What Do You Believe?

Do you believe that vivas are scary, mysterious or to be feared?

Why? What has you concerned? What could you do to soften those concerns?

Do you believe your examiners are going to be harsh?

Why? What is it about them or about your thesis that makes you feel that? Do you have to accept that feeling, or could you do something about it?

Do you believe your viva is all determined by factors beyond your control?

Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reflect on why you’ve got to the viva stage of your PhD at all?

What do you believe about your viva and your PhD? What is helping you? What isn’t? It’s possible to reflect and change beliefs. Not always simply, not by pressing a button, flipping a switch or turning a dial towards something different. But consistent actions could help turn the dial a little, bit by bit, towards a more useful attitude.

Do you believe that you’ve got as far as you have by doing the work, becoming talented, becoming good enough?

If so, carry on. Keep going.

Telling Tales

If you tell yourself you’re lucky, you might come to think that you don’t deserve to pass your viva.

If you tell yourself there were things you could have done better, you might come to believe that your research isn’t that great.

If you tell yourself to be worried about your examiners, then you’ll probably build up your anxiety for the viva.

If you tell yourself that the viva’s all a bit of a mystery, then you’ll likely be afraid of what might happen.

Stories steer our reality. Personal expectations for the viva are influenced by the experiences that graduates and academics share, but these take root in the tales that we tell about ourselves. The tales you tell yourself about your progress, talent and imagined futures can dominate how you feel and act now.

So if you tell yourself you’re fortunate, you’ll know that you’ve found success through hard work.

If you tell yourself what worked well in your research, you’ll find a way to share that with others.

If you tell yourself that your examiners want to have a good discussion, then you’ll smile and thank them for their questions. (hopefully!)

And if you tell yourself that you’re talented, that you’ve not got this far by mistake or blind luck, then whatever you’re asked in the viva you can be confident you’ll rise to the challenge.

Story Focus

Your viva expectations are influenced by the stories you focus on.

  • If you focus only on one story, the latest story of viva success that you hear, for example, then your expectations could be quite narrow (even if they are positive).
  • If you focus only on one terrible story, a bad experience of a friend-of-a-friend, then you won’t hear something representative (and you’ll probably put a dent in your own confidence for the viva).
  • If you try to absorb all the stories you can you’ll probably find nothing to focus on! Instead you’ll have a general feeling that vivas are fine, but maybe less certainty about why.

To help yourself, ask a few people that you trust to share their experiences. Talk to your supervisor and other academics about the role and work of examiners. Find helpful common threads of viva stories to focus on.

And remember to focus on your story. How did you get this far? What did you do? What have you got that will help you to pass?

Problems & Opportunities

A problem is an opportunity in workclothes.

I love this phrase. It’s not always possible to remember the wisdom in it: it can be hard to find a solution when you’re stressed, or tired, or overwhelmed. Still, problems can be a great way to develop and to find value, and both reflection and forethought can be useful to stimulate ideas and problem-solving.

In your PhD, what did you learn because of the problems you faced?

When you had challenges, what solutions did you find?

In your prep, if you have only a little time, what could you focus on for the best outcome?

In your viva, if you were challenged, how could you rise to show your talent?

A problem is an opportunity in workclothes.

It’s not always possible to remember this, particularly if you find problems in your research. To begin with don’t sweep them away. Uncomfortable as it may be, sit with your problems, think about them. And then find the value that’s there.

What opportunities have your problems brought to you?

And what opportunities might you then find in the viva?

Perhaps an opportunity to show your talent. An opportunity to show what you learned. An opportunity to show why your research has value.

Check Your Story

Essential on April Fool’s Day, and equally important if your viva is coming up.

Think about the story you tell yourself (and others) about your research journey. How did you get where you are?

I was lucky…

…it just sort of happened…

…I happened to notice…

…I just worked at it…

Little word choices can become focal points of the story.

“I just worked at it,” doesn’t do justice to your story. You worked and you worked and you worked at it. You kept going. You learned, you developed. You didn’t simply notice something, you saw it because you were looking. Things don’t just happen, you created opportunities.

Check your story: make sure the words you use are true, of course, but tell the best version of the story that you can. One that others will listen to with interest, and one that will also help you feel you’re ready for your viva.

The Verdict

After my viva, after a short break in my office, my internal examiner came to collect me by saying, “Nathan, it’s time for your sentence,” as if I was a man in court on my way to see the judge.

He meant it as a joke, but it didn’t feel like a joke for a moment or two!

You can’t pick what words others might use to describe your viva. Maybe you prefer the result. The outcome? The verdict? The level of corrections? The ending?

You can’t pick what words others use, but you can help yourself by choosing yours. What words are helping you (or not) when you think about your viva?

Lying to yourself won’t help, but you can choose to think of passes and outcomes rather than corrections and verdicts.

And sentences!

Phrases That Don’t Help

You’ll hear them all the time around the viva.

  1. Don’t worry! – Stop it! All better now.
  2. Good luck – because the viva is all about luck, apparently…
  3. You’ll be fine! – see point 1!
  4. Just read your thesis – all you need to do before the viva, apparently…
  5. They always go well… – so don’t worry! And we’re back to point 1. Again.

I’m being very harsh. Anyone who says these to you is well-intentioned. They want their friend to succeed. They really do want you to be fine, they want your viva to go well and they want to reassure you that you’re talented.

The five phrases above are kind, but superficial. Far better to give a little more time, a little more detail. When it’s your turn, be a good friend with what you offer others:

  1. How are you feeling? How can I help?
  2. You’ve worked hard for this! Remember when…
  3. If you’re feeling nervous, why not…?
  4. Is there anything you need help with for your viva prep?
  5. Here’s what I’ve heard… Here’s why that sounds alright to me…

Check in with your friend. Don’t give shallow stock phrases but deep encouragements. They don’t need you to solve all their problems. They might need a few friendly nudges to help their confidence.

New And Improved

How would you advertise your research?

Do you have an exciting and original take on classic ideas?

Do you have a new and improved way of looking at things?

Is your work wholly original, never-before-seen concepts?

Advertising works. When we use different phrases to communicate a value, different parts of our brain focus. We listen more for details or we are channelled to look for certain information.

Soundbites won’t win the viva, but if you take the time to explore the words you use to frame your research, you’ll hopefully find helpful phrases to lead your thinking and others’ attention.

We Need To Talk About The Viva

We don’t talk about it enough.

One day in every UK PhD’s life that is shoved aside, joked about, under-analysed, glossed over and swept under the rug. Don’t think about it too much because you’ll worry or stress. Don’t ask about it because you might hear a story you don’t like the sound of. Don’t explore what happens in case you feel you’re not up to the task. Don’t tell anyone afterwards because it’s over and done with now.

We need to talk about the viva – and I mean “we” because I can’t do it by myself!

We need graduates to talk about how they were feeling: what their expectations were, what happened and what they think that means.

We need academics to talk about their role in the process: what do supervisors do to help and what do examiners do to examine?

We need candidates to talk about how they’re feeling about their viva: what they know, what they don’t and what kind of support they need.

In general we need to talk about the viva more than we’re doing so that we can do a better job of helping candidates realise that it is a manageable challenge in their future. Difficult but do-able, especially given what they’ve already accomplished.

Difficult Circumstances

“Viva Survivor” is catchy, but it can also sound a little negative to some ears. I checked the definition of survive a while back and was heartened to see a definition that matched my intent on using the phrase so widely: manage to keep going in difficult circumstances.

Most vivas are positive, engaging discussions that end well, but that doesn’t mean even the best viva doesn’t have difficult circumstances. Candidates are being examined on original work. For most candidates, this is the first time they have ever written a work of that length.

There are realistic expectations for the viva, but even so there is no predicting what will happen. It’s difficult to know what questions will be asked, what conclusions examiners might have, or even for a candidate to know how they might feel about the process as it happens.

The viva could be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it is an all-or-nothing challenge, or that a candidate should have doubts about whether or not they are up to the task.

If your viva is coming up, reflect: how many difficult circumstances have you faced and overcome during your PhD?

You can manage one more time.