Fuses & Feelings

My mum called in a panic: her electricity had gone off and she had no power.

By the I time I got to her house, she had checked and reset the main fuse box. The power was on again. It was still a mystery though. What happened? It just went off? The TV was the first thing she noticed… Hmm…

We decided to relax with a cup of tea. My mum set the kettle to boil and the power shut off again. Five minutes of careful trial and error helped us realise it was not the TV, the main fuse box or the electrical socket in the kitchen that was at fault. The kettle was no longer safe and was tripping the mains fuse, in turn, shutting off the power.

With the fault diagnosed, my mum didn’t have a kettle for a day, but everything else was fine.

 

This reminds me of so many times I’ve found myself cross, worried, anxious and unsure. Sometimes I feel one of these ways and I just don’t know why.

Taking a step back helps.

Reflecting helps.

Thinking about what happened in the lead up can help too.

How you feel about the viva has an impact on how you get ready for it. If you feel anxious or worried then it’s worth trying to unpick what the cause is. Anxiety and worry are right on the surface. Explore what’s underneath.

There are many possible causes, including:

  • Not knowing about an aspect of the viva;
  • Having a concern about what to do to prepare;
  • Being unsure of how to respond;
  • Being worried that you won’t be able to respond at all.

There will be many more, much more personal reasons to feel anxious. Something could just trip the fusebox of your feelings. Reflect, explore and find out the cause – then think about what you can do to set that right.

Keep Going – A Viva Survivors Anthology

About a month ago the Viva Survivors blog celebrated five years of daily posts! With this milestone in mind I’ve been working on something a little special. I’m thrilled to announce Keep Going, a Viva Survivors anthology:

Keep Going is the best of the first five years of daily posts. I’ve found my favourites out of nearly 1800 posts: from reflections on the PhD journey to lists of questions, practical prep ideas to confidences boosts. I’ve curated, edited and polished an anthology to celebrate five years of writing – but more importantly to be a help to someone with the viva in their future.

I’m doing the very final checks and logistical arrangements now. The words have been checked and typeset. The post order has been finalised. The cover has been created by the wonderful Maria Stoian!

There’s a few more things to do but Keep Going will be available very soon!

How soon?

Keep Going will release on Thursday 26th May 2022, and will be available as an ebook in the Amazon Kindle store and also via Payhip (where I have my own little ebook shop). To celebrate a little more, I’m hosting a launch party on Zoom on Wednesday 25th May, but I’ll share details of that in the next few days.

I just couldn’t wait any more to tell people about what I’ve been working on for the last few months! Look out for more details in the next few days on Twitter and here 🙂

Thank you for reading!

Nathan

Back To Basics

You do the research and you write a thesis.

Two examiners, one from your institution and one from elsewhere, prepare to examine you. They read, make notes, think and discuss what they need to to do at the viva.

On the day, they need to lead a discussion. They need to ask questions that explore, clarify and assess.

To be ready, you need to prepare. You need to read, think and rehearse. You also need to remember that you did the research and you wrote a thesis. At the viva you could be nervous but you can feel confident because of the thousands of hours you’ve already invested to get this far.

There’s a lot to say about the viva, of course, but the basics cover a lot.

Amazing & Spectacular

If you’re looking to build your confidence, consider the hero moments of your PhD journey.

When did you do something that was extraordinary?

A comic, show or movie featuring superheroes often shows them in day-to-day moments doing something that someone else couldn’t do. We might smile at someone doing a mundane task in a special way, but we cheer when they do something that no-one else could do.

That’s a hero moment. When have you had those during your PhD? You may have built your knowledge and capabilities as a researcher through day-to-day work – that’s essential for your success as a postgraduate researcher. You will also have had times where you did something amazing. Something spectacular. Something that no-one else could do.

When you made a connection.

When you solved an equation.

When you found the solution.

When you wrote something that was wonderful.

When you knew something your supervisor didn’t!

When you presented well in spite of your nervousness.

When you finished your first draft of a paper.

When you finished the first draft of your thesis.

When you looked back and realised how far you had come.

Unlike a superhero movie, sometimes the hero moments of a PhD journey can fade into the background against the day-to-day tasks that you have to complete. Take some time, as you get ready for the viva, to reflect on what you’ve done. Take some time to appreciate that you did the work that has got you this far, the everyday and the heroic, and that that is what will help you through the viva.

You are amazing. You are spectacular.

Out Of Options?

I don’t think there’s ever a situation in the viva where you can do nothing.

I can’t think of a question that could be asked that a candidate couldn’t respond to. Questions from examiners are asked to prompt discussion. They’re asked to clarify what something means. They’re asked to dig deeper into your thesis and research.

By design, they’re not asked to crush you, stump you or stop you. They’re not asked to tear your work apart or make you feel small. They could be uncomfortable, they could be critical or they could ask about something that you’ve not thought about before.

You always have options for how you engage with them.

You just need to pause. Then you think. And you respond. A difficult question or comment cannot derail your success so long as you pause, think and respond.

There’s always something you can do.

Worry

It’s Friday the 13th and I’m not worried. I’m not particularly superstitious, so when this date rolls around or a black cat crosses my path or I spill some salt I don’t worry that that means something bad is about to happen.

But I am, by nature, a worrier!

Before the pandemic I worried about train times, the distances between a hotel and a venue, and whether or not the seminar room I would be in would have what I needed. Now I sometimes worry about whether or not my broadband will keep going, or if an image choice for a slide will work in communicating what I want.

Most of the time, before the pandemic and in the present, my worries were a distraction. For all the worry, even when things went wrong, I still figured something out.

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He probably wasn’t the first person to say it, but it’s a helpful reflection. It helps me when I am tempted to imagine worst case scenarios or start problem solving before it’s even certain that there is a problem.

It’s natural to be nervous about your viva. It’s understandable to be anxious if you have a specific problem. But if you find yourself worrying, perhaps stop and ask if you really need to. Do you need to worry? Is there a problem or just something that’s getting in the way?

And if that’s the case, and perhaps the thing you’re worrying about isn’t that likely to happen, is there something you can focus on instead that will help more than worrying?

Professional Interests

One of the things I love about the kind of work I do is that after twelve years helping people with their viva I still get delightfully-phrased questions I’ve never been asked before. I was recently asked about examiner motivations from a very particular perspective:

Do examiners get paid? Or do they take on their role as a kind of philanthropic act?

The short response to these questions is “some do” and “no”! So we need to dig a little deeper.

External examiners are often paid: they can receive a thank-you payment for their work. Your external will be offered a flat fee for examining and expenses, but it won’t be a lot for the amount of work that has to be done. It really is a gesture, a token of thanks.

If your internal says yes then it is just part of their job.

Acting as an examiner is not motivated by money really. It’s not philanthropy either: they aren’t simply doing it out of kindness. In part, they take on the role because there’s a professional expectation that they will examine from time to time.

The real motivation for them to say yes is you and your work.

Examiners are not chosen at random. They are not asked because they happen to be good friends with your supervisor. And they don’t say yes because it’s simply something to do. They say yes because when they are asked they are told a little of what you’ve done; perhaps your abstract is shared with them. If they have time in their schedule and your research sounds interesting then they say yes.

It’s not about the money. It’s not about philanthropy.

It’s about being a professional and being interested – two qualities that they share with you.

The Busy Factor

If you’re busy and you need to get ready for your viva:

  • Plan your prep. Take a few minutes to sketch out what needs doing and when you could do it.
  • Ask for help. Talk to your supervisors, friends and colleagues about what you need and how they could support you.
  • Spread the work out. Don’t overburden your plans. Give yourself space to do a little work regularly.
  • Be kind to yourself. Do the work – but remember that you have already done a lot! The years of work for your PhD all count towards your preparation.

If, for some reason, you’re not busy then all of the above still helps!

The Final Moments

A few hours have passed in the viva.

Another question. Deep breath. Pause. Respond: talk, watch their faces, listen… Say more.

OK… Well, I think that’s all we need… Would you like to go outside and…

Back in. Poker faces and nervous smiles. Congratulations and some formal words.

Any questions? You can send them on later if you think of any.

What now?

….good question.

What now?

All The Signs

Looking out of a window might not be enough to help you decide whether you should take an umbrella with you.

You might need to step outside and feel the breeze. You might want to think about what the weather has been like for the last few days or consider the time of year. It may help to ask someone what they think. Or you could always check the weather forecast, get a statistical sense of what will happen.

At some point though you have to make a decision and accept it: the sky is cloudy and grey, the wind was cool, you see people with raincoats on and umbrellas poking out of bags. And the Met Office says there’s a 70% chance of rain before midday.

All the signs are there.

 

The story above isn’t that different to the situation with you and your viva.

“Are you going to pass?”

Well, when you listen to the stories of people who do pass, you’ll see that they’re not so different from your situation. When you talk to academics about what happens at the viva you’ll know what to expect and realise there’s not much to be concerned about. You could check online, read stories, listen to podcasts and do the work needed to get ready.

When you think back over your progress you’ll realise that all the signs are there – all the signs from the last few years, showing your determination, knowledge, progress and ability.

You know what the most likely outcome is for your viva.

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