Limits of Control

You’re not in control of your viva and the situation around it. You’re not totally out of control either.

You can’t control who your examiners are, not directly…

…but you can control what you know about them through research before your viva.

You can’t control what questions they ask or what they think…

…but of course, you will influence them with your thesis.

You can’t control how you will feel on the day…

…but you can control what you do in preparation, where you focus, how you get yourself ready.

You couldn’t control everything that happened over the years you did your research…

…but time and again you could steer yourself, change direction when needed, make small adjustments, and lead yourself to where you are now.

Which means, I think, that even if you can’t control everything about your viva, you can do enough to get yourself through it.

Working Out Your Prep Priorities

There are lots of things a candidate could do to get ready for the viva. There’s a few things that they need to do. There’s only so much time in and amongst the realities of a busy life to get it all done.

You could feel bad about what you don’t do, but it’s far more useful to focus on what you can do. Focus on what you have done and need to do, rather than anything you’ve missed.

To start, focus on your priorities. You probably need to read your thesis; annotate it; do a little research into your examiners; write a summary or two; make opportunities to help you rehearse being in the viva.

Within that list though, you have your priorities – with a heavy emphasis on your! As you get closer to the viva, take a little time and reflect for yourself:

  • Where do you feel there are gaps in your preparation?
  • How could you address them?
  • What do you, realistically, have time to do?
  • Who can help you?
  • If you need more time, how could you make more time?

Jot everything down, make a few little lists and compare it to your schedule. Imagine that you can only do 80% of what you’ve written down. What doesn’t make the list? What comes first? What might you do if you have time?

And so, then, what are your real priorities?

There are core types of work that will help you get ready for your viva. There are many different ways candidates can engage with these activities. Every candidate has different needs, different pressures, and thus different priorities.

What are yours?

In Case Of Emergency

What if your external examiner cancels with a week to go?

What do you do if you get an email asking you for submission fees, and you’re sure that doesn’t apply to you?

What would you do if you broke your leg or just got sick a few days before your viva?

What do you do? Who do you call?

You can’t plan what you would do for every unexpected event – they’re unexpected, of course! But you can be a little prepared all the same. Spend two minutes as soon as possible, months before your viva if that’s where you are now: get a name, email address and phone number for someone at your university who could help in case anything unexpected, a real emergency, happens in the lead up to your viva.

Your supervisor might be the person to call, but equally it could be a member of staff in your Graduate School or Doctoral College. Figure out who the most likely person is, get their contact details written on a Post-it Note and put that away just in case.

You’ll never know when an emergency will strike, you can’t always know how it might be solved. But you can know who to contact first to help you.

Six Steps For Friction-free Prep

In preparing for the viva you have your thesis, your knowledge, your talent…

…and a lot of things potentially in your way, stopping you from getting ready! Busy days, family ties, worry, uncertainty over what to do – there’s lots to slow you down!

Thankfully, there’s a few simple steps you can take to remove the obstacles in your way:

  1. Make a plan. Just a short one, just an idea of when you need start, when you need to stop and what you need to do.
  2. Get your materials together. You need your thesis, some stationery, some paper and some papers you’ve referenced too. Get it all together, don’t leave things for later when you can procrastinate and avoid prep because you don’t have that paper you need.
  3. Find a prep space. It might be your dining table, it could be your office, it could be a cafe. But find a space that you can work well in.
  4. Tell others what you need. Probably, you need them to leave you alone from time to time! Get the space you need.
  5. Do at least one thing every day. Read a chapter, write a summary, check a reference – do something so it becomes a habit. Small tasks add up.
  6. Make a task list for your plan. What are all the tasks you have to get done? Cross them off as you go to see your progress as it happens.

Be practical. Don’t stay in your head with worries, doubts, procrastinations. Work better by removing things that create friction as you get ready to pass your viva.

Best of Viva Survivors 2019: Viva Prep

Each year I finish my blogging by sharing some of my favourite posts over a few days. We’ll start my annual round-up with my favourite posts from 2019 on the subject of viva prep. Every PhD candidate will need to do something after submission to help themselves get ready. The posts below offer a range of different activities and encouragements to help with busy weeks waiting for the viva.

Spotted any other posts this year that you thought really helped with viva preparation? Let me know, and check back over the coming days for most Best of 2019 blog posts!

Sword Sharpening

A sword could be excellently forged, made with skill from the best materials – but if it’s not kept sharp, it won’t work well.

Similarly, you can’t create yourself and your thesis without making something good by submission – but if you don’t take a little time to prepare before the viva you won’t be at your best.

So: what are you going to do to sharpen yourself for your examiners?

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.