Nervous Is Normal

I haven’t met many PhD graduates or future viva candidates who weren’t at least a little nervous. Nervous is very common; if you feel it before your viva then you’re in a pretty normal state.

But nervous doesn’t usually comfortable.

We can distinguish between good nerves and bad nerves, the former before a happy event, the latter before something unwanted. In both cases there’s probably a degree of importance with the event. Nervousness and importance are correlated, two factors braided together in life’s tapestry. What if… something unexpected happens? Or what will happen? What if something goes wrong?

So nervous is normal for the viva. Nervous is sort-of expected given the nature of the viva.

Nervous doesn’t have to be all you feel though. You can feel excited: the viva is one of the last big things to do before the end of your PhD. You can feel knowledgeable: you know your work and your thesis. You can feel talented: you must be capable to get this far.

You can feel confident you are in the right place, ready to act.

Nervous is normal for the viva. Many, many more emotions could be normal too.

Nervous & Important

People tend to get a bit nervous about important events in their lives.

Sometimes they’re nervous because of the circumstances around it, sometimes because of the outcome, and sometimes for no real reason they can pin down. People are nervous on their wedding day because of the huge occasion. People are nervous when they take a driving test because they want to pass (or want to not fail) and then be free to drive. People are nervous sometimes before concerts or movies because they’re desperate to know if the thing they’re going to matches their expectations.

Being nervous doesn’t mean the event is a bad thing. It’s important, it means something. Humans are told to deal with the nervousness, find a way to make it go away perhaps, find a way to feel better. That’s one strategy, but I’ve become convinced that a better approach is to focus on the important event or task: focus on that and find a way to do it as well you possibly can. Not only will you be working towards the success of the event – in the process you’ll probably do something to help your lower your nervousness too.

What tactics might this suggest for the viva? How could you focus on the event and not your nerves?

  • Read your thesis to have a good mental picture of your work.
  • Check expectations for the day; think about how you could meet them.
  • Find opportunities to talk about your research.
  • Be honest about how you’re feeling; do what you can to feel confident.

Don’t try to distract yourself or not be nervous: have your focus be this important moment, finishing your PhD. Focus on that rather than the worry that comes from pushing away what ifs and maybes and hypotheticals.

No Different?

One of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, is when Yoda is trying to teach Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke is learning to be a Jedi, but is not finished. He can lift rocks and small objects with his mind, but dismisses the possibility of lifting his X-Wing when it is stuck in a swamp. He argues, “Lifting rocks is one thing, this is totally different!”

Master Yoda responds in his signature style:

“No! No different! Only different in your mind….”

And he’s right. Luke isn’t using muscle to lift rocks, he’s using the Force. Why should a tiny rock be any different than a spaceship?

In the viva you have to respond to your examiners’ questions, as well as you can. How is that different from any other time someone would ask a question about your work? At a conference, in a meeting, passing someone in the corridor, you can be asked questions – unexpected or familiar – all of the time. And the best thing you would do, in response, is try to answer as well as you can.

It’s no different in the viva.

The time, the space, the people who are asking, the questions – they might be different. But what you need to do is exactly the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is important. That makes the situation different.

The outcome is important. That makes the situation different.

You could be more nervous than a friend asking you an unexpected question. That makes the situation different.

You could be nervous because of who your examiners are. That makes the situation different.

But the method is always the same. Respond to the question as well as you can.

The viva is only different in your mind….

Stressors

It’s not nice to feel stressed or anxious. Trying to unpick why you feel that way can sometimes feel like a difficult task too. What if, by paying attention to it, you end up feeling even more stressed? I know that’s been the case for me in the past. I’ll find something stressful, focus on it, and then find myself unable to take that focus away. What happens? More stress!

I think, though, part of the problem for me has always been to focus on thinking it through. Reflection is good, but it only becomes useful if it leads to action.

There are lots of reasons you could feel stressed about the viva, and it is good to unpick why you might feel that way. But then you have to do something about it.

Worried you’ll forget something? Why? I feel I have a poor memory! OK, what could you do about it? Read my thesis, make some summaries.

Nervous about getting questions about your contribution? Why? What if my examiners are critical?! OK, what could you do about it? Explore the value of what I’ve found through my research.

Concerned about explaining your results? Why? They’re tricky! OK, what could you do about it? Have a mock viva and prompt supervisor to ask questions about that chapter.

It’s not nice to feel stressed or nervous, but those feelings don’t tend to just go away by themselves. Ask yourself why you feel that way, then think about what you could do to improve things. Then do it. Keep doing it. You might not be able to get rid of every stressful thought, but you’ll do something to build your confidence and talent for the viva.