Can You Hear Me?

I’ve said those four words probably hundreds of times since the start of the pandemic and my shift to working from home.

For any webinar that I deliver I have to produce joining instructions way in advance. Then I check my slides and notes the day before (and on the day) to see what needs updating. I draft follow-up emails beforehand, do a quick run-through of key points, check all of the tech is working well and make sure I have my water bottle filled. I check I have my notes, I check if my wife is going to be home while I’m delivering the session. Then I get things going and finally I ask,

“Can you hear me?”

There’s a lot of really practical steps to delivering one of my sessions.

And I also write out an overview each time even though my notes are onscreen for me to see. I write out a five-point list of things to remember and focus me that is the same for every session. I listen to a short playlist of music that gives me energy and helps me to feel confident. I have a picture on my desk that my daughter made for me, and a small paperweight that is comforting to hold at times while I talk to everyone through the camera.

There’s a lot of really personal steps to delivering one of my sessions.

The practical steps are necessary because I couldn’t do the work at all without them. The personal steps are necessary because I wouldn’t feel like me and I couldn’t do the work as well without them.

Over the course of a PhD, a postgraduate researcher has to do the work. They have to do the research and practical steps that lead them to completion. But to feel right they also have to pay attention to the personal work that can help them feel confident about their ability.

 

For your viva, you have to have done the practical steps for your research and the personal steps for you and your confidence, just like I do for delivering a webinar.

Does that make sense? Can you hear me?

Best of Viva Survivors 2021: Viva Prep

It’s an established tradition at Viva Survivors that I finish each year by sharing a selection of posts before the New Year. Over the coming days I’ll share long posts, short posts and posts on confidence; today we start with the important topic of viva prep. In many ways viva prep isn’t complicated, but there are lots of ways someone could get ready for their viva. Here are some ideas:

Getting ready for the viva involves doing the work – but it doesn’t have to be a burden. Sketch a plan before prep time comes, spend time with your thesis, spend time on practice and you’ll be ready.

Tomorrow: a selection of some of my favourite long posts from this year!

Kind Prep

Bring a quality of kindness to your preparation for the viva.

Don’t overload yourself.

Don’t start late so that you put pressure on your work.

Don’t rush so that you can make the most of it.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Be kind to your future self by taking some time to plan what you need to do. Figure out a good start time. Don’t overwhelm your future self. Make a good space to work in and organise a good flow to get the work done.

Viva prep is work, but it shouldn’t be a chore. Be kind to yourself as you get ready.

Outcomes, Strategies & Tactics

There are desirable outcomes for viva prep but lots of paths that could lead to those outcomes. Strategy is an overall type of activity that helps a candidate; tactics are the many approaches that could help someone. Effectiveness depends on time available, the preferences of the candidate and many other factors.

For example, a desirable outcome for the viva is that a candidate has a clear enough picture of their research in their mind: not photographic recall, just a good feel for the flow of the work they’ve presented.

A simple strategy for this would be for a candidate to take time to read their thesis and refresh their memory. Possible tactics – again, influenced by different factors – could be to find an afternoon to read the thesis in one sitting. Or to read one chapter per evening. Or for a certain time each day. Or to focus on particular aspects in order.

When someone tells you a precise way to prepare it might not be right for you. They’re usually describing tactics that may help with good intentions. Behind the tactics will be a strategy that almost certainly will help, leading to an outcome that you need. If some tactics don’t sound quite right for you, then listen for the strategy.

If you know the strategy you need, consider what tactics will help you best. How will you organise yourself? What particular help do you need?

Joining Instructions

Since March 2020, for every session I’ve delivered, I’ve created a Zoom meeting, written up joining instructions for participants, been responsible for hosting the session and had to send all of the information through in plenty of time.

I’ve had to revise the terms of my joining instructions several times over the last eighteen months. I’ve been able to make them clearer, more engaging and also set out expectations for participants. Hopefully they arrive at my session knowing what to expect and what we will be doing more than when I first delivered a session over Zoom: I’ve learned a lot since then!

 

Reflecting on my changing life and work processes over the last two years has got me thinking about the “joining instructions” that are sent out for the viva. Not the links and logistics that will be arranged in the weeks leading up to a viva, but the signals and signposting in academic culture generally.

Why do so many candidates not know what to expect generally? Why do so many worry about the process when there are so many people passing the viva every year? Why do so many not have a clear picture of how to get ready or how to arrive on the day, with what mindset or approaches they could take?

In the absence of good joining instructions for the viva in academic culture, I would encourage you to write your own. Think about what you need to know. Think about who could help you. Think about what you will do in prep and what you will then do on the day. Consider how you will get ready for all of this.

Then write your own joining instructions: a checklist telling you what to find out for your viva, what to do and when to do it. You can do do what’s needed and be ready to join your viva on the day.

When-Where-Who

I use Why-How-What a lot to help candidates think about the significant, original contribution that they’ve made through their research.

Perhaps When-Where-Who, the other three basic questions are useful for unpicking viva prep:

  • When will you start your prep?
  • Where will you complete many of the tasks?
  • Who do you need to support you?

It’s useful to sketch out the timeline for doing the work. Prep is not a lot of work but it still needs planning so it doesn’t overwhelm. Finding a good space to work in is useful for having a productive environment. Knowing who you need to help you get ready is vital.

Journaling Prep

Keep a tiny journal for your prep. Every time you do something, add it to a growing list of what you’ve done in pursuit of being ready.

Lots of viva prep tasks don’t have a visible output: when you have read your thesis or a paper you only have a memory. When you talk with a friend there’s nothing physical to point so you can say, “I did it.”

So keep a little journal. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than recording what you did, when you did it, why you did it and how it helped.

Build the proof for yourself that you are getting ready for your viva.

7 Tiny Prep Steps

Viva prep is several big tasks and lots of little things. All together they can help a candidate move closer to feeling ready.

Here are some tiny things you could do to help yourself:

  1. Bookmark the start of each chapter.
  2. Google your external examiner.
  3. Check the regulations.
  4. Ask a friend to listen.
  5. Underline your typos (then leave them alone).
  6. Take a moment to outline your prep time.
  7. Write an encouraging note for yourself.

Lots of little steps move you towards where you need to be.

The Goal

Viva prep helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Learning about expectations helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Exploring who your examiners are (a little) helps you to feel ready for the viva.

Rehearsing the kind of work you will need to do in the viva helps you to feel ready for the viva.

All the various tasks are there to help you towards feeling ready.

But you don’t want to feel ready for your viva: you want to pass your viva.

That’s OK. Preparing will help you to pass, learning expectations will help, exploring your examiners and rehearsing all help you pass.

Except you don’t want to pass: you really want whatever you’re aiming towards after your PhD is complete.

The PhD is a goal, not the goal.

 

A few thoughts: can you do viva prep in such a way that it benefits your real goal? Can you organise your prep to leave space for working towards your real goal? And viva prep is easily defined, but have you clearly set out what you’re really working towards?

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.

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