The Unhelpful Truth

You’ll be fine

True because viva’s go well in the overwhelming majority of cases. Unhelpful because it says nothing of why this happens.

Friends, family, colleagues and supervisors may try to reassure you with the unhelpful truth. And it’s well meant, because they care, they want you to do well and they also believe you will be fine.

To take the kernel of truth – that the viva will go well – and make it helpful, you might have to do a little work.

Ask specific questions about viva expectations. Ask your supervisors to tell you about what examiners actually do. Ask others to support your preparation practically. Remind yourself that you must be talented to have got this far: it can’t simply be luck that has carried you to completion.

You will be fine – for lots of reasons. Find them.

Unavoidable

The viva is unavoidable for a PhD candidate in the UK, but despite rumours and misgivings, a truly negative outcome is far from unavoidable. You can find out what to expect, both the regulations and experiences of friends; you can take time to prepare, to know your work well and reflect on the talent that’s made it.

There’s always a place for doubt about the outcome with something important, a space for nervousness to creep in, but that doesn’t mean some terrible result for your viva. Learn more about what vivas are like and you can give perspective to your concerns.

You can avoid being unprepared for your viva – and once you move past extreme possibilities brought on by worry, you’ll hopefully see that the only unavoidable event in your near future is viva success.

Awesome Anticlimax

I love hearing stories about vivas that were transformatively awesome for the candidate. Not only did they pass, not only did it go well, not only was it enjoyable – it was AMAZING!!!

I love hearing them, but occasionally there is still that little twinge of sadness thinking about my own. I passed, it went well, it wasn’t unenjoyable, but it wasn’t awesome. It wasn’t amazing. If anything it was an anticlimax.

I remember thinking afterwards, “Was that it?”

I think now, particularly if your viva is over video and you’re without a peer community around you to help you celebrate, there’s a chance that your viva could lean towards being an anticlimax rather than totally awesome. By comparison to 2020, the viva – this thing that gets hyped so much for so many reasons and in so many ways – might seem to drop in terms of significance.

Maybe. On the day, or the day after, or the week that follows, however long, there might be a time where your viva feels like an anticlimactic end to your PhD.

But pride will follow eventually.

You’ll recognise the achievement. You’ll realise, as you finally take a breath after it all, that this is something amazing.

I hope your viva is awesome, but if on the day it doesn’t quite hit the heights you were hoping for, I hope that the anticlimax is short-lived, and the awesomeness finds you soon.

Myth & Truth

There are lots of myths about the viva: they’re impossible to really prepare for, they’re unfair, unknowable, harsh, a hazing, and not that fun.

There is lots that is true about the viva: the vast majority of people pass, regulations and expectations can be found out quite easily, preparation is possible, examiners don’t aim to be harsh – and a viva might not always be fun but it’s usually fine.

Myths circulate among PGR (candidate) communities. The truth is known in PhD (graduate) circles.

You have to ask the right people to find out the truth about the viva.

Strange Circumstances

At the start of the year, having a viva conducted over video would have seemed strange. It certainly wasn’t typical. Now, it’s pretty much the only way they’re happening.

It’s normal to have just two examiners and you present – except when it’s not! Some universities have independent chairs in the room as part of their regulations, some departments regularly invite supervisors as observers as part of their practice. It’s normal to expect examiners to have PhDs as well, but sometimes they don’t.

Your viva, by itself, as an event, might seem strange to you. Unusual. Not the… normal way of doing things. It will certainly be different. Some of the strangeness may be coming from the formality, from the process, from the examiners, from the expectations. Some of it may be coming from you.

If the regulations say X, Y and Z but your situation doesn’t fit, you most likely will not be the first person to have encountered this difference. Vivas over video are normal now, but they were happening before the pandemic. They’re far more likely, at least for a time, but leaving aside the pressure of sudden changes, there were plenty of people around who could share experience of doing vivas over video.

Whatever your circumstances, strange or otherwise, if you need help to unpick what you could do or how you could act, there are people who can help. Check regulations, ask your graduate school, ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends. Ask me!

I think it’s normal for the viva to feel strange.

Relatively Few

Relatively few vivas are unchallenging, but relatively few are overwhelmingly unfair.

Relatively few vivas result in major corrections – and not too many result in no corrections either.

Relatively few candidates are unprepared; but there’s also not many candidates, relatively, who are able to respond perfectly.

(in fact, probably none can)

Relatively few examiners could match you for your knowledge of your work; are you one of the relatively few candidates who could match their examiners for general experience of academia?

When we consider all of these things together, we can see, I think, that relatively few of these are actually concerns for the viva. They don’t matter – in terms of you doing well, of you passing, and so on.

Relatively few vivas result in failure. There are many reasons why.

The Viva Is…?

…just one day, after lots of days.

…important, for now.

…stressful for some, for many reasons.

…survivable for many more reasons!

…unique, but not unknowable.

…something you can prepare for.

…something you could be challenged by.

…ultimately, a life event you might find difficult, or tricky, or simple, or an anticlimax.

 

The viva is personal. Deeply personal. There’s lots to explore, lots to say about it, lots of help to find for it, lots you can do to be ready for it.

The starting point – one you might have to return to several times – is simply to ask yourself, “What is the viva to me?”

The First Viva

The first viva must have been really awkward.

What questions would the examiners ask? How might the candidate know what to expect? How would the examiners know what to expect?!

Who decided what made a good thesis? Or if the candidate had done enough? Or if they did enough in the viva?!

Why were they even having a viva???

Of course, the viva as we know it today is an evolution of former practices. Structure given to culture, rules to rhythms. That’s not a bad thing: it may be tricky to pinpoint exactly when and where PhD vivas started, but we know where they are now.

For your viva you can know what to expect. There are regulations, expectations and experiences to frame your understanding. Your viva might feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m sure it will be much better than the experience of the candidate at the first viva!

Assume

What assumptions are you making about your viva? Here are some I think are generally valid for the viva.

  • Assume your examiners will be prepared.
  • Assume you’ve written a good thesis.
  • Assume that perfection is out of reach.
  • Assume you have enough time to get ready.
  • Assume that you have what it takes.
  • Assume your viva will follow the general pattern of vivas.
  • Assume that it will be different to every other viva you’ve heard of too.
  • Assume that you will pass.

I like to assume – and think it’s fair to assume too – that once you’ve passed you’ll go and do something even more impressive.

Imagine That

There’s a lot of negative possibilities that candidates imagine for their viva.

They worry they won’t be ready. They fear potential questions. They’re concerned in case something bad happens.

The viva’s important, so it’s natural to have concerns. But passing is way more likely than failing. A good viva is far more probable than a bad on. It’s far more useful to imagine all the good that could happen.

So imagine that you’re prepared. Imagine you get interesting questions. Imagine getting minor corrections. Imagine passing, smiling, breathing a sigh of relief maybe, but being done.

And remember that not everything is out of your control. What will you do to make your imaginings a reality?