“How Can I Help?”

If you’ve had your viva, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, ask these four words first, before you start to offer your story, your opinion or your advice. See what support someone needs. Get a sense of how they’re feeling.

If you’ve not had your viva yet, and a friend or colleague has theirs coming soon, still ask how you can help. Your friend might need a sympathetic ear, a sounding board, someone to listen or someone to ask more questions to help them reflect.

You don’t need to have had your viva to help someone else with theirs.

One Bite At A Time

“How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time…

It’s an old joke or proverb, depending on how you look at it, but there’s certainly wisdom as well as eye-rolling.

You could never have done your PhD in a week. It takes years of slow, patient work. Learning, discovering, growing. You eat away at the problems of your research one bite at a time.

Getting ready for your viva is similar, but on a shorter timescale. A day of cramming is inferior compared to a few weeks of small tasks, getting ready by nibbling away at a finite to-do list, bit-by-bit. Confidence builds in the same way.

Slow, careful ways that lead to success.

Nervous & Confident

Nervous and confident aren’t polar opposites.

If you feel nervous about something – like, say, your viva – then you’re recognising it’s important. Nervous isn’t the same as being anxious or being worried, although it might not be comfortable. Nervous is a recognition of something in your future, not something inherently bad or to be feared. “This thing matters to me.”

Being confident about something – like, say, your viva – is believing with good reason that you have talent or knowledge to be able to deal with a future situation. “I can do this.”

Being confident about your success in the viva helps to put nervous feelings in perspective. Confidence helps to balance the discomfort of nervousness.

You could go around and around trying to figure out what triggers your nervousness, wondering what you could do to stop feeling nervous – or you could take steps to build your confidence for the viva. Reflect on your talent. Summarise your progress over years of work. Really think about all that you’ve done and know.

Feeling nervous before your viva isn’t bad, but being confident is very good!

Must-Have Annotations!

Everyone is talking about them for Summer 2021! Your thesis is the must-have accessory for your viva wardrobe, and can be accessorised itself, in so many wonderful ways:

  • Strategic Post-it Notes to show the brilliant beginnings of chapters or index the important points you have to show-off!
  • Highlights are in this season: references, typos, key passages. Whatever matters most to you needs to stand out!
  • Marginalia matters too, and whatever you add to the borders of your thesis pages really helps to emphasise your own style – and your research!

Yes, this post is aiming to be both playful and serious. Memorable I hope, and an encouragement to think about how you can make your thesis more helpful for the viva too.

And, maybe, more fabulous!

Lazy Viva Prep

My favourite teacher in high school, Mr S., used to have a set of “laws” on his wall. First among them was a lazy mathematician is a good one. He would repeat and explain it a lot, because he didn’t mean we shouldn’t do any work!

His point was that a good mathematician knew lots of methods so they would know how to solve a problem with the least effort. A lazy mathematician would find only the answer they were looking for, and not waste time on other details. A lazy mathematician would think first and recognise what they needed to do before starting to solve an equation or draw a graph. Consequently, a lazy mathematician might seem to start slow, but would probably finish quickly.

For similar reasons I think that viva prep needs to be “lazy” too.

When getting ready for your viva, don’t do what you don’t need to do. Stop and consider the outcome you’re working towards before you get going. Reflect on your skillset and knowledge before committing to a hectic schedule of reading, writing and thinking. What tasks and practices do you really need to do?

You need to be ready for your viva, not ready for anything.

Rest Days

Today could be a rest day for you, even if your viva is soon.

Ready for the viva means you have to refresh your memory, rehearse for the situation of talking with your examiners and remind yourself that you did the work that’s got you this far.

Ready also means you need to be rested. Today could be a time to rest. And if not today, take two minutes to find a time when you will rest soon.

Ready Means…

…you did the work.

Not just the prep but all the work before that too.

You did the research. You wrote your thesis. You earned and achieved your way to submission.

You took time between submission and the viva to read more, check more and do more to be sure you were talented.

Ready means you’re probably still nervous but confident anyway; polished but not perfect.

Ready means you’ll go to your viva and pass.

Any PhD candidate can be ready for their viva, and that means you can be too!

When it’s time, go get ready.

Responses to Classic Questions

“How do I get ready to answer classic questions in the viva?”

I’ve been asked this many times over the last decade – I’ve met over 5000 candidates in seminars and webinars, so there’s a lot of questions I’ve been asked more than once!

First, we have to dismiss the idea of “classic” or “common” questions. There are topics that frequently come up, like summarising research or being able to talk about methods or conclusions. Questions vary a lot though, and that’s before we account for every thesis being unique. You can’t prepare a response for every question that could be asked. There’s too many!

It’s far better to think of preparation for questions as being ready to participate in the viva. So what can you do to get ready?

  • Find opportunities to talk about your work.
  • Be ready to explain why you did it, how you did it, what happened as a result.
  • Be willing to explore what you know, what you did and what you can do as a researcher.

You don’t need rehearsed answers to “classic questions” – you need the confidence to respond to whatever your examiners ask. Finding opportunities to talk with others and share what you’ve done can be enough to build that confidence.

Advice Isn’t Enough

You can read books about the viva. You can ask your supervisors for their advice. You can talk to friends and colleagues about their experiences. Get lots of recommendations.

And then you have to do something.

Take all the ideas and take action. Take everything you know about your research and thesis, factor in everyone’s advice, hints and helpful suggestions and take action.

Action that helps you remember what you need.

Action that helps you reflect on what you’ve done.

Action that helps get you one step close to where you need to be for talking to your viva.

At some point more knowledge and advice isn’t enough. You have to do something to help you get ready.

A Contribution

You’ve not simply done something for the last couple of years: you’ve made a contribution, made something different, made something that changes what came before. Made something that matters. You don’t need a model answer or script to hand to describe what you’ve done for your examiners, but it will help you in the viva to have reflected on how your work makes a difference.

So, quite simply, what’s your thesis contribution?

Before your viva make notes, reflect on your contribution and tell others about it. Then you’ll be more confident discussing what you’ve done with your examiners when you have to defend your thesis.