In July 2010, quite out of the blue, I was asked if I could deliver a workshop on preparing for the viva at the University of Manchester. My viva was still quite fresh in my mind. At the time, I was trying to find my style as a facilitator. I’ll bet if I could look back at a video from the workshop I would cringe horribly! At that first workshop, I got people thinking about their research journey and thesis, the people around them who might be able to help and the kinds of things they could do to prepare.
A big chunk of the session was spent on mini vivas. I did those for the first few years of workshops, before doing a Q&A at the end (a Q&A which ended up inspiring my second book!). Looking back, I can see that I was confident that the workshop could help, but at times I wasn’t comfortable telling people that there was a “good” or a “bad” way of doing something. Most of my experience at the time was from the GRADschool/experiential model of things: I wanted people to do stuff and see what they thought of it rather than tell them “do it this way”.
As time moved on, I learned more, and I grew more confident. I realised that while some approaches to viva preparation came down to personal preference, there were some things that people could do to prepare which would definitely help. Part of this came from interviewing people, from the research that I did – but some of it was because I did the workshop a lot. I had a lot of opportunities to think about how to share something. I was able to practice communicating. I don’t have a script for the workshop per se, but I do have a way of doing things. There are stories I tell, comparisons that I make and so on – things that I know get the message across.
I think you can only get that, in some respects, from doing something a lot – and loving it. As of yesterday I have done the workshop 91 times: I love doing it, I love helping people prepare for the viva, and I love that I have the opportunity to meet PhD candidates and help them in this way.
So far this academic year I’ve delivered my workshop to almost 400 PhD candidates, and altogether I’ve worked with nearly 2000 PGRs directly through the Viva Survivor workshop. I’m really excited about the next step: delivering my independent Viva Survivor workshop to anyone who wants to come along. I’m developing new resources, producing a print run of Fail Your Viva and doing everything I can to make it the best possible workshop for helping people prepare for their viva.