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.

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.