Common questions I get asked during viva preparation workshops often relate to what candidates can or cannot do during a viva. Can candidates take time to think? (yes!) Can they call friends for advice? (no!!) Can they record their viva? (tricky one; ask your graduate school for guidance) Probably the most common question of this type is candidates asking if it is OK to make notes during the viva.
I not only think it is OK – I think it’s almost essential that candidates make notes as they go through the viva.
Don’t Lose Track
Everyone does it: you’re talking and your mind suddenly blanks on the point you were going to make. Eeek! You may have seen this in seminars: someone starts talking about an aspect of their work and they lose track. It’s a horrible feeling – and not because it would be the end of the world in the seminar, or even in the viva. The person who loses their way feels bad or embarrassed. They worry, they stress.
If you’re making notes in the viva, this could be less of a scary prospect. As examiners ask questions, simply write a couple of keywords down – whatever you think will be most effective for you. It could be a couple of words about the question, or words that help bulletpoint the answer that you’re aiming at delivering. The act of writing something down will focus you, and if you do lose your way you have something that will help bring you back on track.
Prepare for Corrections
At the end of the viva your examiners will give you a list of the corrections. These will have sufficient detail so that you know what the aim of the corrections are – there will not be items which read “Run spellcheck” or “Learn about apostrophes” or “Write Chapter 4 more clearly”. There might be one or two elements of your corrections which are a bit tricky though: simply knowing the aim of the correction might not be enough. If this is the case, your examiners will raise it during the viva, and that’s exactly the best time to make some notes.
Take down the details, and don’t be afraid to ask questions: at least one of your examiners is going to review what you produce, so it’s helpful to get a good understanding of the issue. It may be that you disagree, in which case exploring the details will help you to either see their point of view OR gain enough information that you can show them it is not an issue that needs changing. Either way, taking notes leads to a win!
Making It Happen
Wait a minute Dr Writer Person, I thought that the viva was all about talking about my work?! It sounds like you would have me writing ALL the time! What kind of an impression would that create?!
Making notes in the viva is all about what help it gives to you: either it helps with making sure you stay on track, or it helps with corrections afterwards, or maybe it helps in some other way. Writing a couple of words at the start of a topic of discussion will be helpful both in and out of the viva: in the viva it keeps you centred, gives you a pause to think; outside of the viva, when you’re less pressured perhaps, it can help you to think through what exactly your examiners were interested in. If you have any plans to stay in academia that’s very interesting information to have!
Notes don’t have to take a long time. Use whatever seems best for you. A journal might be what you use all of the time, so why change now? Post Its could be very useful for capturing details on corrections. Record cards can capture discrete chunks of ideas. There are lots of options, and in my opinion they all lead to value for you in the viva.
Thanks for reading!