Excited (To Be Done)

In viva prep sessions I ask candidates how they feel about their viva. Often, the group are between a few weeks away from their viva to a few months before submission, and there will be a range of emotions in the room. There’s lots of worry, concern about being unprepared, maybe uncertainty about what they feel.

And typically one person who raises their hand and says, “I’m excited actually…”

…but then they hurriedly qualify their statement with, “…erm, to be done!”

Excited that it will soon all be over. Excited that soon they will feel relief. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it saddens me that the most positive people seem to feel is “excited (to be done)”.

I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but if I could I would aim it to help people feel:

  • Excited that they get to discuss their work with examiners!
  • Excited to have achieved something big!
  • Excited to have come so far and learned so much!

I suspect these candidates do exist, but perhaps feel like they can’t speak up as much. Maybe it’s hard to seem positive around others who don’t.

If you want to feel some flavour of excitement for your viva, even excited to be done, but are stuck on something like worry, anxiety or fear, then think about what you could do to move yourself. What do you want to feel, and what could you do to get you there?

Viva Expectations: Facts & Feelings

There are two kinds of expectations you might have for your viva, facts and feelings. In the swirl of thoughts about the end of the PhD, and anticipation for what might happen, it can be difficult to determine whether an expectation is one or the other.

Is it a fact that vivas are long, or is that a feeling?

Are you certain your examiners will be looking for problems or do you just believe it?

Reflect on whatever expectations you have. What do you think you know about the viva?

Which are facts? What do they then mean for your viva?

Which are feelings? What do they tell you about what you might need to do?

What can you do to fine-tune your expectations, to know more facts and to have better feelings for the viva?

Tensions

As I was setting up one of my last Viva Survivor sessions before social distancing (three months ago!), one of the participants piped up, “Are you here to put the fear of God into us?”

The room had been quiet, and tense with the What’s-all-this-about-then?-wonderings that seminar rooms have before training or workshops. Her question cut through and made everyone smile.

The tension of a room of people was eased with a single question.

There are lots of tensions surrounding the viva:

  • The tension between being an expert and being examined;
  • The tension from the upcoming change of state, candidate to graduate;
  • The tension between of the unknown elements of the viva;
  • The tension between the nerves you probably feel and the confidence you want to have.

It’s important to realise the tensions first, before you try to do something about them. They’re the reason for your actions – a big to-do list won’t get done well unless you get to the causes behind the needs.

General tensions aside, reflect on what’s troubling you about the viva, then explore what you can do about it. And as the person from one of my last seminar-room sessions did, perhaps all you need to do is find the right question to ask.

Feelings

It’s important to reflect on how you feel about your viva. It’s not enough, I think, to just feel nervous or worried or happy or unsure. Ask yourself WHY you feel that way: dig a little deeper to see what you could do.

  • Feel nervous? Why? What does that tell you?
  • Feel worried? Why? What could you do to feel less worried?
  • Feel happy? Why? What could you do to build on that feeling?
  • Feel unsure? Why? What could bring you greater certainty?

Remember that while it’s your viva you’re not the only person present.

Try to imagine how your examiners might be feeling. Nervous, maybe, because they want to do a good job. Pressured, perhaps, because of how busy they are and what’s happening in their lives. Impressed by what they’ve seen in your thesis? Certainly. And maybe a little excited at the anticipation of a good discussion.

So: how do you feel?

How You Feel

If you feel good about your viva, ask yourself, “Why?”

If you feel nervous about your viva, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel forgetful, ask yourself “Why?”

If you feel excited, ask yourself “Why?”

Different emotions seem good or bad when you think about your viva. In all cases, unpick them a little. However you feel, think about what you need to do next. You may not be in total control of how you feel, but you can do something. You might not need to change anything, but maybe you can add to how you feel.

Good and ready.

Nervous, but confident.

Forgetful, but prepared.

Excited and grounded.

So how do you feel? Why? How could you add to that in a positive way?

The Centre Of Attention

In the viva, it’s you. Your work is what’s being discussed, but you did it. You’re the topic of conversation.

How do you feel about that?

At a recent Viva Survivor session, a participant told me that he was sure about his work, confident in his ability, but he felt really uncomfortable being the centre of attention. That feeling can be hard to shift. There’s no magic solution; a well-intentioned “don’t worry” won’t solve the problem.

Maybe a change of language could help: instead of “I have to be the centre of attention” maybe “I get to be the centre of attention”. Your viva isn’t just happening, it’s happening for a reason, because you’ve done something good.

Maybe practice could help: find opportunities to put yourself in the spotlight. A mock viva. Give a talk. Invite a group of friends to come for coffee and ask you all about your work. Get more comfortable.

Trying to live with discomfort won’t help. Trying to just not worry is no good. You have to do something.

Think and change your perspective. Act and change your perspective. Pick one or do both.

Negatives

Anxiety and negativity crop up around the viva. There are lots of unhelpful associations. If you have negative thoughts then it’s important to take a step back:

  • Make a list, get it all out in the open, what are you really thinking about here?
  • Next, for each thing on the list, is there something you can actually do? (for example, you can ask friends to help you unpick possible objections to your work, but you can’t find everything you’ve never thought about before!)
  • Finally, make a list of concrete steps to take to reduce the impact of things you can do something about.

There’s no sense in worrying about things you can’t alter. And there’s no sense in only worrying about things that you can work on.

Be clear about which is which, and then you’ll see what you can do.

Very

When postgraduate researchers imagine the viva they often dial it up to 11…

The viva is not just tough, it’s very tough. The questions aren’t just tricky, they’re very tricky. It’s not just long, it’s very long, and so on…

It’s more than challenging, it’s a nightmare! Examiners aren’t critical, they’re harsh! I ask someone, “Are you nervous?” and they reply “I’m terrified!

…yikes.

If this is where your head is at, it’s possible to turn the dial back. For a start, just how talented are you as a researcher?

Very.

You did the work to get this far. That means something.