The Pillow Fort Principle

How can you make a sanctuary for yourself before your viva? How can you make a nice space for preparing, or create an environment that is going to help you feel good as well as get ready? It probably won’t involve setting up cushions and a blanket, but the same idea applies: how can you make a safe, sheltered, secluded space that’s comfortable, quiet and just for you?

What do you need to help make this real?

How do you need your friends and family to support you?

How can you take a little pressure out of your situation to help you get ready for your viva?

I could make suggestions, but they wouldn’t be as good as your responses to these questions.

What kind of a viva prep space are you going to make for yourself?

Hitting A Wall

In your final burst to get to submission, or in your prep for the viva, it’s likely you’ll get tired.

Or you’ll get stuck.

Or you’ll not know what to do.

Or you will know what to do, but you just won’t want to.

Hitting a wall is hard, because it’s often painful. It can come with shame as well. Compared to some PhD stories I’ve heard, I know that I had quite a charmed PhD; nothing too bad happened. I was able to plot and plan my last six months and work to it and that helped. But I still hit the wall a few times on the run-up to my submission. I felt like I should be better, that I shouldn’t be making mistakes.

A lovely and well-intentioned friend in my office told me, Whatever it is Nathan, just get over it.

They were lovely and well-intentioned, but just get over it is, I think, very rarely the answer.

The answer always has to be quite specific, because the question isn’t simply “What do I do?” but “What do I do with this very particular situation of work and feelings and physical circumstances that has lead me to this wall?”

It could be that you’re tired from reading, or can’t make a connection, or you’re fed up with your PhD, or you’re concerned about something you’ve found – and these are the simple descriptions. The answer is going to be specific; you’ll have to find it probably.

The answer could start with:

  • Asking for practical help;
  • Taking a break;
  • Thinking about other situations you’ve overcome;
  • Remembering that you are awesome;
  • Walking away for a while to get perspective.

These are general solutions; they don’t fit every wall. You won’t just get over it, but there are lots of first steps you could take.

Help Is Everywhere

I didn’t have a Viva Survivor course or webinar to help me get ready for my viva. I didn’t know of any books on the topic, or think to look for them. I didn’t search for lists of questions, or blog posts on experiences or how to get ready. The academic community on Twitter hadn’t quite grown into the super-helpful space that it is now.

And there was no podcast with interviews of PhD graduates or blog with 1200+ posts to help candidates!

My point is not, Oh woe is me, I had it so much harder than you do today!

My point is not, I didn’t need anybody and you don’t!!

The point is, There is a wealth of help out there if you need it. Some of it is right here on this site. Some of it might be found in a friend of yours, and you just need to ask. Some of it could be a simple search away.

If you need help getting ready for your viva, it’s out there.

Go get it.

Other Perspectives Help

I spent a long time indoors over the last six months or so. When I ventured back out again I decided I was going to explore my home town. Walk up and down roads I didn’t know. See every path of the lovely park I would normally walk through briskly. Me and my daughter would wander around making up stories about fairies and it was a lovely way to get back into the world.

One day a few weeks ago we were walking along when she called out, “Hello Little Pixie!” and then kept on walking.

“Who are you talking to?” I asked, and she pointed back to a tree stump next to the path, a tree stump I’d passed without a second glance.

There are little fairy houses all around the park. I must have walked past this tree stump a dozen times in the previous month and never noticed a little friend waving to us. I needed my daughter’s perspective to see it.

As you prepare for your viva, consider when you might need someone else’s perspective – not when you might benefit, but when you might need another point of view.

Consider:

  • What questions could someone else ask to help you prepare?
  • What experiences could a PhD graduate share with you to help set your expectations?
  • What feedback from a friend could help you to communicate your research better?
  • What perspective could someone bring to help you see your work a little differently?

That last one could be really helpful. Your examiners might have nothing but praise for your work, but they will still see it differently to you. Find help from other perspectives to help you feel confident for your viva.

Asks, Favours & Requests

Not all viva prep needs to be done alone.

It’s OK to simply ask, “Can you help me?”

It’s OK to ask for a favour, “It’s not something little, but I really need help. Can you?”

It’s even OK to make a request, “I need this specific thing and I need you to do it, please.”

Supervisors, peers, colleagues, friends, family – all can be there to support you. Given where you are and what you’re doing, given the state of the world, uncertainty and pressure – even if others around you are feeling it too – you can ask. Tell people what you need, when you need it, why you need it, then work with them to get what you need.

And when someone asks you, do your best to help them too.

Boundaries For Prep

If home is nearly everything now, how do you make the space – physically, mentally and cognitively – to do the work you need to prepare for your viva?

You may need to close doors to signal to others you’re busy. You may need to tell them. You may need to ask for very specific things: leave me alone for an hour, can you do X so I can do Y, and so on.

Boundaries help. It’s OK to ask.

If you’re working from home alone, it’s probably helpful to put boundaries in place for you too. “I’ll spend thirty minutes per day” or “I’ll only do prep in the dining room” or “I’ll make a to-do list and mark things off”.

What do you need to put in place to help you prepare? What boundaries will help keep you working well as you get ready?

3 Kinds Of Viva Clickbait

You won’t see these articles on the internet, but you will see them in what people say and how they tend to talk about the viva…

This person had their viva and OMG you’ll never guess what happened next!!!!!

Viva Coming Up?! Do these 4 Things academics don’t want YOU to know and you’ll get ZERO CORRECTIONS!!!!!!!!!!

Eliminate viva nerves with this one weird trick!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There is lots of clickbait around the viva. Because it is as seen as mysterious, uncertain – maybe even unwelcome – discussion and advice can be dominated by headlines, short thoughts and a desire to move past it quickly.

We need to take time with the viva. It might sometimes be uncomfortable, but go past the clickbait for a deep dive; reflection rather than quick tips. That’s what will help.

My Vision

I started the year helping to deliver a Leadership In Action workshop in Manchester. As part of the course, each of the facilitators had to deliver an “insight” – a thirty minute, one-off presentation about something connected with leadership.

I chose to do mine on “Vision”.

I had ideas I thought would be useful, and also thought it would be helpful for me to practice what I was preaching, dig through what I thought about vision. What was my vision for my life? For my work? For Viva Survivors?

I’m still working on the first of those, but my visions for work and Viva Survivors crystallised very quickly when I reflected. My work over the last decade or so comes down to “helping PGRs become PhDs”. That realisation has helped me to think about my opportunities (particularly in our current changing landscape) and fine-tune my decision-making processes.

My vision for this blog is “I want to help candidates see that the viva is a great big manageable challenge.”

The viva is a big deal. There are lots of things to consider, and it is a challenge, it is non-trivial, and at the same time it is manageable. It is survivable. You can do it. My vision, my work, is to try and help people realise that. That’s what I’m aiming for, but it’s not a goal: it’s the principle behind it all.

What’s your vision for your thesis? For your research? What guides it all? What’s guiding you?

Reflecting on that might help you sharpen your explanations or the background for your viva. You don’t need to have a big picture vision for the potential future of your work (you may not have one or want one), but having a way to frame what you’ve done and how you got there is useful.

So what’s your vision?

The Most Helpful Question

Why?

If you don’t know something in the viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel stuck during your prep, “Why?”

If your supervisor makes a suggestion and you’re not sure about it, ask them “Why?”

Or if your external says they’re not convinced by something in your thesis, ask them “Why?”

(politely, of course!)

The single most helpful question to have on the tip of your tongue, for reflections, for preparation, for meetings, for discussions and in the viva is “Why?” It opens things up, prompts, allows for exploration and probes to the heart of everything. It may not always lead to “the answer” but always generates a response.

Keep it in mind for your submission, preparation and the viva.

Phrases That Don’t Help

You’ll hear them all the time around the viva.

  1. Don’t worry! – Stop it! All better now.
  2. Good luck – because the viva is all about luck, apparently…
  3. You’ll be fine! – see point 1!
  4. Just read your thesis – all you need to do before the viva, apparently…
  5. They always go well… – so don’t worry! And we’re back to point 1. Again.

I’m being very harsh. Anyone who says these to you is well-intentioned. They want their friend to succeed. They really do want you to be fine, they want your viva to go well and they want to reassure you that you’re talented.

The five phrases above are kind, but superficial. Far better to give a little more time, a little more detail. When it’s your turn, be a good friend with what you offer others:

  1. How are you feeling? How can I help?
  2. You’ve worked hard for this! Remember when…
  3. If you’re feeling nervous, why not…?
  4. Is there anything you need help with for your viva prep?
  5. Here’s what I’ve heard… Here’s why that sounds alright to me…

Check in with your friend. Don’t give shallow stock phrases but deep encouragements. They don’t need you to solve all their problems. They might need a few friendly nudges to help their confidence.