Read, Do

I’ve been sorting through ten years of notes and ideas I’ve collected from countless workshops, seminars and articles. I smiled a few days ago when a quote from an old friend jumped off the page at me:

No amount of book-reading by kittens on “How To Be A Cat” will help them.

My friend Adrian would often say things in workshops that would make me smile and learn at the same time. Kittens can’t learn by reading, they must do things. They have to play their way to being cats.

By contrast, reading a thesis will help PhD candidates get ready for their vivas, but I think the principle of my friend holds. Reading your thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking is essential, but writing will make those thoughts clearer. Anticipating questions can be useful, but answering them is much, much better.

You can read your thesis, you need to read your thesis – but what else could you do?

Patience

Patience is a virtue for a PhD candidate.

It takes time to explore literature.

It takes time to think and work your way to write up a thesis.

It takes time to complete a PhD.

It takes time to prepare well for the viva.

Patience gets you through difficult days, hard times and trying setbacks.

Be patient in the viva too. Don’t rush. It takes time, even a little, to respond well to questions.

Take the time.

The Most Effective Viva Prep Strategy

Or MEVPS, for short.

There isn’t one, not one that works for everyone. Everyone is different, every candidate has a unique thesis, every candidate has a unique set of circumstances and a unique situation when they get to preparation time for the viva. So to say, “Here: the MEVPS is X, Y and Z and you’ll be fine!” would a terrible lie. I don’t have a MEVPS to offer.

But I do have a strategy for building a useful, unique approach for you:

  1. Reflect on the particular gaps you have in your knowledge or confidence for the viva.
  2. List some things you could do to fill those gaps, estimating generously how much time they might take.
  3. Reflect on how busy you are generally, then see how the tasks you need to do can fit in with your life.
  4. Make a simple plan, pick a start date and be kind to yourself with what you will do on that first day.
  5. Start, and follow through on the plan.

The details will be different for everyone, but everyone can figure out a route to being prepared by following the SFSPFCAPVPP.

(that’s Simple Five Step Process For Creating A Personal Viva Prep Plan!)

Three More Three Whats

A little structure is a great way to start reflection, and Three Whats is a really neat little structure. It’s really flexible and can be applied to a lot of the areas that are worth thinking about towards the end of the PhD and as part of viva preparations.

On Obstacles…

  • What was the biggest obstacle during your PhD?
  • So what did you do to resolve the situation?
  • Now what do you think about it?

Getting Help…

  • What do you need help with before the viva?
  • So what group(s) of people can you ask?
  • Now what are you going to do first?

Worries…

  • What are you worried most about your viva?
  • So what can you do to improve how you feel?
  • Now what is your priority for action?

What, so what and now what are great for reflection, problem solving and a lot more. What other ways might you use them as you prepare for your viva?

Nice, But Not Necessary

As you finish up your thesis, take twenty minutes to make a list of all the things that didn’t quite make it.

  • What did you not have time for?
  • What did you not have enough resources to do?
  • What didn’t come together in your thinking?
  • What did you realise too late to do anything about?
  • What would you have changed if possible?

Label the list Nice, But Not Necessary. Add anything else you had thought to do, thought was a good idea, but which you didn’t get to. It can help you to think around your thesis, different approaches, tangents that would be good to explore, ideas that could have merit.

Interesting stuff, but not essential.

Keep the list, but know you don’t need to focus on what-might-have-been. Your thesis, the necessary, the essential, is good enough.

The Number One Tip

What’s your number one tip for the viva?

I was asked this recently by a PhD candidate…

Take time to think is a good one for the viva; make sure you pause and think before answering.

Read your thesis carefully after submission is another that has a lot of value.

Try not to worry too much is a good tip, but can be tricky to put into practice!

These are good ideas, but my number one tip is this:

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Think back over the last few years. How did you get to this point? What have you done? What were the key events? How did you do it? How are you talented? What have you achieved?

Because it wasn’t all down to luck. There may be times you feel very grateful that something good has happened, but nothing just happens. You’ve worked hard to get to submission and the viva.

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Thesis Prep Checklist

Check off the following as you complete these thesis-related tasks before the viva:

  1. Added Post-it Notes to the start of each chapter to help with thesis navigation.
  2. Read through every chapter carefully at least once.
  3. Highlighted key references in each chapter.
  4. Added Post-it Notes to any important pages.
  5. Written a 1-line summary at the top of each page.
  6. Annotated any tricky passages to make them clearer.
  7. Bookmarked pages that add to the key contribution of the thesis.

If you’ve done all of these then you’re doing well. Your prep might not be complete, but you’ve read your thesis, annotated it usefully and started to think through why your work makes a difference.

What else can you do to get ready?

Elevating Your Thesis Pitch

I’m sorting out my home office while I procrastinate about my next book. I’ve gathered a lot of notes and material over the last ten years of working with researchers, and not all of it is useful now. There are workshops I regularly did ten years ago that I’m not involved with now, and yet I’ve kept all of those notes just in case. It’s time to be ruthless, but I read and check them all one last time.

Just in case.

I found an old note about the 5Ps for elevator pitches and sharing business ideas. You can use the 5Ps – pain, premise, people, proof, purpose – to frame what you’re going to say about your amazing business proposal. These are essentially a shorthand for questions you’re answering while you tell the story of your idea.

  • Pain: what is the thing your business helps with?
  • Premise: how does your idea help with the pain?
  • People: who do you have on your team?
  • Proof: how do you know that your idea works?
  • Purpose: why are you doing this?

I like simple models for telling stories and communicating ideas. So when I found the 5Ps in an old note, one thing in the centre of a page of now-redundant information I wrote it out as a reminder. After a week of stewing at the back of my brain, I realised it could be a good way of reflecting what your research is about.

If you were to give a thesis elevator pitch, perhaps you could use the same 5Ps to prompt some questions and exploration.

  • Pain: what is the problem your research addresses?
  • Premise: how did you set about finding answers?
  • People: whose work do you reference in your thesis?
  • Proof: how do you know that what you’ve done is good?
  • Purpose: why did you want to do this research?

Each of these questions is generally good to explore before the viva. Together they make a neat little story about your research. Reflection and writing summaries before the viva is good preparation because it gives you opportunities to think about your work, and practice how you could talk about what you’ve done during your PhD.

Just in case.

The Value of Valuable Questions

I love finding valuable questions. I try to read as widely as possible in things like self-help books, coaching blogs and interviews with interesting people. The ideas and advice are often helpful, but a good question hooks my attention more than anything.

In a recent TEDx post I came across a really insightful question:

What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?

The article is asking in the context of time management and organisation, but this makes me think more generally. Perhaps, what can I do today to make my future brighter? What can I start now to set up a better later?

It gives me two thoughts for the viva and viva prep particularly. First, what’s the most important thing you can do today for your prep that will make the rest of your viva preparations better?

Second, what important things have you done throughout your PhD that makes your current situation great?

Preparation and reflection both help as you get close to the viva.

What other valuable questions help you? And where could you get more from?

Plan Your Prep

Viva preparation does not have to be a full-time job, but at the same time it’s not a trivial matter. It takes time, it takes space and it takes effort. The result of all of this work is someone who feels ready: a Future-You with confidence in their ability for the day of the viva.

A small plan would help all of this.

Don’t wait until a few weeks before and then think, “What should I do?” With as much advance notice think about the probable timing of the viva. Think about your other commitments. Think about the kinds of gaps in your confidence and preparation, and the kinds of tasks you might do to fill those gaps. Think about how you might break those tasks up into manageable chunks.

Then think about how much free time you would realistically have in the period around the viva for preparation – and consequently, think about when you might need to start. Simply sketch out when you might begin, what order you might do things and note down anything that will be a priority.

You don’t need Gantt charts, flow diagrams and timetables. Make a small plan, just a little thought to steer you towards success.