I did a favour for a friend recently. She organises training sessions for PhD students at my former university in England. She was looking for someone to offer their personal experiences about the viva, and since it was for distance learning students, I figured why not! I’m at a distance these days anyways, being across the ocean in Canada. If everyone else could be at the class virtually, so could I.
But it meant I had to think about my viva for the first time in a year. And to think of it in something other than terms of overwhelming dread. That wasn’t going to be a very helpful approach to the future viva students. The point is not to severely concern anyone. After all, viva experiences are all individual and I know many people who had lovely experiences. But then, I know people who liked exams too, and personally they always just gave me anxiety attacks no matter how prepared I was.
I think this particular topic deserves several posts, but let me start at the beginning.
How to Prepare for Your Viva
First, don’t freak out. That’s really very important and for some people will be very hard. My goal was to not think about it until I absolutely had to (to prepare) and therefore put off the freaking out part as long as possible. If you are one of those people who maintains a cool head even in the most stressful situations, you already have a leg up. If you aren’t, I sympathise. The best you can do is remind yourself that freaking out before hand isn’t useful.
Once you convince yourself (or pretend you have) of that, it’s time to prepare. Preparation is the key to being calm in stressful situations, in my own experience. Preparing for a presentation to the point of memorisation makes me much calmer going into a conference, for example. For my viva, I just read my thesis cover to cover as many times as I could handle. I used colourful tabs to mark the most important pages so I could come back to them again and again as it got down to the wire (including on the plane over to England).
With the help of my supervisor, I came up with a list of ‘likely’ questions. Not the only questions, mind you, but ones the examiners typically ask or ones that directly related to identified issues in my thesis. This might take you the most amount of time, because you have to think like someone else and that’s hard. But if you can figure out 10 questions you have a fare chance of getting asked, you can prepare answers.
Don’t prepare answers. I mean, don’t write them down in a script. Just think about them. Share them with your supervisor(s). Make sure you understand the question and can answer it fully in your head and out loud. DON’T memorise them (you are not going into your viva to deliver a script. You are doing this to become used to having your work questioned and being able to respond). I found it best to have my supervisor ask them to me and me answer out loud, as in a mock viva. It felt better saying them to a person, rather than just in my head, and helped me get used to the inevitable stumble that’s so common when you’re nervous! It also got me used to coming up with different answers to the same question and to discovering answers I hadn’t even thought of at first.
That was pretty much my month of viva prep. I had returned to Canada after submitting my thesis, so I had to fly back to England for my viva. I don’t travel well. I travel a lot, but never well. I get horrible jet lag and can’t sleep on airplanes. I knew I was not going to be at my best, so I went over several days in advance and stayed in my friend’s empty house (he was on holiday). It meant I had a comfortable environment, with a kitchen to hand and no one I had to speak with. I mostly slept for two days. On the third day, I went over my whole thesis one last time. That was the last time I look at my thesis. Cramming into the small hours of the night before an exam has never been my style. I always stop before dinner the night before. If you don’t know it by then, you aren’t going to. And I did, after all, work on the thing for 3 years!
That was all the prep I did. I know several people who did more mock exams and with more than just their supervisor, but all around, this was the amount of prep most people recommended to me. And in the end, I don’t think I could have prepared anymore.
Next up: Viva Day