The Standard Viva

Vivas vary because every thesis and every candidate are different. Regulations create a layer of structure. Good practice for vivas creates expectations. You can’t have a script but you can reasonably expect a viva to have certain standard features.

  • You can and should expect examiners to prepare.
  • You can ask for a break at any point.
  • Vivas tend to start with a simple question.
  • Corrections are a standard request for candidates.

Success is part of the standard viva. More than anything, it’s expected you will pass.

Worst & Best

It’s normal to be nervous for your viva. It’s understandable if you have worries or feel anxious about what could happen. It would be very human to think about what might go wrong – but rather than focus on the worst case scenario, think about what you could do to be at your best.

You can’t control what happens in the viva – your examiners’ questions or opinions, what it might feel like moment to moment – but you can take charge of what you do to get ready. You can take practical steps to prepare and build your confidence. Your preparations can help you present the best possible you in the viva.

The worst case viva scenario is extremely unlikely. You being at your best for the challenge is almost guaranteed.

Then & There

When you find out the date and location for your viva, whether your viva is in-person or over video, write down a few thoughts for each of the following questions:

  • How will I get there and when do I need to be ready?
  • What do I need in that space and how do I get it?
  • Who do I need help from?
  • What can I do to help myself on that day in that space?

Viva prep is not limited to book work and mock vivas. Explore what you need to make your viva venue as helpful as possible to feeling ready to talk with your examiners.

Managing The Mock Viva

A key part of viva prep is using opportunities to rehearse for the viva.

You have to read your thesis to prepare, make notes, check references you might have forgotten, and so on – but in the viva you need to talk. You’re not called on simply to present but to respond to questions. You have to be ready to be a participant in the discussion your examiners are facilitating.

A mock viva is probably the best opportunity you could have to rehearse. By design it is supposed to be like the viva you’re expecting. It’s run by your supervisor and maybe a colleague of theirs; while they may not have had the full prep time your examiners will have, they can draw on their own relevant experience to help you prepare.

A mock viva doesn’t have to be a big deal to arrange but there are key questions to consider first:

  • Do you really want one? They’re a great opportunity but not for everyone. Think carefully about yourself, your relationship with your supervisor and what you need for your prep.
  • When could you have one? Talk to your supervisor about their availability and schedule a time that will suit you both – giving plenty of time to debrief and build on your rehearsal.
  • What do you need to do to be ready for the mock? Probably everything you’re already doing to get ready for the viva at that stage, so nothing else!
  • What do you want to get from the experience? If you just want to have something like the viva, then you don’t need to ask for anything else. If you want questions on a specific topic or aspect of your work then prime your supervisor.

Remember that this will not be a run-through for your real viva. Your real viva will be different. Your real viva will matter more, have different questions and come with the real expectations and anticipations of the day. A mock viva helps you rehearse how you might feel and behave on the day, rather than allow you to test responses to questions.

There’s not a lot to manage to have a mock viva. Think ahead a little and you can manage your expectations, then do something to help with your viva preparation.

Find Five

A little nudge to start viva preparations:

  1. Find five papers in your bibliography that have really supported you and your research.
  2. Find five people who can help you get ready for your viva.
  3. Find five days that you can take a good hour to do something to get ready.
  4. Find five places in your thesis where you make a good contribution.
  5. Find five reasons to help you believe you will succeed in your viva.

There will be many more for each category, and many more helpful categories of things that could help someone get ready. Five is a good starting place.

Solve An Easier Problem

If you look at your viva prep as just so much to do, a great big problem, and if that is weighing heavily on you – know that it doesn’t need to be this way. Big problems are hard to solve. You can make this easier on yourself.

Start small. Make a little plan. Do something. Read a page of your thesis before you worry about how much or how often you need to read the whole thing. Have one conversation with a friend about your work before you create any anxiety about having a mock viva – or responding to questions on the day.

Of course there are lots of things to think about with the viva and viva prep. For some aspects there are no simple solutions about what to do, how much and when. But you don’t have to start with those big things immediately. You can start small. Solve an easier problem.

Who Is It For?

Your thesis is not written for your examiners. You have to write it for your PhD and your examiners have to read it to examine you. It’s not written for them – the goal is to make a contribution to knowledge.

You don’t learn about viva expectations so you have a template you’re trying to complete. You’re learning more so that you can prepare well. You’re not trying to meet some ideal for your examiners.

Your prep is not done for your examiners. It’s for you. You want to be at your best, ready, refreshed, feeling confident – but that’s not for them. You want to to feel ready for you.

Remember to keep the focus where it needs to be for the viva.

A Long Time

In the year before your viva you don’t need to do much to get ready. Your focus is on finishing research, finishing your thesis and thinking about life after the PhD.

In the month before your viva you can start your prep. Read your thesis, make notes, check details and take opportunities to rehearse.

In the week before your viva make a to-do list of anything that remains. What are your priorities? Who can help you? Remind yourself of what you’ve done to get his far.

In the day before your viva you might want to do some final prep, but equally it could just be time to rest and relax.

In the hour before your viva it’s a good idea to check one more time that you’ve got everything you need. Remember as well that you have a challenging couple of hours ahead – but you are ready for this challenge.

In the minute before your viva remember to breathe. Any nerves are about the importance of the day; they are not a negative reflection on your talent or contribution.

In the second before your viva you might blink-

-and then realise that it’s all done. Your viva flew by. You were there, but you were engaged and weren’t thinking about how long it was.

Success in the viva is a long time coming, but doesn’t take very long on the day.

The Ends

The end of your viva is not the end of your PhD.

The end of your bibliography doesn’t mean that there is nothing else to know.

The end of your thesis is not the end of the research that could be done.

The end of your PhD journey doesn’t mean that there isn’t more great work for you to do.

The end of your mock viva is not a finish to all the questions you could get in the real thing.

There are many endings around the conclusion of a PhD. Very few of them are final.

The end of your PhD is not the end of your story.

Red Pen

Using a red pen to annotate your thesis can be useful. Underlining typos, circling important things, boxing off ideas.

Using a red pen also carries a lot of negative associations. Crosses in the margins of tests or essays in the past, a circled grade, a short note that diminishes effort.

Annotating your thesis is essential for viva prep. Using a red pen is not. Choose your tools. Think ahead a little for what you will need and what you can do to make the process effective and your annotated thesis useful.

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