The Morning Of (the Viva)

The Viva is such a big part of the PhD process. If you are in the States, or in Europe and elsewhere, it may be different than the typical UK viva and I can therefore only speak to my own experiences. But having talked to PhDs from other countries, there are similarities in how your prepare and how you deal with the nerves.

If you missed the last post about preparing for the viva, see here.

I will do another post about the actual viva experience and, at a later date, about what happens after the viva (UK based), so stay tuned for those!

As I said, previously, I was very jet lagged when it came time for my viva. I hadn’t slept well in days and was still recovering from a trans-atlantic flight. If you can avoid that, best to do so (either avoid the need for a flight – i.e. already be in the country where your viva will be held, or come over extra early).

I woke up very early the day of my viva (a Friday). I already knew (again, don’t do this!) that as soon as my viva was over I had time for a quick (hopefully celebratory) drink and then an early train all the way back to the airport (3 hours). And then an early flight the next morning to get back to Toronto in time to attend my friend’s super important launch celebration. The kind of thing you don’t miss, if you are a best friend. It was just unfortunate timing, but I decided that as important as my viva was, my friend was just as important and missing her big event would be understandable bad.

So I got up that morning knowing I had a jam-packed 24 hours ahead of me, and the viva would only be part of that!

I had brought two outfits with me, because after much thought and contemplation, I couldn’t decide between the two of them. I still couldn’t decide that morning, but finally the fact that it was February and cold won out and I put on the pant suit. I thought it would make me more confident in a room full of men. Hard to say if that actually worked or not, but I hate wearing form-fitting dresses amongst men who I want to respect me for my intelligence. I figured a pant-suit would fit in better.

You can wear whatever you want, but be comfortable. You don’t want to have to worry if a part of your body you would rather not is showing or showing too much. You don’t want to be tugging at a skirt or constantly worried about sweat stains on a dress shirt (men, take note). If these are problems you have, dress with care, but keep it professional. You are there for your mind, not your appearance, but that doesn’t mean sweatsuits are acceptable. Dress as you would for a conference presentation.

I tried to eat breakfast – failed – and just moved on to redoing my hair umpteen times until I finally decided to just put it into a bun. I imagine men also have this problem, but it’s probably more about how spiky they should go with their fringe. Either way, if this passes the time and helps you cope, go for it.

My viva was at 2pm. That’s a long time to wait for something that terrifies you. And I knew I needed to eat something before then.

Right before lunch I headed to my department (where my viva was being held) and sequestered myself in my supervisor’s office, where he got me lunch, calmly talked to me about how bad the weather was, and tried to stop me from having a panic attack. None of it really worked, but bless him for trying. I would have been even more of a wreck left to my own devices.

Just before two, I was called into the viva.

Now, my department was pretty informal, so all vivas were held in the office of the internal examiner. And the examiner came to get you and took you to their office. Other schools have specific places on campus they do all vivas, and some you will not even have an internal from your own department. Make sure you understand ahead of time how the day will be run, where you should be (when you should be there), and what the general schedule will be (arrival time, viva time, viva length, waiting time for results). You don’t really want to be surprised about any of this.

That just leaves…the viva! Stay tuned.

After rather a lot of thought, I have decided to simplify things by posting new entries every Monday. At least until I run out of things to talk about.

If you are thinking of doing a PhD, or are currently doing one and you have a burning question you don’t think I’ve covered (or not in enough detail), please ask. Depending on what it is, I might not have an answer, but then again, I might!


Viva Preparedness

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