have this one-of-a-kind experience.

But like made to measure clothes, there are patterns. There are ways that things are done. Jacket sleeves stop at a certain point so the jacket fits well. A skirt would be no good if it wasn’t stitched properly. Vivas are unique for the individual candidate, but there are expectations for what they should be like.

Find out about regulations and expectations for the viva, so that when yours comes around you can be sure it fits you well.

Mismatch?

I don’t know what I will do if my viva is four hours long!!!

You could ask for a break… And most vivas aren’t that long.

Ahhh, but when the examiners ask me really mean questions what if they won’t give me time to think???

They’ll ask questions but they won’t be mean. Questions might be tough, but they will definitely give you time to think.

And another thing: I’ve spent three years on this, what if they ask me to complete corrections????!!!!

Most people are asked to complete corrections. Most of the time they don’t take too long to do.

 

I’m not being flippant: viva worries and concerns are legitimate and they need to be addressed. In my experience a huge part of worries about the process of the viva comes down to a mismatch between personal expectations of candidates and general experiences in the viva.

You could have an idea about what the viva is like that is radically different from the experience of the viva. You won’t know until you find out more. If an expectation for your viva is troubling you then check it with some friends, colleagues or your supervisor.

  • They may simply say, “That’s not so common.” That won’t dismiss the worry completely perhaps, but it will start the process of working past it.
  • They might say, “Well, actually, yes, that does happen a lot.” In that case you can still start the process of working to where you need to be.

Being worried won’t help you though. Worry is the first thing. You have to work your way to a better place.

Have Fun!

“Have fun!” is a better encouragement for the viva than “good luck” or “don’t worry”.

What if instead of wondering if your viva would go well, you just assumed that it was going to be enjoyable? Maybe then instead of asking yourself endless worried what if questions, you could ask:

  • How will I have fun with my viva?
  • What am I looking forward to discussing?
  • How can I make myself feel amazing?

Plenty of candidates enjoy their viva. Why not you?

Sample Of One

You need to hear a few stories before a full picture of the viva comes into focus.

One bad story could convince you (wrongly) that you’re in for a bad time.

One good story wouldn’t explain enough of what to generally expect.

Listen to the stories of PhD graduates generally to get an overall sense of what happens. Ask two or three friends from your department about their vivas to begin to get a sense of the process, expectations and experiences that candidates have in the viva. Vivas are generally fine. They can be challenging but not negative, difficult but not something that needs to be endured.

A sample of one isn’t enough, but a few stories can help you feel good for the challenge ahead.

Connecting In A Video Viva

It makes a difference that you’re not in the same room as your examiners if you’re over Zoom. Delays due to a poor signal, tech failure or less body language to read could all make it harder to engage with your examiners. These factors might even create a sense that there’s something wrong with the viva.

You can make a positive difference too though. You can practise with friends or in a mock viva to get a feel for delays in communication and grow comfortable with the video format. You can explore options to help your tech situation. You can read your examiners’ work to help you connect with them. You can prepare for your viva to be as confident and ready as you can be for the situation. You can do a lot to build yourself up.

Don’t forget that whatever might interfere – tech, signal, the size of the screen on which you see your examiners – everyone involved wants the viva to go well. The online element shouldn’t interfere with any good will when it comes to connecting with your examiners, or interfere with the outcome of your viva.

More Things I Don’t Know

Two years ago I shared this little post about things I didn’t know about the viva. Two years on and I have thoughts about some of these!

  • What percentage of candidates fail their viva? Around 0.1% is my estimate, based on lots of conversations with doctoral college staff.
  • How well does a viva over Skype work compared to an in-person viva? What’s Skype…? Online vivas seem to work well, all things considered, and like anything just require a little adjusting to.

I’m still wondering about thesis-by-publication differences, and the vivas of full-time and part-time researchers.

I also realise that I don’t know for sure how common a presentation is at the start of the viva (they seem to be quite rare). It’s unclear whether or not the switch to Zoom vivas is going to be remain common in the long term. I don’t know if there is a universal viva prep help idea that can make a difference for every candidate (though I keep working on it!).

I’ve accepted that there will always be things I don’t know about the viva. Some I can find out, some I can explore and make sense of, and some things might always remain unknown. I can keep exploring a little but I also have to focus on what I do know, what I can share and how I can help.

Consider your research. There are things you don’t know. You can explore that a little, to be sure of what you don’t know and why – but keep your focus squarely on what you do know, how you can be certain, and how you can best share it with others.

There’s always more. But by now you must know enough.

Once Upon A Time

There’s a fairytale aspect to the viva.

Generally there’s a rhythm and sense of how one will unfold. More often than not, a clear sense of beginning, middle and end, patterns by which the story comes together.

Only a few important people in the story, a clear protagonist, a series of challenges – though thankfully no goblins, ogres, giants or trolls.

And like fairytales, when you ask around you discover that nearly every viva has a happy ending.