Want/Need

In the UK, wanting to be a PhD means needing to have a viva.

A lot could be done to help postgraduate researchers be prepared for the viva – even from the early stages of the PhD – if we helped people see that the viva is just another part of the process, like a literature review or an annual report or even a meeting with a supervisor. It’s just something that needs to happen.

And like lit reviews, reports and meetings, vivas are different for individuals too.

Unique, in fact.

There can be expectations and norms, but always differences. There’s lots and lots of general advice for PhDs based on useful structures that broadly apply – for writing, doing research, being a researcher – and then every PGR has to make sense of those for them, their research, their PhD.

You need all those things to be a PhD. You need your viva too. If you feel resistance towards it, for any reason, then you have to be responsible for working past it. What steps could you take to steer your perception towards the viva?

How can you see it not as some terrible thing, not perhaps even as the final milestone, but just one more necessary part of the process of becoming a PhD?

Is It A Big Deal?

The viva is a big deal because it’s what candidates need in order to pass their PhDs, which are pretty much the pinnacle of educational achievement!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because virtually every candidate passes…

The viva is a big deal because candidates have to work for at least three years usually in order to get to that stage, investing thousands of hours of work to get to submission!

But the viva isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t take that much to get ready for it…

The viva is a big deal because my friend said it was for them!

And my friend said it wasn’t for them, it was just another thing they had to do…

 

The viva is a big deal. And it isn’t.

The viva is important, and you have to pass, and that can set it up to be a great big deal – but the real big deal is YOU.

YOU put in the work to get to submission. YOU are the reason the viva is happening at all. YOU must have what it takes.

 

Story Focus

Your viva expectations are influenced by the stories you focus on.

  • If you focus only on one story, the latest story of viva success that you hear, for example, then your expectations could be quite narrow (even if they are positive).
  • If you focus only on one terrible story, a bad experience of a friend-of-a-friend, then you won’t hear something representative (and you’ll probably put a dent in your own confidence for the viva).
  • If you try to absorb all the stories you can you’ll probably find nothing to focus on! Instead you’ll have a general feeling that vivas are fine, but maybe less certainty about why.

To help yourself, ask a few people that you trust to share their experiences. Talk to your supervisor and other academics about the role and work of examiners. Find helpful common threads of viva stories to focus on.

And remember to focus on your story. How did you get this far? What did you do? What have you got that will help you to pass?

Passing Prestige

There are different outcomes to vivas, but in the grand scheme of things there’s no real hierarchy with them. We know this because when everything is complete you’re not awarded anything extra for how you pass.

Corrections, minor or major, are for most the necessary work for a pass. But there’s no special seal on your certificate for no corrections, no demerits for having to do more. No official commendation: you pass, and that’s that.

Passing is special enough, right?

Would You Rather?

Would you rather have a long viva or a short one?

Would you rather know at the start exactly what your examiners thought of your thesis, or wait to discover it during the conversation of the viva?

Would you rather give a presentation at the start of your viva, or be asked a question by your examiners to start the process?

Would you rather have a guarantee that you won’t go blank at all, or a guarantee that your examiners will be nice?

Candidates might have preferences about all of these sorts of things, and more, but no way to simply get their preference. Wondering about whether preferences will be met is not unreasonable, but it is space in your mind that could be taken up with confidence, knowledge, expectations and more.

Would you rather focus on things that you could do something about for your viva, or questions that distract you?

Simple Expectations

It’s easy to tie oneself up in knots about what to expect in the viva. There are simple expectations to hold on to though. Listen to advice and stories from your peers. Appreciate the range of experiences and the common threads that tie them together.

A topic you know really well.

A matter of hours.

An examination with clear goals, and a clear focus for assessment.

Questions leading to discussion.

Two examiners in most cases.

Make it as simple as you can for yourself, and build your confidence and preparation on a few simple expectations.

Episode MCC

Or, Star Wars and the Viva…

I’ve loved Star Wars my whole life.

I ran around playgrounds as a child being a Jedi.

I grew up into a teenager who knew The Empire Strikes Back backwards.

I was a 20-something who would wait an hour for a two-minute trailer to download – remember dial-up modems?

The prequels were not as great as the originals but they were Star Wars.

Disney bought Lucasfilm and OH MY GOSH there were going to be more movies!!!

I became a parent and showed my toddling child trailers for the new movies, both gasping at far away planets and exciting spaceship chases.

And all through 2019 I was unbelievably excited: here it comes, Star Wars Episode IX… The final one, the last chapter, the end of a great story that had been spun since before I was born! Here it comes, here it comes and-

It was OK, I guess.

Not bad… No not bad. Good, yeah, it was good. Not great, not…

It was OK.

 

The story of many vivas is similar.

Your viva will be a long-time coming, a lot of work and anticipation leading up to a few hours with your examiners. I think it’s fair to expect the viva to go well, but also expect that it won’t be the life-changing event that might be promised by what the viva is for. Disbelieve the horror stories or urban legends, but don’t imagine it will be some crowning achievement or fitting swansong to the final months of your PhD.

It will be OK.

Not bad. I hope it feels good for you. A viva may be a clear success, a great thesis and a great candidate, and yet you could still be left feeling a little disappointed.

“Was that it?” was a question I asked myself after both my viva and Star Wars Episode IX. In both cases, how could the reality compete with years of anticipation?

 

(and yes, Roman numeral enthusiasts, the title of this post is accurate – this is daily blog post 1200!)

The End of the Line

The town I live in is the last stop on our local train service. It’s been five months since I’ve travelled by train for work – or at all, come to think of it – but whenever I was returning from a trip, there was something really nice about knowing that I was a few stops away from the end of the line. Almost home.

A few more stops and I’m there. Down the road, right at the traffic lights, up the hill a little and two more corners and home.

The viva is a little like the end of the line. It’s the final station; maybe your research train arrives after what feels like a very long journey. Perhaps you’ve had to make several changes along the way. Hopefully there haven’t been too many delays – especially in the final stages. I imagine if your submission or viva is coming soon, given this year, then the end of your PhD trip has been tough.

And now you’re almost there. Almost. Because there’s still a short walk through corrections, past streets of necessary admin and paperwork, before finally you’ve reached your real destination.

Remember that your viva might be the end of the line, but you’ve a little way to go yet.

Take Your Time

Take your time, if you can, to finish a good thesis. Make it the best presentation of your research, to convince your examiners of the significance of your work and your talent as a researcher.

Take your time, unless your time is very limited, when you need to prepare for the viva. Spread out the work. Sketch out a plan for what that period might be like. Think about how you can break up the things you need to do so you’re not overwhelmed.

Take your time, and there’s plenty of it, to pause and think and respond well in the viva. You’re under no rush. You might feel a pressure to do well, but that shouldn’t come from a need to go quickly.

Your PhD is worth doing well, so take your time.

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.