Needing A Mock

You don’t need a mock viva. You need practice for the viva, a rehearsal space to think and respond like you might do in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just one of the ways that you could rehearse.

You don’t need a mock viva, it’s just supposed to be like a real viva, with substitute examiners who will be well-placed to ask you relevant, helpful questions to give you a sense of kind of discussion that arises in the viva. You don’t need a mock viva, there are lots of ways to get help, but given that it’s supposed to be like the viva it could be a really useful opportunity if you have the chance.

You don’t need a mock viva, you need to be ready: a mock is a means to an end, not the end itself. There are other things you could do that would help.

But if you have the chance, a mock viva could be exactly what you need. A small, self-contained piece of preparation. A boost to confidence, to awareness, to expectations. A chance to rehearse and build. A chance to get ready.

You don’t need it. But it might help a lot if you have it.

Do Less

Viva prep is less.

Less reading than when you were researching.

Less writing than when you were writing up.

Less thinking than when you were figuring things out.

The viva is a fraction of the time you’ll spend on getting ready, and viva prep is a vanishingly small period compared to the months you’ll put into your PhD. Perspective matters. You need to get ready for the viva, but the real work that helps you pass has already been done.

Move Past Mistakes

Typos catch the eye. Muddled words bring distraction. Mistakes do matter, but for the most part only because they’ll be one more thing on the list of corrections.

When you see them during your prep – because it is when rather than if for the majority of candidates – make a note in a useful way for you, then move past them. Focus on what matters more. Focus on the stuff that your examiners will really want to talk about: your contribution, your choices, your knowledge and what makes you a capable researcher.

Contribution matters more than corrections.

Ten 5-Minute Viva Prep Tasks

A half-hour or hour of viva prep doesn’t have to be spent with your eyes glued to the pages of your thesis. Yes, you need to read, and yes you need to spend time on slightly longer, considered tasks – but short activities can be useful too. A few five-minute tasks spread between longer pieces of work can add to your sense of being ready.

Small things add up. Here are ten ideas for five-minute viva prep tasks:

  1. Reflect on a key reference for your thesis and write a paragraph about why it helped your work.
  2. Think and write down three questions you’d like to ask your examiners (and make a note of why for each).
  3. Record yourself (either audio or video) responding to the question, “What are you most proud of in your research?”
  4. Write about a tricky challenge you overcame. Why was it tricky? How did you resolve the situation? What did that help you to do?
  5. Search through your thesis for five pages/points that are great; put a Post-it Note or bookmark with all of them so you can find them again with ease.
  6. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you not know about the viva process that you think would help?”
  7. Click the random Viva Survivors post link five times to get five random pieces of advice/help/perspective!
  8. Record yourself responding to the question, “What do you hope your examiners ask you about?”
  9. Make a list of five things you could do on the days leading up to your viva to help you feel confident.
  10. Take five minutes to listen to or watch one of the recording tasks from above.

More time-intensive tasks are required to build up your preparation for the viva. Smaller tasks help too. Think about how you can use your time well to increase your readiness for your viva.

(and contrast with 1-minute viva prep tasks!)

Viva Prep & Focus

Viva preparation helps you to change focus from the kind of work needed to get you to submission to the work needed to get you through the viva.

Is it ready, how much more, did I tweak that change that get it right…

Rush and overtime, a few more days, got to get it done get it done get it done done done

Prep, and the viva, require a slower pace. Nerves or anxiety come from the viva being important: rushing, continuing to try and get everything “right” is only going to compound nerves.

Use your viva prep time to change your focus. Slow down. Take your time. Read your thesis, make some notes, practise a little, remind yourself of your accomplishments and abilities.

Change your focus from rush to ready.

More More More

I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day life of my pure maths PhD now. I remember little sparks, breakthroughs, and the feeling of being “in the zone” while trying to figure something out.

I also remember, as my PhD went on, the growing feeling that there was always more I could do.

There were more ways to apply the ideas I had developed.

There were more papers to read to find more methods for exploring my field.

There were more questions to ask, and more answers to be found – more to explore.

Even though of course there was a limit to how much I could accomplish throughout my PhD, there would always be more things I could do. And in preparation for my viva, while I invested a lot of time, I could have done even more. I could have spent thirty minutes more each day, an extra day of reading papers or an afternoon checking over the details of a chapter.

I think this generalises further: even with time pressures, life pressures and so on, candidates have to recognise that there will be more things they could explore or do than they have done; however much time they spend getting ready there will be more that they could do which would help them.

And we all have to take a deep breath at some point and say “No. This is enough.” You have to find a way to do that for your research and your thesis. For your viva prep, making a list in advance of what needs to be done could be helpful. Break down what will be enough for getting ready, then work towards it.

There is always going to be more, and there also has to be enough.

Thoughts on Sustainable Prep

Getting ready for the viva is far more productive and beneficial if it’s done in a sustainable way.

  • Don’t sit down to get ready when you’re already tired.
  • Don’t sit down in a space that isn’t right for you, where prep is going to be a struggle.
  • Don’t leave it all to the last minute so that you have extra pressures.

You can’t exhaust your personal resources and work well in an environment that adds pressures to you. That’s no way to get ready.

  • How can you get ready at a time that works well for you? When might that be?
  • Where can you prepare well? What might you need to do to prepare that space?
  • How do you need to plan your preparation so that it’s not a rush? When do you need to start?

Prep will take anywhere from a few weeks to a month. Invest a little thought into how you are going to do that to look after yourself, as well as considering what exactly you will do to get ready.

The Control Room

You can’t control how long your viva will be. Or what question you’ll be asked first. Or what parts your examiners do or don’t like. Or how they express themselves or pose their questions to you.

You can’t control the flow of the viva. Knowing which questions commonly come up won’t mean you can control if they’ll be asked to you. You can’t control whether or not a response to a question will be satisfactory. You can’t control if your examiners agree with you on a methodological point. You can’t control whether or not they are going to ask that one question which you dread being asked.

But you can control how you prepare.

You can control what you do to get ready.

You can control how you start your viva day.

You can make choices to help lead you in the direction of confidence for your viva.

Keysheet

Because cheatsheet sounds a bit wrong, how about you make a keysheet for your PhD? One page capturing all the things you need to know.

Success in the viva is more than rote memorisation of details, but there are some that are worth seeking out and listing. A little search before the viva, either through your thesis or through your memory, can give you a helpful boost. You can be confident the important facts are filed away where they need to be. Facts like:

  • a short list of the most important references in your bibliography;
  • a one-paragraph summary of what your thesis is about;
  • a few details about each of your examiners’ interests;
  • several key questions you’ve explored in your work;
  • a list of the contribution(s) that your research makes to your field;
  • the talents you have developed over the course of your PhD.

Don’t forget the last one, whatever else you add to this single page. It’s important to remind yourself of how you’ve been able to achieve everything.

It’s not a cheatsheet, because you didn’t cheat. A keysheet captures the essential components of your thesis and research.

Like you.

Three Questions To Reflect On

First: What question do you hope your examiners don’t ask in the viva?

Second: …whatever the question was that you thought of in response to the question above!

Third: Since you can’t do anything to prevent the question from potentially being asked in the viva, what can you do before the viva to help you be in a better position to respond?

 

And a fourth bonus question: more generally, what can you do to put yourself in a good position for your viva?