The Wrong Thing

I can’t imagine what someone could say in the viva, without going to flippant extremes, that would be so wrong as to lead to a terrible outcome.

Wrong couldn’t be saying too little or too much; your examiners will help steer the conversation.

Wrong couldn’t simply be factual error – your examiners would rather check details than simply let an inaccuracy through.

Wrong couldn’t be the result of nerves: your examiners are human and would understand. They’d give you space to get past nerves.

Wrong couldn’t be simply saying “I don’t know” – that wouldn’t be wrong, that would just be not knowing something.

It would be wrong to be arrogant, it would be wrong to pick a fight, it would be wrong to assume that you know what’s what for everything connected to the viva!

But would you do that?

If you are worried, consider what you could do to lessen those worries. If you’re nervous, explore how to build your confidence.

And if you’re still worried about being wrong, remember that it’s far more likely that you would say the right thing than the wrong in your viva.

The Most Challenging Question

I think there are two possibilities for most challenging question a candidate could be asked in their viva.

First, the opening question of the viva. Not knowing what that opener is until it’s asked could make it very challenging. You’ll probably respond to it well, but the anticipation might make it feel tough.

The other possibility for most challenging is whatever question you really don’t want to be asked. Whatever it is, whatever part of your thesis or research, if there’s something you really don’t want to talk about there’s likely to be significant challenges in your mind when it comes to responding.

To help prepare for the first question: remember that your examiners want your viva to go well. They want to help with that by helping you to start well. The first question is likely to be simple stated and reflective – something to get you talking about your work.

To help prepare for the question you don’t want: ask others to ask you it. Prepare. Make notes. Talk about it. Talk about why you don’t want it and invest time in talking about the thing that you don’t want. Hoping you won’t be asked is not enough. Invest time in getting better at talking about it.

You will be asked a first question; you might not be asked about the topic you really don’t want to talk about. Either way, a little prep for both will help you face the challenges of your viva.

Failing In Advance

My hero Seth Godin describes anxiety as “failing in advance”.

In seminars I would estimate at least a third of candidates I ask describe themselves as nervous, anxious or worried about their chances of viva success – with anxiety being very common – even though the vast majority of vivas result in the candidate passing.

If you had anxiety about your viva, what could you do to help yourself?

  • Find out more about the process: having more certainty could help you to see you have what you need to succeed.
  • Remember that you don’t have to have a viva, you get to have a viva: it’s at the end of a process that you have continued through for a long time.
  • Invest a little time in getting ready: perfection isn’t needed but you can be prepared.

A little work can help lessen or remove anxiety. A little work is also what will help you to feel ready for success at the viva.

Nerves In Perspective

PhD candidates are generally nervous about the viva. In my experience, most will feel a portion of nervousness at some point before they meet their examiners. Some will continue to feel it during their viva too.

I don’t know that a person can ever completely overcome a feeling of nervousness, but I’m convinced that they could learn to put them into perspective:

  • The viva is important, so it’s natural to be nervous about it.
  • You may be nervous about it, but it’s only going to be for a few hours. Then it’s done.
  • Most people pass – and pass well – so however nervous you feel, the outcome is most likely going to be good.

Nervousness isn’t always rational. You can feel nervous and be confident for success at the same time. Try to focus on what you need to do, so that you can do well.

For the viva particularly, remember that those nervous few hours come after thousands of hours of work on your part. Remember that, and those thousands of hours might help you see that those few hours in the viva are going to be fine.

How Will You Feel?

I ask “How do you feel?” a lot.

By my records I’ve asked this question in seminars and webinars at least 300 times, to over 5000 PhD candidates. It’s good to reflect on in a seminar but that’s one moment, weeks or possibly months before the viva.

I can’t ask the title of this post because it would be impossible to answer well! Who knows how you will feel on the days leading up to your viva, or in the moments before it. It’s helpful to reflect on how you might feel though, because however you feel, now or later, there is always something positive you can do to help for the viva.

  • If you felt worried: you could ask someone you trust for advice.
  • If you felt unprepared: you could make a plan and help steer yourself closer to ready.
  • If you felt great: fantastic! Now, what could you do to really hold on to that feeling?

However you feel now, there’s something you can do to help yourself. However you might feel in the time leading to the viva, there will be something you can do to help yourself. Reflect, then decide on what you’ll do to help.

Little Reminders

On Thursday March 19th 2020 I was nervous. The next day I was going to deliver my first Viva Survivor webinar. Lockdown hadn’t started but you could tell it was coming. I knew I would need to move my work to Zoom, so decided to go early. Thankfully, my clients were happy to accept my proposal.

Still, the webinar had been rushed together in three days. I knew the material but had lots of worries about the tech, the pacing and so on. Would it all work? Were my slides OK? I didn’t do slides when I presented!

My daughter, who had just started home schooling, asked me what was wrong, and so I tried to explain. She listened and gave me a hug and wandered off.

The next morning, a few hours before I was to begin, I was nervous but practising my introduction when there was a knock at my office door. My daughter was stood there, with a smile and a gift:

My little friend!

“This is for you Daddy – this is you! You’re going to be fine today. He’s smiling and you can too.”

“Little Nathan,” as I’ve come to call him, has joined me on every webinar since. He makes me smile, and tends to make participants smile too, but more importantly he is a reminder of what I can do and how I want to be when working.

You can’t have Little Nathan, but you can make your own reminders. What will help you remember your talent? What could remind you of your confidence?

What could help you to smile on the day of your viva?

Ten Questions For Pre-Viva Nerves

It’s understandable to be nervous, anxious or scared about the viva. It’s not just any other day of your PhD.

You can be nervous, and hope that it doesn’t affect you too much, or you can be nervous and think about what you can do to make things better. Here are ten questions to help you unpick and cope with pre-viva nerves:

  1. How nervous do you feel on a scale of one to ten?
  2. In what ways are your nerves getting in the way of your prep?
  3. What do you think lies at the root of your nerves?
  4. What could you do to make yourself feel one bit less nervous?
  5. What will you do?
  6. How many positive things can you think of to boost your confidence?
  7. What ones do you think you could try in the next seven days?
  8. What ones will you try?
  9. What are you feeling most anxious about the viva?
  10. What are you going to do about it?

“I’m nervous” or “I’m anxious” isn’t enough. You can’t stop there. You have to work past worry I think, not be stopped by whatever barriers are going up. It’s easy for me to just say that, but if you’re in that place you have to do something about it.

I hope these questions help. Take a look at the following tagged themes on the blog too – worry and viva anxiety – there may be something useful among these posts for you.

Details

They matter. But the little things that evade memory or fast recall probably don’t matter as much as you think they do.

You’re primed to notice the little things you forget more than you notice all of the things that you easily remember.

If nerves about remembering everything before the viva appear, banish them by thinking about all of the things you do know, rather than the tiny fraction of details that don’t snap into focus.

A Lack of Confidence

I often write about looking for ways to boost or find confidence. I’m not sure I’ve wondered too much about why someone might have a lack of confidence on the blog, except for mentioning surface level things like “what if my mind goes blank?”

For a long time before, during and after my PhD I would be hyper-nervous on any occasion I would have to speak in public. Eventually that went away, through a lot of practice. But at the root was a worry that people would judge me somehow, not like me or what I had to say.

Where did that come from?

In my dim and distant memory I remember being in a play as a teenager, to an audience of mostly teenagers, and no-one liking it. A really different kind of situation to the situations in my PhD and afterwards. Somehow different anxieties had tied together over the years.

It’s freeing to remember it now. I’m older, more rational, and can look on it differently: I can think about what it means, what I can do about it. I still get nervous, like anyone does, but thinking about where those worries came from has helped me to do something about them.

If you feel nervous or anxious about any aspect of the viva, then don’t look first for things to boost your confidence. Search instead for what might be at the root. What is causing you to doubt? What is holding you back? What does it mean?

What are you going to do?