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.

11 Questions To Ask About Viva Experiences

Your colleagues and peers are a great source of help for your viva. They can listen to you talk about your research, ask useful questions and even help you to take your mind off things! The PhD graduates among them can also help you figure out what to expect for your viva.

Get in touch with some recent graduates from your department and ask them about their experiences, so that you can help to shape your expectations. Ask them:

  1. How long was their viva?
  2. How long did it feel like?
  3. How did their viva start?
  4. What was the structure or flow of their viva?
  5. Were there any questions that surprised them?
  6. How did they feel at the start?
  7. Did that feeling change?
  8. What were their expectations for the viva like?
  9. How did their viva meet those expectations?
  10. How do they feel about it overall?
  11. What advice do they have for you?

Each answer is a piece of the puzzle. The picture won’t be completely clear. You can have realistic expectations for your viva, but it will be different from any other viva you hear about.

Ask and listen, then reflect and see how this helps you for your own viva.

Six Stories

A recurring theme on the blog is that stories matter – and sharing stories of viva experiences will help change the culture in postgraduate researcher communities. Here are six episodes of the podcast that share some good, useful stories of the PhD and the viva:

  • Dr Fiona Noble: a great episode supported by three generous blog posts Fiona wrote about the different stages of the end of her PhD.
  • Dr Tatiana Porto: one of the longest episodes of the podcast, and also one of my favourites. Tatiana and I talk about how Doctor Who helped her through the PhD.
  • Dr Katy Shaw: I’ve interviewed Katy several times for special episodes on academic jobs and early career research too!
  • Dr Fiona Whelan: Fiona describes some stressful elements of her viva, as well as the positive outcomes. Check out her site about life after the PhD too, Beyond The Doctorate.
  • Dr Laura Bonnett: I talk with Laura about what happened when her examiners didn’t agree on the outcome of her viva, and how that situation was resolved.
  • Dr Nathan Ryder: Me! Another story about viva experiences, it just happens to be mine.

I believe that the more we share stories about the viva, the more we will improve the expectations, the culture and the perception of the viva. New episodes of the podcast will hopefully appear in 2019, but if you know of more stories or helpful articles, then let me know. It all helps.

Mismatched

Today marks five hundred daily posts for the blog(!), and so I wanted to pause and say something about what I see as the biggest, trickiest and most persistent problem surrounding the viva:

In general there is a great mismatch between the expectations and feelings of PhD candidates in advance of the viva, and the reality of the viva and the usual outcomes.

Most people worry in some way that they won’t pass, but most people pass the viva with no problems. I ask candidates in workshops how they feel about their viva. Over 80% say something like nervous, anxious, worried, unprepared, unsure and so on. Yet over 90% of candidates typically pass their viva with minor or no corrections.

Horror stories of incredibly long inquisitions, terrifying examiners with egos as big as buildings, complete railroad questions and total thesis rewrites permeate the space around vivas – and they don’t match the general reality of what happens in the viva and what happens as a result. Thousands have a viva in the UK every year. That’s a lot of people who invest time, energy and focus in being worried about a terrible thing that never happens.

What can be done?

We need to challenge the spread of misinformation, urban legends and negative experiences that surround the viva. We need to help candidates feel prepared for the reality of the viva, partly by making sure they have realistic expectations, partly by helping them see what could be useful to be practically ready.

Some ways forward, because this is a problem that everyone can chip away at:

  • Had a viva and it’s gone well? Find an avenue to share your experience. Write a blog post. Tell colleagues. Tweet about it.
  • Know someone who needs help? Help them! Don’t just say “you’ll be fine,” do something practical.
  • Share resources that help. There are lots of them out there. See what your university provides, see if it’s good, and pass it on.

Over time we can crack the Viva Mismatch Problem. It’s not intractable. We can get to a point where PhD candidates will expect that at the end of their research they are ready for the reality of the viva, not a nightmare, but a conversation – not torture, just talking.

As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep making things, keep sharing what I do in workshops and sessions. If you think what I do is useful, then do think about subscribing to get the daily posts in your email. Tell someone about it if you think it will help them.

…500 posts! That’s a lot.

Onwards and upwards…

Time Passes

It’s ten years since I finished my PhD and I’ve written several posts in the last few months referencing this. It’s like a little star whose gravity I can’t escape. I enjoyed my PhD, and have very few regrets or complaints about my time as a PGR, but I think one of the great differences to then and now is just how much support is available for researchers.

There are more visible sources in everything from skills development, professional help and support for the mental health challenges that some researchers can face. By no means have any of these areas been “solved” for PGRs, but the last decade has seen an explosion in approaches, resources, workshops, books, seminars, webinars and more importantly the culture around support for PGRs.

In the sphere of viva help, there are lots of resources, workshops and help out there (just like this site!) – but one of the key culture changes is the number of PhD graduates who write about their viva experiences now. This is completely different from my experience a decade ago. I knew no-one who shared what happened above and beyond a quick “I passed and it was fine!” person-to-person.

A long time ago I started the Elsewhere page on this site as a collection of useful resources beyond this site. There are a lot of stories on that page, but it’s while since I’ve updated the list. I don’t always have much time to go actively looking for more viva stories (but I’ll put an afternoon in the diary for the autumn to do an update). If you’ve written something, or know someone who has, then do drop me an email or a tweet with a link and I’ll add it to the page.

Stories matter. They help. The more we see stories of viva success, the more we can promote the idea that success is the norm, that fear and worry are based on the outliers. Stories change culture.

Picture This

Talk to graduates about their experiences in the viva and members of staff about what they do as examiners.

Then think about what it will be like to walk in.

See the room in your mind (you’ll know where it is).

Imagine the weight of what you take in your bag or hands (your thesis is there to help).

Feel a smile at the rightness of being there (you have earned this!).

See yourself answering questions and imagine your examiners being impressed (they will be!).

Expectations help build a picture of viva day.

Think Twice

When you’re asked a question about your research, unless you’re completely surprised or stumped, the shape of an answer appears in your mind. Think of it as a sketch of a response. The outline of what you could say. It’s suggested by your brain because of your experience and your talent.

Your first thought has given you a shape; a second thought can help you refine it a little more. If the shape is five reasons why such-and-such is a good idea, a second thought can help you quickly reflect on a good sequence for those five reasons. Maybe one is better than all of the others, maybe another isn’t as important as you thought at first glance.

In most cases in the viva, when you’re asked a question the shape of an answer will appear. Still, think twice. And if you go blank, if your first thought is “Huh?” or “…” or “I don’t know,” then have a second thought. Don’t let the pressure of that moment stop you from responding.

There’s plenty of time to think twice in the viva.