Read time: 7-8 minutes
Following up on a previous post entitled “Preparing to shine at the VIVA“, this post distils some common gems of advice to help you prepare in the last days before, and during the VIVA. The VIVA is your time to shine! So make sure you thoroughly review your thesis, sleep plenty, eat well, perfect your smouldering gaze, and always keep the forest in sight (without getting lost in the trees).
Trusting the Doctor within
In my previous post, I shared some useful tips which helped me prepare for my own VIVA (at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK). To recap: you need to know your Contribution to Knowledge inside out and practice all you can, so that you can hope for the best, and shine your brightest light at the VIVA.
But at the end of the day, every VIVA is unique, and there is only so much you can prepare. Which is why what you do in the last run-up to the VIVA matters a lot.
Rather than cramming in every bit of knowledge about your thesis in your fatigued and anxious brain, you may benefit more from sleeping, exercising and eating wholesome, nutritious food. Get every positive bit of inspiration you can. Reconnect to why you embarked on a PhD in the first place. Trust with good faith that the Doctor within you will shine out, as she/he deserves to!! By this stage, your only alternative is to surf the wave and make the VIVA enjoyable for the examiners and yourself.
Keep calm, and shine on
If you are defending a VIVA in public (where just about anyone can come), prepare to be intimated by the presence of a large crowd as well as your external examiner! If your external examiner is a super star academic, she/he may perhaps enjoy playing to the gallery.
Regardless of whether your VIVA is ‘public’ or ‘closed’, your examiners will (gently) pour some oil on the fire. They will question the core of what your thesis is trying to convey. You may falter because you are: a) sleep deprived; b) stressed; c) low on caffeine; d) high on caffeine; e) or you had hoped you knew what was coming; and/or f) you have momentarily forgetten the difference between ‘data‘, ‘information‘, and ‘knowledge‘; or between ‘space‘ and ‘place‘; or between ‘epistemology‘ and ‘ontology‘… Or what have you. You can always ask for a break to buy some time to breathe, think, or sketch an answer.
In all circumstances, keep calm, and carry on. Speak clearly and concisely, and avoid beating around the bush.
Walking a fine line
If you ever find yourself in a hole or in quicksands, don’t dig yourself deeper. Lest you want to make it your grave…
Avoid being over-defensive, or losing your temper, which never yield good results anyway (you see it in daily life too!). Don’t blame others or circumstances. Own up to what you did. Saying “I don’t know” can be more redeeming than “Wasn’t me!“. Defend what needs to be defended, and let go of the rest. Even the best PhD theses feature limitations. Take all criticism and comments constructively, not personally.
A related pitfall is to tell the story of your whole PhD. The VIVA is about defending your thesis, not everything that led to it. Think of yourself as a craftsman and the thesis as your cathedral or iconic building. The examiners are examining the end product. Speaking about the scaffolding(s) might open one or several cans of worms. Good luck with putting the worms back in!
The other extreme is to shoot yourself in the foot. Who in their sane mind would do that? If you are a perfectionist, or carefree during the VIVA, you might surprise yourself! Likelihood is: you will not quite feel like your normal self. But no matter how strong the temptation, don’t pull at the loose ends of your thesis. The examiners will gladly do it for you! And hopefully they will omit some of patchy ends of your thesis in the process. I am delighted my examiners spotted lots of embarrassing omissions and unresolved issues in my thesis. It made the VIVA fun! Happy, too, that they did not probe other weak spots in thesis. But I did have to fight my honesty instinct, disguised as the vile-faced imposter syndrome that plagues so many PhD candidates and professionals. I did not pull the trigger, which meant I was able to walk free, with happy feet, by the end of it.
So successfully defending the VIVA is about treading a fine line between ‘fight’ and ‘flight’, or between over-defending and chickening out. To subvertly paraphrase Bob Marley: neither shoot the sheriff nor the deputee. The VIVA is a nonviolent dealing! Nor should you try to take the money and run. There is nowhere to hide or escape. Instead, stand tall and stand your ground, with calm assertiveness, gratitude and humility. As with many things in life, the middle way (beyond extremes) is always the most difficult path to follow, but it always pay off, and is most sustainable.
Managing the Beast
If you did not come to know yourself during the PhD, you will certainly do so before the VIVA. Two days before the VIVA was one of the worst days in my whole PhD. I had to face the imposter syndrome (all over again!), and haggle with the unwieldy Beast that had been sabotaging my PhD from Day 1. In fact, the whole PhD sort of felt like one large ugly Beast.
Picture yourself David and Goliath; Sir Bilbo vs. Smaug the dragon sitting on a mountain of gold; or Captain Nemo with the giant octopus in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I was experiencing total overwhelm, Armageddon, Mars Attacks, you name it. Hence the following precautionary note of warning: at this stage, you might feel like you wasted 3-5 years of your life embarking on a (potentially low-paid) PhD. Or any number of other silly, useless thoughts. Or there again, you might not experience any of this.
The good news (for me, at least) was the acceptance that there is nothing to fight. The ‘Beast’ only exists if it has someone to fight against, and can burn everything on its way. The moment you accept the Beast, you release it. Because it is self-destructive, the Beast actually wants to be liberated.
Simplify your life in the run-up to the VIVA, and avoid tangential, time-consuming issues (e.g. “I need to clean the whole flat“). These can be dealt with in their own time, post-VIVA. Remember why you started the PhD in the first place. It will help restore the Super You within.
Media entertainment can also help build confidence and silence your nagging inner demons. If you haven’t already done so, watch Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and practice Dr Bravestone’s smouldering intensity. The worst dragon-beasts will turn to Mickey Mouse. Or you may want to eat more spinach, like Popeye… Whatever works!!
If you must ward off the dragons that be, bring along Ancient Greek hero Achilles, archangel St Michael, Gandalf the White, the Avengers (Agent John Steed, and/or the Marvel crew), Batman, the A-Team, Macgyver, your teddy bear… or whichever Source of inspiration and strength that will give you resourcefulness at this critical point in time. A PhD friend in Stockholm has dozens of Minions at her office (i.e. from the animation film Despicable Me): Minions on her desk, pinned on the walls, screensaver, and probably on her key ring too. I have no doubt they will support her at the VIVA, when the day comes.
Holding the key
So by now, you should know your thesis well enough, have done some practising (e.g. a mock VIVA with your supervisor and your peers), and have a premium self-confidence insurance against dragon damage.
Next: sleep plenty and eat well.
If you have to choose between excessive preparation (i.e. ‘prepare till you drop’) and plentiful rest, choose the latter. Resting will give you strength, confidence and humility to actively engage in that one conversation that will turn you into a doctor.
Good sleep, exercise and wholesome food will keep your head cool and make you stay in the zone. Wholesome nourishment also includes sunlight, positive sensations, feelings of gratitude, and tapping into your trusted sources of quality inspiration. Beware of comfort food, sugar, coffee, and other addictive and over-stimulating substances.
Preparedness, multiplied by the effects of good rest and wholesome nourishment, will make you to hit the mark.
In a nutshell, the key to a fun, successful VIVA is:
FUN VIVA = PREPAREDNESS x REST
Trust that you will defend the VIVA with both pride, humility and joy. You have the key to unlock the Doctor within. Your hard work will shine, for real. A useful mantra or comforting phrase, in two parts: All is well, that ends well.
My VIVA lasted 3 hours (I do babble on). It was intense, but fun! A PhD mate had her VIVA last only 40 minutes: easy-peasy, a box-ticking exercise… Both VIVAs were behind closed doors: two examiners, and the optional presence of the supervisor.
It takes the courage and perseverance of Don Quixote to pass a VIVA. Artwork: Quixota, mural by David Charlton for the Shine Mural Festival in St Petersburg, Florida. Picture credit: Terence Faircloth on Flickr, Non-Commercial CC Attribution.
No one will do it for you. Not your supervisor, not your partner, not your friends, nor your relatives.
You may feel like you are an ill-clad gladiator thrown into the pit with the lions, possibly under the gaze of a large intimidating crowd.
But you are not a gladiator. You are a Doctor-in-the-making, ready to shine.
Your VIVA day will be ‘V-day’. Victory lies in 3 main steps:
- bring your head along (do not forget it on your pillow), and keep it cool
- keep your Contribution to Knowledge fresh and accessible (its different parts, and as a whole)
- have enough wholesome liquid and solid nutrition to keep you in the zone, full of beans, and buzzing for the whole VIVA.
Celebration is both the starting point and natural end point of the VIVA experience. You have every reason to shine, and release the doctor within you!
If you want to share insight about how to shine before / during/ after the VIVA, send your blog post or favourite resources to:
Due acknowledgements to my superstar supervisors, Dr James Charlton, and Pfr Ruth Dalton, as well as to Pfr Paul Greenhalgh, for many of the advice and tips mentioned in this blog. Neither a positive VIVA experience, nor this blog post, would have been possible without their continuous support.