Shaking

During my PhD, I used to pray for a lectern whenever I gave a talk. I could hide a bit that way. It’s not that I didn’t want to share my research: I would simply feel too nervous. Feeling nervous felt bad. My knees would knock as I stood up, my cheeks would flush and my voice would quaver. I’m tall; when my knees shake, my whole body shakes. All I could think was, “I hope I’m not nervous, I hope no-one will see.”

I had grown to build up a strong association with important events and nerves: Something big coming up? Feel nervous Nathan!

I wasn’t nervous for my viva, although there was a lot of the same background feelings. I felt prepared for my viva, and perhaps knowing it was a small audience helped to limit my nerves and how I felt.

I’ve kind of reversed it now though: Feeling a bit nervous? It must be important then!

With that connection I can help myself to not feel overcome. It only came from experience and time: I stood up a lot more and paid attention to what happened and how I felt. If your viva is coming up and you feel nervous, there may not be time to change your perspective completely. But maybe you can plant a seed in your mind: “I feel nervous, so this is important.” What are you going to do?

 

The Recipe

I love making bread. Nothing fancy, just a simple mix of flours, yeast, salt and water. Often a little oil. I find it’s difficult to get wrong. I start, and then a few hours later I get to find out if it worked. Even when I’m low on time, it doesn’t take much to make a dough that will produce a nice batch of rolls.

Viva prep is a lot like bread-making. It’s a simple mix. It’s a combination of reading, writing, thinking. I think you need a bit of talking to help it along, in the way that yeast really helps with making bread. It doesn’t have to be a complex process. Even if you’re short of time, there’s lots that you can do to make a difference.

Unlike bread though, you always have all of the materials you need at hand: you did the research, you wrote your thesis, now you can help this material grow even more.

Not-To-Do

I often tell people to do X, Y or Z in order to prepare for the viva, or give some idea of what to do to feel ready. I also like an idea that I first encountered via Tim Ferriss, the “Not-To-Do List“. Tim’s list is aimed at reducing bad habits and improving performance, but the basic idea could be helpful in other areas. I can think of a few things not-to-do when it comes to preparing for and thinking about the viva:

  • Don’t let your examiners be strangers; it’s useful to know who they are and something about them.
  • Don’t listen to horror stories; bad viva experiences are not the norm.
  • Don’t focus on hypothetical questions from examiners; you can’t anticipate everything, so focus on what you can do.
  • Don’t leave prep to the last minute; it takes a couple of weeks to get ready.
  • Don’t obsess about what it could be like; focus on how well you can meet the challenge of your viva.

And don’t forget who the expert is on your research: you!

Snowflakes

Universities have regulations about thesis examination, conditions that they expect. But every viva will be different from every other.¬†Every PhD thesis and every PhD researcher is different from every other. Your viva won’t be like mine: it’ll have the same goals perhaps, but it will be different.

That’s OK.

Every snowflake is different from every other, but we know how to prepare for a blizzard. Your viva is going to be unique, but you can still be ready for the day it comes. Plan a little, prepare a little and you’ll be fine. You’ve come a long way already.

Change The Story

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of love for the PhD process? Every stage seems to have some kind of negativity attached to how it’s described:

  • First Year Funk: realising that what you wanted to do is harder than you thought…
  • Second Year Blues: feeling down or bored with being stuck…
  • Final Year Fears: worrying about finishing on time or at all…

“Surviving the viva” is a theme that’s been around for a while. Negative associations with “defending your thesis” persist.

These things can’t be beaten with a throwaway line or a joke. We associate being a “viva survivor” with a story that the viva is a trial by fire, the equivalent of a planned natural disaster that can’t be avoided. But the dictionary also defines survive as “manage to keep going in difficult circumstances” – not insurmountable, just difficult. Talking about all the aspects of research and being a researcher can be difficult. Answering tricky questions about your research can be difficult. But not impossible.

So reflecting on this today I have two requests:

  • If your viva is in the past: tell future PhDs what was difficult about your viva and prep, but be honest and talk about what you did to meet those difficulties. You survived!
  • If your viva is in the future: think about what challenges might come your way, but reflect on what difficult challenges you’ve already overcome. You can survive!

One positive story is not going to change the negative associations surrounding the PhD and the viva. But lots of them…