Fortunate Positions

At the end of one of the last seminars I delivered before social distancing and lockdown, a PhD candidate came up to me with a strange smile on his face. He was generous, thanked me for the session, told me how it had been useful – and then surprised me by saying, “I still don’t get how you did it though!!!”

“…I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand!”

“Well,” he said, with a sort-of-frustration, “You just stood and presented for nearly three hours! You didn’t have a script you read from – I didn’t even see you look at notes! And you responded to all of our questions! How did you do that???”

And I told him the simple truth: it was practice. That day was probably Viva Survivor 240-something! I’m in a fortunate position that I’ve been asked to share the same developing session many, many times. I get to publish and share this blog. And over time, through mistakes and mis-steps and finding what works I got good.

I wish that I had made the connection on the day, which only came a few months later, that this truth is also the simple truth for how candidates do well at the viva.

Yes, there’s a challenge – yes, there’s hard work to do – yes, someone could be nervous or worried, as I am when I present – but they’re in a fortunate position. Like me and my work, they must have become good by now. They’ve developed their talents, their research, their thesis, and now get to have a conversation with their examiners.

I like to imagine that the PhD candidate who spoke to me has had his viva by now. Perhaps, when describing his success to a friend they’ll stop him and say, “Wait wait, you talked with them for how long? And they asked you all about your research and your thesis! You didn’t have any long breaks, or any chance to confer with your supervisor – you didn’t take in a script or go away to check your files! You responded to all of their questions…

…how did you do that???”