Actions Beat Hopes

You can hope your examiners don’t spot them.

A vague paragraph. An unfortunate typo. An unfinished project. The method you can’t quite remember. The definition that you struggle to place. The ideas you’ve not finished developing.

The things you hope your examiners won’t notice, but they easily could. Hope is wonderful, but in this case hope isn’t enough.

Rather than hope your examiners won’t notice something, think about what you could do. Could you help yourself with more thought and more prep? Could you write a note in the margin or make some other useful annotation? Create a summary to explore or explain ideas? Ask a friend to ask you questions? Have a mock viva?

Hope can help you in the viva, but your actions help you more.

What will you do?

It’s a Wonderful Viva

A few days ago I was inspired by A Christmas Carol. Today my mind turns to It’s a Wonderful Life, which is my favourite Christmas movie. I could write a lot about how this movie makes me feel, what I adore about it, why it makes me cry every time I watch it, but let me pull out a key moment and why it’s worth remembering for your viva.

Towards the end, the protagonist, George, who thinks his life has gotten so terrible that it would be better if he had never been born, is given the chance to see what that world would be like. He is shown a town which is cruel, where people are mean, where no-one knows him and where some of the people he knows are fundamentally different – all because he wasn’t there as part of their lives.

As his angel (second-class!) guide Clarence tells him, “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

Now, I don’t imagine many PhD candidates consider stopping just before their viva, or truly wish they had never started. However stressed or worried, whatever fears are conjured, whatever doubts they may have about their ability, they probably don’t wish for it not to be taking place, or for them not to be PhD candidates.

Still, remember: by doing your PhD you have made a difference. You have made something that wasn’t there before. You have become better than you were. You know more and can do more. And along the way you will have helped others, directly and indirectly.

By doing your PhD you have made a difference. Remember that and it might make a difference for how you feel about your viva.

2019 In Stats

In 2019 I have…

  • …published 360 posts on this blog!
  • …delivered my Viva Survivor session a total of 51 times…
    • …which is the most I’ve ever done in a year!
  • …helped 888 PhD candidates at my session, which is more than I did in 2018!
  • …started work on three new ebook projects that will see completion by Easter 2020!

(in case you couldn’t tell by all the exclamation marks, I’m feeling pretty excited!)

My personal highlights of the year include delivering Viva Survivor at a wildlife park – where I fed a lion! Shortly after that I passed the 200 session mark for my Viva Survivor delivery – and then I passed 225 sessions several months later! I’ve now delivered Viva Survivor to over 4000 postgraduate researchers around the UK.

Statistics are numbers, more of this, less of that, totals and highlights and averages. Statistics help mark the journey though.

“I delivered 51 Viva Survivor sessions this year” – the number helps me remember how I got where I am. Confidence isn’t a statistic, but statistics help frame the story.

What are your statistics for 2019?

  • How many times have you had a success?
  • How many days did you show up to get your work done?
  • How many talks have you given – even if you felt nervous?
  • How many words/pages/chapters have you written?
  • How many times did you get something wrong – and what did you learn?
  • And what can you measure to show that you’re doing well?

Your stats help tell a story you can tell others – after first telling a good story to you. Your story can persuade others you’ve done something good, convince them you can do what you can do and that you know what you know.

Start with the stats of your story.

Just Leave Everything To Me

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I arrive early for my Viva Survivor sessions to get everything set up. I put my brain on the right frequency for Viva Survivor by listening to a few tracks from the soundtrack to Hello, Dolly! Today happens to be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Hello, Dolly! – which seems as good a reason as any to muse a little on one of the songs!

“Just Leave Everything To Me” introduces the character of Dolly Levi. She tells the audience she is capable at nearly everything. She shows in the song and through the movie a willingness to think on her feet, an aptitude for fast problem solving and a real drive to get things done.

Dolly would be a great PhD candidate. Just leave everything to me is a useful thought for viva candidates: for the most part, the viva really is down to a candidate’s wits, their knowledge and their ability. A candidate can choose to go to the viva ready and able to engage with the discussion. In the few hours they’ll be with their examiners it really is just up to them.

Just leave everything to me is a useful mindset for the viva, but it’s worth remembering everyone around you who can help. From your supervisor to your friends and family, there are many people who have helped your success so far, and most of them can continue to help you up until the moment you enter the viva.

It’s not wrong to ask for help before the viva. It’s right to feel that you are capable, and that your success in the viva is up to you.

And maybe it’s right to look for that one tune that helps you get ready, one song that primes you for feeling amazing. What would yours be?

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.