SMART Viva Prep

I’m a big fan of SMART, the acronym of criteria for effective goal-setting. There are various definitions; my personal flavour of SMART is Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve banged my head against a wall with a project, then realised it was because I wasn’t really defining what I was trying to do. SMART always brings me back on track.

Want to set a good plan in motion for your viva prep? Use SMART and the following questions to help frame your prep plans:

  • Specific: what exactly are you going to do? “Read my thesis” isn’t specific; read Chapters 2 and 3 is specific.
  • Measurable: how will you know when you’re done? It’s easy to keep going and going. What tells you to stop?
  • Advantages: why are you doing this? (hopefully easy in the context of viva prep!)
  • Realistic: is it do-able given your time and resources? It’s important not to try to squeeze too much in to a limited schedule.
  • Time-bound: how much time are you aiming to give to a task? And what will you do afterwards?

Being SMART will remove some of the challenges. You’ll still have to do the work, but you’re used to that by now. Plan your success.

Start

When is the best time to start viva prep? I don’t know, at least not for you.

I don’t know how long your thesis is, whether or not you have a partner or kids, whether or not you have a job, whether or not you’re applying for jobs. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about your prep already, how often you have presented at conferences, how comfortable you feel about answering questions about your research.

So I don’t know when you need to start preparing.

However, I do have some thoughts that might help you:

  • Take at least two weeks off after submission before you read your thesis again. You can then approach it with a fresh perspective.
  • Give yourself at least two weeks to prepare. You will feel better if you can take your time a little and spread out the work.
  • Block out a rough period in your diary when you think you will be preparing for the viva. It helps to visualise a project.
  • Think about what you want to do and estimate how long it might take. Then add 20%.
  • Look at the time period you blocked out and the tasks you want to do. Explore how you will break that up.
  • Ensure you make some time to practise answering questions alongside all the writing and thinking prep.

And: don’t stress about preparation. Think a little about what you need, take steps toward getting it done.

One Percent

What could you do to make your preparation for the viva better by 1%?

There’s a really great story and idea behind the aggregation of marginal gains (see here) but simply: small changes can add up to huge improvements. You don’t have to make a single massive difference, lots of small differences could be just as powerful. If you wanted to make a 1% difference to your viva prep, what could you do? What tools would you need? What questions could you ask? How big a change would you have to make in order to see huge improvements?

Some 1% ideas from me:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter. This will take two minutes but will make chapters and pages easier to find.
  • Use a sheet of paper to cover pages as you read through during prep. You won’t skim or skip sections, and will read everything.
  • Ask friends to surprise you with questions about your research. You’ll grow to feel more comfortable with unexpected questions.
  • Practise pausing before you answer a question. You’ll feel more confident about that small silence.

1% improvements add up. They don’t have to have huge time or opportunity costs to implement. What else could you do?

Enough

I felt like I had done enough viva preparation when I went to bed on the evening of June 1st 2008. I’d read my thesis. I’d made notes. I’d dug out all of the papers I thought were useful. I had packed my bag – including two textbooks just in case – and rehearsed my slides for my presentation. I was ready. I had everything I needed. I’d had plenty of time to get to that point.

I’d even packed a bottle of water and two chocolate bars in my bag. Prepared.

The next morning, viva day, I got to the university and went straight to my supervisor’s office. Knock-knock, “Hugh, can I just check, when we talk about genus 2 handlebodies, they’re…”

If you keep thinking, if you keep going, you’ll always find more. More things to do. More questions to ask. More things to check up on with your supervisor.

Enough for me was being able to find things in my thesis, being sure of my proofs, being clear in my mind about the results I’d got – and having everything I thought I needed in my bag the night before.

What does enough look like for you? Think about it, make some decisions. Make a plan. Now you know what you have to do to get to “enough”.

Opposites

What would the opposite of good viva preparation look like? I asked this question in my first book, Fail Your Viva – which, incidentally, has pretty good reviews on Amazon – but if you want the short version, here it is:

  • Never read your thesis.
  • Never ask for help.
  • Ignore any thoughts about possible questions.
  • Don’t have any kind of practise.
  • Basically do nothing.

Going right off the deep end: burn your thesis, trash the backups, pile your desk and bookshelf contents into a box and drive to a landfill. Decide not to turn up.

So: if that’s the opposite of good viva prep, what are you going to do?

A Viva Alphabet

There’s lots and lots to unpack about the viva. Questions, answers, preparation, people, the PhD process, research, confidence and so much more! We can’t cover everything in one post, but what can we do…? How about the following: aspects of the viva and questions that could be helpful.

  • A is for Advice: take advice from anyone who can help. Who could give you great advice about the viva?
  • B is for Better: this is you at the end of the PhD. In what ways have you improved over the last few years?
  • C is for Confidence: it’s OK to feel nervous, but it’s right to feel good about your work. What can you do to build up your confidence?
  • D is for Defence: an alternate name for the viva. Are you ready to defend your choices?
  • E is for Examiners: they’ll be ready for the viva. What are you doing to get ready?
  • F is for Failure: it’s a remote possibility but a persistent thought. What can you do to push it aside?
  • G is for Good: there’s a lot of good stuff in your thesis (or you wouldn’t be where you are). What three things jump out when you think about it now?
  • H is for Help: ask for what you need. So… What do you need?
  • I is for I-Don’t-Know: it’s fine to say this in the viva. What do you feel uncertain about?
  • J is for Journey: it’s taken some time to get to where you are. How far have you come?
  • K is for Kit: every candidate needs to take their thesis, pen and paper and water. What else would be useful to you?
  • L is for Learning: you cannot get to the end of the PhD unchanged. What have you learned along the way?
  • M is for Minor: expect that you’ll have minor corrections because most people do. How will you fit them around everything else in your life that you have to do?
  • N is for Need: there’s lots of advice about what you “should” do to prepare, or “should” do or say in the viva. But what do you need to do to feel as confident as possible?
  • O is for Obstacles: there’s no chance that you finished without encountering problems. What obstacles have you overcome during your PhD?
  • P is for Preparation: success and confidence in the viva is not down to hope. What are you going to do to be prepared?
  • Q is for Questions: there are 1001+ things you could be asked in the viva. What questions have you been asked about your thesis?
  • R is for Research: this is how you got to where you are. So what have you done?
  • S is for Summaries: making summaries of your thesis is a good exercise and produces a valuable resource. What formats work for you?
  • T is for Thesis: you wrote a book! Congratulations – now what can you usefully add in annotations in preparation for the viva?
  • U is for Understanding: this is what you need from friends and family, as they might not know what the viva is about. How can you help them give this to you?
  • V is for Valuable: your thesis has to contain something of value. What do you think is valuable in your research?
  • W is for Why: the fundamental question. Why? (…did you do the research? …does it matter? …is it right?)
  • X marks the spot: some things in your thesis really are more valuable than others. When annotating how are you going to highlight them?
  • Y is for Yes: a celebratory yes!!! (what else did you think you might be saying at the end of the viva?)
  • Z is for Zzzzzzz: you could easily feel exhausted by the end of the viva. Or are you going out to celebrate? 🙂

Not the whole of the viva experience or viva preparation by any stretch, but we’ve covered a lot. What do you think? Any suggestions or substitutions?

Help Someone

If your viva’s not coming up yet, or it’s in the past, find someone to help. If you know someone who has their viva soon, or someone who is finishing their PhD, ask them what they need. Don’t assume that you have all the answers or the right way to do something. Check what they need first. Then see if you can meet those needs. If you can’t, see if you can figure out what else might help.

If you don’t need help, what can you do to help someone?

Friction

Google around and you’ll find lots of articles about problems with making positive changes. People don’t eat well because they don’t buy good foods. People don’t exercise because they don’t have an environment around them that supports exercise. People don’t practise with a hobby because they keep their materials shut up, and so on.

One way to get around this is to get rid of friction in the situations: actually buy healthy stuff, use books as free weights, keep your paints or guitar out where they’re in reach. Organise yourself so that you free up time to do what you want. Then you can’t rationalise your way out of doing what you need.

What are the sources of friction in your viva prep environment?

  • Is it having space, time and quiet? What can you do to address that? Who can help?
  • Do you need journal articles and certain knowledge? How are you going to get it?
  • Feel like you want the “right kind” of stationery to make notes or summaries? Where can you get what you need?

Once you get rid of the friction you can get to work. Without these kinds of friction you’ll work better too.

Who’s Who

For some time I’ve suggested that researchers make an edited bibliography as part of their viva prep. If you have 200 references, what are the 20 most important? Make a list and add a few details to each of them: which chapter they’re most important to, why, and so on.

Last month at a workshop in Leeds, a participant gave me a brilliant hack of this idea. Think about the main researchers you’ve included in your bibliography, or who are big names in your field. Make a list and write a couple of sentences for each to summarise their research or opinions. Creating the list helps you to think about your field, and afterwards you have a resource to refer to as you prepare for the viva.

Let’s Pretend

I am a huge fan of role-playing games. I love everything about them, from playing them to running them, investigating how they work and the kinds of play that they can produce. I have a side project as a role-playing game publisher, although my ambitions to date have been quite modest.

Anyway! One of the things I like most about them is the opportunity they give people to pretend to be someone else. You’re no longer a mild-mannered skills trainer, you’re a warrior-wizard with strange powers and a thirst for revenge! For a few hours you can step back from the real world and be someone else, somewhere else.

An element of role-playing could be really useful before the viva too. A mock viva is a kind of role-play, but there are other opportunities.

  • Imagine you’re an examiner. How do you read a thesis? What questions would come to mind?
  • Imagine you’re your supervisor. What advice would help a researcher? What could you do to help?
  • Imagine you’re one of your friends. Do you know what a viva is? What questions do you have for your friend? How can you help?
  • Imagine you’re you in the viva. How is it going? How are you feeling?
  • Imagine you’ve succeeded. How did you do it? What helped you pass the viva?

Some people act when they role-play; others just think and imagine. Try it out for yourself. Reflect on what questions or ideas come up, and see how they can help you be ready for the viva.