Either Way

If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.

(Henry Ford probably said something like this, but he probably heard something like it from someone else; see here)

A reflection for today: if your viva is coming up, honestly, truthfully, do you think you can pass it? If you do, what are you going to do to make it a certainty? If you think you can’t, what are you going to do to get help? Either way, what are you going to do?

Interrogation/Inquisition

Candidates joke about these terms to describe the viva, but I think the joke masks real fears. They worry that examiners will come in and speak harshly, treat them or their thesis with a lack of respect. They worry that they will come in with an agenda, a pre-determined outcome based on “the right way” to do research.

I can’t say this never happens. I can say that I’ve not heard of many viva experiences that match this fear. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about their vivas, and it’s not come up much. Talk to people from your field about their viva experiences. You’ll find that there are ways that examiners generally behave. They’ve generally prepared well, read your thesis carefully and have fair questions in mind to drive a discussion.

Listen to stories and get it settled in your head: if your examiners disagree with an idea, a method, a conclusion, they will treat you with respect and they will be open to your explanations. They’re not interrogators or inquisitors.

Salmon Swimming

I had an idea for explaining the PhD process, a picture in my head that I described to my wife:

Me: “PhD candidates are like salmon, swimming upstream to the source of ideas. It’s a difficult journey, long and tiring, but at the end-”

Mrs R: “They’re eaten by bears? Are examiners like bears?”

Me: “Erm, no. Well, I guess you could say-”

Mrs R: “I think a lot of salmon don’t make it. I’m sure I read that. Swimming against the current kills some salmon just for trying.”

Me: “…”

Mrs R: “And then some of the salmon that make it get eaten. By bears.”

Me: “…”

There are lots of metaphors and analogies that work in describing the PhD journey and the viva. They’re useful because they give us something to hook into. They can set expectations or help us through tough times. Find one that helps you.

But please don’t be a salmon.

World’s Largest Prairie Dog

In 2009 I went on a road trip across the USA. One day my friend and I saw a sign announcing, “PRAIRIE DOG TOWN!! See the world’s largest prairie dog!!” It was over one hundred miles away, and we laughed at something that seemed so silly.

Our feelings changed quickly.

Every few miles there was a different sign talking about the world’s largest prairie dog. Signs said we wouldn’t want to miss it. They counted down the miles. There would be a five-legged cow as well! And other animals: snakes, wolves and more.

The world’s largest prairie dog!

“How big could it be?” we thought. Prairie dogs are quite small normally… Could the world’s largest prairie dog be the size of a pig? Surely no bigger… Could it? Sign after sign told us it would be something amazing, something incredible. On the road to Prairie Dog Town we listened to the story. We built on it and built on it ourselves until…

Your humble author, for comparison…

…it’s a statue. And not even a particularly good one! For over one hundred miles we had amped ourselves up, read the signs, invested hours of conversation and discussion.

It was a statue!!!

Sigh…

There’s a set of persistent, conflicting, stories about the PhD viva:

  • It’s a big mystery.
  • It’s all about choosing the “right” examiners.
  • It’s supposed to be tough.
  • No-one fails, so don’t treat it seriously.
  • People do fail…and you might be one of them!

Is it any wonder that by the time of the viva, candidates don’t know which way is up? All they know is that it’s going to be a probably-survivable-but-maybe-not-all-that-good-event.

Stories are useful, but so are facts. With the viva people get swept up in the story about the event and forget their own story. What did you do to get to the viva? How did you do your research? What’s the beginning, middle and end of the journey so far? Whether it has felt easy or hard, whether it’s been rough or smooth, you got this far. You did this.

There was only one set of signs that lead my friend and I to the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. We went because we listened. There are lots of stories that swirl around the viva. Find the facts then listen to your story.

The Most Important Exams (Or Not)

It’s GCSE results day in the UK. My wife and I tutored someone this year. At sixteen she was told the GCSEs were the most important exams she would ever take. If she didn’t do well she could not do the courses she wanted to do next.¬†She was told that she would have to retake exams until she passed. She would have fewer options, all of which would be awful.

Of course, all this did was stress her out.

I was told the same thing twenty years ago when I did my GCSEs. And two years later when I did my A Levels. During my undergrad degree I was told that I needed to get a First or else I would have few choices afterwards.

Every step of the way, “This exam is going to define your future!”

At the top of the exam pyramid: the viva. I ask people how they feel about their viva; a common response is stressed, for the same reasons as other exams. Of course, with hindsight, it is much easier to see past the trap of the “most important exams ever” stories. It’s difficult to see things with the right perspective in the moment. Take a step back. See if you can shift attention and energy or change the story. It’s far better to focus on what you can do rather than what might happen.

If your viva is past, what can you do to share a story to help someone? If your viva is coming up, how can you shift your focus back to doing good work?

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…