Heads or Tails

You can’t flip a coin to determine viva success.

The stories we tell about vivas pivot on knowing if someone passed or failed – but these things are not equally likely. Around one in one thousand PhD candidates don’t pass.

There are many, many reasons why candidates pass – the process, the structure of the PhD, the skillset and knowledge base and experience that a candidate must typically have.

Doubting your future success is a human response; knowing a little of what to expect in the viva can be the first step to putting doubts to one side, so you can focus on being ready to succeed.

Passing the viva is not due to simple luck.

Avoiding Corrections

If you go for a walk on a rainy day you can step around as puddles as much as you like, but your shoes are probably going to get pretty wet. That’s just what happens. You can’t avoid it.

If you submit a PhD thesis you can proofread and edit for months beforehand, but your examiners will probably find something for you to correct. That’s just what happens. You can’t avoid it.

If your shoes get wet on a rainy day then there’s simple steps you can take afterwards to dry them.

It’s the same with corrections. You’re given a list. You know why your examiners are asking for the corrections: to help make your thesis the best it could be. Not perfect, but the best that anyone could reasonably expect. To complete them you make a plan, work carefully and get them done.

You should obviously work to submit the best thesis you can, but you can’t do much to avoid corrections.

Clearing Up The Vague

You have to read your thesis to get ready for your viva, even if you don’t want to. You thought about it, you wrote it, you rewrote it and now you’re done-

-except you read it and you think you could still do some more.

A paragraph that meanders. A section that is too long, or perhaps too awkward. The odd typo or twenty is fine, but what about the places that proofreading forgot? What about the vague sections that sort-of-but-don’t-quite make the point you wanted?

You grin and bear them in the viva, if they’re brought up. You explain what you meant, and what you would do to make it better – not perfect, never perfect – but better in your corrected thesis.

And when you see them during your prep you think, you write and maybe rewrite again, leaving a note in your margins or on a Post-it, clearing up the vague that you left in. They don’t disqualify you or your thesis at all.

There’s just that little bit more to do, then you really will be done.

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.