Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.

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.

Big Things I Learned At My Viva

I find it helpful to look back on my viva now and then. A lot stands out to me that I wasn’t expecting at the time. As time goes by some realisations grow more important in my mind, so I thought today I’d share a few to think about for yours.

  • Comfortable clothes help a lot! You can look smart and be comfortable. You may want to dress to impress, but don’t wear shoes that are too tight or something that you find impossible to keep straight. Smart can be nice – but comfortable is what you need.
  • I was asked to give a presentation to start my viva. This was good for me. It forced key talking points and questions to be on my mind. Even if you’re not asked for a presentation (they’re not common) consider spending time thinking about what you would include. Or give a presentation for friends as part of your preparation for the viva.
  • I learned that vivas can be four hours long! Mine was. Yours could be, although it’s not very likely…
  • …which makes it all the more important that you ask other people about their experiences. You can’t predict your viva, but if you listen carefully to enough stories you can get a sense of what yours could be like.
  • Corrections aren’t a punishment. Examiners ask for them to try to help make your thesis better. I didn’t know that. I didn’t think my thesis would be perfect, but at the same time I hoped I wouldn’t be asked to make any changes. That’s unrealistic. As I later learned, most people are asked to do some kind of corrections. You probably will too.

A big learning point has only come with time and distance: my viva was important, my PhD was important and is important to me still – but neither of them are the most important things I’ll ever do. Take it seriously, of course, but you don’t need to obsess and worry.

And when you’re all done, take some time to reflect. What have you learned from your viva?

Stories & Statistics

Both have a place in shaping your expectations of the viva.

Stats can give you an outline, a pencil drawing that is a reasonable shape of the viva experience.

Stories can help to colour in that picture, give you details to help you see what vivas are like and how they feel.

Both have a place: your outline might vary a little, you might paint with different colours, but listening to stories and putting them together with the statistics for viva experiences should give you a useful blurry picture for your viva.

Squint and maybe you’ll see your future! Ask for advice, ask to hear about experiences, and then see how they make sense with where you are. No-one needs to go to their viva with a blank page for expectations.

Exceptions To The Rule

There are always some. For the viva think of them as exceptions to the expectations

  • …the six hour vivas, out of the ordinary, but they do happen.
  • …the vivas done over video chat, which don’t happen that often, but often enough.
  • …the vivas where an examiner doesn’t have a PhD, or perhaps where there are two external examiners.
  • …the viva where the candidate is stood for four hours answering questions in front of a blackboard!

That last one was me. Totally unexpected, not unpleasant or terrible, just different. At the time I didn’t have either knowledge or experience to know it was out of the ordinary. I’ve never met anyone else who has stood for their whole viva.

There was a reason for why my viva happened that way: I was asked to give a presentation, and I stayed at the blackboard.

There are reasons for all of the exceptions; they don’t just happen, particular circumstances lead them that way. Not all exceptions to the rule can be seen in advance, but some – like the make-up of your examining group, or being asked to give a presentation, or doing the viva over videochat – can be. In all of those cases, there are rules and regulations for what happens.

Expectations for the exceptions.

Enjoy, Endure, Engage

I’d like to think that most people could enjoy their viva, but I know that some won’t.

I know most candidates won’t feel like they simply have to endure their viva, but sadly, some will.

More and more I think the best advice I can give to all candidates is to engage with their viva.

Engage with their preparations. Be active and take charge of how they feel and what they need to do.

Engage with their examiners and their questions. Don’t worry about going blank or forgetting. Instead, think about what they can do to best respond in the viva.

Engage with this great opportunity to discuss the valuable work they’ve done.

I hope you enjoy your viva, I hope it’s not a case of enduring it.

Remember that you get to control how you engage with your viva.

Edge Cases

The vivas that take place over Skype.

The third examiner in the room, or the second external.

The examiner that isn’t an academic.

These aren’t what most candidates would expect, but they don’t make your viva unique and unpredictable. Your viva is unique because you’re unique, your thesis is unique – no-one will ever have the exam that you do. If you have a viva over videoconferencing, or if your examiner doesn’t have a PhD, you shouldn’t worry. These things don’t happen all the time, but they aren’t happening for the first time in your viva either.

They’re not common but the edge cases still have expectations. You can ask and find out about them.

My Viva in a Haiku

Tired at the start,

Challenged throughout, but happy,

Four hours? Too quick!

 

I didn’t sleep well the night before, and my viva was a draining four hours – but it wasn’t bad, not really. My examiners had taken the time to read my thesis and think about it. They challenged me on how it was written but gave me respect. My viva was four hours long, and in a way, over too soon. Compared to the three-and-a-half years that lead to it, my viva was an anticlimax.

I wonder how you might describe yours in a haiku?

(more viva-related haiku here)

Leaves On The Line

I travel everywhere for work by train.

I make my plans, check maps, routes, timetables and book things as far in advance as possible…

…and at least 30% of the time there is some kind of hold-up with the train.

Leaves on the line mean the train has to slow down.

A missed connection adds an hour to my journey.

Signal failures mean the train can’t go at all.

And last year I was stuck in a blizzard! Things got so cold that the track ahead froze solid – then when we got free, the train’s brakes went “funny” so we had to wait while a breakdown train came to help us.

Reflecting on all of this, I’m reminded of the viva. You can do all of the work, the research, the preparation and the confidence building – but then you could forget a detail on the day. You could be nervous. You could get a correction you weren’t expecting.

Or you or one of your examiners could be ill and the viva could be postponed!

But, like my train journeys, you’ll make it through. You’ll prevail. On a delayed train, in the moment I can be cross, frustrated or wonder “What will I do?” – but I’ve always reached my destination. During the blizzard I had to take two different trains than I’d planned, spend a freezing hour stood at Berwick-upon-Tweed station, and a total of twelve slow hours of progress but I got home.

Whatever happens around your viva, whatever “leaves on the line” slow your progress or make you doubt, you will make it through.

You can’t anticipate everything, but you can be certain you’re on your way to success.

Sleepless in New Brighton

The red digits on my bedside clock radio say 02:30.

I’m tired, my head’s empty. Sleep is a stranger on a hill far away.

My viva is in seven-and-a-half hours – correction, seven hours and twenty-nine minutes. I’m not worried. I don’t feel stressed.

I have two questions that keep running through my mind in a loop: Am I asleep yet? Why can’t I sleep?

Seven hours and seventeen minutes now.

What. Is. Happening.

I did the work. I’ve done weeks of prep. I’m really as ready as can be. I’m a little nervous, but not worried.

So why am I awake?

Six hours and fifty-nine minutes.

Seriously? Seriously! This is what I’m going to do? No sleep. No sleep before my viva. No sleep! No…

….

….

….

…wh-?

It’s almost 7am…? I got some sleep? I got some sleep! I’ll be OK! I’ll feel it later I’m sure, but I’m OK for now!

 

And I was OK, a bit tired, but OK. Years later I figured out that I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t really know what to expect from the viva. I was nervous, but didn’t want to look too much at that feeling, I wanted to avoid thinking about it. If you feel nervous, ask yourself why. See what you can do to explore the root causes and address the situation. It’s not wrong to feel nervous about the viva, but do everything you can to put those nerves in perspective and address any worries.