Final Chapter

Following Wednesday’s post, you could be a person, in a place, with a problem at the end of your PhD too. The mammoth task of submitting your thesis is done, but then you wonder:

  • What if my examiners don’t like something?
  • What if I’m wrong?
  • What if I forget everything?
  • What if I’m too nervous?
  • What if I go blank?
  • What if………

Sometimes you might have more than a hypothetical problem too. Maybe there’s a genuine error in a chapter. Perhaps you realise now there’s something else you wanted to say. You feel a gap in your knowledge.

None of these situations, hypothetical or definite, are insurmountable. None of them are beyond you.

Postgraduate researchers, as a rule, are are not just problem solvers: they are problem seekers. A PhD journey is built on finding problems to explore and (hopefully) solve. You have to. It’s not showing up for a 9-5, the same thing every day. No: you have to find problems, possibly problems that are beyond you at times, and rise to meet them.

Why should the end of your PhD, prep for the viva or the viva itself, be any different?

Of course there’ll be more problems. For someone like you, there will always be more problems to solve.

And for someone like you – capable, talented, knowledgeable – there will be answers too.

The final chapter of your PhD story sees you with obstacles still to overcome, challenges that may test you, but more capable than ever to meet them. Your story comes to a conclusion not simply with a person, in a place, with a problem.

It’s you, here, to get this done.

Go do it.

Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva

I had a great time last week sharing Viva Survivors: Getting Creative with PhD candidates dotted all around the UK (and the world!). It was really fun to take my creative prep ideas and see them connect: it was just lovely, as was the opportunity to respond to questions in real time. Bar the odd Zoom-related technical hitch it all worked wonderfully.

I’ll be sharing Viva Survivors: Getting Creative again in the future, but next I’ll be sharing another new free 1-hour session, Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva on April 22nd 2020. This is for PhD candidates who have their viva coming up and want to know why it’s going to be fine. Lots of people tell PhD candidates not to worry about the viva – relax, don’t stress, it’ll all be fine – sentiments which don’t always help because they often miss an important Why.

For some candidates, one thing – the right thing – can be enough to make the difference and help them feel certain about their viva. I have seven reasons to share next Wednesday, and my aim is to convince anyone coming that they will be fine for their viva. They may have work to do, things to check or prep to complete, but when the time comes, they can be ready. They will pass.

Like last week’s session, I want to run this again, but don’t have firm plans for now. If you want to come to Viva Survivors: 7 Reasons You’ll Pass Your Viva then book now! Full details are at the link: the session is free, but you have to register to attend. It’s open to 60 participants like the last session – which was fully booked – and at the time of writing 40% of places have gone. Simply click through to sign-up; all of the joining instructions will follow on after that.

Thanks for reading this. If it sounds like it might help you, then please register for a spot on the session. Hope to see you there.

Nathan

Press Enough Buttons

Our washing machine broke a few months ago and blew a fuse. The power was off all around our house.

In the moment, I knew the sort of thing I needed to do in our fusebox, but couldn’t tell which fuse had gone. It took a little experimentation (and a call to my father-in-law) before I figured out what needed to be done. Ten minutes later the lights were back on.

You might know the sorts of things you need to do to get ready for the viva, but not which specific things will help you feel ready. You might know you need to do something, but not know the thing that will help you feel confident.

So pull some levers. Flick some switches. Press some buttons.

Try things: reading, annotating, presenting, rehearsing, priming, deciding on what you will wear… The list of things you could do to get ready for the viva is long. You don’t need to do everything, but if you press enough buttons you’ll figure out what helps you feel and be ready. Press enough buttons and you’ll feel confident for the viva.

Press enough buttons and the lights will come on.

Critics & Cheerleaders

Your Worst Critic?

It’s probably you. Pulling yourself down for slips, failures and mistakes. Overly critical of things that could be better. Berating yourself for things that are difficult. And the Worst Critic within is self-perpetuating, it’s hard to get away from the voice.

But you can try. If you hear your Worst Critic creeping up the backstairs of your brain place a call to your Biggest Cheerleader.

This could be you too!

Ask your inner cheerleader to tell you something good. Not just something positive and nothing false, just something truly good about what you do and how do you do it. You need your critic, but only so long as they don’t drown out your cheerleader. You need your cheerleader to help you believe in your talent. As you get close to the viva, there’s a place for both of them.

You need to think critically: to be clear, to be honest, to be able to engage well as a researcher with your examiners.

You need your cheerleader to remind you: you’re great, you got this, you can do this, you’re amazing.

Labels

PhD student or postgraduate researcher?

Examiner or academic?

Expert or experienced?

Prepared or ready?

The labels we use make a difference. They’re a part of the story we tell ourselves about a situation.

Some labels help and others don’t.

What labels have you chosen for your examiners? What labels describe you? And are they the most helpful labels for your viva and the end of your PhD?

Practice Makes…

…not perfect.

Today I’m delivering my 218th Viva Survivor workshop. I still get a little nervous, but only a little. I’m more likely to be anxious about travel arrangements than talking or presenting.

I make a point of giving the latest session count in each Viva Survivor – not to boast, but to emphasise that practice leads to confidence. I was a terribly anxious speaker when I finished my PhD: in talks I was always looking for places to hide, looking for anything I could do to not feel so nervous. There are lots of things I have done since then to build my confidence.

A simple part of it is practice, action aimed at becoming better.

My point isn’t to tell candidates to go and get as much viva practice as possible before their viva – they will only have one mock viva, not 217 before they get to the real one. My point is that real, relevant practice that builds a candidate up has been done all through the PhD.

You grow, you learn, you develop. You can’t always see it because the research is in the foreground, but it’s there. Your PhD experiences matter, and those experiences can lead to confidence.

Not perfect, but practised.

A Useful Vision Of The Viva

What’s your vision of your viva?

Lewis Carroll is misquoted as having written, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” He didn’t write that, but it’s a neat way to summarise a short exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I think there’s a lot in there, when you reflect on it.

It’s really a warning.

If you don’t know what you want your viva to be like, it doesn’t matter what you do to prepare.

If you don’t know what vivas are like generally, you can’t know if your preparations are really useful.

If you don’t know what examiners are generally interested in, you can’t be sure you will be able to engage with them well in the viva.

Find out about the viva. Build a vision, then decide what you are going to do to make that vision a reality.

Perhaps, from another perspective – through the looking glass? – we can see Lewis Carroll’s unquote as,

“If you know where you’re going, you can find a way to get there.”

I’m convinced that’s true for the viva.

Why Would I Be OK?

This is a question I didn’t realise I was asking myself before my viva.

All of my friends told me I would be fine. They’d passed their vivas, they told me I would pass mine. It would be OK.

Why? Why would it all be fine? Why would I be OK? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that most candidates pass – and pass with minor corrections. I had no idea.

I didn’t know what examiners did in the viva. I didn’t know if there was a format. Were there expectations for vivas? I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what I might be asked about. I had a good understanding of everything I’d done, but I didn’t know if that would be enough. Would that match what my examiners wanted to know? I had no clue.

Everyone told me I would be OK. If I’d been a little more self-aware at the time I would have known to ask, “Why?”

Your viva can be fine. Find out more about what they’re like, find out what you can do to be ready. Then go and be fine.

You’ll be OK.

One, Two, Three

Years ago, my friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared with me one of the most useful rules for receiving feedback I’ve ever come across. There are lots of models and ideas about giving feedback, but not so many concepts for receiving feedback. The model Aimee shared with me is one I’ve found helpful for a long time.

If one person tells you something, that’s their opinion. If two people tell you, that could be coincidence. If three people tell you, you should listen!

One, two, three – opinion, coincidence, listen! This has been really helpful for me; I know it’s helped many more people Aimee has shared it with, particularly when receiving negative feedback (constructive or otherwise). Sometimes a piece of feedback is just one person’s opinion. They didn’t like it, maybe for really valid reasons, but that’s just their opinion.

For the viva, this is useful when considering feedback directly – from your supervisors in advance, from your examiners on the day – but I think we can also connect it to expectations as well. If you hear bad things about the viva, who told you? How many people have told you that they had a bad experience? How many people have told you that their viva was fine? What have people said about the details, the format, the structure?

Pay attention to what people say about viva experiences. One person’s detail is just a single experience. If two people tell you about a certain feeling or question that comes up, that could be coincidence. If three or more people tell you about the same aspect of the viva, then you need to listen.

And maybe you need to do something.

Confidence Tests

Confidence takes time and experimentation. There isn’t a set process. Rather than press a button to start an engine, we have to think of it as turning dials and pulling levers on a great, glorious machine. Try something, then check gauges to see the responses.

This is true generally in terms of building or priming confidence, and works too for building confidence for the viva.

  • Read your thesis in preparation. How do you feel now?
  • Select some clothes for the viva. What might help you feel your best?
  • Learn about your examiners. How does that help you feel?
  • Find two songs that get you feeling great. Which one works best?
  • Reflect on your past successes. Which ones stand out and help most?

You can’t flip a switch to turn on your confidence. You can try lots of things to find it though. Look for the things that help you be at your best, and shine a light on your PhD to help you see the reasons you will pass the viva.