“How Can I Help?”

If you’ve had your viva, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, ask these four words first, before you start to offer your story, your opinion or your advice. See what support someone needs. Get a sense of how they’re feeling.

If you’ve not had your viva yet, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, still ask how you can help. Your friend might need a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, someone to listen or someone to ask more questions to help them reflect.

You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.

Number Posts

I try not to be clickbait-y in the titles that I choose for posts. Numbers are sometimes really useful to help me round up ideas, and they also help to draw attention too. It dawned on me that in and amongst the many posts I’d published that I had probably done posts “counting down” from ten to one.

I checked – I have!

Another thing about “number” posts: they’re usually pretty clear. While it won’t be enough for you to try to memorise “eight cool things” about your thesis or “ten top references” in your bibliography, giving yourself a nudge with a number could help you to look at your research differently. It might help you to summarise or capture things neatly too.

Used appropriately, numbers can stick in the mind quite well!

Unhelpful Things…

…to say to friends who have their viva coming up:

  • “Good luck!”
  • “Don’t worry!”
  • “You’ll be fine, nearly no-one fails!”

Better things to say include:

  • “You’re talented, don’t forget!”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “How are you doing?”

And if you’ve had a viva and it was fine, don’t just tell your friend that they’ll be fine. Tell them why you were fine. Tell them your story, short and simple, but with enough to help them see what the viva can be like – and what helped you be ready for yours.

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.