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!

What You Have

It’s not wrong to think about what you want or need for your viva. Better to focus first on what you already have to help you succeed.

You have a thesis.

You have experience.

You have regulations.

You have expectations.

You have examiners.

You have a supervisor.

You have colleagues.

You have friends.

You have talent – you must have this if your viva is coming up!

You have a lot to help you. Maybe you have doubts too, but you don’t want or need those. What are you going to use to work on beating them?

I Like Hope…

…but don’t just hope that your viva will go well.

Don’t just hope that you’ll feel fine on the day.

Don’t just hope that you’ll get the right questions.

Don’t just hope that your examiners are a good fit.

Don’t just hope that you’ve done everything you can.

Don’t just hope that you’ll be confident as you start your viva.

It’s not about crossing your fingers and hoping it’s all fine. Do what you can so that you do feel fine, so that you feel good about answering questions, so you know about your examiners, so that you feel prepared and confident!

Don’t hope. Do something.

Pedestals

It’s not uncommon to look at your examiners and feel overwhelmed.

They’ve read more. They’ve done more. They probably know more.

You’ve had a few years to learn how to do research and to write your thesis; they’ve had so much more time to get good.

Maybe you look at your examiners and strain your neck to see them on the pedestal you’ve made for them. How does that feel?

(probably not great)

It’s not unnatural to compare yourself to someone else, but it might be unhelpful. You can be aware of your examiners’ achievements, but it’s your choice to compare yourself to them. You don’t have to do that. You can choose to learn about their work and use that knowledge to help you prepare.

If you do make the comparison though, make sure it is fair. Yes, they probably know more about your field, have published more papers and will have questions you may have never considered before…

…but you wrote your thesis. They’ve only read it. Even if you’re in similar fields, they didn’t do YOUR work.

Compare total work in your field and they’ll always win: a more useful comparison is one that relates to how much more you necessarily know about your work than they do.

Seriously, how high is YOUR pedestal?

Enough Is Enough

What if I hadn’t done enough? What if I needed more results? What if my examiners didn’t see what I saw in my work?

After years of work and months of writing up, as my page count crept towards 200, I started to think that maybe I needed more. A good friend showed me his thesis and it was like a tombstone. I worried until he showed me that the second half of his thesis was appendices of data. Then I worried when he told me that a colleague down the hall had passed her viva with a thesis that was less than sixty pages.

Oh no. What if my writing style is just really waffly and overlong? What if, like my italicised questions, they just go on and on and on and on…

My doubts faded. Of course, it dawned on me, that every thesis is different, naturally. It’s hard to quantify “significant” in the face of the variety of research that people do. There may be broad expectations in your discipline, in terms of style and structure and so on, and it’s worth learning as much as you can about those.

How do you know though? How do you know – or maybe a better word is believe – when you’ve done enough work? When you have enough results? How do you believe?

You have to look at it all. You have to get a sense both from others and yourself that the work you have done matters. You have to reflect on the fact that your thesis may be big or small, have five chapters or nine, and it is just different from everyone elses…

…and like everyone else who has come before, the reason you are here and you are going to pass your viva is because you can’t just be lucky. You can’t just show up and get the right answers or right ideas blindly. You have to be good. You have to do good work. And you have to have done that for a long time.

You have to have enough to be submitting.

You have to have enough to be preparing for the viva.

And that’s what can give you enough confidence that your work matters, you are good, and you will pass.

Enough is enough.

Two Paths Away From Failure

Two ways to get away from failing.

You could just not try.

Failing seems like such an awful thing, best stop now and not go for it. Remove the possibility of failure. Forget all about this doctorate business. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t meant for you. Because if you try and you fail… Well, that would feel terrible, right?

Or…

You could look at the viva as one more success you need to get.

Count all of the times you’ve succeeded throughout your PhD. Make a list of all of the achievements you’ve racked up. The number of times you made a difference. All of the things you’ve written in your thesis that have added something to the world. You’ve already done something amazing. The viva is just one more thing you need to do. If you’ve got this far, what could stop you succeeding in the viva?

Publications, Posters and Presentations

“Do publications mean my examiners are more likely to pass me?”

Yes, but not for the reasons that I think are behind the question.

Candidates asking this are really wondering, “Will my examiners add those papers into the balance of material that help decide whether or how I pass the viva?” The answer is no, the viva is thesis examination; you and the thesis are being examined, not publications, posters and presentations. It’s on the merit of the thesis that the viva is decided.

But…

…the publications, posters and presentations all help. They help sharpen your thinking every time you do one. They help bring your ideas and arguments together. If you reflect on the experience you have from them, you’ll see that you’re a really good candidate when you come to meet your examiners.

Your examiners don’t pass you on the basis of prior publications; you pass because of all of your PhD experiences.

Nerves Aren’t Nice…

…but they’re not a sign that something is wrong. Nerves are a signal you’re feeling stressed or excited or anxious about something. The physical and mental discomfort doesn’t mean you definitely have a problem.

There’s a strong correlation between recognising something as important and feeling nervous about it. If you experience nervousness around viva time, I think it’s because you recognise the viva is important.

I felt a bit nervous as my viva got close, not too bad thankfully. My coping strategy was to think about how I could make myself less nervous. I asked myself, “What could I do to feel better?” With hindsight, I wonder if a more useful question in situations might have been, “What can I do to do this important thing as well as I possibly can?”

You only have a finite amount of energy and attention to spend, and if you use it up trying to beat nerves you could miss the opportunity to focus on preparation.

My hunch is that investing time on prep – on doing the important thing well – will make you ready and less nervous.

What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simple happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?