Enjoy, Endure, Engage

I’d like to think that most people could enjoy their viva, but I know that some won’t.

I know most candidates won’t feel like they simply have to endure their viva, but sadly, some will.

More and more I think the best advice I can give to all candidates is to engage with their viva.

Engage with their preparations. Be active and take charge of how they feel and what they need to do.

Engage with their examiners and their questions. Don’t worry about going blank or forgetting. Instead, think about what they can do to best respond in the viva.

Engage with this great opportunity to discuss the valuable work they’ve done.

I hope you enjoy your viva, I hope it’s not a case of enduring it.

Remember that you get to control how you engage with your viva.

General, Knowledge

The viva isn’t just a big quiz.

Questions could be big. Questions can be about more than what’s in your thesis, but your examiners have more useful things to do than test you on your the general knowledge of your field.

Yes, you need to know about more than what’s in your thesis. No, you don’t have to know everything (remember, you can’t know everything).

(remember, your examiners don’t know everything either)

You know a lot. You needed to, in order to complete your thesis. Most of your examiners’ questions aren’t testing your memory. They want to see how you think. How do you think about your work? How do you think about your field? Knowing things about both is useful, but they know you can’t know everything. What you know will be enough.

The viva is lots of big questions, but not a big quiz.

Standards

There isn’t a standard viva format.

There are reasonable expectations, but no guarantees.

Probable durations, but very long and very short outliers.

A range of possible first questions, but no certainty for the exact start of your viva.

There’s no standard format, but there are standards: standards for your examiners, standards for the process, standards for what a good thesis might be like.

Be confident that you meet the standard for a good, talented researcher.

Being SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are an important part of your viva. Spend some of your viva preparation time exploring who they are and what they do. Check their recent publications to get a sense of their research but you don’t need to know everything. Setting a SMART objective to have a clear goal for your efforts is helpful so you don’t stress about needing to do more and more.

  • Specific: What are you trying to learn? What sources will you consider?
  • Measurable: How much work are you going to do? How will you know when you’re done?
  • Advantages: What will you gain by doing this? How are you hoping to feel?
  • Realistic: How many papers are you aiming to read? What makes you think that is enough?
  • Time-bound: What is your deadline? How far in advance of your viva would it be useful to have this task completed?

Just a little planning can make a tricky task manageable. Decide in advance how much prep is enough.

Confidence Tests

Confidence takes time and experimentation. There isn’t a set process. Rather than press a button to start an engine, we have to think of it as turning dials and pulling levers on a great, glorious machine. Try something, then check gauges to see the responses.

This is true generally in terms of building or priming confidence, and works too for building confidence for the viva.

  • Read your thesis in preparation. How do you feel now?
  • Select some clothes for the viva. What might help you feel your best?
  • Learn about your examiners. How does that help you feel?
  • Find two songs that get you feeling great. Which one works best?
  • Reflect on your past successes. Which ones stand out and help most?

You can’t flip a switch to turn on your confidence. You can try lots of things to find it though. Look for the things that help you be at your best, and shine a light on your PhD to help you see the reasons you will pass the viva.

7 Things Not To Do During Viva Prep

There are lots of things you could do. Here are seven things I think it’s best to avoid.

  1. Don’t look for typos obsessively.
  2. Don’t read your thesis passively.
  3. Don’t read the entire publication history for your examiners.
  4. Don’t treat your preparation like a chore.
  5. Don’t avoid prep that makes you nervous.
  6. Don’t do something just because someone told you it worked for them.
  7. Don’t create model answers for every question you can think of.

Some people say “don’t worry.”

I won’t. I don’t think it helps to worry, but it doesn’t help to get directed to not worry.

However, it is possible to distract yourself from worry by working towards being ready. And if you reflect on the negatives expressed above, you can find the positive actions you can take towards getting prepared.

Raid The Stationery Cupboard

There’s a lot you can do with only a few resources to prepare for your viva.

  • Pens and pencils can be used to add layers of information to your thesis. Underline typos consistently in one colour to make them easier to parse afterwards. Use pencil to add short notes in the margins.
  • Post-it Notes are great for marking out the starts of chapters and other important places. Longer notes that would be cramped in a margin can look great on a big Post-it; you can move them as needed afterwards too.
  • Use highlighters to selectively grab your attention. Chapter or section headings, important references or quotes – whatever you want to be able to see at a glance.
  • Get a small notebook to use as a viva preparation journal. Capture reflections, prompts, provocations, interesting questions.

There aren’t a lot of resources needed for viva preparation. Perhaps raid your department’s stationery cupboard before you take a trip to the local stationery shop!

The Details

You probably can’t commit your thesis to memory, getting every fine detail stored away somewhere.

But you could make lists of key places in your thesis where you can find useful information. You could make a couple of summary card prompts. You can highlight important sections with Post-it Notes. You could create a little index card with page numbers and helpful hints. You can do a lot to make your thesis clearer.

You don’t need to remember everything for the sake of the viva. Doing what you can to help your memory of the details will help your confidence.

8 Things You Need To Know About The Viva

I ask people at the start of Viva Survivor sessions what they need to know about the viva. I ask if they have gaps of knowledge, worries about what might happen or vague hypotheticals.

I’m happy to answer anything and everything that candidates want to talk about. Recently, a participant in a session turned the question around on me: what did I think people needed to know?

It’s a good question. Here’s my answer:

  1. The vast majority of candidates pass the viva. This doesn’t “just happen”…
  2. …candidates pass the viva because of what they’ve done, what they know and what they can do. Perfection is not the goal or expectation. Candidates must necessarily be really good at what they do to get to submission and the viva.
  3. Examiners will be prepared, and that’s a good thing. They’ve read your thesis, made notes and thought a lot about questions; that’s far better than the alternative!
  4. Examiners may have challenging questions, but they ask them with respect for you and your work. They’re not there to interrogate or tear work apart. Questions can be challenging, but that’s due to the nature and standard of the research involved.
  5. There are broad expectations for what the viva is like. These aren’t secret.
  6. Most candidates get some form of corrections. You probably will too. Examiners recommend them to help make the best possible thesis submission.
  7. The viva can be prepared for. You can’t anticipate and have model answers for every question, but by preparing well you can be ready and confident to answer any question that comes up.
  8. The viva might be the final test, but it’s not the only test. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your PhD: the viva is not the only milestone you’ve passed. You’ve consistently applied yourself and achieved. The viva is one more time you have to meet the standard.

And that’s what I think candidates need to know about the viva.

Waiting

There isn’t a perfect time to start preparing for the viva. You don’t really need to start until after you’ve submitted; apart from that you have to think sensibly about your priorities. How you can add this work to your other commitments?

If you think you can manage all the things you need to do in two weeks, that’s fine. Need a month to space things out? No problem.

But… If you’re not sure, if you’re just leaving things for a while… If you’re waiting for the right time… What are you waiting for?

What’s going to be different? What will make next week better than now?

There’s no danger you might be overprepared if you do something now rather than save it for later.

Far better not to wait, start well, than to leave it and rush.