Again & Again

I’ve been playing the video game Hades every day for about a month and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.

The son of the Greek god Hades fights to escape the Underworld. It’s fantastic, stylish, polished and deep. It is an absolute delight to play and experience – even though there’s a steep learning curve, lots of challenges and skillsets to juggle and bring together. Again and again you die and return to the start…

…and in a weird way it makes me think of my PhD journey!

 

Again and again I had to rise to the challenge. Sometimes I knew what I had to do. Sometimes I found what I was looking for. Sometimes I could just do what I needed to.

But again and again I faced setbacks. Things didn’t work. References couldn’t be found. Answers were not forthcoming.

Again and again I started again. I would have to go back to the beginning of a problem and try to look at it from a new perspective. I would need to find a new way forward.

Again and again I grew. I became more skilled, more knowledgeable, more sure that I could take on new challenges.

And again and again I was surprised, delighted and frustrated as I continued on my journey.

 

All of your agains – the repeated steps, the start-overs, the learning, the experience, the knowledge-building – all of the frustration and growth and joy – all of this is what you take with you to the viva.

No more agains. The final step, more or less, and the talent, work and time you’ve invested helps you through.

Done, finally… Until you take on your next challenge.

Headers & Footers

Annotation can help make your thesis more useful for the viva – and there’s a lot of empty space in the borders of your thesis pages.

The top and bottom of a page could be helpful to highlight key points, to summarise the content or even to offer a word of encouragement. If something is great, use the header to make it stand out. If there’s something tricky consider using the space at the bottom to leave a helpful note or two.

Headers and footers don’t need to be filled but they’re a great opportunity for you to prepare and to help in the viva. How will you use yours?

Tortoise Prep

I imagine that if Aesop wrote a new fable about a Tortoise and a Hare getting ready for their vivas there would be some interesting updates…

The Hare would rush their prep. They’d get it done but only by working furiously. And they might burnout or feel overwhelmed as they got closer to their viva.

Unlike the original fable they would still “win” – as they’re not in competition with the Tortoise – but it might not be an easy race for them to get ready.

The Tortoise would go slow. The Tortoise would start early. They would go step-by-step, day-by-day. No hurry, no pause. No need for rush. No need for stress.

The Tortoise is just as ready for their viva as the Hare, but their journey is much better for them, their confidence and their viva.

In your viva prep: be more Tortoise.

Check Your Checklist

In the days leading up to the viva your big picture checklist might look a little like this:

  • Research? Done!
  • Pages? Written!
  • Thesis? Submitted!
  • Prep? Completed!
  • Confidence? ………

Your confidence might be the last thing you have to check off. It’s hard to mark as “done” with a simple tick. Unlike the previous items you can’t simply see confidence.

Confidence can be found by reflecting on all of your experiences of research. It can be seen in the progress you’ve made. Confidence is nestled amongst all of your writing and your finished thesis – proof that you’ve grown in ability. Confidence is built up through preparation for the viva and realising that you’re ready.

It isn’t always simple to check confidence off your list, but you can do it.

All The Answers

Knowing exactly what to say to answer every question in your viva isn’t a reasonable expectation. It’s not required for the viva. Your examiners don’t expect it from you. You would probably need to know all of the questions before they were asked (and you won’t).

You’re not expected to know all the answers, but you are expected to respond to every question.

A response could be an answer or an opinion. A response could be sharing an idea or offering a hypothesis. A response could be a gut feeling or a question for clarification.

A response could even be saying “I don’t know,” and then explaining why.

You can’t have all the answers but you have many options for offering a response.

Underlining

Underlining can make your thesis better for the viva.

  • You could underline key references.
  • You could make sure you can find your typos.
  • You could show key words or definitions.
  • You could underline a sentence that is amazing.
  • You could have one colour of ink and underline one type of thing in your thesis.
  • You could have several colours for different needs.
  • You could have full lines or dashed for different emphasis.

Annotating your thesis during viva prep adds value to what’s on the page, making it more useful for the viva. Reflect on how underlining could help you and your thesis.

Numbers Matter

Since July 2010 I’ve delivered sessions about the viva to over 6000 postgraduate researchers. I have the 300th Viva Survivor session in my diary for early 2022. Shortly after that I’ll mark the five year anniversary of this daily blog.

I regularly remind myself of these numbers. I don’t write them to boost how I seem to you: I write them to help me see myself more clearly.

Like everyone I have doubts. I have anxieties. They come and go and can sometimes bring me down.

The numbers don’t lie though. The numbers help to tell my story back to me. I have done this work for a long time, I’ve worked with a lot of people, I’ve stayed determined with the blog. The numbers help me to show me the results of what I’ve done. They steer me towards my confidence and away from doubts.

What are your numbers? What measures could help you?

The number of days you worked on your PhD so far? The number of times you’ve shared your work? The number of chapters in your thesis or interesting things you found? The number of challenging situations you overcame?

You might have a bad day or a bad week near the end of your PhD. It may be you doubt yourself as you get closer to the viva. In those times look for your numbers. Your feelings might say one thing, but the numbers will tell you a far more helpful story.

Constrained

There’s no best, one-size-fits-all plan for viva prep. You have to explore what works for you, and if you’re busy that could feel quite stressful.

This blog contains lots of ideas for what might help someone get ready. How do you plan all that out? You explore by applying constraints to see what could work.

  • What if you started your prep four weeks before your viva?
  • What if you could only prepare for thirty minutes per day?
  • What if you used your Saturday mornings?
  • What if you thought it would take twenty hours?
  • What if you had a list of tasks or goals first?
  • What if you assumed a start or finish date for your prep work?

Exploring just a few constraints can help you arrive at sensible options for getting the work done.

Stop stressing about how it will all get done. Start exploring with useful constraints that will help you be finished.

Notes To Yourself

A practice I return to again and again is to leave a note on my desk to help Future-Nathan get started when they sit down for work. It’s a kindness, a little thing to help me get going. I could be tired or stressed when I next arrive for work – but now I have a prompt to help me get going.

Typically the note might be a little to-do list, or something about the first action I need to take. Consider doing something similar when you finish a viva prep task. Could you leave a Post-it Note for Future-You? A short message to get you started next time. It doesn’t have to be something big, it just has to help.

Three short sentences perhaps: what you just did, what you need to do next and one line of encouragement.

Good viva prep needs people supporting a candidate. Be your own supporter!

 

Mocks Are Maybes

We don’t own a toaster.

The rest of our family think we’re really weird. They can’t wrap their heads around why we choose not to have a toaster and prefer to use our grill. We still toast things! We just don’t use a toaster.

 

You might not want a mock.

Madness!!! – is what some well-meaning people might say. You need a mock to rehearse for the viva! Or how will you get a feel for being in the viva?? Well-intentioned comments but you might not want or need a mock.

A mock could feel stressful to you. It could be that you think your supervisor wouldn’t be the best choice to help you. Or you might want a mock but not be able to have one because of your schedule.

And all of that is fine.

Instead, you could have discussions with friends over coffee, deliver a seminar or find some other way to get more comfortable with being in the kind of situation you’ll find in the viva. A mock could help, but all of these other options could be just as helpful for you.

 

In our house we need a way to toast bread – but we don’t need a toaster.

You need a way to rehearse and practice for the viva – but you don’t need a mock viva.

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