The Least I Can Do

There are lots of things that could get in the way of preparing.

You’re busy or you’re bothered, you feel stressed or worried…

What’s the smallest meaningful thing you could do? Even if you’re busy or something’s getting in the way, what could you do that would take five minutes and make a difference? Two minutes? One minute?

Why not…

  • Read a page of your thesis.
  • Add a bookmark.
  • Stick a Post-it in your journal saying what you need to do next when you get a moment.
  • Write down a question that occurs to you.
  • Summarise your contribution, even if you’ve done it many times before.
  • Google your examiners and save their staff pages for later.
  • Pencil in half an hour in your diary for when you will do some prep.
  • Download “The tiny book of viva prep” to print and fold later!
  • Print and fold “The tiny book of viva prep”! 😉

Viva preparation takes time; usually thirty minutes to an hour at a time is good for considered thinking or work. But little things add up too. If you find yourself short on time, short on patience, short on confidence, just ask yourself, “What’s the least I could do?”

What small thing could you do, even if it takes only a moment, that would make a difference overall?

Solve The Right Problem

Early last year, I was sharing my Viva Survivor session to a dozen people in large room. It was a cold day outside but a warm room thanks to the heating. The session got off to a good start after introductions and sharing the outline, and I was moving on to the first topic.

I’d not been talking for long, when a tremendous noise started up from the windows at the far side of the room. Really loud, regular banging, like construction workers fixing scaffolding. After a minute we all realised it couldn’t be that, it was going on for too long. So we looked around outside for the cause of this terrible banging but couldn’t see anything. With nothing in sight and nothing to do we just tried to ignore it.

I presented for another hour before our break. The noise was still going. My voice was hoarse and all our ears were aching.

So I went to check and couldn’t see anything again. And it was only then that I realised that the noise sounded like it was coming from outside…

…but was actually coming from near the windows. From the radiator. A regular banging noise was vibrating outwards from the radiator, shaking the metal window frames.

And was silenced by turning a valve on the base of the radiator’s pipework. The room laughed and cheered! Then we all groaned as we saw how simple the solution had been; we could only have resolved it when we knew the real problem.

Keep this in mind for your viva: if your examiners have a criticism, or think there is a problem, make sure you know what it is before you start to respond. Ask questions to get more information or to find out their reasons. Sometimes you might know what to do. But other times you might need a little more to then simply turn the valve off at the base of their concerns.

The viva isn’t a one-way Q&A. Engage with your examiners to respond to all of their questions as well as you can.

The Best Of The Best

It’s awards season. Great movies, shows, actors, directors, writers are all in competition. Five great people are up for this award, who will win?! Ten movies could all get that award – except, they can’t, only one can. Not just the best, but the best of the best.

Of course, PhD candidates don’t compete that way, not for their viva, not for their PhD, but language and mindset creep in.

You have to be better than good, better than great, you have to be perfect, you can’t make mistakes, you can’t go blank, you can’t slip up, you have to be better than anyone else!!!

To which I say, simply: no.

For the viva, for your PhD, you only have to be good. You have to be your best. Everything else is doubt and worry. We can’t sweep it away by saying “don’t worry.” You don’t have to focus on it either. Be your best. Be as good as you’ve become by the end of your PhD. Keep going.

And eventually, cross the stage and claim your prize.

How You Feel

If you feel good about your viva, ask yourself, “Why?”

If you feel nervous about your viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel forgetful, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel excited, ask yourself “Why?”

Different emotions seem good or bad when you think about your viva. In all cases, unpick them a little. However you feel, think about what you need to do next. You may not be in total control of how you feel, but you can do something. You might not need to change anything, but maybe you can add to how you feel.

Good and ready.

Nervous, but confident.

Forgetful, but prepared.

Excited and grounded.

So how do you feel? Why? How could you add to that in a positive way?

Click Your Fingers

If you could click your fingers and make your viva better, what would you do?

  • CLICK! You don’t feel nervous!
  • CLICK! You have a perfect memory!
  • CLICK! Your examiners only have praise for you!
  • CLICK! You have a picture in your mind of the viva and it plays out that way!

Of course, none of these are realistic, but that doesn’t mean that the complete opposite is likely either!

Perfection is unattainable, but your efforts can help. You can’t click your fingers and feel no anxiety, but you can build your confidence. You can’t have perfect recall, but you can prepare with your thesis. You may not have ultra-nice examiners, but you can think about who they are and what they do – and explore how they might feel about your thesis. You can’t click your fingers and have your viva follow a script, but you can ask others about their experiences to guide your own expectations.

You can’t click your fingers and have your viva arrange itself according to your desires. But you can do a little work and steer it toward your preferences, whatever they may be.

Better Words

Being clear matters. Words help shape how we see and feel about things. Better words can help someone else understand what we mean, and can help us see things differently.

For example, in the last year I changed how I described one of the points in my viva prep session. I would talk about some of the help candidates could get from their supervisors after submission.

Previously I had said something about “…getting feedback after submission, not to resolve problems, but more feedback so that you can see what your supervisors think about the whole thesis and PhD journey, what their take is…” and so on.

I would see candidates understand eventually, but also see it took a while for people to get it. The notion of “feedback” was complicated; when someone hears feedback they expect that they would then have to make changes, but that’s not possible after submission.

The message was getting through, but it wasn’t as good as it could be – it wasn’t as clear as it needed to be.

After a few months’ reflection I changed my message. I now tell candidates they can help themselves by getting their supervisor to “…share their perspective on your work; what strengths do they see? How might someone do things differently?” And I use these words deliberately to emphasise that it is just seeking opinions rather than judgements, perspectives rather than feedback.

Over to you! What words could you use to better explain your research? How could you better describe how you feel about your viva? How could you help others understand your thesis contribution?

Reflect and think about the words you choose to use. How could you make them better?

Ask For Understanding

Friends and family members may not get it. “Viva?” they’ll say, “What’s that?”

While academic friends can offer tangible preparation with your thesis, friends and family can offer emotional support. They can offer space for you to get ready after a busy day. They could take on responsibilities to give you time to prepare.

But since they may not know what a viva is, or comprehend your research and struggles, you have to ask them for their understanding. If they haven’t known what you do for years, what can you tell them now to help them get the nature of the challenges ahead?

If you can help them see what you’re going through, they can help you get through it.

Bringing Prep Ideas Together

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography – a list of the most important references in your thesis’ bibliography – as a means to focus on what really matters and helps shape your work.

I like using Why-How-What – three simple starter questions – as a quick framework to explore ideas or frame a presentation.

Let’s put them together! First, create an edited bibliography, the top twenty or so references in your thesis. Consider the papers, books and sources that have helped you the most. Then, take a few minutes to explore each of these references using Why-How-What:

  • Why was this reference so important?
  • How does it add to the work you’ve done?
  • What do you most need to remember?

What other questions or approaches could you use to explore the essential parts of your bibliography?

Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva

There are lots of reasons. Any one of the following might be enough:

  • You did the work.
  • You’re talented.
  • Your examiners are there to examine, not interrogate.
  • Vivas have expectations.
  • Examiners have responsibilities.
  • You can prepare for the viva…
  • …and you will have prepared for your viva. (right?!)
  • The viva isn’t a total mystery.
  • Of the three people in the room, you have the expertise when it comes to your thesis.
  • You have a history of rising to meet challenges.

Taken in combination, they paint an impressive picture for the outcome of your viva.

There are many more reasons you will pass your viva, specific to you, your thesis and your research journey. The many reasons you’ll pass align with reasons you could be confident about your performance in the viva.

You’ve not got this far by accident; you’ve not got this far by only showing up.

Everything? or Enough?

Have you done everything you could for your research and thesis? It’s almost impossible!

Have you done enough for your research and thesis? Probably, since most candidates do!

It helps to define “enough” before you try to decide if you’ve achieved it.

Similarly, you can’t do everything in preparation for your viva, but you can do enough. Figure out where you have gaps, where you need support, where others can help you, then work your way to being ready. Decide in advance on what you need to do before you get to work.

You can’t do everything, you can do enough.