On This Day

You probably have at least one account with a major internet entity that backs up your photos, or where you share what you’re up to in some way. It’s likely that you post or tweet or save a photo away in an archive.

If something good happens today or tomorrow – in fact, whenever something good happens for your PhD – take a picture. Write a post (keep it private if you like), but do something to mark a good thing in your research or PhD journey.

 

A year from now you’ll be minding your own business when your phone, tablet or app will remind you that you have memories: “On this day you did this…”

You’ll remember what you did and you’ll know you are making progress. You’ll see how far you’ve come. Maybe a year from now it will even be after your viva! But that’s OK. The need for recognising achievement and benefitting from confidence doesn’t stop with the viva.

Find a way to remind yourself of your work, your progress and your success. You’ll find confidence in your ability when you do – and help feel even more ready for the challenge of your viva.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer is asked this, at least from time to time. Postgraduate researchers are asked this too, particularly in the viva.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Why did you want to follow this research topic?”

“How did you know to do this?”

In your viva you have to be willing to talk about what started your process, how you knew to do something, why you wanted to do it and so on.

Ideas could come from reading. They could come from your supervisor. There might be a highly personal story or a really mundane, practical reality to them. It may be that on the way to working on one project you spotted something interesting that you needed to explore. There are so many routes to inspiration.

You need to be able to talk about the origin of your ideas in the viva, but don’t forget that as interesting as those ideas are they are nothing without the work that has developed them. Your work might be inspired by 100 papers, a chance encounter or by a funding advertisement – but it’s your work that has created your success, not the idea itself.

Wherever your ideas came from, it’s your work that has taken you so far.

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.

Fuses & Feelings

My mum called in a panic: her electricity had gone off and she had no power.

By the I time I got to her house, she had checked and reset the main fuse box. The power was on again. It was still a mystery though. What happened? It just went off? The TV was the first thing she noticed… Hmm…

We decided to relax with a cup of tea. My mum set the kettle to boil and the power shut off again. Five minutes of careful trial and error helped us realise it was not the TV, the main fuse box or the electrical socket in the kitchen that was at fault. The kettle was no longer safe and was tripping the mains fuse, in turn, shutting off the power.

With the fault diagnosed, my mum didn’t have a kettle for a day, but everything else was fine.

 

This reminds me of so many times I’ve found myself cross, worried, anxious and unsure. Sometimes I feel one of these ways and I just don’t know why.

Taking a step back helps.

Reflecting helps.

Thinking about what happened in the lead up can help too.

How you feel about the viva has an impact on how you get ready for it. If you feel anxious or worried then it’s worth trying to unpick what the cause is. Anxiety and worry are right on the surface. Explore what’s underneath.

There are many possible causes, including:

  • Not knowing about an aspect of the viva;
  • Having a concern about what to do to prepare;
  • Being unsure of how to respond;
  • Being worried that you won’t be able to respond at all.

There will be many more, much more personal reasons to feel anxious. Something could just trip the fusebox of your feelings. Reflect, explore and find out the cause – then think about what you can do to set that right.

Whatever

Whatever challenges you faced during your PhD, they helped you get to submission and to the viva.

Whatever prep you do it will build on a solid foundation of knowledge and ability that you have developed.

Whatever disruption you encountered because of the pandemic you have worked around and persevered.

Whatever questions you are asked you will be able to find a way to respond.

Whatever you feel before your viva, you are a talented and capable researcher.

Whatever happens you are good enough.

Ask Someone Why

Faced with a difficult question or unexpected comment in the viva, perhaps the best thing you can do is ask why.

  • Ask your examiner(s) why that question is important.
  • Ask why a comment matters to them.
  • Ask why they think the way they think.

Or ask yourself why. Why have you gone blank? Why is something difficult? Why did you write something the way you did, or do something the way you have?

When you ask why you uncover some of the reasons beneath the surface of a question or comment. You take the first steps to being able to respond and participate in the discussion.

If a question or comment makes you pause, ask someone “Why?” and see where that leads.

Final Form

A long time ago on the blog I offered some thoughts about examiners being like video game bosses:

After all of the trials and tribulations of doing research, your examiners appear through the fog, two mysterious and challenging foes! Whatever you’ve done before, the rules don’t apply to them!! They’re bigger than the other baddies, tougher, hit harder and if you’re not careful you’re doomed!!!

Which of course means you’ve made it through the game that precedes that boss battle. This stage might be trickier or tougher, but you have the skills you need because you’ve already achieved so much.

 

Another comparison with video game bosses to consider, for those who are familiar: the viva is the final form in the PhD boss level. No more battles after this. No sudden changes or power-ups for your examiners. Whatever they ask or do, whatever they think or say, you have maxed-out experience and skills, there’s nothing else you can learn or practise or do to get ready. You don’t need anything else.

This is the final challenge and you are ready for it.

Prep & Rest

Viva prep is better if it is planned a little. There’s no universal “best way” to get the work done, but the following questions could help:

  • How busy are you?
  • When could be a good time to start?
  • How much time can you commit regularly?
  • What tasks seem most helpful to you?
  • Who can provide support when you need it?

Exploring these questions can help set boundaries and ideas of what to do, when to do it and so on.

Rest is a key element to getting ready for the viva too, but is often overlooked. So use the following questions, adapted from above, to help:

  • How busy are you? And how much rest do you need to help recharge yourself?
  • When could be good times for you to rest?
  • How much time will you give yourself regularly?
  • What restful activities seem most helpful to you?
  • Who can help you to rest when you need support?

Prep helps before the viva. Rest helps before the viva. Ask yourself some questions if you’re struggling with either.

Three From Three Hundred

On Friday I delivered my 300th Viva Survivor session to PGRs!

300!!! Had it not been for pandemic disruption I probably would have reached this milestone sooner. But had it not been for the pandemic I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to develop the session as a webinar. Or to develop other viva sessions that I now do.

From one half-day seminar I was asked to deliver in the summer of 2010, I’ve now worked with over 6700 PhD candidates to help them get ready for their vivas. I’ve written this blog for almost five years and produced the podcast for five years before that. I’m very thankful to continue doing what I do.

I’m sure with enough time I could write a list of 300 things about vivas, prep, helping and so on. Perhaps it is kinder to everyone to limit it to three observations that really stand out to me after these 300 sessions:

  1. Vivas often make candidates nervous, but being nervous is a symptom that the viva matters. Being nervous is rarely comfortable but it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.
  2. In many cases the viva and viva prep are nowhere near as great or taxing on a candidate as they might expect. Both seem much bigger to begin with than they actually are.
  3. In all cases, a candidate can get help for the viva by asking the right person the right question. It could be a supervisor or a colleague; it could be learning about expectations or seeking guidance. The viva is not an unknown.

I don’t have a formula to help every candidate feel better, but after three hundred sessions I have a pretty good idea of what can help. I feel very privileged to be able to make spaces to help.

And I’m looking forward to the next three hundred sessions already!

Investing In Confidence

The specific tasks involved in viva prep – reading your thesis, making notes, rehearsing and so on – don’t need to happen until after you’ve submitted your thesis. Until then your goal has to be getting your thesis written and finished.

Viva prep is not purely mechanical though. Being ready isn’t simply completing a list of activities. Being ready is also a matter of confidence. Do you feel capable? Do you feel like you can engage with your examiners’ questions?

You don’t need to prepare for the viva until after you have submitted but it’s a valuable investment to do things to build your confidence over a long period of time. The more that you reflect on your success and remind yourself of it, the more you will feel ready for your viva when it arrives.

Reflect on your success. Remind yourself of what you have done. Do things that help you to feel confident.

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