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.

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.

Fortunate

If things work out during your PhD, that’s not simply luck. You have to work for it. If you get the most fantastic results or the brightest ideas they come to you only through effort.

Which means that when you get to submission and then the viva, it’s not simply luck. You HAVE worked for it. The end result of a good thesis and a good candidate for the viva is due to your effort.

You’re fortunate, not lucky. If your hard work has produced results this far then what would stop your fortune continuing to the viva?

8 Things You Need To Know About The Viva

I ask people at the start of Viva Survivor sessions what they need to know about the viva. I ask if they have gaps of knowledge, worries about what might happen or vague hypotheticals.

I’m happy to answer anything and everything that candidates want to talk about. Recently, a participant in a session turned the question around on me: what did I think people needed to know?

It’s a good question. Here’s my answer:

  1. The vast majority of candidates pass the viva. This doesn’t “just happen”…
  2. …candidates pass the viva because of what they’ve done, what they know and what they can do. Perfection is not the goal or expectation. Candidates must necessarily be really good at what they do to get to submission and the viva.
  3. Examiners will be prepared, and that’s a good thing. They’ve read your thesis, made notes and thought a lot about questions; that’s far better than the alternative!
  4. Examiners may have challenging questions, but they ask them with respect for you and your work. They’re not there to interrogate or tear work apart. Questions can be challenging, but that’s due to the nature and standard of the research involved.
  5. There are broad expectations for what the viva is like. These aren’t secret.
  6. Most candidates get some form of corrections. You probably will too. Examiners recommend them to help make the best possible thesis submission.
  7. The viva can be prepared for. You can’t anticipate and have model answers for every question, but by preparing well you can be ready and confident to answer any question that comes up.
  8. The viva might be the final test, but it’s not the only test. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your PhD: the viva is not the only milestone you’ve passed. You’ve consistently applied yourself and achieved. The viva is one more time you have to meet the standard.

And that’s what I think candidates need to know about the viva.