Constrained

There’s no best, one-size-fits-all plan for viva prep. You have to explore what works for you, and if you’re busy that could feel quite stressful.

This blog contains lots of ideas for what might help someone get ready. How do you plan all that out? You explore by applying constraints to see what could work.

  • What if you started your prep four weeks before your viva?
  • What if you could only prepare for thirty minutes per day?
  • What if you used your Saturday mornings?
  • What if you thought it would take twenty hours?
  • What if you had a list of tasks or goals first?
  • What if you assumed a start or finish date for your prep work?

Exploring just a few constraints can help you arrive at sensible options for getting the work done.

Stop stressing about how it will all get done. Start exploring with useful constraints that will help you be finished.

No Plans

It’s a public holiday in the UK. Unless your viva is 9am tomorrow you’re probably safe to relax for a day.

Rest. Take today for you.

Don’t read your thesis, scribble in margins, chat with your supervisor or look at one more paper.

Don’t make a big list of annotations to add to your thesis or commit your ten most valuable references to memory.

Don’t make a plan for the weeks leading up to your viva and what you might do over that period.

Rest is as important as all the reading, writing and rehearsing for the viva. You might need to do some or all of the things above in preparation but you don’t need to do it today.

7 Questions To Explore Your Contribution

The topic of what makes your thesis a significant, original contribution is going to come up in your viva.

Your examiners are not going to simply ask “What makes your work significant? What makes it original?” Reflecting on different questions can help you be prepared to respond when the topic comes up with whatever questions your examiners use.

Think, write notes or talk with others about the following:

  1. Why is your thesis valuable?
  2. Who might use your work?
  3. How is your research different from what’s been done before?
  4. What makes your research topic interesting?
  5. How would you summarise your contribution?
  6. How is your research special?
  7. Why did you want to explore this area?

Explore your contribution before the viva and you can be ready for exploring it in the viva.

Sensible Prep

Getting ready for the viva involves big pieces of work and little tasks.

It could feel like there’s lots to do, maybe even too much, especially if you have other responsibilities. Start the process by getting everything out from your brain and onto a space you can track.

Write a list. Jot things down on a whiteboard. Start a new document and type anything that comes to mind.

Once you think you’ve got everything out, try to put some order in place. What comes first? What goes last? How could you fit this jigsaw of jobs together?

It’s possible to get ready for the viva by simply doing something productive for an hour per day for enough days.

It’s sensible to get ready for the viva by thinking a little, planning a little and then getting to work.

Where Are You?

I like asking this question at the start of a webinar. It’s fun to see whether people are in their university’s city or nearby, perhaps in another country or – in some cases – half the world away. It’s a gentle starter question before I ask about research or feelings, expectations and fears.

When you are trying to help a friend, you could start with the same question even if you have a different intent:

  • Where are you? As in, where on your PhD journey?
  • Where are you? As in, how far along are your preparations?
  • Where are you? As in, where’s your head at?

If you want to help, be gentle with your questions. Your friends might need help but not know how to ask or know what they need exactly. “Where are you?” starts a conversation and gives room for someone to respond.

If you think your friend might need help, ask where they are and then go join them.

Reach Out

If your viva is coming up, ask your friends, your colleagues and your supervisor for help. Think about what you need, think about when might be the right time to ask, be specific – but ask. They would want to help.

If you know someone with a viva coming up, get in touch with them. Are they OK? Instead of asking them what they need, offer what you can do. Be clear about how free you are and what you feel able to do.

Every candidate has to pass the viva with their own talent and thesis – but every candidate can also get ready with a helpful band of allies to get them there. Reach out and ask for help, or reach out and offer it.

Part-time Prep

Generally speaking, a candidate doesn’t need to take time off in order to get ready. If you have any typical responsibilities – a job, family, friends, caring responsibilities or your own needs – then viva prep can fit around everything you need to do.

If you feel pressured because you work full-time and have a life as well, then the only thing you need to do to get ready is plan and possibly start early. You don’t need to cram lots of things in your diary. A little organisation will help.

  • How could you find thirty minutes to an hour most days for viva prep?
  • If you can’t commit to most days, when could you make the time?
  • Would starting a month before the viva give you time to spread out the work you need to do?
  • Would that create a space with as little stress as possible to do what you need?

Prep is part-time. By submission there’s only a small amount of work needed to be done. If you have a full-time life there is still plenty of space for prep. A little planning and organisation helps make it less stressful.

What Would You Change?

It’s possible that your examiners would ask about changes to your research. Not what you could, would or might do to make things “better”, simply given your experience, what would you change?

It’s not a trick or a trap. The question is another way of exploring “what have you learned from the process of doing research?” They’re asking you to demonstrate how far you’ve come, not to showcase what is wrong with your work.

Reflecting on changes could be helpful in your preparation. It can help to make you more certain of what you did. You can be more confident of what you have learned. And before you meet your examiners in the viva it can help you to realise just how far you have come.

The Possibility of Disruption

Most of the time viva prep goes well. Most of the time nothing goes wrong in the viva. Despite concerns, most video vivas have no real problems.

But there’s always a chance that something could happen. Not unexpected, just unlikely, and definitely unwelcome.

  • A last-minute crisis leaves you less time to get ready.
  • A delay on your viva day means someone is running late.
  • A glitch means you can’t see your examiner or they can’t see you.

There’s a chance something could go wrong; whatever that might be you can work to make it better.

And sometimes it’s worth planning just in case the unlikely happens.

  • Sketch a plan for your prep so there’s space for last-minute crises.
  • On viva day, be organised so there’s much less chance you’re late.
  • Practise with your equipment and check your wi-fi so you can be confident it will all work – and arrange a backup plan!

There’s a possibility of disruption to your best laid plans around your viva. But you can do something about it. Either by planning ahead of time or acting when the moment comes, you can make sure your viva is the best it can be.

If something goes a little wrong, pause – be shocked, frustrated, cross – then think “what can I do?”

A More Considered Goal

Tim Ferriss, one of my favourite writers and podcasters, has introduced me to a number of vision and goal-setting tools over the last decade or so. A really helpful one springs from the observation that you very rarely need to be a millionaire to be content. Sometimes people set wildly unachievable goals, thinking that will help them to be happy – “If I was a millionaire I could do whatever I want!” – and then fail and are miserable because it’s hard to be a millionaire.

But if you wanted a nice car, a big TV or a holiday you could work out how much you would need – and it would be a lot less than a million pounds. Then perhaps you could start to work towards really getting what you want.

I remember in my PhD that I was banging my head against my desk for a week trying to solve a problem that I needed for a piece of a maths proof – before realising that I didn’t need to answer that problem at all! I was aiming for the greatest version of that result, when what I needed was much simpler. Realising this, I found what I needed in minutes.

(and ten minutes later, realised that applying the simpler result could help show the larger one!)

Sometimes PhD candidates set themselves up for heartache and misery in their viva preparations because they think they have to be exceptional in everything at all times. They must know their bibliography back to front, have memorised their thesis and be almost-precognitive in their ability to anticipate their examiners’ questions.

None of these things are needed. Have you got a thesis? Have you made a contribution? Have you worked hard and been dedicated for the years you’ve worked towards your PhD? Can you take a little time to get ready? Then you’re good.

You don’t need to be a millionaire to be content. You don’t need perfection to pass your viva.

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