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?

Red Herrings

I love reading mystery stories. One of my favourite things is trying to figure out which clues are red herrings. What are the distractions? Which things don’t matter? What gets in the way of important things? It’s not always so easy to see.

It’s not always easy to see which things around the viva are red herrings either. Which things are distractions, and which things should you give attention to?

Hypotheticals are usually not worth your focus; reading your thesis is definitely something to prioritise. You can’t anticipate every question, it’s a distraction to try to – but a mock viva is worth your time so you have some practise at being in a viva-like situation. You can’t know how long your viva will be, so it’s not worth worrying about it; but you can find out about expectations generally to give you an idea.

Remember: you get to choose what you give your attention to. Figure out what the red herrings are, and focus instead on what’s worth your time.

If & Then

Hypothetical questions are a pain for PhD candidates thinking about their vivas.

If. If this happens, I’ll be stuck. If that happens, I won’t know what to do.

Except it’s not just if. There’s always a then. In worry, a candidate might not see it, but it’s always there. There is always a course of action. It might not be something you prefer. It might be tricky. It might be uncomfortable.

There is always something you can do.

  • If you find a typo, then you can correct it.
  • If you are forgetful, then you can write notes.
  • If you are worried about how to answer questions, then you can have a mock viva.
  • If you are concerned about your examiners, then you can research them.
  • If you aren’t sure about whether or not something is a normal part of the process, then you can check.

There are always hypothetical questions, and they always have actionable answers.

Wrong

There’s always a chance you’ve missed something. Not a typo, not a passage that needs editing, but something wrong. Maybe something that is a problem.

It’s a very small chance though. Long odds.

There’s a greater chance that your examiners THINK there is something wrong, or that you’ve not acknowledged something they feel is really important. They might be right, but it’s not a good idea to just accept what they say, or for you to put your head down and insist that you are right.

Instead: ask them why. Why do they think you’ve made a mistake? What are their reasons? What’s their thinking? Because you know your thinking. Once you have both pictures, you can start to see what the reality might be. What sounds like a mountain-high hurdle could be a tiny speed bump. After thinking and talking it through, it may not even be a problem.

There’s a chance that you’re wrong, but given how far you’ve come, it’s much more likely that you’re right or know the way to right. Show your examiners.