The end is in sight. The hard work (understatement of the century!) of the last 3 /4 / 5/ 6 / 7 (!!) years of the PhD is nearly over. The Viva is looming! Feelings of euphoria from submitting the thesis are dissipating as the dreaded final defence of your work draws ever closer. What will the examiners think? What will the examiners ask? How shall I prepare?
It’s very difficult to capture the enormity of the feelings in the lead up to, and completion of, your final PhD viva. It all feels like a bit of a dream, imagining hearing those words… “it’s over”… and finally having that hand shake of confirmation that you’ve made it – welcome to the world, Dr!
Here are some snippets from my own experience which I hope may help you along the way.
How shall I prepare?
A word of reassurance – if you’ve made it this far, you’re already in a good place. With good supervisors you should never get to the weeks leading up to the Viva with any concern that your work will not pass. Saying that – it’s not a given, and defending your thesis is still a massive part of achieving your PhD. So, if you have made it this close to your Viva and are wondering how to manage the next few weeks here are a few pieces of advice I received, and thoughts I would add, to prepare for the final exam:
Generic PhD viva questions
A good place to start, as cliche as it sounds, is just browsing some generic PhD viva questions http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/ResearchEssentials/?p=156
This initially sent my anxiety levels rocketing but actually sitting and making some bullet point answers to think about, for example, what my novel contribution is and what I could have done differently, was a really valuable exercise!
Familiarise with your thesis
After getting stuck into Viva mode (and truly stressing myself out with the generic questions) a really helpful exercise was to read through the thesis summarising each chapter in 1 paragraph. I then realised maybe I do know the answers!
You might think you are VERY familiar with your own thesis, but this has taken years to put together and some parts you may not have worked on afresh since last year. After submission of the thesis I cleared my mind of PhD for a couple of weeks, so getting my head back into Viva prep was a bit difficult. Nothing was more valuable that re-familiarising myself with my work.
I read through it a 2nd time, this time creating a map through the thesis, each page explained in ½ a line of A4 paper. As a side, here I have to credit the support network of other PhD students and Facebook groups of clinical academics who gave me tips for what to do. This ‘road map through the thesis’ idea was great, and in the viva it meant I had a quick reference to find the page I needed.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like more details of this or my example.
It’s so easy to get worked up into a mentality of having to use every waking hour in the lead up to prepare for your Viva. Relax! Believe it or not you’ve done all the hard work! Make sure you’re familiar and know your way round your thesis, make sure you have some stock generic answers, be aware of the limitations of your work, and then spend at least the day before doing something completely unrelated to your work! You will need to be energised, rested and relaxed to be you best and enjoy your Viva.
Enjoy your Viva?!
Yes you read that right. I’ll be honest – people kept telling me I’d enjoy it and I was very dubious. In fact, at the time I didn’t enjoy it very much! In hindsight, however, I realise what a positive an experience it was.
To sit there with experts in my field praising my research and showing a genuine interest in what I had done, and could continue to contribute, was exhilarating! I came out in a complete buzz!
This is the only time somebody with fresh eyes will sit and spend 2 hours or more discussing your work. It is the only opportunity you’ll have to explain and expand on your work to a captive audience for so long. I found the more we talked the more passionate I felt myself getting about the topic and my contribution. After years on the PhD, and particularly the last few months of “just wanting it over” I found it reviving and refreshing!
So do at least try to enjoy it!
So what now?
Post-viva, and post-amendments, is a really difficult time which I did not prepare myself for. I thought I’d feel relieved and free – but instead I was restless, anxious and biting at the bit to be DOING something! After months of working full time in a clinical role and using the other waking hours of life to complete my PhD, it goes without saying that adapting to a life without the PhD has been a shock!
Learn to enjoy life
My number 1 piece of advice, take some weeks to learn how to look after yourself again, to learn how to relax, to teach yourself that it’s OK to get home from work and relax for the evening without feeling guilty! It has taken me weeks to do this – adapting from the 100mph mind-set doesn’t happen overnight.
The most precious thing, which I still value every time it happens, is being able to spend time with my husband and my family, to not have to say no to events with family or friends, and allowing myself whole days focused on the people and things I love in life without the guilt or weight of the over-hanging PhD!
Stay busy if you need to – but learn to enjoy those things in life you’ve had to miss out on!
This may seem like a contrast to what I’ve just said, but it’s one of my own coping strategies. I have had to allocate time in my evenings to still be “doing” as I transition back into normal life. As a full time clinician (a choice which can be explained another day!) I am keen to keep my research activity alive and make sure I don’t let the momentum slip.
Being part of different projects outside of my clinical role I now have allocate myself time in the evenings to work. But! I also allocate specific evenings off for relaxing either with “me time” or with the people I love. Balance is key!
Publish, publish, publish!
My final words of advice (to you and to myself) – get that research published!
It’s all too easy to slip too far into the “learning to enjoy life” phase that you lose the momentum and lose motivation. Not having that pressure IS lovely – but now is the time to keep writing!
Hold on to that positive Viva experience, use some of that time and head space you need to fill, and get your research out into the wold to be used!
Naomi Gallant is an Occupational Therapist by background and a Clinical Doctoral Research Fellow at NIHR CLAHRC Wessex and University of Southampton, her work focuses on Dementia care in hospitals, particularly looking at meal times. Having just completed her PhD, Naomi’s interest in improving dementia care began when she took a job as an HCA in a dementia specialist care home.