Finding Reasons

If before your viva you feel an abundance of nervousness, then you have to look a little and find reasons to feel confident. Confidence doesn’t eliminate nerves, but it does help to put those sorts of feelings into perspective. Nervousness recognises that something is important – confidence gives you the self-belief to know that things will be alright.

Look and find reasons. They could be reminding yourself of all the work you’ve done. They could be bound up in realising just how talented you are. Or you could focus on the process of the viva, what you need to do – what you can do – and what that means for you engaging with that process.

There are plenty of reasons to feel nervous about your viva. There are even more reasons to feel confident of success at your viva. Find them.

Finding Magic Feathers

In Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears believes he can fly because of a magic feather.

He can’t, there’s no magic, but it’s enough to help him believe at least for a time – until he recognises that he doesn’t need them.

Do you have or need a magic feather? Magic feathers won’t make the difference to your viva success. You need skills, knowledge, work and and a thesis to help you succeed – but a magic feather might help how you feel about getting through the process.

It probably wouldn’t be a feather for you. Your magic feather could be a favourite song. Planning and doing your prep in a certain way. Wearing a favourite pair of socks or a special badge.

Your magic feather could be a routine, a belief, a placebo, a cup of coffee or dancing your nerves away. Whatever it is, it won’t make a difference to your success: it might make a difference to you. A magic feather can help you remember you’re good enough.

After twelve years of workshops and webinars and helping more than 7000 researchers through them, I still have my magic feathers to help me feel confident.

Find your magic feathers, let them help you on your way. If at some point you don’t need them that’s great. If you always do then remember they are a reminder of your talent and confidence, not the cause.

It’s Not Wrong To Be Nervous

Feeling nervous means you recognise that something is important. Humans feel nervous about all sorts of things, from weddings to wars, because they recognise that what is happening matters. They might be deeply involved or a bystander: if the outcome is important and they’re paying any attention then they might feel nervous.

Your viva is important. You, of course, are deeply involved. The outcome matters. Of course you might feel nervous, and if you do there is nothing wrong.

If you feel uncomfortable as a result then that’s not great, but that’s not the end of the story. You can talk to others to get help and put your feelings in perspective. You can reflect and help yourself to get things sorted out. You can work to build your confidence.

It’s not wrong to be nervous, but it might not be comfortable. If feeling nervous isn’t helping you then consider what else you can do to change how you feel.

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?