I suspect that most people think that viva prep is something that you do after you’ve submitted. I certainly did. Immediately after submitting my monster of a thesis, I took some time off. My viva wouldn’t take place until nearly three months later so I had the luxury of time to rest up and gain some distance from the text I had produced.
A few weeks before my viva, I started to prepare in earnest. I bought a selection of coloured sticky tabs for marking the first page of each chapter and important examples that I wanted to be able to reference with ease should I need them.
Then I sat down to read. I read…
…and I read…
…I found a typo…
…and I read some more. Not having looked at my thesis for several weeks, I now spotted what seemed to be an embarrassing number of typographical errors that neither I nor my supervisor nor my husband had found when proofreading earlier drafts. I kept a list of these to take along to the viva. (To my immense relief, my list was considerably longer than that of either of my examiners.) I underlined important passages and stuck my sticky tabs where they belonged.
As I did all this, however, a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept taunting that what hadn’t learned in the previous four years, I certainly wasn’t going to learn in the next four days.
The shouting gradually softened to a whisper, though, as I reflected on the various forums in which I had already exposed my research and writing to (sometimes intense) scrutiny. While I would definitely not dissuade you from reading through your thesis one final time before your viva, I firmly believe that the best viva preparation takes place months – even years – before the big day.
With that in mind, here is a list of five ways you can start preparing for your viva today no matter what stage you’re currently at in your research. If you start now, you can be confident that when the big day finally arrives you’ll be as ready as you possibly could be. (And as an added bonus, these activities will probably make your thesis stronger too!)
- Look for upcoming conferences. Although I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, in retrospect presenting papers at conferences was the most constructive way of preparing for my viva. There will be a blog (or two, or three) on attending conferences at some point down the road. For now I’ll just say that post-graduate conferences are a great way of breaking yourself in slowly. The PSA hosts a number of post-graduate conferences around the UK and Breaking Boundaries is an excellent post-graduate conference for researchers engaged in interdisciplinary work. Try to attend post-graduate conferences in your first and second years. By your third and fourth years, however, you should be going to professional conferences of an international standard. The prospect may sound scary, but once you arrive you will soon realise that they aren’t really so different from the post-graduate conferences you’ve become used to. Not only will presenting papers at professional conferences enhance your CV, it is at these conferences that you will get asked the really tough questions. Better to discover holes in your argument now (while you can still fill them in) than on the day of your viva.
- Submit a journal article for publication. Ok, so you may not actually be ready to submit a journal article today. But you can – and should – start thinking about possible publications now no matter what stage you’re at in your PhD. While you can expect to field interesting questions at conferences, most attendees won’t ever read your paper. Journal article referees, however, will read your submission very carefully and provide detailed comments. This feedback is incredibly helpful for pointing out any weaknesses in your argument or sections that warrant additional explanation. Moreover the criteria used by journal referees (i.e. originality, is this work publishable) are similar to those used by your examiners. But in order for publishing to work as viva prep you have to start early! Again, there will be other posts on the process of submitting articles for publication later. In the mean time just be aware that it can take a year or more for articles to go through the reviewing process at top journals. This means that in order to have the referees’ feedback before your viva, you probably need to be submitting articles no later than 12-14 months before you plan to submit your thesis.
- Discuss you work with other students and faculty. You may do this already (and if you do that’s excellent!) but oftentimes the last thing that I wanted to do when I wasn’t actually working on my PhD was talk about it. It is particularly tempting to dissuade people from talking to you about your research when you’re feeling less than confident. In fact, when you’re having trouble can be one of the best times to share your work with people in your department. Unlike conference audiences and journal referees, people in your department know you and want you to succeed. There are various ways that you can share your work with people in your department. Invite someone for a chat over coffee. Volunteer to present your current work at a departmental seminar. Create a support group with other PhD students and arrange a regular time and place to informally discuss and/or critique each other’s work.
- Think about impact. Can your work be applied outside of academia? If so, how? Who might be interested and why? As the demands for academic work to have practical significance increase, it is worth thinking about how your research might be applied in other contexts. The earlier you start thinking about this, the easier it will be to build an assessment of you work’s potential impact into the text of the thesis. The wider relevance of your work is likely to come up during the viva, but this is one question you can be ready for.
- Teach. Even if you don’t covet an academic career, you should still try to do a bit of teaching for two important reasons. First, it gets you used to thinking on your feet and answering unanticipated questions. Useful experience to have before attending your first conference and certainly before you walk into your viva room. Second, teaching lets you feel like you are the expert. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realised how much I really do know: not everything, but a vast deal more than undergraduates certainly. Teaching boosts your confidence and gives you the pluck to submit your work to public scrutiny.
If you welcome constructive criticism of your work while you still have time to improve it and can get used to defending your choices in response to tough questions, you will be well equipped to handle whatever your examiners throw at you.