Unstuck

For anything you were stuck on during your PhD, reflect:

  • What was the problem? Why was it a problem and why was it worth solving?
  • What were you stuck on? What caused the issue? What was the stickiest point?
  • How did you get unstuck? What helped? What did you realise?
  • What was the outcome? How did this help you? And why does any of this stand out to you now?

Being stuck doesn’t feel great. Getting past it is a sign that you have learned, developed, grown. You know more, you can do more.

Positive signs for the viva.

There’s Always Next Time

Until there isn’t.

There’s another opportunity to get things right, another test you can re-run, another day to spend on writing and editing. Until you hit the deadline, the submission date, the limit of your resources.

A fear I’ve heard around the viva is that there’s no next time to make it right. I hear the worry, and I know for most people there is no cause for concern. Most vivas don’t need a second time, most candidates are exactly where they need to be – the overwhelming majority of candidates in fact.

But saying, “Don’t worry,” never helps.

From the small to the large, from worry over responding well to a question to worry about passing at all, there are actions you can take to help yourself.

Worry alone won’t help. You have to work past it.

What can you do to be more ready to respond to questions?

What practise could help convince you that your thesis is good enough?

What reminders could help convince you that you are good enough?

There’s no next time after the viva. You have one opportunity to show what you know and what you can do. One opportunity after thousands of others.

This one is enough.

How Much Is Enough?

It’s a good question to ask about a thesis or a PhD, but a hard one to answer. There are lots of possible factors.

  • How much does your supervisor think you need to do?
  • How much time can you spend?
  • How many chapters or words are people telling you that need to write?
  • How many experiments/interviews/papers/tests/models/observations/questions are you being told that you need to complete?

At the start of a PhD you might struggle to respond to the question of how much is enough. All of these factors, and lots more, could make it tricky to consider.

Nearer the end you can give a response and reasons: “This much, and here’s why.”

And the sooner you decide how much is enough, the sooner you’ll be able to work towards that goal.

The Curio Viva

You wouldn’t buy your viva from a supermarket, assuming that the viva was a physical thing you could buy. You wouldn’t find it by wandering up and down aisles, past eighteen brands of pasta sauce and ten kinds of toilet paper. Supermarkets sell to everybody, and vivas aren’t for everybody.

You have to know where to look. You have to be a bit of an expert really.

You’d be more likely to find your viva in a specialist antique shop. These things take time to become what they are. They may be one-of-a-kind, expensive by now, and aren’t for everyone. They’re rarely looked for on a whim.

And your viva is certainly going to be one of a kind, a real curio.

Like my old salmon metaphor, there’s only so far you can go with this! Take away the idea that vivas are rare, and yours is just for you, and find your own metaphor to help you come to it with confidence.

Fortunate Positions

At the end of one of the last seminars I delivered before social distancing and lockdown, a PhD candidate came up to me with a strange smile on his face. He was generous, thanked me for the session, told me how it had been useful – and then surprised me by saying, “I still don’t get how you did it though!!!”

“…I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand!”

“Well,” he said, with a sort-of-frustration, “You just stood and presented for nearly three hours! You didn’t have a script you read from – I didn’t even see you look at notes! And you responded to all of our questions! How did you do that???”

And I told him the simple truth: it was practice. That day was probably Viva Survivor 240-something! I’m in a fortunate position that I’ve been asked to share the same developing session many, many times. I get to publish and share this blog. And over time, through mistakes and mis-steps and finding what works I got good.

I wish that I had made the connection on the day, which only came a few months later, that this truth is also the simple truth for how candidates do well at the viva.

Yes, there’s a challenge – yes, there’s hard work to do – yes, someone could be nervous or worried, as I am when I present – but they’re in a fortunate position. Like me and my work, they must have become good by now. They’ve developed their talents, their research, their thesis, and now get to have a conversation with their examiners.

I like to imagine that the PhD candidate who spoke to me has had his viva by now. Perhaps, when describing his success to a friend they’ll stop him and say, “Wait wait, you talked with them for how long? And they asked you all about your research and your thesis! You didn’t have any long breaks, or any chance to confer with your supervisor – you didn’t take in a script or go away to check your files! You responded to all of their questions…

…how did you do that???”

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.

Long-Term Learning, Short-Term Prep

I’ve seen relief on the face of PhD candidates when I tell them they don’t need to prepare for their viva until after submission. That in itself helps to frame the scale of the challenge. I also emphasise that viva prep is building on the talent and work that has been created over the course of the PhD.

Thinking about this, I’m reminded of the song “Scales and Arpeggios” from near the beginning of Disney’s The Aristocats: little kittens singing about the importance of practice over the long-term. You do the basics again and again and become proficient. You lay the groundwork for later success by working to get good. You do the work, you learn the skills because there is no other way to get the work done, no other way to achieve what you want.

As your viva gets closer, think about the basics you’ve mastered and the talent you’ve made on them: the skills you’ve created through research and learning. After submission, prep is a small bit of work, highlighting all the years of practice and what they’ve created.

And finally, do check out “Scales and Arpeggios” – it’s such a lovely song! Sure to lift preparation spirits! 🙂

Cast Your Mind Back

What did you not know at the start of your PhD that you know now?

What could you not do at the start of your PhD that you can do now?

You had to start somewhere. There had to be gaps you needed to bridge, things you needed to discover.

Reflecting on your progress should help with confidence for the viva, because you appreciate just how much you must have developed to get the work of your PhD done. You did it, and you must be good enough.

Still, when you look back it can raise the odd worried thought. Perhaps something is unfinished. Perhaps there are gaps in your knowledge. Perhaps there was more to do.

If you have unanswered questions or unpolished skills, it won’t be because you’re lazy. A PhD is long, but doesn’t give enough time to learn everything or become proficient in every method. Perfection is not the standard required for you, your thesis or your viva.

You did the work to get you this far, and you must be talented, you must be good enough. Look back to the start of your PhD to get a sense of just how far you have come.

Accumulated Awesomeness

This is what you take to the viva: a treasure chest you can open to respond to questions, think about your field and share what you know about your research. A hoard you have stored up day by day over the life of your PhD. You didn’t simply find it. You didn’t follow a map and it was waiting for you.

You earned what you’ve got: countless gold coins of accumulated awesomeness. Super-valuable and yours to use in the viva as you need to.

Day By Day

Over the course of a full-time PhD in the UK, a candidate will probably show up on seven to eight hundred days. I can well imagine this number goes up for a part-time PhD. A candidate shows up when they come to get something done: work on their research practically, learn something, share something or write something.

They show up when they come to do something that matters.

On most days it might not feel like much. Stuck in the middle of second year, you could feel as if you’re stuck in a loop. Wake up, do work, sleep, wake up, do work, sleep, and so on. But it all helps. It adds up. Over hundreds of days, bit by bit, you build talent. Reflect on them and you can build confidence too.

You won’t have hundreds of days between submission and the viva, but this day by day perspective still helps through preparation time. Do a little every day, and build up how ready you feel. Build up your confidence day by day.

Pay attention to when you show up and confidence will follow.