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.

Three Wishes For Your Viva

I wish for your viva to be long enough to be interesting, but short enough to be not too draining.

I wish for great questions and helpful corrections.

I wish you confidence: you’ve earned your place and you have the talent to meet any challenges in the viva.

The first two wishes are realistic expectations, given the whole process. The last one I can wish for you, I can hope for it, but you have to work at it too. Your confidence is not just a hope, and it’s not so magical that you need to only wish for it. If you’re doubting yourself, you have to take the first steps to realising a more confident you.

What will you do?

What Matters

An incomplete list of what matters about you, your PhD, your thesis and your viva:

  • That you did the work;
  • That you put the time and effort in;
  • That you feel reasonably confident for the viva;
  • That you prepare for the viva;
  • That you have examiners who have done their prep;
  • That you have done something meaningful;
  • That you have talent and are a capable researcher in your field.

An incomplete list of what DOESN’T matter about you, your PhD, your thesis and your viva:

  • That you do or don’t have a certain number of publications in print or forthcoming;
  • That you have decided to stay or not in academia after your PhD;
  • That you feel nervous;
  • That you have typos in your thesis;
  • That you will get corrections in your viva;
  • That you haven’t read everything in your field;
  • That you don’t know everything.

In my experience, sadly, candidates pay a lot of attention to the second list but mistakenly think that the items either matter a lot or are problems that have to be solved.

Which list will you focus on?

The Number One Tip

What’s your number one tip for the viva?

I was asked this recently by a PhD candidate…

Take time to think is a good one for the viva; make sure you pause and think before answering.

Read your thesis carefully after submission is another that has a lot of value.

Try not to worry too much is a good tip, but can be tricky to put into practice!

These are good ideas, but my number one tip is this:

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

Think back over the last few years. How did you get to this point? What have you done? What were the key events? How did you do it? How are you talented? What have you achieved?

Because it wasn’t all down to luck. There may be times you feel very grateful that something good has happened, but nothing just happens. You’ve worked hard to get to submission and the viva.

Reflect and be certain of how you have got this far.

The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.

My Dinosaur Socks, My Purple Sweater

These are my two biggest confidence boosters, at least in the winter and early spring. Summer is on the way, and so my purple sweater will soon be folded and stored away. My dinosaur socks can still provide an extra layer of help to me; I have music and routines that help steer me – both when I deliver workshops and when I’m working at home – but as my sweater goes away I’ll be looking around for other helpful primers and reminders.

Confidence for the viva doesn’t solely depend on tricks, but it’s helpful to look for and find things that help you. It’s not just hoping things go well, but it’s not magic either. Explore: what will make the difference for you? What will help lead you to being your best self in the viva?

First and Last

That’s what your viva is likely to be. Possibly your first and last time even being in a situation like the viva!

Focus on the first: you can’t expect to be perfect. No-one is perfect the first time they do something. You can prepare, you can be confident, but know that you don’t have to be some unattainable ideal.

Focus on the last: you’re almost done. You’re nearly there. The hardest work is behind you. You can do this. You’ve done everything else that’s got you this far.

Keep going!