A Short Viva

I’m asked about short vivas in almost every Viva Survivor session:

  • What can I do to have a short viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour?

They’re not from a place of not wanting to be in the viva. It’s just simple worry. Nerves and anxiety running wild. I don’t blame people for these questions, but they are the wrong questions to ask about the viva experience. There really isn’t much one could do to dictate the length of the viva, or steer examiners away from questions.

But what could you do?

You could prepare. You could practise. You could decide to engage with your examiners and do your best.

Maybe we could simply change our questions:

  • What can I do to have a short viva? What can I do to have a good viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions? How can I best engage with my examiners’ questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour? How can I prepare to be at my best however long the viva is?

So what will you do?


Explore Your Thesis With VIVA

I’ve shared my VIVA tool a few times: an acronym for exploring your thesis chapter by chapter as a valuable viva preparation. My quick directions for someone to try this would be to divide a sheet into four sections, and then use a series of prompts to reflect:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the research?
  • Vague (or unclear): what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask (your examiners): what would you like to ask your examiners?

I’ve mentioned before that this is a good starting point for reflection. One could dig quite deep using the tool. These four areas cover a lot of ground in preparation too. There are other necessary things a candidate would need to explore – who their examiners are, checking recent literature, exploring how their research connects to the wider field – but even that last point might be explored a little by considering what is Valuable (to others).

If you are preparing for your viva, I’d encourage you to try VIVA to start your reflections and summary creation.

Explore the content of your chapters with a little direction and see where that leads your preparations.

Start With Three Things

There’s a lot you can do to prepare for the viva – so much that at times it could feel overwhelming. Whatever you’re going to do, start with a limit of just three things to help you focus.

  • Ask your supervisor three questions to help you prepare – what would they be?
  • Put three bookmarks into your thesis – where would they go?
  • Check three papers you’ve referenced – which ones would they be?
  • Take three minutes to summarise your work – what would you say?
  • Think of three questions you would like to ask your examiners – what are they?

Three is just to start. You can invest more time, more questions, more effort after the first three, the most important three are done.

Words & Wonder

About eleven years ago, just after I finished my PhD and started to explore researcher development, I learned of the Sagan Series and the Feynman Series, two science engagement projects by Reid Gower. Through a combination of beautiful images, inspirational music and wonderful words by two great science communicators, these videos hooked into my brain. As I was starting on a path thinking about how to share things with others, this helped me to see that you had to do more than just say the words to communicate.

I saw just how important it is to choose your words carefully. You have to play, practise, listen… Maybe then you can find a way to connect.

Eleven years on, and when autumn arrives I think of these videos. I press play on my playlist and see what they make me think of today. Today they make me think about how one might inject a little wonder into your words. How will you choose your words for the viva? How could you frame your research to make it connect with your examiners and others?

Perhaps, more importantly, how could you describe it for yourself? Not to boast or brag or deceive yourself – how could you make your thesis feel even more wonderful and inspiring than it already has to be? And how might that help you?

Read More

Lucky Charms

If you need them, you need them. If you think they’ll help, you’ll feel bad if you don’t have them.

Rituals, routines, placebos, priming, good luck charms, special socks or magical music…

If this was your whole viva preparation then you’d probably be in trouble. But if you put in the work during your PhD, spend some time and effort preparing for the big day and finish by psyching yourself up with a playlist of special songs? Sounds like a plan.

For a big event like the viva, how you feel is as important to manage as what you know. Passing is not down to luck, but helping yourself to feel better with a lucky charm or helpful self-care can make the difference.

Confidence Is A Lot Like Research

They take time.

Confidence and research require evidence.

They can be inspiring and could lead you to new ideas.

Confidence and research are processes. Whatever you do today, might not be what helps tomorrow.

As a postgraduate researcher, your confidence is like your research: your responsibility. You have to take charge of it. To make it real you have to act and keep acting.

Make plans for your research, make plans for your confidence. Act to further your research, act to further your confidence.

7 Tips For A Viva Presentation

Presentations are not often requested by examiners to start the viva, but they can be a useful way to get things started. If your examiners ask for one they’re giving you a way to control the start of the viva, and hoping you can use it to start well.

Of course, you could still be nervous, as people often are when called to give a presentation. Here are some thoughts on what you could do to help your presentation:

  1. Think Why-How-What to give structure: Why did you do your research? How did you do it? What were the results? This can do a lot to frame a good presentation.
  2. Check to see if other candidates have given presentations. How long were they? What did they decide to include? Use this to help shape the depth and content you share.
  3. Ask your supervisors for their perspective. What are the key results or ideas you have to tell your examiners about?
  4. Decide on the format. Powerpoint or whiteboard? Prompts or script?
  5. Recycle! Do you have diagrams, slides or other material you have used before, that could be repurposed for this presentation? You don’t have to start from scratch.
  6. Practice! If your examiners are expecting a twenty minute overview, don’t show up with fifty slides you’ve not rehearsed.
  7. Remember this is all about giving you a good way to start the viva.

You might not be asked to give a presentation to start the discussion. Still, giving a presentation could be a valuable task in advance of your viva. Many of the things you would do to prepare a presentation will also serve you well as part of your viva preparation. Giving a presentation could also be a great confidence boost before the viva.

Who Are Your Examiners?

Once you know their names, check them out. It’s useful to check recent publications to get a sense of their own knowledge and research focus. It’s useful to follow that up with a look at their staff pages to see what else you can find out. What are their research interests? What teaching do they do?

It is also really useful to be aware of what they are like as people. Have you met them at conferences? What do you know about your internal? What do their students say?

Knowing their research may give you insight into questions they may have, but knowing about them helps create a picture that these are real people coming to talk to you. Not faceless strangers, unknowable and uncaring: they are humans like you.

Knowing a little about them can help your confidence a lot for the viva.

Seat Belts & Viva Prep

I got in a taxi a few weeks ago and the driver didn’t wear his seat belt.

Nothing bad happened, we didn’t have far to go, it wasn’t raining and the roads were quite clear…

But WOW! was I nervous!!!

Most cars don’t get into accidents. Most drivers pay attention properly and do what they need to. Wearing a seat belt, as helpful and vital to safety as it is, shouldn’t be needed. You do it because the consequences could be awful if you don’t.

Over a full-time PhD you could do 6000 hours of work. You build up talent, knowledge, instinct – all of which is helpful in the several hours you’ll be in the viva. But you still need to invest time before then, a small period of viva preparation, to be ready. The relatively small amount of work can make the difference in your viva.

It can help you do your best work on the day rather than face a stressful situation you’re unprepared for. Take the time to cover all the little things you need.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Your examiners will want to talk about the strengths of your work in the viva. They’re there to talk to you about your contribution. Spend time in your prep thinking about what makes your work strong. How is it new? How does it make a difference? What makes it good? Why does it matter?

Your examiners might want to explore weaknesses. They might want to unpick clumsy sentences that don’t express what you had hoped. They may want to ask about limitations. The potential for improving on your research could be a rewarding topic of conversation. What could you do differently? Are you sure you’re right? Why?

Spend a little time thinking about your weaknesses. Spend much more time reflecting on your strengths. The background assumption for the viva is there is something valuable in what you’ve done – be ready to talk about your strengths!