The Tightrope

Let’s imagine you get good at walking on a tightrope that’s six inches off the ground. Weeks of practice, perfect balance, good footwork. You can do it in front of people with a smile on your face, step, step, step, all the way to the other side.

You’re brilliant.

So let’s put you twenty feet in the air. Walk the tightrope now. Just step, step, step to the other side. It’s exactly the same, you have the skills, you have the practice, so just get to it!

………but of course it’s not the same. Of course there’s a great big difference. Even with all the practice, even though the practical, physical skills being used are the same, the situation makes it very different. The potential outcomes make it very different.

 

Like the viva. The skills being used are the same as if you were in conversation with friends. The same as if you were answering a question after a conference talk, or in a meeting with your supervisor. You need to know about your work, about your field, and have what it takes to do research in an appropriate way. And you’ve got that covered. You have plenty of experience by the viva.

But there’s a big difference because it’s important.

It’s important, important in a way that coffee with friends is not. Way more important than just another meeting with your supervisor. Important because of the consequences.

None of that importance takes away from your skill, talent and knowledge though. You have all that practice. The importance doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

You’ve walked across the high wire many times during your PhD. You can do it one more time with your examiners watching.

7 Questions On The Journey

When your viva is a few days away, take thirty minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What was the first day of your PhD like?
  2. How about the end of your first month?
  3. What was it like at your transfer viva?
  4. How did you feel the first time you presented your research?
  5. And how about the most recent time?
  6. How did you feel at submission?
  7. How do you feel now you’re almost-prepared for the viva?

You have to improve over the course of doing a PhD. You change, but day-to-day you might not feel it. Take a little time before your viva to reflect on the beginning, middle and almost-end of your research journey. Just before the viva you might feel a little nervous, a little excited, but hopefully you can see that the last several years have been a process leading you to the talented, wonderful researcher you are now.

Superstitions Are Stories

Stories can be very persuasive.

Do you have a story that says you need to do this or that in order to be ready for the viva? You might be unable to not listen. You might have to wear those socks or listen to a certain song in order to feel right to talk with your examiners.

Or do you have a story that says you can’t do certain things? You might need to avoid drinking coffee because you feel it makes you twitchy. You might need to avoid a colour because of an association you have with it.

Perhaps you even want to avoid walking under ladders, seeing black cats or scheduling your viva on Friday the 13th!

Superstitions are stories. They can feel true, but they are only stories we tell ourselves. Rather than do this or avoid that before the viva, perhaps it’s better for you to try to create some new true stories.

What’s the story of your PhD, for example?

How did you get from the start to where you are today?

What are the things you could do to boost your confidence?

What stories are you telling yourself before your viva?

The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.

Responsibility

Picture two friends: the first has just passed their viva, the second is trying to unpick what happened…

…I was really lucky with the questions-

-lucky? Why, were they easy?

Well… No, they were pretty challenging in places. I was lucky because I knew how to answer them well.

Lucky? The answers just came to you?

…noooo, they were things I’d considered before. Or I could figure them out. They were tricky, but I could deal with them. I guess it’s lucky my examiners decided to ask those particular questions.

There’s that word again! Lucky? Did they just use a big list of random questions? Was it super-lucky that those were the ones they picked off the list?

OK, I see what you’re saying! My thesis will have guided them a bit-

-“a bit”?!

…I don’t know! What do you want me to say?!

Your thesis didn’t just happen! None of it’s “luck”! You did this!

I know, I know. I get what you’re saying… I still feel lucky!

…did you get corrections?

Yes.

Do you accept responsibility for them?

Of course!

Then accept responsibility for the rest too!

It’s not luck that did your PhD or helped you through the viva.

Accept responsibility.

Relative

Compare your experience and knowledge to your examiners and you might feel pretty small. They’ve had longer to see more, learn more, do more and know more. A candidate could easily worry as a result.

But more is not the same as better. Yes, your examiners know more in general, but you know more specifically. They could have a better view of the big picture, but you have a clearer perspective of your research.

Remember: your examiners have read your thesis, but you made it.

Behind The Curtain

In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all thought they were missing something.

The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the Tin Man lacked a heart and the Lion had no courage. Dorothy takes them to see the Wizard, thinking that a great and powerful man like him will be able to give them the qualities they lack. Ultimately though, he shows them there is nothing he can give that they didn’t already have. All he gives them are symbols that recognise what was there.

Those qualities were there because they had the opportunity to show them through their adventures. They had to do something to demonstrate their intelligence, their love, their bravery, but after years of doubt they couldn’t see they had those qualities. They had to have the symbol and someone to point it out to them.

There are two Wizards in your viva. They can’t magically give you a PhD. Their questions give you the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, something that you’ve been doing for a long time.

The curtain is pulled back and the truth is there. There’s no magic, but that’s no problem. You already have everything you need.