The Good Stuff

I ask people how they feel about the viva at the start of viva prep workshops. It’s rare for candidates to say excited. Sometimes people will frame excitement as “excited that my PhD is almost over” but that’s quite different from “excited that I get to talk to my examiners about my research.”

You can’t cherry pick the discussion in the viva, and it’s not wise to only focus on the good stuff in your prep, but you can take control of where some of your motivation is coming from for the viva. If you ask the right questions you can inspire yourself. Maybe if you have any anxiety about it all, you can change the way that you think about it.

So, to start, what are you excited to talk about with your examiners?

Work Past Worry

I think most people feel nervous before the viva. That’s normal. But feeling nervous is different from feeling worried. Feeling nervous is a signal you know something is important. Feeling worried is like an investment in fear. What can you do?

  • Ask yourself why to figure out the root of the worry. Reading your thesis won’t help unless the worry is all about being sure you know your stuff. Even then, by asking why you could trigger an idea that will help more than just reading.
  • Make a plan for yourself. Sit down and at a minimum write down three things you can do to be better prepared. Now write down when you’re going to do them.
  • Think about situations where you’ve felt in control, when you’ve felt confidence. What were the circumstances? Can you recreate some of them now to damp down your worries?

Worry won’t help. Your response to it might.

Five More

In workshops I ask people to come up with lists of five highlights in their thesis, or five important papers that they’ve used in their bibliography. For many this isn’t too tricky a task, three or four come quite easy and the fifth is the work of a moment to fill in the blank.

How about another five? Not as easy perhaps.

The top five come to mind easy because we’re human and we make patterns; chances are you’ve already got a bullet point list of highlights or important references. You’ve settled on your talking points.

It’s not enough to just make a lot of lists to prepare for the viva. Stretching yourself by making lists can be valuable. For the examples above, you can expand on what makes your thesis great, or dig deeper into the papers that helped build your work. You have to think to do this. Don’t settle for what always comes to mind. See how far you can go and what new connections you can make.

False Expectations

It’s wrong to expect that your viva will be exactly like your friend’s. It’s wrong to think that because every thesis is different there are no similarities between vivas. It’s wrong to expect to fail. It’s wrong to think that the viva is a box-ticking exercise. It’s wrong to think of it as a trial by fire.

All of these represent persistent memes or half-truths about the viva. You’re not stupid for thinking any of them. They’re a product of PhD culture. They get stuck in your head and can be difficult to shift.

Hard though it might be, we need to re-align the viva story. Every viva is unique, but they happen within frameworks. They’ll be different from each other, but there are expectations for how they are done. It’s an exam, it’s a challenge, and it could be tough or uncomfortable because of what you’re there to do – discuss and unpick your work and you as a researcher.

It’s a challenge that you can be ready for. If you did the research and wrote the thesis then you can thrive in the viva.

Find Confidence

There’s a great TED talk from five years ago by Amy Cuddy. In it she describes how adopting certain kinds of physical poses can influence how people feel. The shorthand sometimes used is “power-posing,” an archetypal pose of confidence, a display that shows power. Research at the time suggested that adopting certain poses made people feel more confident, and also made people they were interacting with judge them to be more confident.

In the intervening five years there have been attempts to replicate the study or to look more deeply into the subject; they’ve raised questions, and that’s what science is supposed to do. But the core is still there: adopting physical poses can change how confident you are.

Now, I’m not writing today to say “pose like a superhero and you’ll feel awesome in the viva!” My main takeaway is a thought that has been in my mind for some time now, and which I’ve explored on the blog before. Confidence is not about hope: it’s not something you have or don’t, it’s not something mercurial that just comes and goes and you don’t know why.

There will be lots of things that trigger you in one way or another when it comes to how confident you feel. I think that for the viva you owe it to yourself, if you’re worried at all, to invest a little time exploring what could make a difference to how you feel. What can you do to make yourself more confident? For you it may not be about expansive physical stance, but there will be some conditions that help you more than others. Find them. Use them.