Bloopers & Highlights

How often do you compare yourself to others?

I did this all the time during my PhD.

One office mate was determined to complete his PhD quickly. My friend at the next desk was a superstar, she had real talent. One of my best friends seemed so calm all the time. Compared to my friends, I was terrible.

What was I doing? How could I do a PhD if these people set the standard?

Of course, I only saw one side of their stories, and a distorted view of my own. Comparing “talent” and “progress” is a losing game during a PhD – if there’s even a game to be played! But so many people do it.

Is it any wonder candidates get to their viva and doubt themselves?

I spotted a really helpful YouTube video by one of the former podcast guests, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, and it resonated with me. The video is aimed at teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues, but a lot of the same ideas apply to postgraduate researchers too. Instead of comparing your bloopers – your mistakes – to your friends’ achievements, maybe try talking with them. Instead of dwelling on your slip-ups, focus on your own highlights. Think about how you can make them even higher!

Explore your highlights before your bloopers when it comes to your viva preparation.

The Terrible, Terrible Silence

Silence, in almost any kind of meeting, is almost unbearable. Do you know what I mean? The gap in conversation invites tension, creates a shared awkwardness… Sometimes it can feel almost overwhelming.

I used to notice it a lot when I was standing in front of a seminar room. Often just before I started or whenever I would ask a question. Everyone waiting for someone to speak, but perhaps not wanting that person to be them.

And I know that people worry about it for their viva. What happens if you have to pause? What happens if you have to ask for a moment? What happens if someone doesn’t speak for a short time? – something likely to happen given the time it takes for signals to move around the world between different places!

The answer to all of these is that nothing bad happens.

Silence is a by-product of a necessary pause in things. A wait before we begin, a pause while you think, a moment while the signal comes back. Silence isn’t bad, it just feels bad.

The only way past it, I think, is to practise: have a mock viva, pause before you answer and get comfortable with the silence. Use whatever meeting software might be used for your remote viva and take time to get used to those little delays.

Sit with the silence, and see it for what it is. Not terrible, not bad, not somehow good: just one small part of the viva process.

Rabbit Holes

Tread carefully when preparing for your viva, in case you find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole.

  • Read one paper by your examiner, and find yourself lead to another, then another, then…
  • Spot one typo and you’ll wonder what else you’ve got wrong, and you’ll see something else, and…
  • Underline something to make it stand out and you’ll want to make something else stand out, then another sentence, and then…

You get the idea. There’s always more things you could do to get ready for the viva. And there’s so much you can do to help yourself that it can be tempting to do more and more. If you start your prep without a plan but just a goal (“get ready!”) then you can just keep going and going until all you can think about is doing more, and wondering have you done enough?

So start with some limits. A to-do list, finite and bounded. This, this and this, and no more. Decide before you turn to page 1 of your thesis, what are the things you have to get done. You can add to the list of course, but you have to have a good reason.

Don’t tumble down a prep rabbit hole! Tread carefully when you make your plans.

Not Ideal

There’s so much about your viva that might not be exactly how you want it to be.

You find typos or a clunky paragraph after submission.

You’re busy and struggle to find preparation time.

Your first choice examiner can’t do it.

You feel more nervous than you want to be.

You worry there’s something missing in your thesis.

You worry you should have done more.

Worry and mistakes and missed opportunities are all not ideal. But the best thing to do is ask, “What can I do?”

Then act. Do something. Don’t diminish how you feel, or just stress about would be better: work to get closer. Work to do something that helps.

So underline your typos or pencil in a correction.

Make a plan for your prep and do what you can.

Learn about your examiner’s research.

Ask yourself why you feel nervous and work on the root cause.

Examine whether there’s really something missing, not just a worry.

Ask why you didn’t do more – probably, because you were doing something else in your thesis!

If something’s not ideal, you can feel disappointed or cross or upset.

But then act. What can you do?

Nervous or Excited

Like a lot of important things in life, candidates tend to be nervous or excited for their viva. Two sides of the same coin, the currency that marks out something as a big deal, and your viva is a big deal.

Which side of the coin is showing?

  • If you’re nervous, why? What has you that little bit concerned? And is it only a little bit, or something more? What could you do to help how you’re feeling?
  • If you’re excited, why? What sounds good to you? What are you doing to get ready to meet your examiners? Is there anything else you need?

Being nervous isn’t “bad”, but I’d personally prefer to be excited rather than nervous – generally it feels better! If you’re nervous, what could you do to flip the coin to excited?

Afraid, Nervous, Worried

What do you do if you feel something like this – afraid, nervous, worried – about the viva?

Let’s ask another question: what would you do if you were unafraid, not nervous, not worried about your viva?

You would prepare – and if you don’t feel great, you need to prepare too.

  • If you’re afraid, you need to prepare. If you’re not, great! But you need to prepare.
  • If you’re nervous, you need to prepare. If you’re not, that’s cool – but you need to prepare!
  • If you’re worried, you need to prepare. If you’re not, I’m happy for you, and you still need to prepare for the viva.

However you feel about your viva, the courses of action you have to take are the same. You need to read your thesis, write and think about your work, find opportunities to practise unexpected questions and do what you can to be confident.

You might feel that you need to do more or less of things because of how you feel. Doing something won’t just help you get ready, it should also help you feel ready.

Nervous Is Normal

I haven’t met many PhD graduates or future viva candidates who weren’t at least a little nervous. Nervous is very common; if you feel it before your viva then you’re in a pretty normal state.

But nervous doesn’t usually comfortable.

We can distinguish between good nerves and bad nerves, the former before a happy event, the latter before something unwanted. In both cases there’s probably a degree of importance with the event. Nervousness and importance are correlated, two factors braided together in life’s tapestry. What if… something unexpected happens? Or what will happen? What if something goes wrong?

So nervous is normal for the viva. Nervous is sort-of expected given the nature of the viva.

Nervous doesn’t have to be all you feel though. You can feel excited: the viva is one of the last big things to do before the end of your PhD. You can feel knowledgeable: you know your work and your thesis. You can feel talented: you must be capable to get this far.

You can feel confident you are in the right place, ready to act.

Nervous is normal for the viva. Many, many more emotions could be normal too.

You’re Not A Failure

You’re not a failure if you don’t answer every question you asked during your PhD.

You’re not a failure if your thesis is smaller than your friend’s thesis.

You’re not a failure if you’ve not submitted papers for publication.

You’re not a failure if you find typos in your thesis after submission.

You’re not a failure if you’re asked to complete major corrections.

You’re not a failure if your confidence wobbles before the viva.

You might feel nervous, or scared, or worried about any of these.

But not every question has an answer. Theses vary in size. Plenty of candidates opt not to publish during their PhD. Most candidates have typos. Some candidates are asked to complete major corrections to make their thesis better. And feeling a lack of confidence is not uncommon before important events.

The way you feel doesn’t mean you automatically fail.

Sleepless in New Brighton

The red digits on my bedside clock radio say 02:30.

I’m tired, my head’s empty. Sleep is a stranger on a hill far away.

My viva is in seven-and-a-half hours – correction, seven hours and twenty-nine minutes. I’m not worried. I don’t feel stressed.

I have two questions that keep running through my mind in a loop: Am I asleep yet? Why can’t I sleep?

Seven hours and seventeen minutes now.

What. Is. Happening.

I did the work. I’ve done weeks of prep. I’m really as ready as can be. I’m a little nervous, but not worried.

So why am I awake?

Six hours and fifty-nine minutes.

Seriously? Seriously! This is what I’m going to do? No sleep. No sleep before my viva. No sleep! No…

….

….

….

…wh-?

It’s almost 7am…? I got some sleep? I got some sleep! I’ll be OK! I’ll feel it later I’m sure, but I’m OK for now!

 

And I was OK, a bit tired, but OK. Years later I figured out that I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t really know what to expect from the viva. I was nervous, but didn’t want to look too much at that feeling, I wanted to avoid thinking about it. If you feel nervous, ask yourself why. See what you can do to explore the root causes and address the situation. It’s not wrong to feel nervous about the viva, but do everything you can to put those nerves in perspective and address any worries.