Understandable

It’s understandable that the nature of the viva could make a person worry. It’s understandable, given what any PhD candidate has to do to get to the viva, that the person being examined might be concerned or worry about how to do their best.

Or better than their best!

And it’s perfectly understandable why the thought of being asked this question or that question – or any question – might make someone feel nervous, concerned or stressed.

To simplify the situation, in the viva, questions are just questions. When you hear a “?” at the end of the sentence that’s your cue to talk. Your cue to talk about what you did, how you did it, what you know or what you think. It’s your cue to say something: to ask a question, to share a response, to say you need to think or to say you’re not sure.

Your examiners have to ask questions to find out what they need. You have to respond to those questions to try to meet those needs.

There are no good or bad questions, although it’s reasonable to expect challenging questions that you have to think about. It’s understandable for you to be nervous about being asked, but also reasonable to expect you to rise to the challenge of responding.

Do You Feel Nervous?

It’s not a bad thing if you feel nervous before the viva, or at the start.

It’s probably not comfortable. Nervousness can sometimes grow into feeling overwhelmed or anxious because – but by itself it’s not a terrible state.

Nervousness recognises the importance of something: your viva matters. Success means something.

If you feel nervous, don’t fight it. Focus on the work you’ve done. Remind yourself that your ability and knowledge, your effort and research outcomes are what has brought you to your viva. Focus on all of that and you’ll find enough confidence to put your nerves in perspective.

Yes, your viva is important, so you might feel nervous.

Yes, you did the work, so you can feel confident.

Nervousness To Spare

You might be nervous for your viva. Your examiners could be nervous about doing a good job. Your friends and family might be nervous for you. Your supervisors could feel some nerves about the outcome.

Everyone nervous because it, your viva, matters.

We’re wired to be nervous when something is important – it doesn’t have to be something bad. All the people connected to you and your viva could feel nervous. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not a sign that there’s something wrong.

You can’t squash nervousness away, but you can use it to recognise the importance and then respond accordingly. Prepare, get ready and ask for help from others.

There’s nervousness to spare when it comes to you and your viva. But it’s there because it’s important: your success matters.

Midsummer

Today is the longest day of the year in the UK.

More hours of daylight. The shortest night. A special date in the calendar.

And just one more day.

Your viva could be the longest exam you’ve had. More concentration than any occasion in recent memory. An important date in your diary.

And like midsummer it’s just one more day.

Important – and then tomorrow rolls around.

Confidence & Nervousness

These are not opposite ends of a spectrum. Nervousness is a response to importance; we tend to feel nervous about an important event, good or bad. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance, certainty or capability.

Nervousness says, “I hope this goes well!”

Confidence says, “I’m pretty sure it will.”

It’s likely you would feel nervous about the prospect of your viva because passing it is important. It’s possible to feel confident for it because of all of the work you’ve done, all of the things you know, all of the talent that you must have. Reflecting on all of these things can help you to find and feel confident. It’s a far more useful thing to do than to try to squash nerves.

Nervousness is about the event. Confidence is about you.

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.

Don’t Deny Nerves

If you feel nervous about your viva there is a reason. Don’t try to put it to one side or squash it down, because that feeling is trying to draw your attention to something.

  • If you feel nervous because you don’t feel ready, then take time to prepare for your viva.
  • If you feel nervous because of something that doesn’t seem right in your thesis, then talk to your supervisor and figure things out.
  • If you feel nervous because you don’t know what to expect then find out more!

And if you just feel nervous but can’t put your finger on why then most likely you are recognising that the viva is important. This matters to you. Still, don’t push away your nerves, but instead focus on building your confidence, a counter-feeling that will help bring your nervousness into perspective.

Either/Or

I hear a lot of people describe vivas in binary terms.

  • The viva is long or short.
  • Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Expect examiners to be fair or critical.
  • Questions are either easy or hard.
  • Preparation is straight-forward or lots of work.
  • You’re either nervous or confident when the day arrives.
  • Overall, the viva is either good or bad!

And of course the truth is that, generally, these either/or positions don’t capture what the viva is really like. Different people will feel different things, and rarely will the viva be one thing or the other.

My viva was four hours long and it felt like it flew by. My examiners were really fair with their questions and they had some very critical comments about the structure of my thesis.

Being nervous means that the viva is important to you, but you can be confident too if you reflect on your achievements and realise the success that you’ve made for yourself.

“Not The Word I’d Use…”

I’ve asked over six thousand candidates in workshops, seminars and webinars, “How do you feel about your viva?”

Less than 1% have said they felt excited.

There’s probably some selection bias there; if you’re attending a session about getting ready for the viva then perhaps you’re less likely to feel excited.

Candidates often feel nervous, which is a similar flavour of emotion; nervous and excited are both a reaction to how you anticipate something, but nervous has a much more negative sense to it. Candidates often express concern or worry: rather than being simply nervous about the viva, they have a particular aspect that they’re focussed on, a problem that needs a solution.

Many candidates feel unprepared. Thankfully that’s a temporary state; work moves you from unprepared to prepared. Work also helps with worry, you have to do something to change how you feel. Preparation won’t help nerves directly but it can help to build confidence. Confidence helps a candidate feel capable – they know what they know, they’re sure of what they’ve done, they can do what they need to – even if they then feel nervous they can put that into perspective.

And, on occasion, preparation and learning more about the viva could help someone to feel excited. As they know more of what to expect they could come to see that perhaps this is an event that’s not a final hurdle to jump or an encounter they need to win. It’s an opportunity to enjoy.

It’s not likely though. On most occasions when a candidate tells me they are excited they hastily clarify, “Er, excited to be done!”

 

You feel how you feel. It’s not good or bad to feel one thing or another, but understand that some states are more or less helpful for you. How you feel cannot simply be changed, but you can work towards a different state. So: how do you feel? How do you want to feel? What could you do to try to change how you feel?

In Your Way

Time or work pressure.

Not knowing what to expect.

Being unsure of how to prepare.

Hearing stories that create doubt.

There can be lots of obstacles in your way of getting ready for the way. They’re real, they are barriers. You can still be ready, but only you can take the steps to get these things out of your way.

You have to make a small piece of time for yourself. You have to find out what to expect. You can learn what to do to prepare. You can ask for more viva stories that help.

You can and you must deal with anything in your way of getting ready for the viva.