Here is your cut-out-and-keep guide to surviving the viva. Read it two months before your viva date.
o When people tell you ‘enjoy the viva’, you may think they’re completely bonkers, or that (if they are academics and have had their own viva at some point) they’re out-of-touch with the real world and have forgotten what a viva is. In fact, you can trust them. They are telling the truth. As it turns out, the viva can be a very nice experience – especially if you follow some of the advice below.
o ‘Most people pass. The few who do not pass are the ones who submitted against their supervisor’s recommendation’; ‘[The examiners] have made up their mind before the viva; they have written their report and have already decided whether you pass or fail. The good thing about this is, in the viva you can only do yourself good; you cannot do yourself harm.’ Was not too sure about that last bit, but I decided to go with it anyway. They have already decided, so you cannot do yourself any harm; you can only do yourself good.
o ‘Read and reread your thesis’: this is advice I received on how to prepare for the viva. This is good advice; however, I would recommend taking the tomato approach when you are doing this (work for 25 minutes; break for 5 minutes; repeat. Each one of these is a ‘tomato’. Once you have done four tomatoes, have a longer break. Google ‘the Pomodoro technique’ if you have no idea what I mean by ‘tomato’). I recommend taking four tomatoes to read your thesis on any given day, and then stopping; the trouble is that if you try to work too hard on remembering everything you wrote in the PhD, you may start going a bit crazy and fixating on all its flaws.
o By all means prepare an answer to the question ‘How did you come up with this research topic?’ – and versions of it such as ‘What is the originality of your research?’. Have a little chapter summary of each chapter, so that you remember what bit of research is where. Don’t, however, try and second-guess every question your examiners might ask you; you’ll only exhaust yourself. If you find that you are starting to go crazy, and freak out about your ‘inadequate’ thesis, stop reading it, and go for a walk.
o You may find yourself worrying that your thesis just isn’t good enough, that you shouldn’t have bothered handing it in, that it’s full of holes which your examiners will spot and rip apart in two minutes. You have, after all, spent many months picking it all apart with your supervisor, who has on many occasions said things like ‘I don’t understand the point of this’ or ‘this is too descriptive’. The reason, therefore, that you now think your argument is terrible is because you’ve lost confidence in it, not because it actually is terrible. You know where the bodies are buried, and you know the circumstances under which each sentence was written. You think the examiners will be able to spot the sentence/ paragraph/ chapter that was just plonked in at the last minute in desperation, but they won’t. (This is advice given to me by a friend and PhD guru, and he was right.)
o When friends and family text you to say ‘good luck! I know you’ll be fine!’, resist the urge to reply ‘oh what do YOU know!’ or ‘I can’t do this, I will fail’; say ‘thank you!’ and text a smiley face. You will be glad later that you did nothing dramatic and managed not to freak them out unnecessarily.
o The night before: you will have a terrible night’s sleep the night before the viva. (Any PhD students out there who had a very good night’s sleep the night before?... Please write to us.) You will toss and turn and feel the knot tightening in your stomach. (I hate this; your body is preparing its fight-or-flight response, and getting ready to send you in to battle with maximum alertness, but does it really have to make you quite this alert at 11:30pm, when what you really want is to sleep?...) Long wakeful periods will be punctuated by crazy dreams of confusing train stations, of clocks that tell the wrong time, of strange people turning up in your bed and evicting you, forcing you to try and get to sleep on the floor… It will be a horrible night. Eat lightly beforehand, go for a walk if possible, have a bath, sniff lavender, do whatever you can do to make yourself feel relaxed and drowsy; otherwise, just go with it. Adrenaline will carry you through the day, and you will sleep much better the following night.
o On the day: take your time over a nice, light breakfast. (Greek yoghurt and muesli is good; bananas have been proven to calm performers down before a show.) Wear smart clothes. On the way to the viva, smile at everything and everyone on public transport; it will lift your mood. Immediately before the viva, the best way to prepare, I was told, is to go for a walk and think of something else. Wander the streets, or go to the neighbouring park if there is one, and look at things. Notice the different types of dogs people have. Pay attention to the intricate pattern on the leaves of that evergreen tree you never noticed before. Walk around. If you’re feeling stressed, try the ‘Focusing Exercise’ from the Procrastination Bible; recite it to yourself as you walk. It helps.
o Enjoy it. Smile at your examiners. Try and be spontaneous. You know stuff. In the viva, the stuff you know will just organically come out. Listen to the question, think using the stuff you know. Answer relevantly. (Remember: when you are preparing, rereading your thesis, trying to imagine every possible answer to every question, and trying to force perfect answers to come out, may make you dry up; if you clutch at it, it won’t come.) Relax and go with it, be spontaneous. Listen out to additional cleverness from the examiners; they may come out with some very useful stuff. Write it down. The aim is to turn the viva into a productive discussion.
o Going out for lunch afterwards with your examiners and your supervisor is allowed, it turns out. Just a thought.
o Afterwards, enjoy the happy daze that comes from having just done the viva, the feeling of walking the familiar streets with nowhere to be and nowhere to go, just you and your success and your happiness and joy. Drink it all in.
I passed, by the way.