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.

The Big Red Button

Let’s say you could take a big red button to the viva: a kind of game-show like buzzer, and whenever you wanted to you could press “pause” on everything. Would you use it, if you had one? Why might you press pause? What circumstances would have to come up?

  • A quick press of the button could give you a few seconds to remember something that’s slipped your mind.
  • You could use a moment to prepare a devastating response to a critical question from your examiners.
  • Or take as long as you like to compose yourself if your mind goes completely blank.

You don’t have a big red button. But you can still imagine situations where you might want one. So what will you do instead?

Think: what can you do now to prepare for things that might stress you out? What can you do in the viva to help be your best self?

The Big Day

If it helps you to think of the viva as a one-shot, once-in-a-lifetime super-mega-event then keep going.

If that motivates you then stay motivated and do what you can to get ready and be present with your examiners.

But if thinking that way leaves you stressed out, then figure out a new story to tell about your viva. You don’t have to downplay the importance, but you can remind yourself you got this far by working hard and being good at what you do (there’s no other explanation).

The viva is a big day, maybe a challenging day, but it’s just one day. It comes after many other challenging days of your PhD.

Past, Present, Future

An upcoming viva, like any major life event, can come to dominate your day-to-day life. There’s likely nervousness, possibly excitement, a slight melancholy at another chapter of your life coming to a close. There’s wondering if you’re ready, wondering what will be asked, wondering how it will go…

The viva is important, but it’s not the biggest thing you’ll do in your life, or even in your PhD. If you feel like your viva is really starting to take over then you could:

  • look back at your PhD for evidence that you’re exactly where you need to be;
  • make a plan for the prep you’re going to do in the near future, and restrict it to only certain times;
  • think about everything you’re going to do after your PhD is done.

The viva is important, but it’s vital for your own wellbeing that you keep it in the proper perspective. Consider the past, the present and the future to keep you grounded and sure of your talent.

Worst Case Scenario

I spend a good chunk of my work time on my way to do workshops or thinking about travel. I check train times and maps, I think about taxis, I look for hotels…

…is it any wonder my dreams skew towards weird worlds where train times change while you’re in motion? Where I move at a glacial pace through a hotel with confusing rooms, and arrive for work late and unready to do things… I really hate being late. I hate trains being cancelled. They’re my bane, my nightmare situations. And so when my brain decides to mix things up, it feeds these thoughts back to me in IMAX Dream-O-Vision.

What’s your worst case scenario for your viva? What do you worry about?

I’ve often thought that last-minute postponement would be bad, or a fire alarm going off on the day. Candidates often build themselves up to defend their thesis. If I was to find out with little warning the viva was not going ahead, I could understand how that would be frustrating.

Maybe a worst case scenario is silence in the viva. Or being worried that you’ll go blank. From the questions people regularly ask me I know these situations are in candidates’ minds.

I hate being late. It’s my worst case scenario, so I do something about it. I check distances beforehand. I bookmark map locations. I have an app on my phone to consult about trains now.

I can’t turn my dreams off, but they show up less frequently.

Worst case scenarios are, thankfully, rarely reality. What’s yours? Think about it, write down what it would be like. Now, accepting this is unlikely to happen, what can you do to act against the worst of it?

Probably more than you think.

Enthusiasm

You can be enthusiastic for the viva and also feel nervous about it too. They’re not mutually exclusive states. Rather than think of ways to combat nervousness, could you think of ways to boost your enthusiasm?

To my mind, there’s lots of reasons to be enthusiastic about the viva.

It’s the final test! You’ve written a thesis! You are talented to be there!

Of course, I have a different perspective on the viva. The reasons I can think of to be enthusiastic might or might not help you.

So what would?

Glitches

Every computer I’ve ever owned, every phone, every console has glitched at some point. From the blue screen of death to Netflix stalling, Firefox not responding and Open Office encountering an error, sometimes things go wrong. It just happens; reboot, restart and then things work. They work correctly 99% of the time…

…just like you. It’s understandable to worry about freezing, going blank or saying “I don’t know” in the viva. It’s important, you want it to go well. If you glitch then the solution is the same as your favourite expensive electronic device.

Reboot, restart and things will be fine:

  • if you go blank, pause, take a sip of water.
  • if you freeze, smile, think and move on.
  • if your only thought is “I don’t know” then ask yourself why, and you’ll see a way forward.

Glitches don’t happen all the time. When they do, you can take steps to overcome them.

If you glitch in the viva, you can do something about it.

Viva Horror Stories

The internal examiner dabbed the red away from his lips and paused before settling his stone-grey eyes on the shivering candidate.

“How,” he began, his voice like the echo of a whisper, “How… Hmm… How did you arrive at this choice of methodology?”

A look of pain passed the candidate’s face, a long-held fear finally realised! A moment of sheer terror, a buried tension risen to the surface like a zombie erupting from a grave. No choice, no alternative, but to state with quivering voice:

“I…! I did it… Because my supervisor told me to!”

And with that they fainted.

“Pity,” said the internal, taking another red sip from their chalice, “I had such high hopes for this one.”

A snarling from the external examiner’s secure crate reverberated around the seminar room.

“Well, quite,” said the internal, “A perfectly acceptable answer. And I really wanted to know why they had settled on Magnusson’s ‘Treatise on Ancient Awakenings’ as well…”

It’s possible you’ve heard of a real viva horror story. I know people have negative experiences, but it’s not the majority of experiences, not even close. And they don’t “just happen”. There are always reasons why: problems with the thesis, a research issue that was overlooked, a breakdown between supervisor and candidate.

Good horror stories, the really scary ones, have no reasons.

The Thing is just there in the ice, waiting.

The zombies march, and we don’t know how they came to be.

Dracula is.

There are reasons why you did a PhD. Reasons why you’ve got this far. Reasons why your thesis is done. Reasons why you’ll pass your viva. You can be scared by viva horror stories, but you can always unpick why they happened that way. You can be nervous in advance of your own viva, but it’s possible to unpick where that fear comes from. What drives it, what makes it worse, and maybe what could make it better.