How serious do you need to be about your viva?

It’s an exam. You might think of it as the exam, but it’s still a test. People prepare for tests. They don’t, if they’re serious about them, just shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, que sera, sera!” But if they go too far the other way, think of it as life and death, then they get in the way of their preparations and their potential enjoyment.

You can look forward to it, people do. You can get ideas from the conversation, make new connections. You can do more than pass.

Your viva could be enjoyable!

So how serious do you need to be? Enough to motivate you to ask some questions – to reflect, to prepare, to think for yourself what you need – but not so much you treat it like a sign of the coming apocalypse.

A little serious then, not Serious.

The Second Question

I love delivering my Viva Survivor session, partly because it helps people, partly because I get to try new things and develop the session more every time, and partly because I’m always kept on my toes by questions from participants. Just before the summer someone asked me, “What’s the second question likely to be in the viva?”

It really made me think. What could I say as a useful answer? I can’t predict the second question, of course, no-one can, but I don’t think the person asking it thought that I could. So what might they be looking for? What might they need?

I said something like this:

It might be could you say more about your contribution? or who do you see your key influences as being? or that’s interesting, why do you say that?

It depends on the first question, the first answer, the thoughts and opinions of your examiners and a lot of other factors.

You can’t control all of these factors, and you can’t know what your first answer is until you experience your first question and then talk.

But whatever your second (or first or fifteenth) question is, remember that you’re well-placed to give a good answer.

You didn’t just appear in the viva. And it’s not just any viva: it’s your viva. You did the thinking. You did the work. You wrote the thesis.

You can answer the second (or first or fifteenth) question.

Three Challenges

Three challenges for the PhD candidate.

First Challenge: believing that you don’t need to have a photographic memory about everything connected with your research and your thesis. Your examiners don’t expect you to know every possible thing. They expect you to have done the work, done some prep and be a talented researcher in your field. You can show them this.

Second Challenge: recognising that the viva is not the hardest thing you will ever do, and not even the hardest thing you will do as part of your PhD. It’s a couple of hours, talking with experts about your work, and it matters, of course – but so does the thousands of hours of work that’s gone into producing your thesis.

Third Challenge: accepting that the viva, in most cases, is a reasonably enjoyable experience. Some vivas are tougher than others, with more difficult circumstances. It doesn’t follow that yours will be.

Notice that none of these challenges are faced in the viva exactly, but in the expectations for it. Rise to meet them and the viva itself will seem less worrying.