A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Wants & Needs For The Viva

Wants and needs are two different things, but they can be easy to confuse.

  • You might want to submit a perfect thesis, but that’s impossible. So think, what does your thesis need to have?
  • You might want the best possible examiners, but they might be busy. What do you need in a good examiner?
  • You might want to be 100% free of nerves for the viva, but how likely is that? What do you need to do to be as ready as you can be?

As your PhD comes to a close, it’s not wrong to think through all the things you want – for your thesis, for your viva prep, for the viva itself – but make sure you ask yourself, “What do I really need to do this?”

Nerves Aren’t Nice…

…but they’re not a sign that something is wrong. Nerves are a signal you’re feeling stressed or excited or anxious about something. The physical and mental discomfort doesn’t mean you definitely have a problem.

There’s a strong correlation between recognising something as important and feeling nervous about it. If you experience nervousness around viva time, I think it’s because you recognise the viva is important.

I felt a bit nervous as my viva got close, not too bad thankfully. My coping strategy was to think about how I could make myself less nervous. I asked myself, “What could I do to feel better?” With hindsight, I wonder if a more useful question in situations might have been, “What can I do to do this important thing as well as I possibly can?”

You only have a finite amount of energy and attention to spend, and if you use it up trying to beat nerves you could miss the opportunity to focus on preparation.

My hunch is that investing time on prep – on doing the important thing well – will make you ready and less nervous.

Using “Plan, Do, Reflect, Review”

I’ve got a lot of help from remembering the Plan, Do, Reflect, Review cycle for projects and work over the last decade or so. I like to think of it simply as:

Make a plan, do the work, reflect on what happened and review what you learned from it all.

While you might use this process a lot during the PhD, it’s kind of lopsided when you apply it as a lens to the whole PhD experience. Making a plan and doing a work is most of the time, the reflection comes in towards the end as you finish writing up and start preparing for the viva. Then the review is the viva itself.

I’ve often written about the need to make a plan (even a small one!) for viva prep time, and you can’t prepare for the viva without doing some work, but it would be really wrong to leave out the other two points of reflect and review.

It’s not just what did you do? and what did you learn? Use that review to think about how you can be confident for the viva. What experiences have got you this far? How have the last few years developed your knowledge and talent?

And how will they help you to succeed in the viva?

No Rush

There’s no rush necessary in your viva preparations or in the viva UNLESS you make it that way.

Fail to think through what you need to do and you might make things pressured. Fail to prepare for how you’ll act on the day and you can feel that you need to blurt out answers and not think when you engage with your examiners. You don’t need to rush unless you create a situation where that’s the only thing left that you can do.

You have the responsibility, no-one else, but it doesn’t take a lot to live up to that responsibility.

Plan the weeks leading up to the viva. This doesn’t have to be hour-by-hour, just think about the kinds of tasks you’ll do and when you might do them. You can’t plan for every minute of the viva, but you can think about how you will react. Think about being in there. Think about being asked questions. Think about how you might respond.

And think about how, unhurried, you can present your best and most confident self on the day.

Answering New Questions

Every step of the PhD has new questions, from the first time you read a paper through to the end of your viva. Answers don’t always come immediately. They might take a little time and thought, or during the PhD real, practical research to bring an answer to life. Sometimes there are no answers: you can offer ideas, theories or reasons why no answer comes to mind.

New questions aren’t a problem by the end of the PhD. Questions can be unexpected, but your mechanism for answering – the knowledge, the talent, the skill at thinking things through – is the best it could be.

Any time you get one, a new question is an opportunity for demonstrating what you can do.

 

Isn’t One Viva Enough?

“Do I really need to have a mock?”

I get this question from nervous PhD candidates. They’re nervous about the actual viva and that carries through to any idea of a rehearsal. They’ve heard of mocks and all they can think is that it is one more thing to worry about.

No-one needs a mock viva in the way they need oxygen. You can get by without it. But there are good reasons to have one.

A mock viva can help bring a little confidence through practise. It’ll never be the same as the real one, but it allows you to be in a similar sort of space. Your supervisor might offer, but you should feel alright about asking. It’s a reasonable request to make. You’ll need to give a little notice to set it up, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Afterwards you’ll probably have some questions and answers to reflect on, but you’ll have a little more comfort for being in your real viva.

One viva is enough – but the mock isn’t a second viva. It’s a rehearsal, a practice, a sort-of-but-not-really-viva. Make the most of the opportunity if you have one.

The Big What If

Your thesis isn’t perfect. You’re not perfect. Your examiners aren’t perfect. Your viva won’t be perfect.

And all of that is fine. Remove the possibility. You can’t have something related to all of this be perfect, so try not to worry about it.

There are real worries related to the viva though. There are situations that could come up, hypothetically, and it’s not wrong to worry…

…but if you find yourself worrying about some big “what if” situation then you have to do the responsible thing and think about how to make the situation better.

  • What if I forget something? What could you do to help you remember?
  • What if your examiners don’t like something? How could you engage with their questions?
  • What if the viva is long? What could you do to manage your energy levels?
  • What if something in your thesis isn’t as clear as you want? How could you make it clear to your examiners in the viva?

What do you worry about? What is the big “what if” for you?

What are you going to do about it?

A Summary Of Summaries

Summarising your thesis or some aspect of it is useful. A summary helps you in two ways. First, through the act of creation: thinking about your work and then making something from those thoughts is a valuable reflection. Second, as a result, you have a resource you can use during your preparations for the viva.

A few considerations for how you might tailor this approach:

  • Use questions to direct your summary.
  • Decide in advance how much you are going to write, i.e., how many words? How many pages?
  • Follow your preferences for level of detail: what will be most useful to you?
  • Follow your preferences for what it will look like: bullet points, sentences or pictures?
  • Reflect on what gaps you might be trying to fill.

I’m keen on summaries as a helpful viva preparation tool. Take a look at similarly themed posts via this link. Explore what will be useful for you as you prepare for your viva.

New Resource: 7776 Mini-Vivas

I’ve wanted to make a viva-related game for a long time, but whenever I get close to an idea it always slides away while I’m thinking about it.

This is the closest I’ve got: a game-like resource for one or more people to help reflect on research and the thesis in advance of the viva.


Introduction

Want to have a Mini-Viva? That’s what I’m calling a short reflection on your research or practice for the viva using useful questions.

There are two main sections to this resource: The Questions and Ways To Play. I’ve organised five lists of six questions. All are either typical of questions that come up in vivas, or useful to reflect on in advance of the viva. The basic idea is to take one question from each list to create a Mini-Viva.

You could use a standard six-sided die or pick a number from 1 to 6 to choose from the lists in The Questions. I’ve included five Ways To Play, ideas on how to use this resource both by yourself and with other people. With five sets of questions and six choices for each there are 7776 Mini-Vivas possible – perhaps don’t do all of them during your preparations!

I hope you find this useful! Scroll to the end for some Final Thoughts on this resource.


The Questions

Question 1

  1. How would you define your thesis contribution?
  2. What are the three brightest parts of your research?
  3. Where did your research ideas come from?
  4. Why does your thesis contribution matter?
  5. What is your main research question?
  6. Why did you want to pursue your research?

Question 2

  1. How would you describe your methodology?
  2. How do you know that your methodology is valid?
  3. What influenced your methodology?
  4. Where did you find support in the existing research for your methods?
  5. How did your process change as you did your PhD?
  6. What did you learn about doing research?

Question 3

  1. What are the core papers that have guided you?
  2. How did your supervisor help shape your research?
  3. How does your work build on prior research?
  4. How is your work related to your examiners’ research?
  5. How did the existing literature in the field influence you?
  6. What were some of the challenges you overcame during your PhD?

Question 4

  1. How can you be sure of your conclusions?
  2. What are your main conclusions?
  3. Are there ways that your results differ from previous ideas?
  4. How would you summarise your main results?
  5. What comments or questions have you been asked about your work previously?
  6. What questions would you like to ask your examiners?

Question 5

  1. How could you develop this work further in the future?
  2. What do you hope others will take away from your thesis?
  3. What’s the impact of your work?
  4. What publications do you hope to produce?
  5. What are you taking away from your PhD?
  6. If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you keep the same?

Ways To Play

Solo, Pencil & Paper: Divide a sheet of paper into five sections. Roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate. Write each question into their appropriate space. Spend some time reflecting on each and then writing notes into each space.

Solo, Record & Reflect: Use an audio recording app or software to record your answers. Roll a 6-sided die for each question as you make the recording, so the question isn’t completely expected, or simply choose as you go. Spend as much time as you like answering each question. Leave the recording for a day or two, then listen back to it and reflect on your responses. See what you think about them now.

With A Little Help, Scripted: Divide a sheet of paper into five sections. Roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate. Write each question into their appropriate space. Give this to a friend to ask you the questions; ask them to make notes in each space. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.

With A Little Help, Unscripted: Give the question list to a friend. Ask them to roll a 6-sided die for each question or choose one that feels appropriate, without consulting you. Talk with them for each question they choose to ask you. Ask them to make notes if they’re happy. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.

With A Little Help, Freeform: Give the question list to a friend. Ask them to use the questions to steer a reflective conversation with the goal of helping you think and talk about your thesis research. Ask them to make notes if they’re happy; you might benefit from making notes as well. Afterwards have a chat about what you each think of the experience.


Final Thoughts

7776 Mini-Vivas is a work-in-progress, albeit one that I’m happy to share and for it to be shared. I think there’s a nice structure underneath this for short, useful practice and viva prep. Perhaps there’s a better way to arrange the information? Or maybe it’s clear as it is.

My near term plan is to create a separate page for this resource, possibly with some download-and-print pdfs, maybe even a folding Pocketmod edition like The tiny book of viva prep (see here). I have more ideas of what I might do with this resource – but I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas for other questions, other Ways To Play or ways to implement the resource. Do send me an email or tweet at me with your suggestions!

If you play with 7776 Mini-Vivas I really hope it’s useful 🙂