The Default Viva

Not the worst, not the best.

Not amazing, not terrible.

No great corrections needed, friendly comments but no effusive praise.

Lots of amazingly good or heart-stoppingly bad things could happen at your viva, but they probably won’t.

It will most likely be a good day rather than bad, but it probably won’t change your life by itself. It may not live up to the hype that you and others have built it up to.

The viva is an exam. It’s a conversation. It’s a test. It’s a pass. And it comes after years and years of effort, thought and feeling. If it doesn’t live up to your great expectations it’s probably because very little could, compared to what you’ve already done.

You may not get the amazing, award-winning, fantabulous viva.

You get the default viva. The basic model.

And that will be alright.

Atypical

There are regulations for vivas, and expectations for vivas, but all vivas are different. Some are more different than others.

My viva took four hours. That makes it different from most, by comparison a long viva.

I gave a presentation to start my viva. That made it different, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I was stood for all of my viva, which is really different! I started my presentation, and my examiners neatly segued into questions. I just stayed where I was by the chalkboard. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or wrong (although close I started to feel pretty tired towards the end). This was just how my viva was.

All vivas are different is another way of recognising that every viva is unique. Every viva is a custom, one-off examination process, that follows expectations and guidelines and academic culture, but is still unique.

Unique or different, this doesn’t mean bad. Just… different!

Some vivas are more different than others, but the purpose is always the same.

Make sure you know what the purpose of the viva is: what your examiners are there to do and what you are there to do. Know this before you get there and you’ll feel far more comfortable even if your viva is atypical.

Viva Of The Year

There’s no such prize, at least, as far as I’m aware! But it’s fun to think about the possible criteria a viva would have to satisfy to put it on a shortlist…

  • Would it have to have a substantial discussion – but not be too long?
  • Maybe it could only result in minimal corrections – but how would we quantify “minimal” since most vivas end with corrections being asked for?
  • Perhaps we’d have to consider everyone in the room and not just the candidate – what qualities would a Viva Of The Year nominee’s examiners have to satisfy?

And who would we get to judge this anyway?!

It’s fun to think about, but rather than focus on whether a viva or your viva is “the best”, it’s more useful to work on things you can do something about.

Learn about your examiners, and if you can, have a discussion with your supervisor about the selection and nomination process. Submit the best thesis you can, and spend a little time getting ready. Learn about viva expectations generally, and see what you can do to live up to your part of the process. Build your confidence, and go to your viva determined to engage fully with your examiners’ questions.

Your viva might not be viva of the year, but it could be a highlight of your year. What will you do to steer it towards that outcome?

Catastrophising

One day in January, around 5pm, I noticed our house was getting cold.

I checked, and realised the boiler wasn’t on. I tried a few things and realised it wouldn’t come on. I called our boiler service people, they talked me through a few checks and realised there was nothing I could do: someone would have to come and see it.

“OK, we aim to get someone out within 24 hours; we’ll be in touch as soon as possible,” said the helpful person on the phone. This was around 5:30pm.

I started imagining…

Well. 24 hours. So the house is going to be cold all night. No showers. OK, kettles to fill a shallow bath. Hot drinks. Where’s our electric heaters? Hot water bottles for bedtime. Blankets, get all the blankets out. OK. OK… Don’t panic. It might not be fixed tomorrow. So what do we do? Stay with mum? Stay with sister? Maybe. OK. What about work? Nevermind work, what about money? The central heating is broke, BROKE, the boiler won’t fire… How much is a new boiler? How long will it take?? How long will I be paying for it on the credit card???

Ring-ring. It’s now 6pm. “Hi, this is the boiler guy! I should be with you by 7!”

So he’ll be here soon. But it’s going to be expensive. Well. OK, seriously, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Disrupted evening, late night, but I’m not out tomorrow. We’ll be fine, we can do this. We always find a way to make it work… But I suppose I’d best pack things up in the office, as the boiler is in there, and when they have to replace the boiler I’ll need to work somewhere else for at least a few days I think-

Knock-knock. It’s now 6:45pm. “Let’s take a look… Oh, did this happen? … Right, and let’s try this… OK, there’s the problem! All done! No problem, bye!”

It’s 7:10pm. All sorted. No fuss, no headache, no drama and no more cold as the radiators start pumping out heat again.

Sometimes, something goes wrong and before you know it, you’re imagining the outcome is going to be awful. It can feel impossible to put the brakes on the runaway train of catastrophes that lurch ahead in your brain. If you don’t know what the problem is, all you have are questions. If you don’t know the exact answer, all you can do sometimes is imagine it’s the worst possible option.

In your viva, it’s entirely possible that your examiners won’t like something, or won’t agree with you, or aren’t sure about a choice you’ve made. It’s natural for there to be typos, or paragraphs that don’t communicate what you want, or ideas that can be challenged. And none of them are necessarily catastrophic: in some cases, you won’t know what’s motivating the questions or resistance or different opinion. And in the absence of that information, your brain instantly jumps to catastrophe.

So: ask questions to get answers.

If your examiners say they found mistakes, don’t worry straight away: ask them where and ask them why. If they don’t agree with something, ask them why, so you know what you need to respond to. If they aren’t sure about something, ask what they would need to be convinced. You may need to do nothing to resolve the situation.

As with my boiler “catastrophe” you might realise there is nothing you can do but wait, listen and try not to obsess.

17% Uncomfortable

That’s my prediction for your viva.

You know your research, you wrote your thesis, you’ve prepared for the day. You’re reasonably confident, not arrogant, slight flutter of nerves because it’s important. There’s a few moments of worry – you don’t know what your examiners think, what they’re going to ask, if you’ll go blank on something or not – but you can probably feel pretty comfortable with the situation.

I would hope that you feel only a little uncomfortable, just a little, because when you think rationally you know why and how you’ve got this far. 17% uncomfortable means that you’re doing well.

And if you’re feeling more uncomfortable than that, what are you going to do about it? Who are you going to ask for help? What actions are you going to take?

Intentions & Experiences

Examiners have intentions for vivas: questions they might want to ask, a tone or atmosphere they want to encourage.

Candidates have experiences in vivas: a mix of the reality of the situation and how they feel about it during and afterwards.

Of course, examiner intentions feed into candidate experiences. Over time they create the culture that future candidates come to expect.

The overall feeling I get from candidates is that vivas are a bit scary, a bit uncertain, probably something to worry about. The overall feeling I get from graduates is that vivas aren’t as scary as they seemed to be, and while they require action and preparation they’re typically not something to be stressed about.

So we need to steer the culture.

Academics need to be asked more about their general approaches to vivas. Graduates need to be asked about their experiences in vivas. The details need to filter out so that a more thorough picture emerges. Candidates need to hear about experiences and intentions – examiners do too – and over time we can steer the expectations so that they match the overall reality of the viva.

But for today, if your viva is coming up, ask your supervisor what they do to get ready for a viva. What questions are in their mind? What approach do they take? Ask PhD graduates from your department what their viva was like. How did they prepare? How were they feeling? And what happened on the day?

Typical Amounts Of Time

PhDs typically take between three and seven years to complete in the UK.

Thesis examinations happen around two or three months after submission.

Vivas are usually 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours long.

And all of these things are typical, but not representative of your experience at all. They’re common, but not even close to universal: averages and groupings that don’t respect the variety of experiences in postgraduate research.

In all of these different situations, it’s perhaps best not to focus on how long something is taking – How much longer? When will I be done? When will this be finished? – and instead divert yourself to action. Your thesis submission deadline might be a stressful milestone in some cases, but you don’t have to have that pressure waiting for you in the viva.

Stop watching the clock, start doing something. What can you do to help yourself? Don’t worry about how long your viva might be: what can you do in the viva to help yourself, or what can you do to prepare well?

It Was Fine

So many people told me this about the viva before my own, or have told me since about theirs. For most people it’s the simplest way to say something about their viva. But there’s no detail, and in the absence of information, doubts and worries can creep in and play for future candidates who simply hear, “It was fine”…

  • “Fine… So only OK? What happened I wonder?”
  • “Well they passed, but still…”
  • “What do they really mean?”

If you want to find out about vivas, ask for details. You don’t need a minute-by-minute breakdown. You need more than “fine” to make a useful set of expectations and banish worries.

If you’re asked about your viva, give details. Tell candidates how long it was, what surprised you, what questions stood out, what the process was like.

Show them it was fine, don’t simply tell them it was.

Morning or Afternoon?

“What’s the best time of day to have your viva?” Some candidates want to know!

My answer always comes in two parts.

Part One: Anecdotal pros and cons. Vivas usually have to finish by 5pm at the latest, so a morning viva could be longer in principle than an afternoon viva. But you can start earlier and don’t have to be nervous all day. An afternoon viva could be shorter, but you have longer with butterflies in your stomach. There’s a trade-off maybe, but it’s purely anecdotal.

Part Two: The timing of your viva may not be within your control. A morning or afternoon viva has no special impact on the outcome of the viva. There are far more important things you can focus on. How will you prepare? What do you need to do? What is your contribution? How can you help yourself feel confident? Much more important questions for you to consider.

Look for answers to your questions about the viva – ask me, ask your supervisor, ask colleagues about their experiences – but don’t forget that some questions, answers and responses may be more useful than others.

Click Your Fingers

If you could click your fingers and make your viva better, what would you do?

  • CLICK! You don’t feel nervous!
  • CLICK! You have a perfect memory!
  • CLICK! Your examiners only have praise for you!
  • CLICK! You have a picture in your mind of the viva and it plays out that way!

Of course, none of these are realistic, but that doesn’t mean that the complete opposite is likely either!

Perfection is unattainable, but your efforts can help. You can’t click your fingers and feel no anxiety, but you can build your confidence. You can’t have perfect recall, but you can prepare with your thesis. You may not have ultra-nice examiners, but you can think about who they are and what they do – and explore how they might feel about your thesis. You can’t click your fingers and have your viva follow a script, but you can ask others about their experiences to guide your own expectations.

You can’t click your fingers and have your viva arrange itself according to your desires. But you can do a little work and steer it toward your preferences, whatever they may be.