A Week Of Prep

Let’s say you’re a few weeks away from your viva. You’ve read your thesis and it feels familiar. You’re busy with life outside of your thesis. You want to be prepared for your viva, you feel the need to do something this coming week, but you don’t know what.

Block out an hour for each evening of the week ahead and try the following:

  • Monday: annotate your thesis. Put a Post-it at the start of every chapter, and anywhere in your thesis that is important. Highlight important passages or references to make them stand out. Make your thesis more useful for you.
  • Tuesday: create an edited bibliography. Explore which are the most essential references, and capture a little detail for each to explore why it matters so much.
  • Wednesday: have a mini-viva. Either write notes about each of the questions or capture your thoughts with a voice-recording app.
  • Thursday: use the VIVA tool to analyse a chapter of your thesis. Pick a good one, and spend fifteen minutes for each of the four prompts to explore the chapter.
  • Friday: reflect on your mini-viva from Wednesday. What details would you add? What stands out from your mini-viva?
  • Saturday: switch to mornings. Meet a friend for coffee or an early lunch. Get them to ask you relevant questions about your research.
  • Sunday: take only 15 minutes to review what you’ve done. What has helped this week? How are you feeling about your viva? Now map out the week ahead. What are you going to do to continue your preparations?

This post is a little idea of how you could break your week up, doing different, useful tasks to prepare for the viva. Customise in a suitable way for you.

Don’t drift to your viva; go towards it with purpose.

Counting Down The Days

Advent calendars are neat ways to lead up to Christmas. A little fun, a little reminder that something nice is coming. A way to build up excitement.

Often viva candidates do the opposite when leading up to their viva. Where an advent calendar increases – 1st December, 2nd December and so on – candidates count down. Only three weeks left. Only ten days left. Only two days left. For most, probably a way to build up discomfort or worry.

It is important to keep track of the days if you’re preparing. There’s no need to rush preparations, but you still need to get what you need to do finished. Instead of marking days down though – seven left, six to go – write down what you did each day. Like an advent calendar, reveal the gift you’re giving to yourself.

Every day, as you lead up to the viva, record what you’re doing to get yourself ready. Provide evidence for yourself that you are a capable, talented researcher, not just someone counting down the days.

SWOT For Viva Day

I like SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – as a simple tool that provides a lot of direction for thinking. I’ve written about it before but today I want to explore how it could help you think about you as a candidate for your viva day.

  • Strengths: What are you strengths as a candidate? What do you know well? How can you use that to your advantage?
  • Weaknesses: Where do you feel weak? Why? What steps could you take to support yourself, if you need to?
  • Opportunities: Where are there opportunities for you in the viva? What questions could you ask your examiners? How could you make the most of the situation?
  • Threats: What could have a negative impact on your viva day? What’s beyond your control? What steps could you take to minimise the impact?

The threats are already minimal in the viva; perhaps think about how you will get there, and decide in advance what you will take. There are lots of opportunities to get useful insights from your examiners. They have experience that you can use, ideas that could help you if your plans are to stay in academia, for example. You might have weaknesses, but they can’t be terrible because you would never have got this far if they were. Think about what you might do to help you feel confident despite them.

Remember that you and your work have real strengths. Your work is good. You are good.

When Do You Stop?

I remember knocking on my supervisor’s office door thirty minutes before my viva to check a mathematical definition.

I know of people who took the day off before their viva and just relaxed.

Some candidates will be checking notes almost until they go into the viva room.

It helps, as with writing the thesis, to decide in advance what you are going to do. Make a decision about what “enough” preparation looks like. What are the tasks you will complete? What needs to get done? I would suggest allowing for a little relaxation time the day before to relax your mind; perhaps you can make a special plan to do something nice, if your schedule allows?

You can stop when you’re done, and you get to decide when that is. Make that decision. Otherwise you may just keep nervously doing more and more until you start the viva.

Empty Your Head

You don’t have to carry everything around in your brain for the viva. You can make notes. You can make plans. You can clear out the clutter and make sense of your ideas. When you start to prepare, write down a list of all the things you think you’ll do in preparation, then organise them.

Underline typos in your thesis as you find them (or make a list) so you don’t have to remember them. Add useful notes in the margins to help you. Write lists of questions you could ask your examiners. Summarise anything valuable or anything difficult about your work that you can think of.

You don’t have to remember everything. Lists, notes and summaries can reduce the burden on your brain for more useful thinking!

What Don’t You Do?

At the end of your PhD, you could say, “I don’t know how to run that type of an experiment,” or “I don’t know about that topic,” or “I never read that paper,” and feel bad…

…or you could choose to list all of the things you can do and know.

Sometimes listing what you don’t do or don’t know can be a way of finding your edges; for the viva, it’s better to look inside those boundaries first. Get a real sense of your mastery. What skills do you have? What knowledge have you learned? What ideas can you share?

Explore what you don’t do if you must. Lead with what you can do.

Your Best Work

Where is it? How do you define best when it comes to your research?

  • What’s your best result?
  • What’s your best chapter?
  • What’s the best idea in your thesis?
  • What was the best talk you gave during your PhD?
  • What’s the best way you can prepare for your viva?

It’s vital to acknowledge that you have really good ideas in your work. You have achieved a lot to get this far. Don’t hide it or hide from it.

Dig deeper by asking yourself why after all of these questions.

And remember this is your best so far. Better is still ahead.

The Final Checklist

If you can mark off most of the following then you’re good to go for the viva:

  • I did everything I needed to for submission.
  • I’ve read my thesis at least once since submission.
  • I’ve checked out my examiners’ recent publications.
  • I’ve annotated my thesis in a useful way.
  • I’ve found opportunities to practise talking and answering questions.
  • I have a useful set of expectations about the viva.
  • I’ve written some helpful summaries of my thesis to make my thoughts clear.
  • I know when and where I’m going on viva day.
  • I’ve decided what I’ll wear.
  • I know how I’m going to get to my viva.
  • I know what I’m taking with me.
  • I am confident in my abilities as a researcher.

Gut feeling helps. Perfection is impossible. If you can get to submission, you’re most of the way to viva success. It takes only a little more.

Keep going!

7 One-Pagers For Prep

Take a single sheet of paper, your thesis and half an hour to an hour and you can make something really useful for your viva prep. A summary of something, answers to a few key questions or thoughts on what makes your thesis special. Here are seven one-page ideas for viva preparation:

  1. Write “What’s important?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet. You could do this for your whole thesis or go chapter-by-chapter if you want to have room for more details.
  2. Write a page about your examiners and their interests. What do you know about them? What have they published recently and how might that connect with your work?
  3. Use the VIVA tool to analyse a key chapter or your whole thesis. Explore different aspects of your work to bring useful ideas to the forefront.
  4. Summarise the tricky parts of your research. Create a cheatsheet that details how you can explain difficulties.
  5. Write “What’s my contribution?” at the top of the page. Answer the question on the rest of the sheet.
  6. Create an edited bibliography. This might be a little tricky on a single sheet of paper, but could be done!
  7. Write out responses to a mini-viva! Select a set of questions from here and divide your page up as directed.

One page of A4 and an hour isn’t going to be all you’ll need to get ready for the viva. You can use it as a helpful exercise one day though. Structure helps get the work done!

Unicorns

You may have heard of them, but they’re very rarely seen.

  • A viva that is less than an hour.
  • A viva that starts with the candidate being told they’ve passed.
  • A candidate who finishes just over two years after they started their PhD.
  • A viva where everything just slots into place, the candidate doesn’t have to check their thesis, is perfectly composed and responds to every question and query without hesitation.

These unicorn vivas happen, but they don’t happen a lot.

They sound like a dream, but the reality isn’t so bad: a good viva, a few hours and a few days of work to get things corrected afterwards. A confident candidate who can engage well with their examiners about a good thesis.

Leave the fairytales to one side. Prepare for a true story.