Running On Empty

If you’ve nothing left when you sit down to get ready for the viva, then you’re not ready to get ready.

Take a break.

Submit, then stop.

Pause, then prep.

Relax and restore, then ready yourself. You can’t get ready for the viva if you have nothing more to give.

A few weeks or even a few days can be enough to recover from that final push to get your thesis finished and submitted. Viva preparation does not require fantastic efforts either, so if in day-to-day life, after work and other commitments you only have a little, then only give a little. You don’t need to ruin yourself to get ready.

Rest, restore and refuel first.

Pick A Time

If you can manage it, a little routine could be useful for helping you to get ready for the viva. Viva prep will not be the first thing that goes in your diary or on your wall planner. You’ll have other commitments and responsibilities that have to come first. The prep needs to get done though. Think carefully:

  • When are there gaps in your schedule for half an hour to an hour of considered work?
  • How could you find a time that means you won’t be too tired?
  • Is there a way to make consistent times that you can do viva prep?

Reflect a little and find times when you could get the work done. It doesn’t have to be every day, but having a routine could be useful to help you tune into the work that needs doing.

The Last Little Thing

I had read my thesis. I had made notes, lots of them. Read papers by my examiners. Had six or seven hour-long conversations with my supervisor in the almost-two months leading from submission to my viva. My viva was 10am on a Monday morning, and I had a weekend free and clear to rest, relax and check anything else I needed to check.

Which I did!

And then at 9:45am on Monday, with fifteen minutes to go before the start of my viva I knocked on my supervisor’s door and said, “Hi Hugh, can I just go over the definition of a genus 2 handlebody one more time? Thanks! It’s when…”

A basic definition was perhaps not the best thing to be checking just before my viva. It was a minor point, but a worry point – something I kept checking again and again because I was sure I was misremembering something, or that something fundamental wasn’t quite sticking in my mind.

What minor points concern you? Even little things can add up to a big worry or a heap of nerves. You don’t have to start your prep by tidying away small concerns, but nor is it a good idea to finish your prep with them either.

Once & Many

There are valuable viva prep tasks that only need to be done once…

  • Sticking tabs in place to find the starts of chapters in your thesis;
  • Underlining typos;
  • Taking part in a mock viva;
  • Reading your thesis – although it’s fine to re-read it, of course!

…there are valuable viva prep tasks that help you by doing them many times…

  • Reflecting on how you’ve got so far;
  • Exploring your research in conversation with friends;
  • Finding useful ways to remind yourself of your talent;
  • Raising your confidence!

…there’s a limit for how much viva prep work you can really do, and a balance to find with everything you’ve done before and everything else you need to do now.

Find a balance that works for you.

The Power of Prep

It won’t make you perfect.

It won’t mean you’ll get no corrections.

It won’t mean you’ll be blank-free in the viva, or that it’s impossible you’ll be stumped.

It doesn’t come with anything like a guarantee.

But it means that, for a small investment of time, you are as ready as you can possibly be to meet your examiners and talk about your work with them. You’ve taken the time to boost yourself, not better yourself. You already know everything you need to know, you can already do everything you need to do.

This is the stretch before the race, or checking your lines just before you walk on stage.

The little extra that helps you get the viva done.

Scratch Your Itch

If I’m ever asked to give general advice for PhD candidates I suggest that they find some way to scratch their itch:

Find a nice little side project to your main research, something that might use your skills, talents or knowledge in a slightly different way. Find something that makes you smile to work on it. Find something perhaps even unconnected to your research but which helps you to make something or do something that helps others. If all it does is help you balance out your normal work time, then it’s time well spent.

There’s a place for itch-scratching in viva prep too. Make notes on the favourite parts of your thesis. Find interesting papers to read and challenge yourself with. Have coffee with friends to talk about the last few years or perhaps have a mini-viva. Even incentivise your prep with some kind of fun reward.

All of these sorts of things have a place in helping you get ready.

What could you do? What have you been putting off? What could you use to both scratch an itch – A new project? Answering a question to keep you thinking? Presenting your work? – and help you get ready?

Needing A Mock

You don’t need a mock viva. You need practice for the viva, a rehearsal space to think and respond like you might do in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just one of the ways that you could rehearse.

You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just supposed to be like a real viva, with substitute examiners who will be well-placed to ask you relevant, helpful questions to give you a sense of kind of discussion that arises in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, there are lots of ways to get help, but given that it’s supposed to be like the viva it could be a really useful opportunity if you have the chance.

You don’t need a mock viva, you need to be ready: a mock is a means to an end, not the end itself. There are other things you could do that would help.

But if you have the chance, a mock viva could be exactly what you need. A small, self-contained piece of preparation. A boost to confidence, to awareness, to expectations. A chance to rehearse and build. A chance to get ready.

You don’t need it. But it might help a lot if you have it.

Do Less

Viva prep is less.

Less reading than when you were researching.

Less writing than when you were writing up.

Less thinking than when you were figuring things out.

The viva is a fraction of the time you’ll spend on getting ready, and viva prep is a vanishingly small period compared to the months you’ll put into your PhD. Perspective matters. You need to get ready for the viva, but the real work that helps you pass has already been done.

Ten 5-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

A half-hour or hour of viva prep doesn’t have to be spent with your eyes glued to the pages of your thesis. Yes, you need to read, and yes you need to spend time on slightly longer, considered tasks – but short activities can be useful too. A few five-minute tasks spread between longer pieces of work can add to your sense of being ready.

Small things add up. Here are ten ideas for five-minute viva prep tasks:

  1. Reflect on a key reference for your thesis and write a paragraph about why it helped your work.
  2. Think and write down three questions you’d like to ask your examiners (and make a note of why for each).
  3. Record yourself (either audio or video) responding to the question, “What are you most proud of in your research?”
  4. Write about a tricky challenge you overcame. Why was it tricky? How did you resolve the situation? What did that help you to do?
  5. Search through your thesis for five pages/points that are great; put a Post-it Note or bookmark with all of them so you can find them again with ease.
  6. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you not know about the viva process that you think would help?”
  7. Click the random Viva Survivors post link five times to get five random pieces of advice/help/perspective!
  8. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you hope your examiners ask you about?”
  9. Make a list of five things you could do on the days leading up to your viva to help you feel confident.
  10. Take five minutes to listen to or watch one of the recording tasks from above.

More time-intensive tasks are required to build up your preparation for the viva. Smaller tasks help too. Think about how you can use your time well to increase your readiness for your viva.

(and contrast with 1-minute viva prep tasks!)