Assume It’s Going Well

A couple of months ago I got an interesting question at a workshop:

“How can you tell when the viva is going badly versus when you just think it’s going bad?”

This is a good question. Sometimes when we perceive things as being a problem, or tricky, or going bad, it’s just down to our perception. If you were worried that something might go wrong in the viva you might prime yourself to look for any data that would back that idea up. The tone of a question, the inclination of an examiner’s head, the slightest pause – anything could help to confirm your worries.

I’ve reflected on the question for a while, and the best thing I can say in response is “assume it’s going to go well, and assume while you’re in the viva that it is going well.” Unless your examiners pause things to say, “There’s a big problem” or “This is not what we expect” – both of which are really, really unlikely – then you can continue to assume it’s going well.

There’s perhaps a deeper question that needs addressing for the person at my workshop, which I didn’t have time to follow-up then:

“Why would you think your viva wasn’t going to go well?”

If you’re assuming there could be a problem then do something about it. Prepare more. Talk to your supervisor. Find out more about expectations. Learn more about your examiners.

Change your assumption.

Oppositeworld

FWOOOOOOSH-ZAP!

The portal opens between here and the antimatter universe!

Look here! We’ve found it. A small and unremarkable planet orbiting a cold yellow sun. Don’t be deceived. Many things are different in this strange and weird place, but some things are almost the same.

But not quite.

Let’s call this planet Oppositeworld.

The vivas in Oppositeworld are odd events. Candidates still do research for three or more years, but in the end have nothing firm to show for it. The viva takes place with a couple of examiners, but the candidate drives the process with questions. They want to know what examiners think, see what they’ve understood in the thesis.

Examiners regularly fail candidates for not asking enough questions, for not asking the right questions, for not asking perfect questions. The rules are arbitrary, almost without definition. You could surmise that this might make things very stressful, but since most people fail, they expect that they probably will too and so don’t feel too bad when that expectation is matched by their experience.

Preparation is discouraged. Taking a copy of your thesis is forbidden. Your examiners are mean and hyper-critical, your supervisors give you the cold shoulder and no-one can help in any way. The road to the viva in Oppositeworld is dark and dangerous and those who pass are held in even lower regard than those who don’t. Hushed tones accompany them for the rest of their days, “There’s that Dr… What did they do?”

FWAZOOOM!

The portal collapses and Oppositeworld is shrouded behind the quantum mists once more. Notice how strangely familiar it was. Even when things were different they were not so different as to be incomprehensible.

While you may not wish to visit Oppositeworld, remember that they might not wish to visit here too. They might not really understand us nor would they care to have a “proper” viva in our universe.

After all, why would they want to go towards a viva which most people pass but still find stressful and anxious in preparation? Why, we can imagine them asking, would they worry when so many people in that situation pass?

Why indeed.

Happy-Sad

I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel about my PhD being done. Reflecting now that’s pretty true for all of the different stages of “done” there are. I was almost overwhelmed by how many different states I felt.

When I submitted my thesis I felt relieved, but it felt unreal that I’d finished writing.

When I was preparing I felt confident, but then suddenly insomniac the night before.

On the day I was happy to pass, but exhausted, and overwhelmed I think.

It was also an anticlimax. My viva was challenging, but fine too. It was just suddenly done… Anticlimax feels the right way to describe it.

Submitting my final, corrected thesis was a happy day, but at the same time sad.

Happy to be done, sad to be leaving.

As I often say on this blog, there are lots of realistic expectations for the viva. As a result you can do a lot to prepare but I’m not sure you can prepare for how you might feel after it’s done. It’s good that you’re done, but it might not feel great.

That sense of “I’ve done something significant” took time to hit me. I didn’t get it on the day, or the day after. It took weeks.

You might not know how you’ll feel. It doesn’t take away from the achievement.

Listening To Others

I started this site almost six years ago for a lot of reasons: I thought it would be useful to share viva stories and help promote an understanding of what the viva was really like; I wanted to know more myself about the variety of experiences that people have; and I thought it would be an interesting and fun challenge.

There’s over sixty episodes in the podcast archive but over time, due to work pressure, family pressure and technology failure, it became less and less easy for me to record the podcast regularly. Then last year I switched my focus to publishing a post about the viva every day. I’m glad that it’s still there as an archive, and if I hadn’t started it I’m sure I would not be doing as much on the viva as I am now.

Of course, you don’t need a podcast to find out about the viva. Ask your colleagues. Find people who have recently had their viva in your field – in your department if you can – and see what their experiences are like. Ask them clear questions and look for details to build as good a picture as possible. You can be unsure about what your examiners might ask in the viva or think about your work, but there’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva unaware of what the process is generally like or the expectations for the event.

Listen. Ask. Learn. Be ready.

And having said all of that… I’m working to make the podcast return in the autumn! Stay tuned for more details… 🙂

Hints

It happens occasionally that examiners tell a candidate at the start of the viva that they have passed. Universities don’t want examiners to do this – as it sort of begs the question, why are we going ahead with this exam? – but sometimes examiners do. They might think it puts the candidate at ease, maybe this will lead to a more relaxed discussion, who knows. Don’t expect it.

Nevertheless, can you pick up subtle clues during the viva about how things are going?

Maybe the phrasing of a question can give your confidence a boost.

Perhaps the slight suggestion of a smile from your internal will tell you, “They’re on my side.”

How about that short pause? Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s fine…

Your external’s making notes while you speak? Well, they have to write a report later. I’m sure it’s fine too…

You’re over two and a half hours in and still a way to go? Well, vivas take as long as they take, it’s fine, there’s no need to- !!

Breathe.

Nothing means anything. You can see, hear or feel anything and spin it any way your mind will let you. It doesn’t make it true or false, good or bad.

Be present in the viva. Think about your answers. Engage with your examiners. Be ready to discuss your work.

The best hint about your viva’s outcome is that you’re there in the first place. It’s not a guaranteed pass just because you showed up, but think about how you got there to begin with.

Certain

At the start of my workshops I always share that my viva was four hours long. I’d be asked at some point anyway, and once it’s out there we can talk about expectations. My viva was longer than most, but not the longest I’ve heard of. It was challenging, but not bad. It was tiring, but that was mostly due to insomnia the night before.

By sharing my story I can talk more generally about the stories I’ve heard and what realistic expectations are for the viva.

But mentioning the length of my viva raises a worrying series of questions for some people: “What if I have a four-hour viva? What if I lose my focus? What if it’s all too much and I can’t concentrate? What then?”

Well, what if you’re fine? What if nothing bad happens?

What if you invest time and energy and stress now on things that might never happen, when you could invest them in something better?

You can’t be certain in advance of the viva of how long it will be, of what award you will get, of what your examiners will think or what questions will come up. You can have reasonable expectations about all of them maybe, but you can’t have certainty about them.

You can be certain of what you know and what you can do. You did the work. You’re talented. You can be prepared for the discussion that comes up in your viva.

Don’t focus on “what ifs” and maybes. Focus on your certainties.

Viral Viva Stories

this one time, a person had a two-day viva

your examiners play good cop/bad cop with their questions

they’re just out to get you

you can’t really prepare

Urban legends about the viva have spread well. Little idea-viruses swarming through the postgraduate population. Most candidates, however positive they are, have heard stories of a friend-of-a-friend that sound awful. Even if the vast majority of vivas work out fine, the myths and legends persist, leaving doubts and worries in their wake.

Ask around, not for what people have heard but for what happened to them. Ask PhD graduates what they did to prepare, and what happened on the day. Build a picture of what vivas generally look like and you’ll see what you need to do for yours.

When you’re done, share your story. Release your own idea-virus into the wild.

Fly On The Wall

A few years back I heard of universities offering first year PGRs the opportunity to sit in on vivas. They could take some of the fear out and get some real, observed expectations for their own viva. When the time came maybe they would pay it forward and offer a future first year to sit in on their viva. It’s a really nice idea…

…but I’m not sure how widespread it is as a practice. In the same way that a supervisor being present could make you nervous at being observed, I could see that this kind of experience could be stressing for a candidate, even if it could be good for future candidates. I know it might help someone, but I don’t know that I would have done it if it was my viva.

You can ask around though. Even if you can’t sit in, you can find out what it was like for others. Ask specific questions about their viva experiences and build up a picture. Also check if your institution has licensed The Good Viva Video by Angel Productions, which shows some realistic expectations.

There’s lots of information about the viva out there. You don’t have to look far. You don’t need to be a fly on the wall to learn about them. The viva experience doesn’t need to be a mystery.

The Knock On The Door Of Room 524

After my viva I waited in my office for seventeen minutes for the result.

  1. Thirsty. Drink some water.
  2. Hungry. Chocolate! …mmm…
  3. Dazed. Wh-…?!
  4. Puzzled. How has it been four hours?
  5. Tired. Why did I have insomnia last night?
  6. Anxious. What did they think?
  7. Self-critical. Why did I not spend more time on…?
  8. Curious. It’s two in the afternoon, where is everyone?
  9. Confident. I did well, it’s a pass!
  10. Confident………? …….it is a pass, right?
  11. Lonely. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to.
  12. Perplexed. Seriously, how was that four hours?
  13. Exhausted. Three hours of sleep, four hours in the viva…
  14. Confident. (…I think…)
  15. Hungry. …but I should wait until after they call me back.
  16. Shattered. Do I have to celebrate today?
  17. Poised. How much longer until they come and get-KNOCK KNOCK

Those seventeen minutes felt longer than the four hours. And then it was over.

A Conundrum

Every viva is a custom exam to examine one particular person and their thesis. But every viva takes place according to practices that are consistent across the UK, and according to regulations and expectations that are consistent with an institution.

Different and the same.

Taken together this creates a slightly head-scratching puzzle, but not an impossible one. To solve it for yourself, first check your university’s regulations to see what to expect broadly. Then talk to friends to get a sense of what their vivas were like.

Finally, realise that your own will be unique. The expectations create an environment for you to thrive in. The variety comes from you and your work, not from a lack of rigour.

Problem solved.