After The Viva

Thank your examiners.

Take some deep breaths.

Make a few notes about what just happened.

Make sure your supervisors know what just happened.

Call whoever you need to and let them know.

Take some more deep breaths.

Go find a way to celebrate.

And in and among all of those moments, have a minute for yourself to really take in what you’ve achieved in the viva. The almost-end of a long, long period of hard work and discovery. Don’t forget that it wouldn’t have been possible but for you.

You deserve every congratulation you receive.

Incorrect

Corrections don’t always mean you are wrong.

It could be that you’re not clear, or that you’ve not considered something, or that you could use something extra in your thesis. But they don’t always mean you’re wrong. They’re very rarely connected with even a hint of failure.

And if you’re asked to do something because something is wrong in your thesis, you now have the chance to make it right or make it better. Fantastic! (it might take time and work – which has consequences – but now it can be right)

Corrections and amendments to your thesis are part of the thesis examination process. Vivas and corrections aren’t about finding fault for the sake of it.

What Now?

Your viva could go really well. The point at which work and prep and expectation and anticipation all meet; you try so hard, push so much, show your best work and best self and then-

It’s over.

It’s done.

And it might be a bit… Meh.

A little… Oh.

Just… Is that it?

What now?

Not everything can be controlled, pre-arranged and sorted in advance. You can’t pre-determine how you will feel. You can’t know for sure what your viva will feel like until it’s done.

However, you can let some people know when your viva is happening. Let them know when you’re done. Maybe let them know how you want to treat this, or even how you might want to. If you live with family or friends and your viva is over video, pre-arrange a celebration. Your viva will be a success, but for many reasons – not just the current state of the world – it might not feel like the achievement it is on the day.

Do a few small things in advance to help the period after your viva be as good as it can be. Ask for help if you need it, even if that is help celebrating and marking your success.

The Verdict

After my viva, after a short break in my office, my internal examiner came to collect me by saying, “Nathan, it’s time for your sentence,” as if I was a man in court on my way to see the judge.

He meant it as a joke, but it didn’t feel like a joke for a moment or two!

You can’t pick what words others might use to describe your viva. Maybe you prefer the result. The outcome? The verdict? The level of corrections? The ending?

You can’t pick what words others use, but you can help yourself by choosing yours. What words are helping you (or not) when you think about your viva?

Lying to yourself won’t help, but you can choose to think of passes and outcomes rather than corrections and verdicts.

And sentences!

The Decision

Before the viva, your examiners will have an idea of the outcome. They’ve read your thesis; they have thought about it; they have experience. They will have an outcome in mind before the viva based on what they think of the thesis.

But it’s not set in stone. It’s an outcome they think is likely, but you still have to show up and show them what you know, what you think, what you can do.

In very rare cases examiners tell candidates the result at the start of the viva. In those cases they are so sure of the viva outcome that they want to put the candidate at ease to then have a great discussion. But those cases really are rare. Don’t expect it for your viva.

Expect that your examiners will have an idea: they do their job in the preparation and come prepared to do their job on the day. They come with a decision that they look to see confirmed by your actions and your words.

You can make a decision too. You can decide to be ready for your viva. You can decide how you will show up on the day.

So decide.

When Examiners Disagree

Your examiners have to reach a decision, but it may be that they don’t agree on everything. It could be that one likes a particular idea or experiment or conclusion in your thesis and the other doesn’t. It may be that they can just work it out before they meet with you, but it could be the case that you have examiners who disagree with each other about something in the viva.

What do you do?

  • First: listen and let them lay out their positions. You may have strong feelings for a topic, but let them talk first and see whether this is something you actually need to respond to. They may just be expressing different opinions, it may not be disagreement.
  • Second: be sure of what you are responding to before you respond. If someone doesn’t like something, ask why. If they are vague, ask for details. Be clear and then respond as best you can. You don’t have to take sides, you just have to explain what you think.
  • Third: if discussion results in corrections, get as much clarity as possible to see what’s involved. If there is disagreement about corrections between examiners, ask again for clarity.

Remember: it is not your job to resolve disagreements between your examiners. They’re professionals: expect them to be professional.

Wait for them to clearly state their points, then do what you can to engage with them and find out what (if anything) you have to do as a result.

Exceptions To The Rule

There are always some. For the viva think of them as exceptions to the expectations

  • …the six hour vivas, out of the ordinary, but they do happen.
  • …the vivas done over video chat, which don’t happen that often, but often enough.
  • …the vivas where an examiner doesn’t have a PhD, or perhaps where there are two external examiners.
  • …the viva where the candidate is stood for four hours answering questions in front of a blackboard!

That last one was me. Totally unexpected, not unpleasant or terrible, just different. At the time I didn’t have either knowledge or experience to know it was out of the ordinary. I’ve never met anyone else who has stood for their whole viva.

There was a reason for why my viva happened that way: I was asked to give a presentation, and I stayed at the blackboard.

There are reasons for all of the exceptions; they don’t just happen, particular circumstances lead them that way. Not all exceptions to the rule can be seen in advance, but some – like the make-up of your examining group, or being asked to give a presentation, or doing the viva over videochat – can be. In all of those cases, there are rules and regulations for what happens.

Expectations for the exceptions.

7 Tips For Completing Corrections

Most candidates will be asked to complete corrections after the viva.

Most candidates will have other things to do which could make doing corrections feel like a tricky task.

Being busy won’t excuse you from corrections; here are some ideas to help you get them done.

  1. Check the conditions of various viva outcomes in advance. How much time is given for different corrections? Factor that into your plans.
  2. Ask for a list of what your examiners expect after your viva is done. Nearly all examiners give this anyway; if you have any doubts, ask for a list of required amendments.
  3. Ask for clarification of what is expected. Ask your examiners for details of what might satisfy their requests (how much detail about a reference, say, or what wording they think is unclear).
  4. Check your current plans. If you have a month after your viva to complete all of your corrections, when could you schedule time to work?
  5. Check who needs to approve your corrections. Is it just to the satisfaction of your internal, or for your external as well? And what is the effective deadline?
  6. Make a quick plan. What are you going to do and when are you going to do it? Create a clear checklist so you can mark tasks off when they are completed.
  7. DO THE WORK! Once it is done then you’ll be over 99% finished with your PhD.

It is also useful to check what you need to do after your thesis is corrected. Some institutions have short periods between when corrections are approved and the final thesis submission. Be sure of the timeline so you are ready to meet your institution’s requirements.

Corrections are an opportunity to make your thesis as good as it can possibly be. After your viva, go do that. Get it done, then go on to the next great thing you’ll do with your life.

The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”