Nevermind

I didn’t listen to Nevermind by Nirvana when it came out. I was in my teens in the 90s, but for some reason the album never connected with me. Of course, I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit but it just sounded loud and angry. I didn’t get it.

In my thesis I wrote a really detailed explanation of how I produced a particular algorithm. I walked the reader through it step by step. And it didn’t connect with my examiners. They thought it read like a story. They didn’t get it.

In both cases though, there was an opportunity to correct. In my viva I was able to explain the process, and my examiners got it. They asked me to re-write my explanation, but they understood what I was trying to get across: my thesis was better as a result.

And last month I listened to Nevermind for the first time: life is better as a result.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It?

I love Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, the web series by Jerry Seinfeld where he interviews comedians in ca- well, you probably get the idea. One of my favourite episodes is with Steve Martin. It’s funny and well worth a watch, and his book¬†Born Standing Up is also really great. In the episode, he describes how in his early career he made a conscious decision to “fake confidence.” He wanted his audience to think he was happy and at ease with what he was doing.

Seinfeld asks how that is any different from actually being confident, because presumably the output of confidence or faking confidence is the same – people think you are!

“Fake it ’til you make it!” I see this advice a lot. Show confidence even if you don’t feel it. Don’t let them see fear. But that kind of pressure can take a toll. If the output of faking and being confident – assuming that you can successfully fake it – is the perception of confidence… wouldn’t it be better to work on being confident? If someone feels nervous or uncertain, and if that goes so far as to knock their confidence, it would be so much more rewarding to do something to build confidence back up rather than try to fake it.

When it comes to the viva, I hope that every candidate feels confident – which doesn’t mean that they won’t feel nervous, they could still have some anxieties. To my mind there are three areas in particular that any viva candidate can feel confident about:

  • They can feel confident in their work, which has taken time to develop.
  • They can feel confident about the choices they’ve made, and if they have to, can explain them.
  • They can feel confident in their talents, their competence, their abilities as a researcher – things which have necessarily developed over the course of research.

If you’re near the end of your PhD, viva just around the corner, it’s OK to feel nervous – but it’s right to be able to look at yourself and everything you’ve done to get there and feel confident in your achievements. You didn’t just stumble upon the end of your PhD.

When it comes to the viva, it’s not fake it ’til you make it: you’ve made it.

Experts

When I first got interested about the viva someone told me, “People hopefully pick an internal who they like, and hopefully pick an external that is an expert in their field.” I’m not sure that’s the best advice for picking examiners, but it’s a starting point for today.

It could certainly help to have an expert for an examiner: then you would feel confident that they would understand the implications of what you have done without needing to spell it out again.

But suppose they know it all too well? Suppose they understand it better than you? Suppose they can appreciate problems that you haven’t? Suppose, suppose, suppose…

Don’t forget: by the time you submit your thesis you are an expert. No-one else has done what you’ve done. No-one else has your lived-in experience of doing your PhD. Maybe it takes an expert to examine an expert?

Expect Unique

If you ask around about viva length, two to three hours is fairly common. If you google you’ll find lots of lists of standard questions. On the day you will probably find out the result within thirty minutes of the end. (and you’ll probably get minor corrections)

There are broad expectations for the format and tone of the viva. But you can also expect that yours will be unlike anyone elses. My viva was four hours long and I was stood for the entire viva in front of a blackboard. I didn’t expect that and I don’t expect it for your viva! I started stood up giving a short presentation, and things just went from there.

Ask your friends who have had vivas recently what they were like. See if there are common experiences but know that yours will be a custom experience to examine you and your work.

What If I Fail?

Why might I fail? What happens if I fail? What is the process for failing the viva like?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Some people do fail the viva. The vast majority don’t.

What makes you think you would?

If you’re thinking about failure, seriously thinking about failure… Why? What has tripped that thought for you? There’s a real difference between wanting to pass and thinking you might fail. If you’re concerned about your examiners, read some of their papers, ask around about them. If you’re worried about remembering “everything” then read your thesis carefully and make some notes. If you worry about answering questions under pressure then have a mock viva, or get friends to practise with you.

If you’re really troubled by the thought of failure, do something about it.