In Case Of Emergency

What if your external examiner cancels with a week to go?

What do you do if you get an email asking you for submission fees, and you’re sure that doesn’t apply to you?

What would you do if you broke your leg or just got sick a few days before your viva?

What do you do? Who do you call?

You can’t plan what you would do for every unexpected event – they’re unexpected, of course! But you can be a little prepared all the same. Spend two minutes as soon as possible, months before your viva if that’s where you are now: get a name, email address and phone number for someone at your university who could help in case anything unexpected, a real emergency, happens in the lead up to your viva.

Your supervisor might be the person to call, but equally it could be a member of staff in your Graduate School or Doctoral College. Figure out who the most likely person is, get their contact details written on a Post-it Note and put that away just in case.

You’ll never know when an emergency will strike, you can’t always know how it might be solved. But you can know who to contact first to help you.

No Two The Same

No two vivas are completely different either.

One friend might have a two hour viva, another’s is three – but both got minor corrections.

One friend might have been asked to give an overview of their research to start, while another was asked how they got interested in a topic – and both were done in under 90 minutes.

One friend got minimal corrections, another got major – but both enjoyed the experience.

Any two vivas will have similarities and differences.

Many vivas have common similarities – approximate length, tone of examiners, areas of questioning maybe within disciplines – and ways in which they differ. Differences don’t mean bad things, just difference.

Listen to stories and realise that vivas generally are fine, and that there are some expectations underneath all of the variety of experiences.

A Comparison For The Viva

My daughter really likes surprise toys. They come sealed, disguised in bags and boxes. Hidden surprise dolls, magical unicorns that change colour, packages within packages hiding what’s there. She loves them. Part of the excitement is not knowing what’s inside until you open the box.

But there’s only so many combinations. Leaflets show you all of the options, whether it’s sixteen Lego figures in a range or millions of combinations of dolls and accessories. Some are more common than others, but all have similar features or stylings.

The viva is like my daughter’s surprise toys. There’s lots of information about what vivas are like generally, but no-one can tell you what yours will be like. You only find out when you get to yours. However, like the best surprise toys, viva quality is generally good, expectations conform to reasonable standards and you can clearly see the process for engaging with them.

And thankfully there’s no unwrapping for the viva as there is with the surprise toys my daughter likes!

A Good Viva

It could be yours.

You can’t buy one and guarantee the quality. You can’t plot out what you would like the most from it and then ensure those criteria are matched. You won’t know it for sure until you’re in there.

But all the same, it could be yours.

You can do the work that gets you to submission – building talent, knowledge and confidence as you go.

You could discuss potential examiners with your supervisor – and find out more about them after submission.

You can learn about the regulations and expectations for vivas – and decide how you can best meet them.

You can spend a little time in preparation for your viva – not by fretting, but by focussing on what needs to be done.

You can go to the viva not knowing what is going to happen, but knowing that you are ready. You can be nervous, but you can be confident.

It could be long, it could be short, it could be tiring, it could be exhilirating, it could be hard – and it can be good.

Status

Your examiners have a high status in the viva for several reasons. They have titles. They have experience. They have roles in the viva (and before it) that gives them authority.

You have a high status in the viva for several reasons. You have worked to be there. You have deep experience that has put you in the room. The viva wouldn’t be happening at all if you weren’t there.

Status doesn’t have to signify conflict though. Status in the viva is just a consequence of recognising that everyone in the room has an important role to play.

The Welcome Mat

I love visiting friends who have a mat by their front door, big letters: WELCOME.

We’re glad you’re here. You’re supposed to be. Come in, join us.

I’ve never heard of a viva that had a welcome mat. I wish they did.

If it’s viva day, then you are supposed to be there. You did something good to get your thesis finished and your examiners are expecting you.

You are welcome.

We Need To Talk About The Viva

We don’t talk about it enough.

One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.

We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!

We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.

We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?

We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.

In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.

Pass It On

After your PhD, tell others what you learned. Not just the ideas in your thesis, but what you’ve learned about working well. What you can do now that you couldn’t before. What you learned at the viva even: what that experience was like for you and what you think it means.

Write it down so you don’t forget. Make a page in a journal to summarise how far you’ve come. Write a blog post. Give a talk before you leave your department. Do something to mark this change: you’re now a PhD!

Your story could help others write their own.

Standing

I stopped telling people that I was stood for all of my four-hour viva.

I used to always tell candidates, but after a time I discovered that that aspect of my viva experience was so far removed from the norm that it would only serve to confuse people.

Or worry them!

I’ve never met anyone who has had a viva in the UK who was stood for all of the experience. When I started sharing my session with PhD candidates it grabbed attentions in a seminar room, but for all of the wrong reasons. Over time it dawned on me: this is true, this really happened, but it won’t help others to hear it. And other than being tired afterwards I don’t feel that it was a bad or good thing for me, it was just part of my viva experience.

It happened because I was giving a presentation and without really thinking about it I stayed at the blackboard while my examiners started asking questions. I responded and drew a diagram, and then a few hours later we took a break. And I was still there. And I stayed there. By that point it seemed right, and I didn’t know any different because I had never really asked my friends about their experiences.

Vivas have expectations, but vivas are all unique. Some stories will sound remarkably similar, and some will have curious aspects that are surprising. If you hear a story with a worrying element, don’t automatically think this is something you should expect. Dig into it. How did it happen? Why did it happen?

Think about the particulars if it still worries you: even if it happened for that other person, why should it happen to you?

No Silly Questions

There are none about the viva. I’ve been asked:

  • “How many questions can I get wrong?”
  • “How can I guarantee I won’t get any corrections?”
  • “How can I make it as short as possible?”
  • “What if I get nervous and spill my coffee all over myself?”

I’ve really been asked that final question! None of these are silly questions. Questions about the viva tend to come from either not knowing about the process, regulations or expectations, or from being worried about the situation and how to pass. None of these questions are silly. It could be that a question is the wrong question to ask about a situation, maybe there is a better focus, but no questions are silly.

If you have a question but think, “Oh no, I’m being silly,” then you need to find the right person to ask. It could be your supervisor. It may be a friend who has already passed, or possibly your graduate school. It could be me! Whoever it is, get rid of your questions by trading them for answers.

More often than not you’ll then have to trade those answers for action you have to take, but that’s much better than either being in the dark or worrying.