Telling Tales

If you tell yourself you’re lucky, you might come to think that you don’t deserve to pass your viva.

If you tell yourself there were things you could have done better, you might come to believe that your research isn’t that great.

If you tell yourself to be worried about your examiners, then you’ll probably build up your anxiety for the viva.

If you tell yourself that the viva’s all a bit of a mystery, then you’ll likely be afraid of what might happen.

Stories steer our reality. Personal expectations for the viva are influenced by the experiences that graduates and academics share, but these take root in the tales that we tell about ourselves. The tales you tell yourself about your progress, talent and imagined futures can dominate how you feel and act now.

So if you tell yourself you’re fortunate, you’ll know that you’ve found success through hard work.

If you tell yourself what worked well in your research, you’ll find a way to share that with others.

If you tell yourself that your examiners want to have a good discussion, then you’ll smile and thank them for their questions. (hopefully!)

And if you tell yourself that you’re talented, that you’ve not got this far by mistake or blind luck, then whatever you’re asked in the viva you can be confident you’ll rise to the challenge.

An Imposter Story

Academia is rife with imposter syndrome. Lots of talented people, wondering about whether or not they are really talented, worried that they will be found it. For researchers at postgraduate level, I don’t think imposter syndrome starts with the viva, but the viva can certainly increase worries about being “good enough” or being revealed.

Working against imposter syndrome takes time, but perhaps a starting point is understanding that even the most high-achieving people in the world can feel it. Author Neil Gaiman describes meeting an older gentleman at an event who had the same first name as him:

…I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

Neil Armstrong worried that he was an imposter. Neil Armstrong!

If you worry about doing enough, chances are your examiners do. Perhaps your supervisor does. Some of your colleagues certainly will. And knowing that is not enough to banish your own feelings, but if you realise that lots of people struggle, that you’re not alone, perhaps you can start to work against it.

Seek help. Ask questions. Share with your community. Find out what people do to realise that they are good enough.

Because if you’ve submitted your thesis and your viva is coming up, you MUST be good enough. You’ve earned this. You are good enough. You might not banish imposter syndrome with ease, but you can work through some of the worries that come with it. You can start to feel better.

Take one small step to begin with.

Luck and the Viva

Luck could be a factor in your viva, some strange twist of fate that determines the eventual outcome. But in the same way that sunlight and water stimulates plant growth more than playing Mozart, there are other factors that are far more important. For example:

  • The work you did in your PhD;
  • Getting help from others;
  • Knowing what to expect from the viva;
  • Taking steps to prepare for it;
  • Feeling confident about your ability.

Don’t rely on luck winning through for you; instead, focus on factors that you can actually influence to steer your success.

Hope is not a strategy; luck is not a resource.

It’s Never Just Luck

“Luck” during a PhD can only come from your working to be in a good space to begin with.

“Luck” with a result or an idea or the final state of your thesis is the result of work, not simple good fortune.

“Luck” in the viva’s outcome denies all you’ve done.

Don’t be so modest. Don’t downplay what you did, and what you can do. Yes, you may have been fortunate, but you still had to work for that opportunity or outcome!

Pull The Lever, Take A Chance

A clatter of coins spills! I pulled the lever and now I’m rich, rich, rich!

Except I wasn’t. I was maybe ten and they weren’t coins, they were tokens. I grew up in a seaside town and there was a time when summer holidays meant stretching out pocket money in the arcade. I would jump from machine to machine, trying to find way to have just a little longer playing silly games.

The one-armed bandit could be fun for a time. Put your coin or token in, pull the arm down and watch the reels spin. Most of the time it was nothing. Sometimes it was a few pennies or a token back. Even rarer, an invitation to nudge a reel, see it drop but get nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes…

JACKPOT!

…and enough tokens to keep spinning the reels for another ten minutes.

There was no skill, no talent, not even any real work. You had to take part, put something in, but your effort and money were the same as anyone’s.

Alas, some candidates think the viva is a one-armed bandit, a game of total chance. Turn up, pull the lever and who knows what will happen. What questions will spin up? What sequence of opinions will your examiners have? What random outcome will it settle on?

It’s not random. It’s not by chance. Your work is built on purpose. There can be luck, but that’s guided by direction, by talent, by effort.

Your thesis isn’t just thrown together: it’s a statement. Your answers don’t just appear: they’re built on work and talent. Your examiners aren’t just winging it: they’ve been selected for a reason.

You probably will hit the jackpot in the viva, ding-ding-ding, you’ve passed! But it’s not by chance. It couldn’t just happen to anyone.

You’ve not just been lucky. You’ve not got this far by accident.

Not Lucky

Winning the lottery is lucky: you buy a ticket, or lots of them, and maybe yours is the one that wins. There’s no skill, it happens or not.

Winning a race is fortunate: you develop skill, and even if there are other skilled people taking part your skill wins out. It isn’t luck, because you didn’t leave it to chance.

One of these descriptions is like the viva, and one is not, despite both being about situations involving a great many people.

If you’re lucky, you did something but it wasn’t in your control really. It could have been anyone else who succeeded, and what you did didn’t particularly matter. If you’re fortunate, then something good has happened, but what you did made a difference. Success in the viva is fortunate, I think, because it comes down to your developing talent through the PhD and what you are able to show on the day.

This is how I put the line between lucky and fortunate; you might define them differently, but I think you take my point. If you’ve read a lot of posts on this blog then you’ll know it’s a recurring theme for me: success in your PhD and viva is down to your talent and is not just good luck. This is important for the story you tell yourself afterwards. Not “I was lucky with the questions I got,” but “I was fortunate that I had done the work and could answer their questions well.”

You’re fortunate, you’re not lucky.