The Trade-Off

There are lots of people who can help with your viva preparations, but the two most useful groups are your supervisors and your colleagues. They can provide similar kinds of help with unpicking the research you’ve done, but they have different restrictions.

  • Your supervisors can give you depth of thought and feedback, but they are probably very busy.
  • Your colleagues may have great availability, but won’t have deep knowledge of your thesis.

So you have the trade-off, availability versus depth: you have to decide what will help you most.

If you need real detail, then you probably have to get help from your supervisors. So you might need to plan in advance how and when you’ll get help. If you really just need someone to listen, and your supervisor is time-pressured, then perhaps you can lean more on your colleagues in an ad-hoc way.

There are lots of things you can ask for from supervisors and colleagues. And you can use both groups to support your preparations, you don’t need to cut anyone out! As you submit your thesis, think: What’s left? What do you need? Who do you need?

The Audience

An old and valuable piece of advice: when you prepare a presentation you should consider your audience. There’s a difference between a talk for your peers, and a talk for the layperson; a difference between a seminar for your supervisor and the main session at a conference.

This also applies with other parts of the PhD. Remember when writing your thesis and preparing for the viva, the audiences are not identical.

  • When writing your thesis, don’t write solely for your examiners.
  • When preparing for your viva, don’t just try to imagine what anyone might ask.

Reflect for yourself, “What can you do to best help your audience, both in your thesis and in your viva?”

I Like Hope…

…but don’t just hope that your viva will go well.

Don’t just hope that you’ll feel fine on the day.

Don’t just hope that you’ll get the right questions.

Don’t just hope that your examiners are a good fit.

Don’t just hope that you’ve done everything you can.

Don’t just hope that you’ll be confident as you start your viva.

It’s not about crossing your fingers and hoping it’s all fine. Do what you can so that you do feel fine, so that you feel good about answering questions, so you know about your examiners, so that you feel prepared and confident!

Don’t hope. Do something.

Pedestals

It’s not uncommon to look at your examiners and feel overwhelmed.

They’ve read more. They’ve done more. They probably know more.

You’ve had a few years to learn how to do research and to write your thesis; they’ve had so much more time to get good.

Maybe you look at your examiners and strain your neck to see them on the pedestal you’ve made for them. How does that feel?

(probably not great)

It’s not unnatural to compare yourself to someone else, but it might be unhelpful. You can be aware of your examiners’ achievements, but it’s your choice to compare yourself to them. You don’t have to do that. You can choose to learn about their work and use that knowledge to help you prepare.

If you do make the comparison though, make sure it is fair. Yes, they probably know more about your field, have published more papers and will have questions you may have never considered before…

…but you wrote your thesis. They’ve only read it. Even if you’re in similar fields, they didn’t do YOUR work.

Compare total work in your field and they’ll always win: a more useful comparison is one that relates to how much more you necessarily know about your work than they do.

Seriously, how high is YOUR pedestal?

Small Things Add Up

There are big tasks involved in finishing a thesis and preparing for the viva. Sometimes, though, you can make a difference by thinking as small as “How could I make this one percent better?”

Think small!

  • What small things could you do to boost your confidence?
  • What tiny notes could you add to your thesis?
  • How could you help your prep in five minutes or less?
  • What’s the shortest way you can usefully summarise an aspect of your research?

You need to think big to get a PhD done. As your viva gets closer there’s a place for thinking small too.

Biased

How do you know your approach is a good one?

Is there only one way of interpreting your results?

Through years of study and focus, have you found one way of doing something, and now you only see that way of doing it?

Check your biases before the viva. Ask for your supervisor’s perspective. Ask if there were things that you discarded or which might be valuable. What have you ignored? What have you put to one side as you narrowed your focus?

You’re not looking for problems for the sake of it. You’re building certainty in the way you’ve done things, by being sure that you’ve not done something one way simply because you’re used to thinking of it that way.

Don’t Go It Alone

You’re the only person who can answer your examiners’ questions in the viva. That’s true in the sense that it’s your viva but also in the sense that you might be the only person who could answer their questions. As with the rest of your PhD, it’s up to you alone to do the work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get help from others.

Tell colleagues you need them to listen, or you need to know about their viva, or that you want to ask a few questions about a topic they’re fluent in.

Tell your supervisor how they could continue to support you, or that you would like a mock, or that you want more feedback.

Tell your friends and family what the viva is, if they don’t know, and how they can help you.

For all of these groups, make it clear what you need and they’ll be more likely to help you get that. That starts with you being clear about what you need, and maybe why you need it.

Need help? Just ask.

The Weakest Parts

I think everyone, if they look, will find things in their thesis that they think are weak.

When they find them, they’ll feel bad and start to worry.

If this is you, you’ve found something and are worried, please reflect on the following three points:

  • First, it’s probably not as bad as you think. In wanting to succeed in your PhD, and wanting your thesis to be the best it can be, you’ve aimed for perfection and missed. Perfect is impossible.
  • Second, something that’s “weak” doesn’t just happen. There are reasons. List them, then interrogate them. Why did it turn out this way? What’s the cause? What could you do about it if you had more time/resources/interest and so on?
  • Third, weak is relative. If your thesis was all weak, you wouldn’t have made it to submission. You see something missing because you see what’s around it. You see something as weak because of strengths of your research.

Don’t ignore the weakest parts of your work, but try not to make them the biggest focus of your viva preparations either.

Asking The Literature

When the viva is coming up you’ll want to be sure of your methods.

Can you defend them? How did you arrive at them? Were they the only way to tackle the problem?

You’ll want to get your head clear on your conclusions too.

What are they? What do they mean? Why do they matter?

Maybe you’ll want to spend some time reflecting on what else you or someone could do with your thesis as inspiration.

How could you follow up this work? Who do you hope will be influenced? What’s your dream for how someone would take this forward?

These are all good questions that focus on your research – but spare a few questions for your literature review and bibliography. Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it didn’t appear from nowhere. What were the most helpful references that influenced your methods? How did your reading support your conclusions? What does the literature tell you about the way your discipline is evolving?

Changing your perspective is useful. Different questions and perspectives can help prompt different reflections. You can probably find something interesting and valuable by thinking about where your work has come from.

Take some time before the viva to reflect on the literature that helped you complete your thesis.

Mocks Aren’t Magic

A mock viva is not a silver bullet that will solve all of your nervous feelings about the viva.

What are you looking for from your viva preparations?

  • Confidence?
  • A better picture of how you see your work?
  • A clearer understanding of what the viva is like?
  • Opportunities to practise?
  • Opportunities to think and get your head straight?
  • A chance to check your own talents?

If you know what you’re looking for, you can think about how you might find it. And while it’s not a magic solution that solves everything, when you think about what it can do, a mock viva could help with all of the above.

A mock viva is not a silver bullet, but maybe it’s good enough that we can think of it as a bronze arrow?