Advice and Action

When I did my PhD there was very little help available for viva candidates. Now there is help everywhere.

There are scores of advice articles for the viva and probably hundreds of blog posts about personal experiences – you can find a link to some of them here!

Universities have staff who are there to answer questions, academics with experience who can tell you what’s what and resources to help get ready for the viva – it’s worth checking out what’s available at your institution!

And Viva Survivors has dozens of interviews with PhD graduates, lots of free resources – and over 850 daily posts of viva help!

There is a super-abundance of help for the viva out there. A wealth of information, ideas and advice that can be accessed by any PhD candidate who wants to know what the viva is about and what they can do to be ready.

So: what will you do to get ready?

Because now all of this help is out there, the only thing stopping you being ready is your decision about what you will do.

Vague Wishes & Specific Asks

I’ve been a huge fan of Tim Ferriss for the best part of a decade. His books and podcast have been a great inspiration to me (as they are to many people). Recently, I put aside the time to annotate his two most recent books Tools Of Titans and Tribe Of Mentors, both of which are about asking others for their advice. In Tribe Of Mentors he asked hundreds of peak performers in many fields the same eleven questions, and gave them the freedom to answer in whatever form they wanted. As a result, the book is fascinating: full of really interesting ideas, patterns of behaviour and thought among successful people.

Tim outlines why he embarked on the project in this LinkedIn post, which is a copy of the main introduction to Tribe Of Mentors. There’s a lot of really useful ideas here too – just generally, never mind for the viva! – but one line stood out to me in particular:

Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.

This resonated with me in thinking about viva preparation. Viva preparation does not have to be a solo project. I imagine most people will spend most of their time getting ready alone, but there are really valuable things you can get from others – your supervisor, your colleagues, your friends and family.

All you have to do is ask, but you will get more if you are specific and clear.

Don’t just ask for a mock viva: be clear about when you might need it, if there is someone you’d like for a second mock examiner and if there are topics you really want questions on for specific practice.

Don’t just ask friends for advice: tell them what you want to know, ask them specific questions about their vivas or ask them to read a chapter and then ask questions over coffee.

Don’t just ask for support from loved ones: tell them how they could best help you, then ask them to do it!

Don’t be vague, be specific. There is a lot of help and support available before the viva, but you need to ask clearly for what you need.

Start At The End

I chatted to a PhD candidate recently about her viva prep.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she told me, “I’ve got so much material, so many questions I think about, and my examiners, my methods, my results – my life outside of my PhD! Where do I start?”

I could feel how overwhelmed she was. All she saw was more and more work. She hadn’t submitted yet, but was trying to plan her preparation. She hadn’t done her preparation but just thought about what her examiners would ask. Hadn’t been to the viva but was worried about managing her corrections.

I told here what I would tell anyone in this state: you have to treat all of these as distinct stages of the PhD. Get your thesis done before you start to prepare; prepare before you start obsessing about “what if’s”, and so on.

If it helps, map out the different stages on index cards. Limit yourself to focus on the task though, to really put boundaries on how much effort you sink in:

  • One index card with the big picture of what you need to do to get your thesis finished.
  • One index card with the key tasks to do in preparation.
  • One index card with key questions or ideas to think about for the viva.
  • One index card with notes on regulations for outcomes, and what that might mean for minor corrections.

If you’re still writing, then map out the different stages on four cards. Focus on the first one, getting your thesis finished, and only start on the next one when you’ve reached the end of your thesis writing. Start your path to the end, but only go one step at a time. That’s all you need to do.

Getting Support For The Viva

It’s easier if you know what you need and what you want.

It’s easier if you know what people can offer and what they can’t.

It’s easier if you think about it in advance, instead of when time is tight.

It’s easier if you know what you want to feel like when you’re done preparing, and who might help you get to that point.

And it’s easier once you realise that there are lots of people who could help – who would help – if you just asked.

Ten Helpful People

There are lots of people around you who could help you get ready for your viva. While you might do most of the work by yourself, there’s a lot you could find from others:

  • Two supervisors, maybe more: they’ve seen your work develop, so ask for feedback and advice about your thesis. If you’ve not worked much with a second supervisor they could still share experience or be part of a mock viva.
  • One member of staff: get contact details for someone in your graduate school or doctoral college. If any questions about regulations come up you’ll know who to get in touch with.
  • Three recent graduates from your department: send them an email and ask specific questions about their vivas. Get some realistic expectations by comparing stories.
  • A current researcher from your department: take them for coffee and ask them to listen while you share your research. If they know about your work, ask them for questions; if they don’t know much about what you do then ask what they understand when you talk.
  • A friend or family member: someone who could give you a ride to the university on viva day!
  • Two examiners: internal and external, you can’t contact them before the viva but you can explore their research and interests. Reflect on what connections they might see in your research and theirs.

Ten people, to begin with. You will know more who could make a real difference.

Including you.

Help Someone

If your viva’s not coming up yet, or it’s in the past, find someone to help. If you know someone who has their viva soon, or someone who is finishing their PhD, ask them what they need. Don’t assume that you have all the answers or the right way to do something. Check what they need first. Then see if you can meet those needs. If you can’t, see if you can figure out what else might help.

If you don’t need help, what can you do to help someone?