Just Start

It’s definitely possible to over-invest your time in viva prep.

I started six weeks before my viva. I probably spent close to 200 hours getting ready.

That’s a LOT more than is needed.

It’s also possible to do too little or start so late that you need to rush to squeeze everything in. There’s a worry I’ve seen expressed by many candidates over the last decade about finding the right time to start.

Two weeks before? Three? A month? When?!

If you submit your thesis and find yourself wondering whether or not to do something, then do it. Just do something and release the tension and the wondering. Viva prep is cumulative: it all adds up no matter when you start or do it.

Most candidates don’t need to start preparing until a month before the viva.

Most candidates would probably benefit from having at least two weeks to spread the work out sensibly.

But if you’re wondering if now is the right time then just start.

Just read something. Just write something. Just talk. Just start and do something and know that you’re on your way to being ready for your viva.

In Your Way

Time or work pressure.

Not knowing what to expect.

Being unsure of how to prepare.

Hearing stories that create doubt.

There can be lots of obstacles in your way of getting ready for the way. They’re real, they are barriers. You can still be ready, but only you can take the steps to get these things out of your way.

You have to make a small piece of time for yourself. You have to find out what to expect. You can learn what to do to prepare. You can ask for more viva stories that help.

You can and you must deal with anything in your way of getting ready for the viva.

Whatever Works

Good day socks.

A playlist that helps you feel happy.

A lucky teddy.

Three cups of coffee.

Dancing around.

A Post-it Note of encouragement.

An outfit that just feels right.

There’s practical must-do tasks that help candidates get ready for the viva – reading, checking, making notes, practising – and then there are the rituals, warm-ups, placebos and boosts that you just need. There’s no right or wrong, it’s not silly, it’s not weird: it’s what you need to feel right.

Whatever works, works. Use whatever you need to help you feel ready.

What’s Your Worry?

Don’t keep your viva worry bottled up in your brain where you can merely be anxious about it.

Write it down. Tell a friend. Talk to your supervisor.

Your worry could be unfounded. Talking to someone who has had their viva or knows about the process could put your concerns in perspective. They could help you see what you can do to help yourself.

Your worry could be easily resolved. Being clear with yourself and knowing what’s wrong and could allow you to move forwards.

Your worry could be a tough situation – in which case exploring what you could do and what you will do, possibly with support from others, will allow you to work past that worry.

It’s natural, given the importance of your viva, that you might have worries. If you do then you can also do something about them.

Breaking Up Your Viva

Breaks are an important part of the viva process. For length, for comfort, for medical reasons – there are lots of situations where a break is needed. It’s right to expect your examiners to offer them; it’s right to ask for one if you need one.

Concerns about long vivas often stem from a candidate wondering how they could perform well over long periods of time. Breaks help. Perhaps lots of worries about “what happens in the viva” follow from missing pieces of information.

You can ask for a break if needed, so that aspect no longer needs to be a worry.

What other worries do you have? Who could you ask to help you with them? What could you do?

How can you break up your concerns so that they become something you can resolve?

Spider Shadows

Every now and then my daughter goes through periods of worrying about spider shadows in her room at night: not spiders, but things that look like the shadows of spiders in the dim half-light of her nightlight.

We’ve explained they’re not real, we’ve shone torches in the past to show there’s no arachnid casting the hazy outline she thinks she sees. But when she feels she’s spotted one, she can’t help but fixate on it – and so my wife and I have to act again, try something new.

 

What are the viva shadows that keep you awake? Do you worry about things that your examiners might ask you? Are you finding yourself concerned about what might happen in your viva? Or how it might feel if you’re not quite ready for anything and everything that could happen?

Viva shadows can only be resolved through action. Like my daughter’s spider shadows, you might need help to expose the reality of the worries and concerns you have. A supervisor can shine a light on what you’ve done, and show you that it really is good. A friend could tell you about their viva to reassure you that yours will be too. Your supporters can give you the space and time to get ready.

Spider shadows and viva shadows don’t go away by themselves. Find someone who can help you with your viva worries. You’re the only one who can be ready for your viva, but you don’t have to get ready alone.

Action Overcomes Fear

I looked back over the last three years to see how I’d been inspired by Halloween previously:

I’m not going to be silly or spooky today though – this year has had enough fear and worry in it.

If your viva is coming up and you’re worried or afraid, the first step to resolving the situation is to figure out what the problem really is. Ask for help from someone, or think about how you’re going to do something about it. Then do something! And remember why you’re doing it.

Your fears come from somewhere. Beating them comes from you.

Head In The Sand

Ostriches, despite popular legend, don’t put their head in the sand to hide. It’s a common comparison to make for people avoiding problems though, I’ve used it here on the blog at least once before. In that post I encouraged viva candidates to not hide from concerns – figure out what’s wrong and do something rather than worry and avoid.

Ostriches actually put their head in the sand to check on their eggs and see if they’re alright. Building on this new information, still don’t be like an ostrich with your head in the sand repeatedly!

  • Concerned about expectations? Find out and write them down. Done.
  • Worried you’ll have trouble finding things in your thesis? Make a list of key points, stick bookmarks in your thesis. Done.
  • Unsure about your examiners? Spend time reading their work and write a summary for yourself. Done.

Don’t hide from your problems, but don’t keep checking on them either. Feel a concern? Act on it and resolve it, as best you can. Then move on and keep doing what you can to focus on getting ready.

Tensions

As I was setting up one of my last Viva Survivor sessions before social distancing (three months ago!), one of the participants piped up, “Are you here to put the fear of God into us?”

The room had been quiet, and tense with the What’s-all-this-about-then?-wonderings that seminar rooms have before training or workshops. Her question cut through and made everyone smile.

The tension of a room of people was eased with a single question.

There are lots of tensions surrounding the viva:

  • The tension between being an expert and being examined;
  • The tension from the upcoming change of state, candidate to graduate;
  • The tension between of the unknown elements of the viva;
  • The tension between the nerves you probably feel and the confidence you want to have.

It’s important to realise the tensions first, before you try to do something about them. They’re the reason for your actions – a big to-do list won’t get done well unless you get to the causes behind the needs.

General tensions aside, reflect on what’s troubling you about the viva, then explore what you can do about it. And as the person from one of my last seminar-room sessions did, perhaps all you need to do is find the right question to ask.

Viva Horror Stories

The internal examiner dabbed the red away from his lips and paused before settling his stone-grey eyes on the shivering candidate.

“How,” he began, his voice like the echo of a whisper, “How… Hmm… How did you arrive at this choice of methodology?”

A look of pain passed the candidate’s face, a long-held fear finally realised! A moment of sheer terror, a buried tension risen to the surface like a zombie erupting from a grave. No choice, no alternative, but to state with quivering voice:

“I…! I did it… Because my supervisor told me to!”

And with that they fainted.

“Pity,” said the internal, taking another red sip from their chalice, “I had such high hopes for this one.”

A snarling from the external examiner’s secure crate reverberated around the seminar room.

“Well, quite,” said the internal, “A perfectly acceptable answer. And I really wanted to know why they had settled on Magnusson’s ‘Treatise on Ancient Awakenings’ as well…”

It’s possible you’ve heard of a real viva horror story. I know people have negative experiences, but it’s not the majority of experiences, not even close. And they don’t “just happen”. There are always reasons why: problems with the thesis, a research issue that was overlooked, a breakdown between supervisor and candidate.

Good horror stories, the really scary ones, have no reasons.

The Thing is just there in the ice, waiting.

The zombies march, and we don’t know how they came to be.

Dracula is.

There are reasons why you did a PhD. Reasons why you’ve got this far. Reasons why your thesis is done. Reasons why you’ll pass your viva. You can be scared by viva horror stories, but you can always unpick why they happened that way. You can be nervous in advance of your own viva, but it’s possible to unpick where that fear comes from. What drives it, what makes it worse, and maybe what could make it better.