How Will You Feel?

I ask “How do you feel?” a lot.

By my records I’ve asked this question in seminars and webinars at least 300 times, to over 5000 PhD candidates. It’s good to reflect on in a seminar but that’s one moment, weeks or possibly months before the viva.

I can’t ask the title of this post because it would be impossible to answer well! Who knows how you will feel on the days leading up to your viva, or in the moments before it. It’s helpful to reflect on how you might feel though, because however you feel, now or later, there is always something positive you can do to help for the viva.

  • If you felt worried: you could ask someone you trust for advice.
  • If you felt unprepared: you could make a plan and help steer yourself closer to ready.
  • If you felt great: fantastic! Now, what could you do to really hold on to that feeling?

However you feel now, there’s something you can do to help yourself. However you might feel in the time leading to the viva, there will be something you can do to help yourself. Reflect, then decide on what you’ll do to help.

Out Of Your Comfort Zone?

I know what makes me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s possible to avoid things outside of my comfort zone; I’m self-employed so I have a certain degree of control about the kind of work I do, or the conditions I work in. Sometimes stepping out of my comfort zone is necessary though. For those situations I’ve had to figure out how I can best proceed; I’ve figured out how I can make the most of those situations even thought they’re not comfortable.

In some cases, like public speaking, I’ve even come to like something that was previously way out of my comfort zone!

It’s useful to figure out your comfort zones so you can work well, and especially useful for PGRs nearing the end of the PhD process. If the thought of the viva makes you feel uncomfortable then I think the best thing you can do is stretch yourself in advance. Stretch by presenting, by discussing, by working to build your confidence. Find more ways to practise, even small ways to get more experience and learn what you can do to make the situation better, more comfortable. Like me, you might even find a way to make the process more enjoyable for you.

Perhaps your viva will be closer to your comfort zone than you expect.

Head In The Sand

Ostriches, despite popular legend, don’t put their head in the sand to hide. It’s a common comparison to make for people avoiding problems though, I’ve used it here on the blog at least once before. In that post I encouraged viva candidates to not hide from concerns – figure out what’s wrong and do something rather than worry and avoid.

Ostriches actually put their head in the sand to check on their eggs and see if they’re alright. Building on this new information, still don’t be like an ostrich with your head in the sand repeatedly!

  • Concerned about expectations? Find out and write them down. Done.
  • Worried you’ll have trouble finding things in your thesis? Make a list of key points, stick bookmarks in your thesis. Done.
  • Unsure about your examiners? Spend time reading their work and write a summary for yourself. Done.

Don’t hide from your problems, but don’t keep checking on them either. Feel a concern? Act on it and resolve it, as best you can. Then move on and keep doing what you can to focus on getting ready.

Little Reminders

On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.

Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!

My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.

The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:

My little friend!

“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”

“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.

You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?

What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?

A Reminder About Viva Nerves

Nerves don’t mean there’s something wrong. They’re just a symptom of you noticing that the viva is a big day.

Your viva is important, so you probably feel nervous as a consequence. Nothing more.

Prepare for your viva, because it is important. Do what you can to find confidence, because while confidence won’t banish nerves, it will help to keep them in check.

Acknowledge that your viva nerves are there. An anticipation of an important event. Nothing more.

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.

Making A Fuss

It’s not making a fuss if you ask your supervisor for help before the viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you think something is wrong with your viva or the outcome and believe you need to appeal something.

It’s not making a fuss to make a complaint about your viva.

It’s not making a fuss if you feel nervous or worried and need to share that with someone to try and get some help.

I often say the viva is not the most important thing ever in a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean you need to just trivialise it. It’s right to not just dismiss any concerns or worries. Make the most of your viva. Make it the best it can be. And if you need to ask questions, ask for help, make a complaint, appeal or whatever to do that then that’s what you need to do.

It’s not making a fuss to do what you need to do for your viva.

No Different?

One of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, is when Yoda is trying to teach Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke is learning to be a Jedi, but is not finished. He can lift rocks and small objects with his mind, but dismisses the possibility of lifting his X-Wing when it is stuck in a swamp. He argues, “Lifting rocks is one thing, this is totally different!”

Master Yoda responds in his signature style:

“No! No different! Only different in your mind….”

And he’s right. Luke isn’t using muscle to lift rocks, he’s using the Force. Why should a tiny rock be any different than a spaceship?

In the viva you have to respond to your examiners’ questions, as well as you can. How is that different from any other time someone would ask a question about your work? At a conference, in a meeting, passing someone in the corridor, you can be asked questions – unexpected or familiar – all of the time. And the best thing you would do, in response, is try to answer as well as you can.

It’s no different in the viva.

The time, the space, the people who are asking, the questions – they might be different. But what you need to do is exactly the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is important. That makes the situation different.

The outcome is important. That makes the situation different.

You could be more nervous than a friend asking you an unexpected question. That makes the situation different.

You could be nervous because of who your examiners are. That makes the situation different.

But the method is always the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is only different in your mind….

You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.